Thursday, December 5, 2019

Silencing and epistemic harm

Suppose that Arthur is about to give a lecture on trope theory but the lecture is canceled due to Platonist protests.

It is intuitive to say that unjust epistemic harms have been perpetrated. But on whom?

The primary epistemic harms from Arthur’s silencing are to the audience who is prevented from hearing his arguments, and hence is in a poorer epistemic state to adjudicate the truth of the matter about tropes. Arthur potentially receives some secondary epistemic harms, in that he is deprived of the benefits of challenging questions or of the potential growth of understanding of a subject that a speaker gains by speaking. But notice that these are accidental to his silencing. The loss of the benefit of challenging questions is due to the silencing of the audience, not due to Arthur’s silencing, and the benefit of thinking through one’s position in presenting it could be had by presenting the position to an empty room. However, the audience’s epistemic loss is primary.

Now, Arthur receives all sorts of potentially serious non-epistemic harms. He has been insulted. A promise to him has been reneged on. He has lost the value of being the intentional cause of the audience’s epistemic benefits. His CV is shorter by one item. Perhaps he has lost an honorarium, or at least he has lost the opportunity to have pre-scheduled something else for that day. He may come to be in fear for his personal safety. Some of these harms may result in epistemic harms down the road: for instance, he may abandon a promising line of research as a result of these insults or get a job at a department with poorer research opportunities. But these epistemic harms are secondary to the non-epistemic harms.

I suppose there could be the following epistemic harm to Arthur: if public proclamation of p carries negative consequences for one, then one will be tempted to cease to believe p. If Arthur was in fact right in his views, and he abandons those views due to the opposition, then he will suffer epistemic harm. But while people do change their views because of social consequences, I suspect this is much more common when the social consequences are subtle than when they are highly overt. I suspect that highly overt cases, such as lecture cancelation, are more likely to entrench one in one’s beliefs. Of course, such entrenchment could itself be an epistemic harm, especiallyif if the beliefs are false.

So, Arthur’s being silenced results in:

  • primary epistemic harms to the audience

  • primary non-epistemic harms to Arthur

  • secondary epistemic harms to Arthur.

So, it is correct to say that unjust harm has been done to Arthur, but that harm is not primarily epistemic. The people to whom unjust epistemic harm has been done are the people who would have been in Arthur’s audience.

The same is true if the form the injustice takes is one’s prejudiced refusal to take seriously another’s testimony or arguments. In this case, one is doing injustice to the speaker, but the speaker does not suffer epistemic harms by one’s refusal to take their testimony or arguments seriously. The speaker is insulted—whether they know it or not (the speaker may not know that one is refusing to take them seriously)—but the epistemic harm is to oneself.

In my initial example, Arthur’s lecture was on trope theory, a highly theoretical topic. But nothing changes when the topic becomes more personal. Suppose Arthur is silenced and kept from speaking out about the injustices that he has received over his lifetime because of his disability. The primary epistemic harms are, again, to the audience. But Arthur is harmed by being insulted, and prevented from convincing people to stop perpetrating injustice on him. These, however, are not, primarily, epistemic harms.

When I was initially writing this post, I was thinking this was going to be an argument that we shouldn’t think of epistemic violence or epistemic injustice as something that is done to a person who is silenced, but as something that is done to the audience.

But I then realized that “epistemic” in “epistemic violence” and “epistemic injustice” can be understood as qualifying either the types of harm imposed or the means by which the harms are imposed. If we understand it as qualifying the types of harm imposed, then I think my original thesis is quite correct: epistemic violence and injustice are done not to those who are silenced but to those who are prevented from hearing them (and that could, I think, be the silencers themselves). But it seems more faithful to the intent of those who have been writing on these topics to take “epistemic” to qualify the means. And this fits with our usage in some other cases: Bob perpetrates “gun violence” just in case he perpetrates violence with a gun, rather than when he harms someone’s gun collection. When Arthur is silenced, epistemic violence/injustice is done to him because he is unjustly harmed by epistemic means, namely he is harmed by others’ epistemic malpractice (whether in the narrow sense, as when a prejudiced audience refuses to listen, or in a broad sense, when protesters make it impossible for others to listen). But he is not epistemically harmed.


Philip Rand said...

The issue focuses on the rules differing discourse groups play by. The problem arises when differing discourse groups communicate with each other.

It is like a game of poker, the players know the rules; however, should one player start yelling and complaining and obstruct other players the game will cease.

In a word the game becomes un-civil. So, civil society lacking cohesion becomes a mosaic of differing discourse groups, some communicate and others do not play by civil rules (they do not wish to communicate with other discourse groups)... the consequence being mosaic disease.

Philip Rand said...

Aristotle states that what distinguishes man is that he can speak a language and is a social animal.

Therefore, silence is un-civl.

Jonathan D. Jacobs said...

I think the analogy is not altogether apt. Typically at least one kind of epistemic good thought to be lost by the speaker is something like being according epistemic standing or credit, and therefore also the good of participating in the production of knowledge by testimony. To be more apt, the speaker in the analogy would need to be disinvited, not because the protestors disagreed with the view, but because they thought he was not an appropriate expert on the topic.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I don't think being accorded epistemic standing or credit is an epistemic good. It seems to be a reputational good.

The good of participating in the production of knowledge by testimony is the good of being the non-coincidental cause of an epistemic good. For any kind of good, there is also the good of being a non-accidental cause of that good. But that's typically a good of a different kind. For instance, the good of being a cause of a hedonic good isn't itself a hedonic good; the good of being a cause of virtue isn't itself an aretaic good (think of how the Nazis were non-accidental causes of much heroism).

I could be wrong about this.