Justice Everywhere

a blog about philosophy in public affairs

It is not enough to listen carefully – we also have to identify who is not in the epistemic room

Shawn raises his hand and asks quietly: “Mr Warner?” […] Mr Warner does not hear Shawn or notice his raised hand. Instead, Mr Warner is fielding questions from a group of middle-class students  […] Shawn sighs and puts his hand down (Calarco 2018: 164).

Post by Leonie Smith and Alfred Archer

Introduction

When middle-class students are regularly heard in the classroom and working-class students, such as Shawn, are regularly not heard, and when news reporters consistently fail to seek out women experts to the same extent that they seek out men experts, something unjust is happening. In a recent paper, we argue that this something is an epistemic attention deficit.

What is an epistemic attention deficit?

Miranda Fricker has famously argued that we can contribute to injustice, and harm people, by not giving their words the credibility that we ought to. We harm these people as knowers – as epistemic agents. Epistemic agents have testimony and potential input to contribute to discussion, debate and the creation of beliefs or knowledge in the community.

But in order to influence people as epistemic agents, or have our testimony taken seriously at all, we have to get people to pay us epistemic attention in the first place. In a recent paper, we argue that when someone is paid less epistemic attention than they are due as an epistemic agent, this is unjust. More precisely, it is an epistemic attention deficit.

How do epistemic attention deficits cause harm?

The impacts of epistemic attention deficits are as extensive as the many groups they can occur in and ways in which they can occur. The basic harm is just not being treated as an epistemic agent in the way that we ought to be. But beyond that, there are multiple ways in which further harms can occur.

At the level of individual development, a lack of epistemic attention in the classroom leads to working-class children feeling overlooked, and may stop them from attempting to participate in future, for example. But watching middle-class students receive attention while they do not, also sends a message to working-class students about what kind of person someone who wants to get due epistemic attention needs to become.

And at the political and social level, attention matters for setting political agendas. The more attention the media pays to a particular issue, the more important people are likely to judge that issue to be. Similarly, who we pay attention to influences who has the power to set agendas. So, consistently seeking out men’s voices rather than women’s voices for front page coverage, for example, is exactly the kind of epistemic attention deficit likely to lead to reduced agenda-setting power altogether.

What epistemic attention is a person due?

It is hard to pin down exactly how much epistemic attention a person is due, because these things vary by context. Epistemic attention deficits are often easier to spot through comparison with the amount of epistemic attention paid to others. But defining the boundaries is less important as a first step than just recognising that they exist. And we can do that through examples.

For example, most of us do not tend to think that we should give the same amount of epistemic attention to our five-year old child as we do to our local GP when it comes to general medical advice on how to stay safe during flu season. But we still ought to give due epistemic attention to that same child when it comes to investigating how the pencil came to be stuck up their own nose. A testimonial injustice would be not treating what children say with an appropriate level of credibility: an epistemic attention deficit might be regularly not thinking to include children in discussions about their own lives and wellbeing at all.

And at the social and political level: if we regularly produce news reports about policies on asylum-seekers, or the impact of welfare provision, and exclude the voices of asylum-seekers and welfare claimants it’s clear that we are not offering due epistemic attention to members of those groups who are affected by those policies. Or when we seek out experts for news articles, if we consistently fail to offer epistemic attention to women experts in favour of giving it to men, then again, it seems clear that due epistemic attention is not being paid.

What can we do about it?

Given the important role that attention plays, it is important to address the ways in which groups of people are so often ignored. But how can we do this? One way in which we can respond as individuals is to think critically about who we tend to pay epistemic attention to and who we tend to ignore. This is especially important for people whose job it is to direct people’s attention towards other people. Journalists for example should think carefully about what kind of people they tend to interview.

But we should not pretend that this will be easy. Our decisions about who to pay attention to will often not be the result of a conscious decision – many teachers are not actively seeking to pay less epistemic attention to working-class students, for example. Even those committed to critically reflecting on their practices of attention may find these difficult to change. The journalist referred to above, Adrienne Lafrance, analysed an entire year of her reporting and found that only a quarter of the people she mentioned or quoted in her work were women. This led her to resolve to give more attention to women in her reporting in future. However, two years later she conducted a similar audit with the same upsetting results.

Conclusion

What should we conclude from all of this? The answer is not, we hope, that epistemic attention deficits are a problem that cannot be resolved.

Instead, we think that the answer is likely to be that where pervasive patterns of epistemic attention deficits exist, we are going to need to look beyond our individual actions and target the source of those deficits in the specific form in which they occur. Epistemic attention deficits are common, harmful and unjust. To address them in our individual interactions we will need to be better epistemic agents. But to address them socially, we need better epistemic structures. So what we can do, is work to identity they are happening.

And we can also work to pay epistemic attention to those who might have the best insight into whether or not they are being epistemically ignored: members of groups who regularly experience prejudice and exclusion altogether.

Post by Leonie Smith and Alfred Archer

Leonie Smith is a researcher in Philosophy at the University of Manchester. Her work centres on the epistemic, ontological and material harms faced by people living in poverty and on the margins of society (within the UK and globally). In September 2020 Leonie took up the Analysis Studentship for 2020/21 (hosted at the University of Manchester).

Find out more about her work here: http://stirlingbus.com/leoniesmith/

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2 Comments

  1. Annabelle LEVER

    what does ‘epistemic’ add? at least in the women expert case and in many of the others – they are not in the room physically/on the tv screen. they just are not counting as experts. And the point about working class students getting less (favourable) attention from teachers is familiar. Does adding the word ‘epistemic’ (eg to ‘attention’ or to ‘room’) add something to all the research that has already been done on this topic, going back decades?
    Sometimes it feels as though the epistemic injustice literature is just a way for philosophers to get on the wagon of research by sociologists, feminists and others from years and years ago, now that they have a shiny new word that they can apply to it. The old word philosophers would probably have used to categorise that empirical research for their own use, I suppose, was ‘discrimination’, which has the advantage of leaving open the precise mechanisms by which the relevant harms operated as well as their nature and consequences. (ie sometimes the mechanism is exclusion – you just don’t count as a expert/get invited etc; sometimes it is neglect (as with the student); sometimes it is unfair imputations of violence, bullying, ‘trouble’ etc (as for many racialised minority students…ie you get attention all right, but only negative)

    Am in a rush, so apologies if what is meant to be a question comes out as more hostile than it is – the issue is clarification, not that I think there is anything wrong, per se, in using the word ‘epistemic’ in this context. Merely that the ‘value added’, if I can put it that way, isn’t always clear.

    thanks so much for your help!

    • A blog post understandably cannot get across the nuance of our article, so I can understand if it’s not super clear above. Our aim is to offer a more specific account of how people might be *epistemically* harmed / wronged when they are not paid attention to. The word ‘discrimination’, for example, does not capture the nature of that harm, and in doing so, also does not necessarily help us work out what to do about it. This is perhaps particularly true when the epistemic attention deficit is unwillingly or unwittingly caused (as in the case of a woman journalist who realised that she continually perpetuated a harm she believed herself to be actively trying to combat). The broad brush of ‘discrimination’ just tells us to stop discriminating, but it doesn’t necessarily tell us what harm we are causing by that discrimination or why it’s harmful.

      So, we talk about epistemic attention deficits precisely because these relate to harm caused to a person qua epistemic agent. We want to draw attention to the harm caused to aspects of a person’s epistemic agency, power and influence when they fail to be paid due epistemic attention (through not being included, sought out or listened to pre-testimonially etc.), and we outline this in more detail in the paper. The starting point for our argument of the harm of epistemic attention deficits is that attention has an important role to play in influencing people’s beliefs and in influencing what they take to be epistemically, politically or socially relevant. Given this, someone who is the subject of an epistemic attention deficit (which is unjust by definition, as it is not ‘not paying epistemic attention’ it is ‘paying less epistemic attention than someone is *owed*’) will be less able to influence what other people believe, or take to be epistemically, politically or socially relevant, than they would be able to do if they were not subject to this deficit (all else being equal).

      Affected individuals have a restricted ability to (i) influence people’s beliefs, to (ii) set the agenda and to (iii) help establish the shared common ground. As a result, they are harmed in their ability to participate as specifically epistemic agents. And we suggest that, regardless of how we cash this out, being treated as an epistemic agent is in some way important to our ethical status: an individual who is harmed in her capacity as an epistemic agent, is harmed in a morally significant way. This is in addition to, or regardless of any other harms she may or may not experience. A mere lack of attention, in itself, is not a deficit and a deficit of other forms of attention (such as emotional attention, for example) is not an *epistemic* attention deficit.

      We have shared your frustration with adding the word ‘epistemic’ to existing harms more than once when this done without clarifying the epistemic nature of the harm, but we are aiming to get at a pervasive epistemic harm here, so the word applies. However, just to be clear, we do cite (and fully reference) the work of the sociologists who have worked on problems of attention in the classroom in our paper (we specifically rely on work by Calarco and Reay and the hyperlinks to their work are also above in the article – we have no interest in claiming their work. In fact, what we are trying to do, is draw far more attention to it – one of us (me) in particular references sociological work on class in our other work on the epistemic and ontological harms of socioeconomic injustice. We also provide a lot of examples from the literature on attention in our paper.

      (We weren’t clear on your point re women specifically – first, their not being in the room is not relevant to whether or not they can experience an epistemic attention deficit – in fact, this is precisely what we want to draw attention to; that people can experience epistemic harm through not being included. And second, in this case of the experts, in the article we link to, these are women who *are* counted as ‘experts’ according to the standards of their profession, so its not clear why you think they do not *count* as experts and this is all that has happened? But it is, of course, open to someone to give a different account of what happens in these cases, or to focus on the idea that they de facto do not count as experts when they experience an epistemic attention deficit in this way – we think that’s a bit stronger than what happens, as they will still be recognised and treated as experts in many other spheres etc.)

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