Philosophy 138 - 7.5.3 Epistemic Injustice

If standpoint epistemology is correct in concluding that valuable perspectives are often excluded from social and scientific discourse, then this is an instance of epistemic injustice. Epistemic injustice is injustice related to epistemology. Epistemic injustices include the exclusion and silencing of perspectives, systematic misrepresentation of group or individual views, unfair conferring of expert status, and unjustified distrust of certain perspectives. British philosopher Miranda Fricker (b. 1966), who coined the term epistemic injustice, divides epistemic injustice into two categories: testimonial injustice and hermeneutical injustice (Fricker 2007). Testimonial injustice occurs when the opinions of individuals or groups are unfairly ignored or treated as untrustworthy. Hermeneutical injustice occurs when a society’s language and concepts cannot adequately capture the experience of people living within that society, which thereby limits understanding of their experiences.

Testimonial Injustice

Silencing and distrust of someone’s word often occurs by virtue of that individual’s membership in a marginalized group. Women, people of color, people with disabilities, low-income individuals, and religious minorities are all examples of marginalized groups. Take as an example a criminal trial. If the jury takes the testimony of a witness less seriously because of their perceived class status or membership in a particular group, this is an example of epistemic injustice, specifically testimonial injustice. Philosophers who focus on testimonial injustice utilize research to show how the voices of individuals and groups are unfairly ignored and discounted compared to others. For example, many studies over the past few decades have illustrated that reports of pain by Black patients are taken less seriously by medical professionals than similar pain reports by White patients. An outcome of this is that Black patients are given less pain medicine and pain management than White patients, even in cases where the patients had the same injury or surgery (Smedley, Stith, and Nelson 2003; Cintron and Morrison 2006). This is clearly a case of testimonial injustice: Black patients receive less care because their testimony (reporting pain) is not taken as seriously as the testimony of their White counterparts.

But testimonial injustice also occurs when someone’s opinions are systematically misrepresented. To misrepresent a view is to interpret that view in a way that does not align with the original intended meaning. As an example, consider the Black Lives Matter movement and a popular response to it. Black Lives Matter was formed in response to police brutality and racially motivated violence against Black people. The idea was to affirm the value of Black lives. However, a popular response to the movement was the phrase “All lives matter.” This response implies that the message of Black Lives Matter is really that only Black lives matter, which is an unfair and inaccurate representation of the view.

A woman stands in the street holding a poster with the words “All Lives Can’t Matter Until Black Lives Matter” written on it.
Figure 7.12 Interpreting the phrase “Black lives matter” to mean “only Black lives matter” is an instance of testimonial injustice. (credit: “Black Lives Matter” by Taymaz Valley/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

Hermeneutical Injustice

Hermeneutical injustice occurs when language and concepts cannot adequately capture an individual’s experience, resulting in a lack of understanding of that individual’s experience by both the individual and those around them. The classic example of hermeneutical injustice focuses on sexual harassment. Before the concept and phrase sexual harassment was introduced and understood by society, women had a difficult time describing certain experiences in the workplace. Women experienced unwanted attention and focus, exclusion, comments concerning their bodies and looks, and different treatment based on negative assumptions about their gender. Many women were fired for not going along with such treatment. But there was no word for their experience, so many women could not understand or explain their discomfort. Furthermore, accounts of their distressing experience ran the risk of not being taken seriously by others. The phrase sexual harassment was coined to fill a gap in the concepts used to explain and describe experience. Perhaps you have had the experience of being introduced to a word or concept that suddenly illuminated a part of your experience in a way that greatly increased your understanding of yourself and your ability to explain yourself to others.

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax