Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Shutting up and listening #1: The virtuous hearer

Others have already said most of what needed to be said about Ron Lindsay’s performance at the Women in Secularism conference this past weekend. But I did want to quote one bit that stood out as both hilarious and telling:
By the way, with respect to the “Shut up and listen” meme, I hope it’s clear that it’s the “shut up” part that troubles me, not the “listen” part. Listening is good….
It would seem plain to most thinking people, though, that the two are inseparable. I don’t mean this only in the simple and obvious sense that you can’t really listen while you’re physically talking (though the obviousness of that fact should provide a clue). And listening isn’t just good. Listening – not merely each individual act but the habitual practice of fighting the impulse to impose our perspective and interests and attending to others' experiences and ideas - is an essential element of…inquiry. I would expect the leader of a center nominally dedicated to it to appreciate at least that much.

But this all reminded me of a book I wrote about back in 2011 – Miranda Fricker’s Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing. It’s important to recognize that we live and interact in an epistemically unjust culture. What’s at issue is not simply the sexist content of particular beliefs and pronouncements about women and men but the way women and men are treated as information-givers. Outside of Muslim theocracies, testimonial injustice has been to a large extent written out of law, but the culture remains, and is far from confined to religion.

Women are talked at, talked about, talked over, talked past, and talked down to (not to mention monitored, harassed, and threatened when they do speak). Women’s voices aren’t sought. They’re not listened to respectfully, and when they are, they’re not believed and their contributions aren’t incorporated into men’s views. (This is true in relative and absolute terms: when I say that women’s voices aren’t sought, for example, I mean that sometimes they’re not sought at all, sometimes they’re sought less aggressively or as an afterthought, and sometimes they’re sought but to a lesser extent relative to men’s.)

This isn’t a question of a few impolite or insensitive individuals, but is, in Fricker’s words, a “somewhat hidden dimension of discrimination” (p. 145). It’s harmful to women, but also to men – to the entire epistemic community. This epistemic discrimination of course contributes to the false, biased beliefs that emerge and persist, and complements other forms of discrimination. To act ethically as a community, we need to recognize ourselves as part of this epistemically unjust culture and appreciate how it shapes our responses to women as information-givers.

Fricker advises addressing the problem at the larger cultural and institutional level, but focuses on the individual ethical level: how we can and should learn and cultivate the qualities and habits of what she calls the virtuous hearer. As I’ve discussed at some length, all scientific, loving, humanistic relationships intrinsically involve respect and the attempt to minimize the tendency to impose our preconceptions; Fricker’s framework adds to this a recognition of epistemic injustice and the moral requirement – which falls in practice more heavily on those in dominant categories - to develop habits that challenge and counteract it.* Very generally, this can be summed up as “Shut up and listen.”

* In relation to helping people understand the structural problem, Fricker talks about the usefulness of thinking about situations in which they’ve been on the “losing” side of epistemic injustice. It’s easier to understand sex-based epistemic injustice, for example, if you can relate it to your own experiences with epistemic injustice as a member of an oppressed racial or ethnic category, and vice versa. Many people have faced it as a young person, or maybe as a low-level employee. I’ve tried in the past to appeal to people like Dawkins or Lindsay (or Peter Singer) by calling attention to parallels with religious privilege, but I recognize that there are significant differences that might render the analogy unhelpful and that it’s possible that some of these men have never been anything but epistemically privileged. In any case, I remain optimistic that people, even if they can’t draw on their own experiences of epistemic injustice, can understand the problem.

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