Jacob Levy has a great post up at Bleeding Heart Libertarians – Folk ideal theory in action (with thanks to Daily Nous for bringing it to my attention) – which made me want to say something I’ve been thinking about for a while now. Earlier, we posted Ta-Nehisi Coates’ piece on nonviolence as compliance; as human beings, and many of us, American citizens, the issues Coates raises are of general interest, but there are important philosophical questions, I think, we should be asking ourselves now too. I know some philosophers bristle at the thought that our academic work should be constrained by such things as goals of social justice — but set that aside. Shouldn’t the modes of thinking we encourage at least not make things worse?
It seems to me, following Charles Mills, that ideal-theory approaches entrench substantial epistemic hindrances for theorizing justice. While we can attempt to engage in thought experiment, e.g., regarding what we might agree to behind a veil of ignorance if we knew nothing about our own social identity, we cannot engage in that thought experiment without thereby deploying a conceptual framework which is, itself, deeply shaped by our existing, non-ideal, social circumstances. Taking Rawls’ for example, by choosing to set the non-ideal to the side until an account of the ideal can be developed, Rawls cut himself off from the means by which we might check the profound impact of inequality and injustice on our very form of thought. An ideal-theory approach to justice is not problematic merely because it is structured in such a way as to fail to offer sufficient guidance in a non-ideal world, but also because it obscures, and consequently risks transmitting the consequences of, that some of our very concepts have been shaped in ways that implicate matters of justice in the first place. There is a distinctive form of conceptual epistemic injustice which ideal theory is disposed to inherit, and engagement with the non-ideal is requisite for correction.
When I say that there is a distinctive form of conceptual epistemic injustice, I do not mean just hermeneutical injustice, as Miranda Fricker discusses (though, that’s relevant too), where we may lack some concept because the social group which could develop it lacks the social power or organization to do so. I mean instead that we have concepts which we take to have normative force – like nonviolence as an ideal (or ‘genius‘, or ‘atonement‘) – and these concepts may be perfectly worthy in some sense (that is, the sense in which mean for that concept to aim at), but in actuality they can be perverse, both ethically and epistemically. Note: It is not that I think nonviolence is in anyway perverse itself, and I do not mean that I advocate in any way for violence. What I do mean, though, is that our concept of nonviolence is confused. When embedded in our broader social-conceptual framework, nonviolence becomes something that is expected of those who are subjected to oppression, and violence against them as enacted by certain dominant social groups, or certain forms of the state, fails to be recognized as violence at all. It’s that moment when someone tells you in the span of just a few breaths that yet another death of a black man at the hands of police is an unfortunate event, but that they are saddened, or even heartbroken, by the destructive protests which followed. Violence against persons of color is conceptualized as unfortunate, whereas the destruction of property is conceptualized as violent. The concept of nonviolence is socially limited so as to be unequal in its application.
As Angela Davis said once in an interview:
If you’re a Black person and you live in the Black community, all your life, you walk out on the street every day, seeing white policeman surrounding you. When I was living in Los Angeles, for instance…I was constantly stopped. The police didn’t know who I was, but I was a Black woman, and I had a natural, and I suppose they thought that I might be a “militant”…
You live under that situation constantly, and then you ask me whether I approve of violence. I mean, that just doesn’t make any sense at all.
Whether I approve of guns? I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. Some very, very good friends of mine were killed by bombs–bombs that were planted by racists…From the time I was very, very small, I remember the sounds of bombs exploding across the street, our house shaking. I remember my father having to have guns at his disposal at all times because of the fact that at any moment, we might expect to be attacked . . .
In fact, when [one] bombing occurred, one of the mothers of one of the young girls called my mother and said, “Can you take me down to the church? I have to pick up Carole, we heard about the bombing, and I don’t have my car.”
And they went down there, and what did they find? They found limbs and heads strewn all over the place. And then after that, in my neighborhood, all of the men organized themselves into an armed patrol. They had to take their guns and control our community every night because they did not want that to happen again.
I mean, that’s why when someone asks me about violence, I just find it incredible. Because what it means is the person who’s asking that question has absolutely no idea what Black people have gone through–what Black people have experienced in this country since the time the first Black person was kidnapped from the shores of Africa.