29 January 2011

Big Ideas on epistemic injustice

Who knew I'd enjoy a debate on epistemic injustice?!

The first Big Ideas debate of 2011 was advertised as "Why Should I Believe You?" but Nathan let slip at the Christmas social that this is a philosophy group so I was forewarned that there would be more to the evening than just a simple question.

But before the question comes the setting and I do like The Wheatsheaf. The talks do not start until the comfortable hour of 8pm which gives plenty of time to work reasonably late, walk up to Fitzrovia from Victoria and have a leisurely beer (a Brakspear Oxford Gold) and a frivolous bowl of chips and cheese. Such is the life of the twilight talk attender.

I learned at the last talk that it is safer to head upstairs well before the start time if you want to be sure of a chair and so it proved again and the lovely room was packed and the later arrivals had to stand.

The discussion leader was Miranda Fricker, a Reader in the Department of Philosophy at Birkbeck and the author of the book Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing.

She hides being a philosopher well and comes across as the sort of person that you would like to be placed next to at a dinner party due to her captivating conversational style. She listens well, talks better and know what she is talking about.

Miranda Fricker opened by explaining her concept of testimonial injustice (a subset of the wider epistemic injustice) where a listener denies the testimony (knowledge) of another due to a prejudiced against them.

The example was given of to Kill a Mocking Bird where the testimony of Tom Robinson is not believed by the jury because he is a black man. Later we were also given the example of the Talented Mr Ripley which did not help much as I've not seen it.

Most of the debate that followed centred around the hard words "prejudice" and "injustice".

There was a consensus that we will always approach testimonial with some bias, for example we will usually to believe people we know and trust rather than a complete stranger. These biases, some of which may be as general as distrusting a wide group such as women or a different race, build up continuously as we interact people and will often be a fair reflection of our experiences.

And if these biases are only natural, and also useful, then it seems wrong to call using them an injustice.

Miranda responded at length to all the questions and comments but I felt she was not carrying the audience with her. I, for one, was certainly not convinced.

In my notes from the evening I turned to that most common of management consulting tools, the 2x2 matrix. If we consider the degree to which we are predisposed to believe somebody and the degree to which we are willing to have our minds changed then we can prejudice only when we have firm beliefs and little change.

The other three quadrants are virtue (low predisposition and high change), bias (high and high) and fickle (low and high).

This strikes me as a more helpful way to try and understand the issues around epistemic injustice than railing against injustice.

I may have been unconvinced by the main theme and, unusually for me, did not participate directly in the debate but it was still an evening well spent and it did more than enough to entice me back next month.

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