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Feminist Epistemology And Epistemic Injustices In Relation To Gender

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Epistemology is said to be the study of knowledge and the composition of knowledge. In relation, feminist epistemology questions how gender and identity influence knowledge as well as how it may vary based on our social assumptions and stereotypes made about gender roles. Many argue that gender does, in fact, influence knowledge as these assumptions have a profound impact on how we view an individual. Along with stereotypes and the effect that gender has, epistemic injustices often occur as a result, in many cases directed towards and disadvantaging women. As Fricker acknowledges, this kind of injustice develops as a result of the connection between social power and knowledge production, thus causing an altered level of credibility, and truth value. The following are examples of epistemic injustice which appear in the form of testimonial injustice, speaking for others, and “mansplaining”. In the following paper, I will be demonstrating how, often times what women say in comparison to men is taken to be far less significant, and considered to be less justified. I will use written works composed by Miranda Fricker, Linda Alcoff, and Rebecca Solnit as a way to support my argument regarding the great disadvantage that women experience in society when dealing with credibility. Furthermore, this is a topic of great relevance as it occurs in everyday society and is experienced by all women.

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In order for society to put an end to this, we must all be aware and mindful of these preconceived notions. Miranda Fricker discusses the widespread issue of epistemic injustice that occurs daily in society, mainly focusing on the issue of testimonial injustice. This occurs when an individual receives a decreased level of credibility due to their identity or certain characteristics which they hold. Fricker classifies this form of injustice in saying that, “testimonial injustice occurs when prejudice causes a hearer to give a deflated level of credibility to a speaker’s word… puts someone at an unfair disadvantage when it comes to making sense of their social experiences”. What causes this kind of injustice to occur is when social power creates an imbalance in power dynamics, which then influences where certain individuals fit into the world on a hierarchal scale. Therefore, this type of social conception has a great impact on how individuals are interpreted and the amount of credibility they receive as a result of their identity. As Fricker explains, the power that identity has over how an individual is interpreted occurs unconsciously, in the form of a “collective social imagination”. Identity plays a role regarding both the speaker and the hearer in a given situation, which is what occurs in the example of testimonial injustice. In this type of situation, the identity of the individual making the testimony has an impact on the level of credibility that they will receive and the truth value that stems from what they say.

In many cases involving women, the evidence or testimony that they present is considered to be insufficient because of their gender which is incredibly problematic. This scenario demonstrates a clear form of injustice that occurs due to previously conceived notions which affect how the hearer perceives the speaker, and their capacity as a knower because of their gender. The hearer provides the individual speaking with either credibility excess, or credibility deficit, as a result of this social power imbalance which causes them to have a tainted view of the individual. Credibility excess is said to be when the speaker is given a greater amount of credibility than they deserve, and credibility deficit is when they receive less credibility than they would have. In many situations, women experience credibility deficit. As Fricker demonstrates, testimonial injustice rests on the concept of “identity-prejudicial credibility deficit” as it allows the social conception and stereotypical views of what it means to be either a man or a woman impact their capacity for knowledge.

Although some argue that identity power plays a large and important role in testimony, I disagree with this notion based on the grounds that an individuals’ gender should not be a factor which influences one’s credibility. While Fricker makes a rather compelling argument regarding the epistemic injustices which occur on a daily basis, Linda Alcoff also discusses this issue, however, in questioning whether it is ever valid to ‘speak for others’. Both of these writers discuss how greatly identity impacts what is being said in both the speaker and the hearer, as well as the fact that this is a societal issue as opposed to an individual problem. As Alcoff states, the particular “speaker and listener affect whether a claim is taken as true, well-reasoned, compelling argument, or a significant idea”. Thus, meaning that, the identity of the individual on both sides is going to impact the message that is being conveyed and its importance. The reason behind why this is such an epistemic injustice is because as privileged individuals speak on behalf of the less privileged or those who are disadvantaged, this reinforces oppression towards those who are being spoken for. The reason for this being that an issue of representation takes place when someone speaks on behalf of another, therefore potentially having an impact on those who are being represented through either the truth value or capacity for knowledge. The way a certain message will be perceived by the hearer and the significance which it holds will revolve around who says it. This is a great epistemic injustice due to the fact that what someone says about or for another is always going to influence that individual’s experience. This often is directed towards women as men in many situations feel the need to represent and speak on behalf of women and explain either their needs, goals, situation and who they are.

Unfortunately, what men say is very commonly considered to have much more significance or meaning behind it in comparison to women. This is an issue because men should not feel the need to represent and speak on behalf of women when they have not endured the same kind of experiences or fully understand what some women have dealt with. These epistemic injustices which occur have a great impact on all women in society, as they appear in many various forms, and occur on a daily basis. These injustices are an important issue to recognize as they influence society in how women are viewed and treated. The social phenomenon commonly known as “mansplaining” is an example of the effect that these injustices have on the community, as it is quite prominent in today’s society. Mansplaining is discussed by Rebecca Solnit, in Men Explain Things to Me, where she defines this term as when men feel the need to explain something to women or clarify what things mean, despite the fact that they may not be fully educated on the topic themselves. This practice often conveys the feeling of men knowing what they are talking about, whereas women do not, thus leaving women feeling condescended and patronized. Solnit does not limit the victims of this to only women, however, does insist that every woman has experienced it at some point, even when it is “uninvited and unwanted”. This phenomenon of mansplaining once again demonstrates this common societal ideal that men hold a greater amount of knowledge in comparison to women and that what they say is considered to be more credible. This remains a great issue as it has instilled a lack of confidence in many women with regards to their knowledge level in relation to men. In addition, these gender stereotypes which assume what men say to be more legitimate has created an over-confidence which has been deeply rooted in society’s beliefs. While often times men only hold a passing level of knowledge regarding a topic, they still feel the need to explain things to women as a result of these assumptions.

Therefore, after analyzing Miranda Fricker, Linda Alcoff, and Rebecca Solnit’s arguments in relation to epistemic injustices, I conclude by arguing that these issues are of great relevance in today’s society. They not only affect each individual woman through their own experience, but, they also impact all women as a whole. In my opinion, gender should not play a role when it comes to knowledge and credibility as it creates the potential for biases to occur in relation to the individual’s identity. Gender stereotypes often disadvantage women as what they say is considered to be far less significant and considered to be less justified in comparison to men. In order to put an end to these epistemic injustices from occurring, individuals must be more mindful of what they are saying, and how they view individuals. We must as a society recognize the stereotypes and prejudices which we hold based on gender, in order to disregard assumptions that are made and ensure an accurate level of credibility is given to each individual.

31 October 2020

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