Monday, November 16, 2015

Free speech and epistemic injustice

Some good sense and wisdom from philosophers Kate Manne and Jason Stanley in the CHS.
To affirm the value of freedom of speech, and to keep from silencing others unethically, when may we encourage people to choose their words more carefully, or tell them they ought to have kept silent? When should we say that, although someone had the right to say what he said, his saying it was a problem? Even the most avid proponent of freedom of speech cannot avoid this issue. When people disagree about who should say what to whom — and how — either someone has to keep mum, or someone’s speech act will come in for criticism.
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[W]hen people lower down in social and institutional hierarchies criticize the speech acts of those higher up, it often reads as insubordination, defiance, or insolence. When things go the other way, it tends to read as business as usual.
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But sounding reasonable can be a luxury. Such speech trusts, even presumes, that one’s words will be received by a similarly reasonable, receptive, even sympathetic, audience. Oppressed people are often met with the political analogue of stonewalling. In order to be heard, they need to shout; and when they shout, they are told to lower their voices. They may be able to speak, but have little hope of being listened to.
The Michigan State University philosopher Kristie Dotson describes this predicament as "testimonial quieting," as the philosopher Rachel McKinnon has helped us to see. When oppressed people speak out — and up, toward those in power — their right to speak may be granted, yet their capacity to know of what they speak doubted as the result of ingrained prejudice. And the way in which they express themselves is often then made the focus of the discussion. So it is not just that these people have to raise their voices in order to be audible; it’s also that, when their tone becomes the issue, their speech is essentially being heard as mere noise, disruption, commotion. Their freedom of speech is radically undercut by what is aptly known as "tone policing."
Moreover, we often tune into the action only when people have reached a breaking point. And then we wonder why they are yelling, ignoring the history of the crescendo.
Such is the case at Yale. Black students have testified to daily experiences of chronic, structural racism. But it is not the sort of racism that is generally considered newsworthy. It is not the sort of racism that attracts the attention of a largely white audience. There are no black bodies on the pavement to focus on. The violence being done is subtler — and often, as Dotson argues, epistemic.
When a group of adults is dismissed as children, we ought to be highly suspicious that this sort of violence is at issue. The idea that oppressed and marginalized people should "grow up" has a long and ugly history. Women have frequently been dismissed using this stereotype, for instance. And the thing about children is that it is not always possible, nor even desirable, to reason with them. Sometimes they need to be given incentives, negotiated with, or managed — and, in some cases, simply quietened. Calling the student protesters "coddled" serves to excuse those touting freedom of speech as an ideal to spurn it in reality. They are trying to use the master’s tools to prevent the master’s house from being dismantled — or, as here, the masters themselves from being ousted.
Read the whole thing here.

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