Epistemic Injustice: Deflating Credibility Because of Group Identity

  • June 26, 2013 · 7:00 PM

This topic is about discourse…specifically, testimonial justice/injustice. The outline presupposes that some forms of discourse consist of testimony (in the general sense) for the purposes of transferring knowledge between an interlocutor (speaker) and a hearer. It is proposed that epistemic injustice occurs when a hearer deflates/denies the credibility of a speaker because of cross cultural prejudice that attributes one or more assumed traits to an individual merely because of that individual’s membership in or association with another societal group. It is also proposed that because the distribution and acquisition of valid knowledge (justified true belief), a “sacred” matter in philosophy, is jeopardized by unsubstantiated credibility judgements, the issue may become one of virtue.

The literature on this subject generally invokes a number of esoteric terms to outline the issues of this subject. These terms seem to be useful in abstracting the issues across a number of diverse contexts, and so, have been retained.

Reference: Epistemic Injustice: Power & the Ethics of Knowing, Miranda Fricker, 2007 <Summary>.


Epistemic – of or pertaining to knowledge or the conditions for acquiring it.

Testimony - any statement describing an experience (story), belief, or interpretation for the purpose of informing or convincing someone; evidence in support of a fact or
statement; proof. Note that a testimony can be written, as well as spoken.

Epistemic trustworthiness – for our purposes, competence and sincerity of the speaker.

Societal groups – gender, racial, ethnic, cultural, national, regional, neighborhood, religious, age, intergenerational, socio-economic class, institutional, academic, political, ideological (obsessive beliefs), other?

Prejudicial credibility deficit – the difference in the credibility of a person’s testimony based on the facts (phenomena) given and that perceived by a hearer who holds prejudices toward the group to which the speaker is affiliated.

Hermeneutical – relating to the study and interpretation of text, especially as it pertains to human behavior and social institutions; often refers to interpretation of Scripture.


Listening Modes

…. A. Inferential – Hearer approaches the conversation (consciously or unconsciously) with a proposition with an expectation that the conversation will yield a supporting conclusion. Default trust rests in a priori beliefs.

…. B. Non-inferential – Hearer approaches the conversation as a data gathering exercise (everyday spontaneous reception). The default, under the Burge Acceptance Theory and other theories, is the tendency to trust the information provided.

Trust maintains as a result of uncritical receptivity unless a doubt about sincerity or veracity is introduced by the testimony. In the non-inferential mode our everyday phenomenology of informal testimonial exchange represents learning as an un-laborious and spontaneous enterprise. In the inferential mode the mature listener is likely to have “rehearsed” her/his argument on a few occasions so that it is easily accessed when the opportunity arises. There is a suggestion that these tendencies put the hearer in a “snooze” state and that he/she will readily seek ways to minimize stress in the learning process. Do these suggested features of the learning process tell us anything about the possibilities of critical receptivity or lack thereof in the listening process? Does prejudicial treatment of the speaker’s sincerity or capacity to know allow the hearer to avoid working at learning?

Forms of Epistemic Injustice

…. A. Testimonial – Testimonial injustice occurs when prejudice causes a hearer to give a deflated level of credibility to a speaker’s statement.
…. B. Hermeneutical – Hermeneutical injustice occurs at a prior stage when a gap (structural prejudice) in collective interpretive resources (cognitive and expressive) puts someone at an unfair disadvantage when it comes to making sense of their social experiences and investigative efforts. Consider someone who is unable to communicate with an audience effectively because of differing cultural experiences. Language, vocabulary, dialects, colloquialisms/jargon, technical terms, concepts, frames of reference, failures, successes?

Harm from Epistemic Injustices

…. A. Personal - Primary injustice
…….. 1. Denial of an individual’s human worth in his/her capacity as a knower.
…….. 2. Mental distress – disappointment, frustration, etc. This effect is especially insulting/humiliating when rendered in the presence of others.
…….. 3. The insult can go beyond epistemic injustice when the driving prejudicial stereotype involves the idea that the social type in question lacks certain human traits.

…. B. Personal - Secondary injustice – derives from the actual unjust act
…….. 1. Practical
….…….. a. Unjust legal conviction.
….…….. b. Denial of jobs, promotions, work assignments, or raises because of assumed unsuitability.
…….. 2. Epistemic -
……….. a. May lead to a fall in confidence in one’s position on a point or even a fall in self esteem and a reluctance to speak out, even when the issue might be critical.
……….. b. May cause skirting of an important issue for fear of undermining credibility on other parts of an argument.
……….. c. May cause a fall in courage to challenge popularly held beliefs (conventional wisdom).
………. d. The prejudicial stereotypical traits attributed to the speaker may be internalized and result in the speaker’s reshaping his/her identity.
………. e. Missed learning opportunities because of assumed unsuitability for work assignments.

…. C. General - Undermining/impeding distribution and acquisition of knowledge (beliefs, justifications, facts/truth).

Prejudicial Styles (See Addendum below)

…. A. Obsessional – View target group members as clever, materialistic, and totalitarian in their striving for control. (sincerity/motivations in question)

…. B. Hysterical – View target group members as serf-like or slave-like, limited in intelligence, and lacking in artfulness. (competency in question)

…. C. Narcissistic – View target group as non-existent since focus on self. Since the other group “doesn’t exist” no judgements can be made.

Do these prejudicial styles and injustices have an impact on the offender or the members of the offending group?

While injustice typically suggests harm to others, one can be doing an injustice to oneself by closing off one’s own access to knowledge. This also may work at the group level, in which case, the injustice may extend to the other members of the offender’s group.

Are there issues of virtue and morality in these listening modes, prejudices, or injustices?


Prejudicial Personality Traits – Dr. Elisabeth Young-Bruehl identifies three broad types – obsessional, hysterical, narcissistic -- to delineate the types of prejudicial groups as they have come to dominate subsocieties, and even whole societies, in particular historical circumstances and contexts. That is, she studies character both psychologically and sociologically. These are traits of both the person holding the prejudice and traits assigned to members of a group by a judger/hearer.

[The Fricker book briefly noted the following material, but failed to give a real picture of prejudice in action. This elaboration of the material in her source (Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, The Anatomy of Prejudices, Introduction, pp. 33-38, 1996) is an attempt to fill that gap with the hope that a more extensive profile of these traits will facilitate our identification of the group dynamics that underlie the conflicts in today’s public discourse. Dr. Young-Bruehl is a psychotherapist, has written on Freud, and was a student of Hannah Arendt. I’ve edited this extensively, mostly to remove the heavy reliance on Freudian sexual symbolism, not because I’m puritanical, but because Freudian symbology requires an understanding of its nuanced relationship to common motivations and actions and probably would distract from our narrower interest in prejudices that affect verbal interaction. Prejudice in its general sense is about perceived physical and behavioral differences while our interest is more in knowledge and cognitive processes. I apologize for the epistemic injustices rendered by my reprehensible censorship and interference in the exposition.]

….A. Obsessional prejudices are the prejudices toward which people who are given to fixed ideas and ritualistic acts gravitate and through which they can behave sadistically without being conscious of their victims -- ¬as though in a trance, completely “in cold blood." Obsessional char¬acters are people of rigid, supererego-dominated characters who often display a cut off from their own feelings and intentions; they know not what they say or do. The obsessional prejudices feature conspiracies of demonic enemies everywhere, omnipresent pollutants, filthy people, which the obsessionally prejudiced feel compelled to eliminate-wash away, flush away, fu¬migate, demolish. The obsessionally prejudiced attribute to their victims a special capacity for commercial or economic conspiracy and diabolical behind the scenes cleverness, and they both envy this capacity and acting imitatively, turn the fruits of this cleverness (particularly in the do¬main of technology) on their victims. They imagine the conspirators as having the capacity to violate their space.

Examples of these are antisemitism. Other examples in the U.S. include anti-Communism of the McCarthyite sort (1950s) and the Vietnam War and Japan-bashing (focused on Japanese commercialism) as an echo of the prejudice against Japanese Americans interned during World War II for fear of traitorous acts. Obsessional prejudices have never reached full lethal proportions in this country because proliferating con¬spiracies keep distracting the focus of obsessional movements.

…. B. Hysterical (DSM IV: Histrionic) prejudice is expressed as a charge that people who are "other” and have never progressed, are intellectually inferior, are uncivilized. It equates body features with primitivity, archaic, and uncontrolled behaviors. It has been represented as a prejudice of desire for regression. It is a prejudice that a person uses subconsciously to appoint a group to act out in the world of aggressive desires that the person has repressed. Persons holding the prejudices have a feeling of superiority, but may require a subservient other to maintain that feeling. The groups cannot be completely or flushed away as the obsessional's victims do; they are needed alive, so that they can be used, deprived of their power, crippled, emasculated -- and in all instances, kept in their places. They often see relationships as more intimate than they really are. Societies that are marked by hysterical trends like conversion of psy¬chic conflicts into physical symptoms, that is, societies in which hyster¬ical individuals are common and sexual repression or puritanism rife are societies split. They are committed to visions of equality and fairness, to courtly and carefully coded and elaborately theatrical ways of life (fantasized), and they are, at the same time, sexually and aggressively explosive. Such societies would, as Gunnar Myrdal (international development) noted, embrace an American Creed of equality and justice for all and then fail miserably to put that creed into practice. Hypocrisy is normal as one side of a split character offers to the other.

Racism and classism are two examples of this type of prejudicial behavior.

…. C. Prejudices that have narcissistic foundations are marked with a sense of entitlement, of being more deserving than others based solely on their superiority. These symptoms, however, are a result of an underlying sense of inferiority and are often seen as overcompensation. Because of this, they are often envious and even angry of others who have more, receive more respect or attention, or otherwise steal away the spotlight. Behaviors revolve around a pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and sense of entitlement. Often individuals feel overly important and will exaggerate achievements and will accept, and often demand, praise and admiration despite worthy achievements. They may be overwhelmed with fantasies involving unlimited success, power, love, or beauty and feel that they can only be understood by others who are, like them, superior in some aspect of life.

The prejudices are characterized as an ideology of desire that is manifested as an intolerance of the idea that there exist people not like them. The narcissistic prejudices are prejudices of boundary establishment. On the other side of the narcissists' boundaries there is not a "them," a “not us,” but blank, a lack -- or at the most, a profound mystery.

Sexism and homophobia are the primary examples. Sexism is expressed in many ways, but its essential meaning is control over female sexuality and re¬production, and its essential purpose is to keep men from recognizing women in their difference or from succumbing to their fear of becoming women. Women challenge male gender identity. The most sexist societies are those in which narcissism is encouraged – and vice versa. But several major subtypes of narcissism exist, and the societies that sponsor these exhibit different sorts of (par¬ticularly) familial arrangements.

Many, but not all, homophobic acts and institutions also seek to pre¬serve sameness. The variety of roles possible precipitate a variety of prejudicial attitudes depending on the identity threat posed.

…. D. Overlap - There are social and political conditions in which the various character types and their characteristic prejudices flourish, in which they have political and social power and also ideological power, power to influence peoples' ideas. There are societies or subsocieties in which obsessionality is normative-to use a stereotype, "Prussian" societies. And there are societies in which conditions en¬courage hysterical splitting, even to the point where social forms and laws for sanctioning double lives develop, providing the equivalent for racists of what the coexistence of marriage and prostitution has been for sexists. In nations, different sorts of societies and subsocieties coexist and overlap, people are influenced by-exposed to, educated by, ruled by¬ any or all of the different types. And very seldom does a pure example of any one type of society-or, for that matter, anyone type of individual character-exist. The prejudices overlap. People who are sexist can also be racist, as people who are antisemitic can also be sexist, through all the variations. But most people who are prejudiced usually have a fundamental prejudice, which, in turn, determines the way they acquire other people’s prejudices. A fundamental prejudice operates like a rigidly patterned way of falling in love; it is an ideology of social love and hate.

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  • Gene R.

    Craig's reference, while highlighting inherent human tendencies in receiving, culling, and acting on information, it may put more emphasis on our topic of "epistemic injustice" from the stand point of the speaker, rather than the hearer. Perhaps, we can look at the epistemic (epistemological) issues of the forms of testimony discussed in the movie in another session.

    June 27, 2013

  • Craig Y.

    There is a video done by BBC:" A Century of Self" on how the media is using Freud for her own purposes.

    June 21, 2013

    • Gene R.

      Craig's reference, while highlighting inherent human tendencies in receiving, culling, and acting on information, it may put more emphasis on our topic of "epistemic injustice" from the stand point of the speaker, rather than the hearer. Perhaps, we can look at the epistemic (epistemological) issues of the forms of testimony discussed in the movie in another session.

      June 27, 2013

  • Gene R.

    Postscript: This topic could have been introduced as a discussion on the political gridlock we seem to face or as demonic labeling in order to dismiss any need to pay attention to what a person or group says. However, I would suggest we may have just got to the conclusion that we have to cope with pig-headedness or ideology and never got to the heart of the matter. Our discussion gave recognition to the deep-rooted, long-standing human cognitive processes and motivations that underlie these problems and, while all seemed to recognize possible ways that each of us might work on our own "epistemic injustice" individually, we remained challenged on how the problem may be solved as a society. If I interpreted Suzanne's lament correctly, she also recognized the intransigence of the problem.

    June 27, 2013

  • Gene R.


    June 25, 2013

  • Craig Y.

    Is the Bible impartial or also suffers from prejudices?

    June 25, 2013

  • John W

    Not positive I can make it, but the probability is increasing.

    June 25, 2013

  • Aydin


    June 21, 2013

  • Craig Y.

    It is not difficult to understand Socrates was out-talked by the sophists/lawyers in his day.

    June 20, 2013

  • suzanne b.

    i have never been so depressed or discouraged about the nature of man as i have while reading this! in my jaded view of the world, everything above is easily recognizable. it's a miracle any kind of positive, un biased communication occurs at all. maybe that would be worthy of discussion too.......is it, and how is it, possible to have an ideal communication free of these pitfalls and how do we achieve it. also, how can we educate the public to be aware of the dynamics of all of this and truly recognize propaganda at any level?

    June 18, 2013

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