Philosophy and social inequality

Identity, Knowledge and what’s the link between Philosophy and social inequality? Briana Toole

What is the relation between race and gender and our  position as epistemic subjects? In this interview Briana Toole goes into an extremely clear way about identity, knowledge, and other issues entailed in our collective understanding of some experiences. She is Post-Doctoral Fellow in the Department of Philosophy at Baruch College-CUNY and the founder and director of Corrupt the Youth, a program which combines philosophy and social justice, expanding access to philosophy.

GenderTalks / It is not rare, nowadays, to experience an intuition that presupposes philosophy to be a self-centered activity, poorly used or applied for social purposes. What do you think of the connection between philosophy and social justice?

Briana Toole / Among ancient Greek philosophers, chief among these Socrates and Plato, the question of the good life was central to philosophy. “How does one live a good life?” might have been the question on which early philosophers cut their teeth, but it’s one I worry we’ve neglected lately. The question that concerns me, and many other social philosophers, is not just “How does one live a good life?”, but also “Do we all have an equal chance of living a good life?” If the answer to that question is no, and I think that it is, then philosophy can play an important, perhaps the central, role in figuring out why this is the case.

That philosophy can and ought to play a pivotal role in considerations of social justice is certainly not a new idea, merely a forgotten one. We can trace the relationship between philosophy and social justice as far back as early Greece. In fact, Socrates was sentenced to death on the charge of ‘corrupting the youth’. Ultimately accused of impiety, Socrates awakened the minds of Athenian youth to the corruption of their ruling elite, encouraging them to challenge the status quo and to instead be guided by considerations of justice and goodness.

We, each of us, want to live a good life.
But we cannot live a good life in a political sphere that systematically degrades us for aspects of our identity, like our sex, race, or gender.

So, I suppose I believe that the very aim of philosophy is social justice, that social justice is at philosophy’s center. We, each of us, want to live a good life. But we cannot live a good life in a political sphere that systematically degrades us for aspects of our identity, like our sex, race, or gender. Importantly, philosophy gives us the tools to unpack what is at the core of social inequality (i.e. a lust for power, and thereby, the need to subjugate the ‘other’ so that one’s own group is dominant over them), and the power to overcome this inequality (by challenging the false beliefs and norms that we have internalized and that allow us to continue to subjugate those who are different from us).

GT / In what sense, then, does our identity affect the way we produce knowledge?

Brianna / There are several means by which we come to have knowledge – via testimony (when my teacher testifies that Abraham Lincoln was the 16th US president, I come to have knowledge via her testimony); memory (I remember that I gave my husband the car keys this morning, so I know that he has the car keys because I remember having given them to him); inference (I know that my boss only brings his umbrella to work when it’s raining and he has his umbrella today at work, so I know by inference that it is raining); and via perception (I see my student in my office, so I know that there is a student in my office because I have perceived this).

But what we see, whose testimony we take seriously, what we remember (collectively), what inferences we feel are licensed by our evidence, might all depend on our social identity. And if the ways we gather knowledge are impacted by our social identity, then the very knowledge we have might be the product of our social identity, as well.

Consider first a toy illustration. I remember buying my first new car. Oh, the smell was incredible. There is nothing quite as rewarding as new car smell. But, after the first week of driving my new car, that smell disappeared. Of course, when I had my first passenger that same week, they marveled at the new car smell. It turned out the ‘new car smell’ was still there – I had just gotten accustomed to it and so I didn’t notice it anymore. The same is true of the smell in your house. Oh yes, your house smells! But you’ve gotten so used to it that you don’t notice that smell anymore – it’s just home. Maybe if you left for a two week vacation, you’d notice the smell of your house when you returned home , but that’s what it would take – letting your nose get acquainted to new smells for a while, so that when you returned home, you were no longer familiar with the smell of your own house. All that to say this: we develop certain habits of attention that lead us to notice some facts and ignore or overlook others. I no longer know what my apartment smells like, because I’ve become so habituated to the smell that I no longer notice it. But any first time visitor knows that my apartment smells of lavender and vanilla (I burn a lot of incense to mask the smell of my cats’ litter box!).

The same is true of facts about our social life. For instance, I’ve gotten so used to the fact that there are always bathrooms that are accessible to me, as a cis-gender woman, that I hardly think about this anymore. And as a consequence, I have never noticed that the buildings I work in don’t have gender-neutral bathrooms. Moreover, as someone who is able-bodied, I simply don’t notice that the building I work in doesn’t have an automatic door opener for someone who is physically-disabled – in fact, I didn’t notice this until I came across a woman in a wheelchair who had to wait for someone to come along and open the door for her because there were no door openers.

As an able-bodied, cis-gender woman, I’ve gotten so habituated to things as they are, in a world designed for people like me, that I very often overlook that the world is ill-designed for people with different social constraints. Consequently, a person who is physically-disabled, or transgender, will have a very different body of knowledge about the building I work in than I will have. They will know that there is no bathroom they can use – I will not have this knowledge, because I will have not noticed it. They will know there is no automatic door opener – I will not, because I have never needed one. So in some sense, our social identity impacts what we know, because it impacts how we interact with and engage with the world.

GT / What do you think of the importance of an intersectional analysis on these issues?

Brianna / Much of my work has its origins in Marxist epistemology, which examined the relationship between class oppression and knowledge acquisition. Early feminist epistemologists accused Marx of neglecting to consider how gender affects class oppression, noting that Marxist analyses overlooked the double shift of women, who serve a paid shift in factories and perform a second, unpaid shift at home (birthing children, cooking and cleaning, caring for the elderly, and other such tasks that allow a household to function). But just as early Marxist accounts ignored gender, early feminist accounts failed to consider how race added another layer the oppression. A number of prominent black feminist thinkers have drawn attention to this gap – ranging from legal scholars, like KimberléWilliams Crenshaw, to sociologists such as Patricia Hill Collins, to philosophers like Kristie Dotson. We tend not to notice facts about the world unless they are relevant to us. This is why Marx, as a man, may have failed to consider how being a woman makes a difference to the sorts of labor one is involved in. And, it’s why early feminist thinkers, who were largely white, failed to consider the import of race. As such, in failing to be intersectional, we fail also to gather certain bodies of knowledge.

Imagine for a moment that I, a cis-het woman, am sitting on a committee at my college that’s aimed at promoting inclusivity. Now imagine, as well, that the committee consists of other cis-het men and women, from different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. We might very well do a good job of considering how to make low-income students, or students of color, feel more included on our campus. But, as cis-het individuals, we may forget to consider effective means of making our gay and trans students feel more included, or, we may propose ineffective means of accomplishing this goal.
That isn’t to say this always happens – but, as a cis-het woman, I am less equipped to know what issues on a campus are making my gay, trans students feel less included. And as such, I am less equipped to know how to counter these issues, issues that my cis-het positionality means I fail to attend to altogether.

So, in failing to be intersectional, we may overlook or dismiss entirely certain aspects of another person’s experience. And, when this happens, we do an injustice to them in any number of ways – politically, socially, epistemically. An intersectional approach – one that requires that I acknowledge my limited perspective and seek out the perspectives of others unlike me – is one way to avoid these harms.


GT / Many people (women?) all over the world – specially inside Academia, have felt disadvantaged in their capacity as epistemic subjects.

Briana / Yes, and I have felt this myself. I confess that one of the reasons I was drawn to philosophy is that it seemed dominated by bright, curious, critical people who were continually challenging the status quo and asking whythings are they way they are. And I have been a little disappointed, as I’ve progressed in the profession, to find that this is not the case. Philosophers are exceptionally intelligent and critical people – but like everyone else, the find it difficult to radically conceive of an alternative way of being, an alternative approach to philosophy. And so, I worry that philosophy, and academia more generally, does have a problem of alienating people who are inclined towards activism. I believe we see this mirrored on a larger scale in politics. A recent study found that conservatives were open to liberal ideas if they were packaged as past-focused, rather than forward-looking. I imagine that this is the case because it is very difficult to imagine a world radically different from the one we know, but it is easier to imagine how a new policy preserves something, or coheres with something with which we are already familiar.

Similarly, in philosophy and in academia, I think we get entrenched in a certain way of doing things, and even if we explicitly disavow that way of doing things, it is also hard to abandon. For such a long time, women and people of color were largely excluded in the academy. And now we’re witnessing a long-overdue influx of those bodies into academia. This means that our research programs are changing – we are asking different questions, we’re pursuing different interests (notably, in philosophy we’ve seen a shift away from ‘core’ topics and towards issues in social epistemology, feminism, and philosophy of race and gender), we’re becoming more interdisciplinary, we’re demanding that these fields change their modus operandi to be more inclusive (diversifying syllabi, firmly punishing sexual abuses of power), etc. All of this represents a radical shift for people who have long called academia home. And so, we see that these research areas are being disparaged or dismissed and by extension, the people who study those subjects, i.e. women and people of color. In philosophy, this means that if you work in feminism, you’ll almost certainly encounter someone who says what you’re doing isn’t really philosophy.

I think we should be frustrated but not discouraged by this. I believe this is a natural step when we see a change in world-order. I think the thing to remember as academics is that, even though it’s frustrating, we have the power to imagine a freer social future, and to create the tools needed to make that future possible. The work we do, though we may sometimes forget this fact, really can empower people outside of academia. That’s why we have to keep doing it.

GT / And what happens when we are not able to give proper names to unjust situations? How does naming our experiences influence our epistemic relation with the world?

Briana / Kristie Dotson, Miranda Fricker, and a number of other social epistemologists have argued that our inability to name our experiences constitutes hermeneutical injustice – when some element of our experience is obscure, even to us, because we lack the conceptual tools to understand that experience. Consider, for instance, the experience of constantly being asked, “But where are you really from?” People who are of Asian or Latin descent may be asked this question, and often. They might find it frustrating, hurtful, exhausting, offensive. But without the conceptual apparatus that allows us to understand why they are routinely asked these questions, they might find it difficult to explain to others what they are experiencing or even why the find it hurtful.

We develop a collective, or shared, understanding. We also benefit because we are able to get others, mostly people who wouldn’t have noticed before the naming of an experience, to attend to our experiences, experiences that they may have previously overlooked.

For the record, this experience has now been named; it is what we call a microaggression – a subtle, perhaps unintentionally hostile comment that degrades an individual by highlighting some element of their membership in a marginalized group. In asking a Latino person who was born in America “But where are you really from?”, we’re subtly suggesting that they aren’t really from America because they are non-white.

When we are able to name our experience, we can communicate our experiences to others. We develop a collective, or shared, understanding. We also benefit because we are able to get others, mostly people who wouldn’t have noticed before the naming of an experience, to attend to our experiences, experiences that they may have previously overlooked. Perhaps, prior to the development of the concept of a microaggression, and as someone who is not often subject to such insults, we did not attend to the fact that our non-white friends are asked this question all the time. But once we become aware of the phenomenon, we might notice it more frequently, and step up and defend our non-white friends when they are asked. So, in naming an experience, we improve our epistemic relation to the world because we begin to notice more social phenomena in the world.

GT/ Women and minorities are presumed to be epistemic subjects whose knowledge is not reliable. What is our role in fighting against this bias?

Briana / I think our role is to be aware of the stereotypes, schemas, and norms we accept that lead us to see certain epistemic agents as reliable, and certain others as unreliable. For instance, we have schemas of women as irrational, subjective, emotional. And, we tend to think that these are traits that undermine one’s capacity to accurately report events. As such, we tend to think women can’t be trusted when they offer certain kinds of testimony – like when women report that a superior sexually harassed or assaulted them. Think, for instance, of Anita Hill testifying against Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court appointment. Even this case was further complicated by the fact that Hill is black, and there are a whole range of stereotypes and schemas about black women that further undermine their credibility (for instance, as Crenshaw points out, the fact that black women are hypersexualized means that we have this notion that black women can’t be raped).

Largely, then, I think our role is to try, as best as possible, to make ourselves more aware of the role these stereotypes, schemas, and norms play in undermining the credibility of marginalized people. These schemas, stereotypes and norms function by making themselves invisible – by becoming such a deeply ingrained part of our lives that we treat them as natural and universal, rather than societal constructs. So, when we encounter a person and we find them incredible or unreliable, our best bet is to step back from the situation and ask – “what features of this person makes me think they are unreliable?”, “are there any biases I have against these features that might lead me to believe they are less credible as a result?”, “am I allowing these biases to affect how credible I think the testimony is, rather than listening to just the testimony itself?”. This is the strategy we should constantly and continually try to employ.

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