Practical advice for dealing with epistemic injustice and quieting in social situations?

A teenaged woman, call her Amy, reports her frustration and even her despair at constantly having the least valued opinion when talking with men and boys. People will sit around and BS; alleged facts will be pulled out of thin air (or worse places); strong opinions will be conjured on topics of little prior reflection. That’s all good. But even this BS is at least taken seriously enough to be worth counter-argument when it comes from men. Whether the dismissal of her opinion is scornful, or indulgent with a patina of affection, she finds her (relatively rare) contributions in social situations treated as silly or naïve by default. And when she tries to point out that this is happening, this observation too is treated as silly or naïve, and dismissed out of hand as well. She can’t break through the attitude of dismissiveness, even to point out its existence. “What do I have to do to at least make you recognize that I’m serious about this?” she muses. “Do I have to stab you to get your attention?” Amy is the least violent person I know, making this both very funny and a clear sign of her being truly fed up.

“Is this just how it’ll always be?” she wonders. Smiling avuncular pooh-poohing of her contributions to social discourse dominated by men?

On one hand, my conversation with Amy is a spur to continued activism, including micro-level social awareness. On the other hand, it leaves me at something of a loss when I consider what advice and guidance is available to Amy.

I can listen sympathetically and validate her experience, certainly. We can talk about epistemic injustice, and I can help explain how that connects with epistemology and justice more generally. I can help situate the failed uptake of both her conversation and her remarks about the conversation relative to notions of speech-act silencing or quieting. On these topics I count as relatively expert; and helping her to theorize or understand the phenomena more richly is plausibly some form of assistance. But what about practical suggestions? Amy would prefer to be able to improve or repair social situations, rather than blowing them up; firebrand is not usually her style. I can offer my own personal take on how to broach socially hard topics or correct anti-social behaviour; or talk about things I’ve seen other people do that worked (or didn’t). But this all feels pretty idiosyncratic. There is a huge range of strategies that people marginalized by social prejudices use to confront and mitigate the situations that trouble Amy, the success of which vary according to all sorts of factors. Is there already a sort of online clearinghouse of strategies that people have used to good effect when facing this sort of dismissiveness? Or a good book that gives practical advice of this sort? (Something aimed specifically at young women would be particularly valuable in Amy’s case.)

Or could people share their favoured approaches here? Choices of tone, gesture, turns of phrase… broader social strategies (including “get better friends”) — what has worked for you?

7 thoughts on “Practical advice for dealing with epistemic injustice and quieting in social situations?

  1. These are just some thoughts. While the idea of ‘persuasion’ as a form of conning someone is a little more sinister than I mean for this advice to be taken, the basic idea seems sound.…/5-ways-change…

    It is a rather well demonstrated phenomenon that simply countering people’s ideas, even when you’re information is better, is rarely effective. People’s basic assumptions are naturally recalcitrant. The solution then would be to get people to understand, not that you’re right and they’re wrong, but that your idea accomplishes something they value. This diminishes the cognitive dissonance engendered by a shift in assumption.

  2. I feel the force of the dilemma: confronting those involved in an episode of epistemic injustice at the scene takes a lot of courage, and as it isn’t guaranteed to end amicably, I have previously found myself weighing up the costs and benefits of a such confrontation, given that one may have independent reasons to maintain the social or professional relationship at hand. This has resulted in silence on my part more times that I would ideally have liked! But I think there is something we can do, more generally, to improve the situation for Amy and other subjects of epistemic injustice, and that is engaging in a general educational programme to communicate the issues to those we frequently engage with so that we have something concrete to refer back to for future occurrences of epistemic injustice.
    I suppose this raises a related question: if we are to educate those around us about epistemic injustice generally, how should we go about doing that? Where possible, the institutions/organisations/business which host our interactions should take responsibility for providing workshops, etc, but this doesn’t necessarily solve the issue in the social case, when we’re down the pub with friends, or when interacting with folks outside our institution. What then? I’ve sometimes found myself in just these contexts (either my research topic comes up, or someone says they struggle to employ women because they apparently don’t perform so well in interviews, etc…) and we end up discussing phenomena related to epistemic injustice as a possible contributory factor to the performance they have apparently observed. I have personally found that the most ‘effective’ strategy (i.e. the one where my interlocutor concedes that epistemic injustice is real, and that they ought to watch out for it) is also a strategy that I find troubling to have to rely on: That is, directing my interlocutor to controlled laboratory studies which demonstrate that many/the majority of participants’ judgements of the quality of someone’s work/aptitudes/contributions etc are affected by their perceptions of that person’s race/gender…etc. After discussing such studies, all being well, my interlocutor will concede that the studies in question have eliminated all the variables, so it *must* be the case that the thing affecting the participants’ judgements is their conception of the target person’s race/gender etc, and that a similar effect might mediate behaviour in conversations. The reason that I think it is somewhat troubling that this is (in my experience) the most effective tool to communicate epistemic injustice to folks who don’t already know about the issues, is because it feels as if it perpetuates the very problem at hand – that is, our conversation completely bypasses the *experiences* of subjects of epistemic injustice – which surely ought to be an important point of reference when explaining epistemic injustice. In doing so, I feel this strategy not only endorses the idea that we ought not to trust people who are subject to epistemic injustice to accurately report their experiences, but also that their experiences are only validated after we’ve done some Science, finding concurrent results. But I do find that this is the strategy which results in the most uptake of the relevant issues by my interlocutor.
    Of course, it might be that we ought not to find this surprising: the same biases which mediate people’s interpretations of the epistemic contribution of a woman, or person of colour, for instance, may also mediate their interpretations of such a person’s testimony that they are the subject of epistemic injustice, and so citing such testimony is of course going to be not so effective in convincing our interlocutor that epistemic injustice is real and efficacious. Still, I find it troubling that I feel my best defence and communicative tool is reference to some studies, rather than reference to personal and peer experience. I wonder what others might think on this point.

  3. For me, it really was “get better friends” that worked. Being in a social context where I don’t have to constantly defend myself, explain myself, and otherwise fight to be treated with respect is a massive improvement.

    Of course, that doesn’t help with the overall epistemic injustice issue – but for me at least, given my personality and comfort levels, I would rather have my social life be a good and comfortable one, and fight those issues in other contexts.

  4. I’ve seen dynamics like these change over time in social and familial groups, albeit *slowly*. The most effective strategy I’ve found is to pick at the group dynamic by building dialogues over time about the issue in one-on-one situations. People–and maybe young men in particular–are significantly more receptive, empathetic, and open-minded outside of a group context, when they’re not performing or keeping track of as many interactions. For those who are particularly resistant to hearing your point, sometimes making it about other people at first can be helpful (“Ugh, did you notice when [particularly-bad-offender] said [dismissive/offensive thing]? I feel like he does that all the time. Why do you think some guys are like that?”). In general, building stronger one-on-one friendships with the men in your social group can make a difference in group interactions.

    Of course, this strategy is useless for casual or one-off interactions. I don’t know if there is any silver bullet for dealing with those. But they sure become more tolerable when you have some spaces in your life where you feel respected by men you care about.

    And I would tell Amy not to give up hope! In my experience, anyway, a lot of guys get better about this over the course of their early twenties.

  5. Interesting question. If Amy is going to a college with a parliamentary debate team, she might consider joining it. (Policy debate, by contrast, would be useless — for the purposes under discussion, or really, any others. Just sayin’.)

  6. My advice would be:
    1) Use humor. If the people reacting poorly are colleagues, relatives, or friends whose company you’d otherwise enjoy, a little humor can go a long way in not making them feel attacked if you choose to complain about their behavior. This works even better if you can do 2:

    2) Enlist an ally. Another person who understands your concerns can offer valuable social support in those situations. A simple, “hey, let her finish”, or a lighthearted remark can be enough to call attention to a problem others might not have noticed.

    3) Accept that in some situations, being a competent, professional woman with an opinion is enough to make people dislike you or respond to your poorly. I found it hard to get to a point in life where I stopped worrying much about whether people feel good about me, but once I got to that point all of this became much easier. Paradoxically, I found that people respected me far more as a leader when I was able to speak up for myself more, even if that also caused some people to react more negatively.

    4) Focus on self-improvement. When you are confident in your superior knowledge and can communicate your insight effectively, the people whose judgment matters most will take notice. People with poor judgment may continue not to notice; that’s their loss.

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