In less than two months, we will officially exit the age of Obama and enter into the Trump era. Some are still asking: “How did this happen?” and “What should we do next?” Perhaps the answer to these questions can be found by looking closer at ignorance.
I sat down and talked with three young, diverse women philosophers about their reaction to and diagnosis of the election. Rachel McKinnon is an Assistant Professor of philosophy at the College of Charleston. Tempest Henning is a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at Vanderbilt University. Meena Krishnamurthy is an Assistant Professor of philosophy at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
They are all of the view that ignorance played some role in the election and they express a concern about its normalization during the upcoming Trump presidency. However, they differ in exactly what an epistemology of ignorance is and what should be our response to it. In the conversation that follows, I talk with them about ignorance during the election season and how we can overcome and survive ignorance going forward.
You can find the full podcast interview at The UnMute Podcast.
Myisha: There are many trying to make sense of how a Trump presidency happened. You all share a consensus that an "epistemology of ignorance" explains part of it. What is that? And how did you see it play out in the election?
Rachel: One way to think about the epistemology of ignorance is that it asks the question: how is it that people can maintain false beliefs, particularly in the face of overwhelming counter-evidence? Moreover, what ways is ignorance active, even militant--to use Charles Mills's phrasing--rather than simply passive? While a great deal of work has been done on the conditions for this active ignorance, I've recently been thinking about knowledge in our social world and, in a sense, the epistemology of democracy.
Helen Longino (in The Fate of Knowledge, 2002) offers four norms, or requirements, for knowledge production in science, but I think it applies just as strongly to deliberative democracies. They are: venues, uptake of criticism, share standards, and tempered equality. First, briefly, we need public and easily accessible venues to debate policy, share evidence, and have our discursive practices. Second, our beliefs need to be sensitive and responsive to evidence, though: that is, we must provide uptake of well-supported criticism. Third, we have to have some shared standards of what constitutes evidence and what constitutes sound reasoning. We have to be able to agree on what makes a fact a fact. Fourth, everyone's opinion matters, but that's 'tempered' by expertise and intellectual authority. We ask our pharmacist about possible side effects of a given medication; we don't ask random people on the street with no pharmacological knowledge. Expertise has to matter.
We're doing pretty well on the venues requirement: thanks to the internet, we have more venues, and more accessible venues than ever before. We're utterly failing on the other three norms.
Tempest: I see some of the epistemology of ignorance literature being a very useful tool at this particular moment in part because it can help to explain the ways in which ignorance is manifested as a social norm. I'm thinking in particular Charles Mills' conception of "white ignorance." It is a framework that holds instances of injustice as something that is not an exception or an anomaly, although the framework argues and presents that instances are exceptions to the case, but these instances of racialized harm and racial injustice are built into the very fabric of society as we perceive it to be. Any racial injustices that occur within a system framed by white ignorance is functioning as it should be operating, because racial oppression is part of the essence of the social structure. Racial injustice is substantive to the epistemic practice, which is why I am not surprised with the results of this election.
Meena: Epistemology of ignorance in some sense starts with the opposite questions. It asks: what is ignorance and what gives rise to it? The main question that I am concerned with in evaluating this election is the question of how did Mr. Trump get elected despite his racism? How could people vote for him under these conditions? In an attempt to answer these questions, I’ve turned to Dr. King’s work. King believes that two forms of ignorance or, what he calls, blindness give rise to racism … This type of ignorance – where people don’t know that racism is wrong – isn’t King’s focus, however. And, it shouldn’t be ours either. King rightly believes – in part because of the efforts of earlier civil rights movements – that many if not most white Americans know that racism is wrong. On his view, knowing that racism is wrong is often rarely enough to move people to act. What is needed is knowledge of what it is like to be victimized by racism. This knowledge is something that many white Americans lack. As this election has shown, people have a variety of different values – related to the economy, the size of government, and religion. Anti-racist values are simply one set of values among a broader group of other values and they simply may not take priority over these other values. King suggests, however, that once you know what it is like to be victimized by racism, eliminating racism is more likely to become your priority. Anti-racist values are more likely to outweigh your other values and, in turn, are more likely to motivate you to act to end racism. In part, it is the lack of experiential knowledge that led people to vote for Trump. Because they don’t know what being victimized by racism is like, they didn’t place priority on their anti-racist views when they were voting.
Myisha: Given its impact, it's not enough to know what it is but we need to think about how to overcome it. How might a person who is ignorant in the sense you have laid out, overcome it?
Rachel: I worry about this quite a lot. I'm fairly pessimistic about our ability to understand what it's like to experience oppression, and of various forms, unless we're actively experiencing that oppression ourselves. I support a view in epistemology known as 'standpoint epistemology.' In short, it's the idea that we come to know about the structures of oppression, what it looks like, how it operates by experiencing it ourselves, and by bumping up against it. So I understand many forms of cissexism because I'm a trans woman, and I experience its force. But I'm white, so I don't understand many forms of racism, and certainly not the intersection of race and cissexism--what we call 'transmisogynoir' for trans women. If that's correct, then I think that our best hope is to increase our trust in people who do have those identities telling us what they're experiencing, what they know. That is, we have to increase our trust in their testimony about their oppression. Unfortunately, the status quo is that such statements are doubted--a topic known as 'epistemic injustice.' Moving forward, we'll have to think about what we can do to do better in believing people when they tell us about their marginalization.
Tempest: I think this entirely depends on what is meant by 'we' and what one means when we talk about 'overcoming' an epistemology of ignorance. The contextualization of the subject 'we' is important here because what one does and what one can do while in a particular epistemic framework is going to vary greatly dependent upon their social positioning. How I as a black woman grapple with socially manifested and maintained ignorance is going to vary drastically from how a white feminist ally contends with it. Regarding the notion of overcoming an epistemology of ignorance, I vacillate between two thoughts here: 1) there is no overcoming it - only survival. And 2) overcoming it is to dismantle the entire system (and systems) that the epistemic framework has interacted with. So this means not only restructuring political systems or social norms, but a reconstruction of language and meaning.
Meena: People who experience racism have a privileged perspective with respect to knowledge about racism. They are the individuals that experience racism and, in the first instance, they are the ones who know what it is like to be victimized by it. They are, for this reason, in the best position to help other people who don’t typically experience racism to come to know what it is like. The burden is on these individuals to share their knowledge. That said, the responsibility is not only theirs. White Americans have a responsibility to seek out this knowledge and to pursue it with the diligence of a keen student. As part of their duty to obtain this knowledge, white Americans also have a duty to combat any tendencies not to take the contributions of racial minorities seriously.
Myisha: How might those who are not ignorant but may suffer the consequences of another person’s ignorance, survive it?
Rachel: I think that finding community is extremely important: find people who will believe you, find people who are having similar experiences. Know that they're having similar experiences, that you're not alone. I was speaking to a friend and colleague the other evening about some of the persistent microaggressions she faces as a young scholar of color. It was a lot just to have someone who believed her. Cultivate your networks. For me, Facebook is extremely important in providing me with immediate community, but I also have people I can call or see.
Tempest: In terms of how do we as oppressed people survive, Audre Lorde's words "We're not meant to survive" I believe are key here. Surviving in a society that is built upon your destruction requires that you are consciously aware that it was not designed for you and in several cases it was designed to oppress you, which means that it is of the utmost necessity that we cultivate epistemic self-trust. There is a healthy amount of epistemic humility that is part of being a virtuous knower, but the ways in which white ignorance in particular operates is to silence non-white voices and discredit them as sufficient sources of knowledge. What this means is that often non-white individuals when it comes to racism are dismissed as being credible sources so a sense of epistemic self-reliance is eroded. Racially oppressed individuals often will question whether their knowledge of a particular instance of racism actually was racism or if it was merely something that they fabricated. Building a sense of epistemic self-trust is crucial here - without it the repeated denial of being a knower can induce a state of over-reliance on other (white) sources and foster a sense of crisis in being in the world.
Meena: This is a hard question to answer because I think the answers are different for different people. For many of us, it is important to find a community to take comfort and support in. It is also important, for many of us, to find ways to act – to feel like we are doing something even if it is only donating $1 to the ACLU. For me, talking helps. I find comfort in knowing that, at least in some cases, I can find a common ground to talk to people, even if we disagree. My hope is that community, action, and conversation will lead to positive change.