Monday, 24 August 2009

Epistemic justice: Power & the Ethics of Knowing by Miranda Fricker

Epistemic justice: 
Power & the Ethics of Knowing
Excerpts from this book are published on Google Books.

Dear Networkers,

Do you ever get enraged when you feel your views and those of your organisation are sidelined in favour of the views of the bureaucracy, certain "experts", lobbyists and their clients, political donors.  Local views, community wisdom are overlooked as though of no account, as though grassroots experience is of no consequence, eyewitness accounts count for nothing against libraries of books and ivory towers of academics.

Well, thanks to an academic I have come across a term for all this.....epistemic injustice.

To-day I was listening to Alan Saunders on The Philosopher's Zone on ABC's Radio National.  Alan was speaking to Dr Miranda Fricker who has put it all together and published a book explaining it all called Epistemic Injustice.  If you go here, you can listen to the conversation or read the transcript.  Dr Fricker has been in Australia to deliver the Simone Weil Lectures on Human Value at the Australian Catholic University. Her lectures were titled Knowledge and Prejudice.  Dr Fricker's premise stems from a famous murder case in the UK which lead to major and overdue changes in policing.

However, as I listened to Dr Fricker I became entranced with the concept and its application to governance and community.  I have been concerned at what I have seen in Victoria on water issues.  Energetic, well-resourced and intelligent community campaigns have been harshly over-ridden by government.  I ask how can this continue?  How can such lack of consultation and over-riding of sound local knowledge continue to be ignored?  In this area of grave climate impact, there will be more government-community stand-offs unless the government's way of doing things changes markedly.

I have been working along, like a voice crying in the wilderness, on the path of environmental and communal human rights and the development of mediation skills.  Then into my life comes the voice of Miranda Fricker across the air waves.  She says what I have long held - it is all about who is considered by the powers-that-be to know.  In the murder case, police - including black police - ignored the only non-involved (in a manner of speaking) eye witness.  They ignored his knowledge because of his race and ethnicity; because of behaviour which was thoughtlessly misinterpreted.  He wasn't considered to be someone capable of knowing.

How often do we see this is our society.

Consider the case of Peter Andrews.  His theories went against the conventional wisdom indoctrinating farmers.  However, many farmers ignored the conventional non-acceptance of Peter Andrews recognising the value of his knowledge.  Now Peter does not necessarily fit the bill as a conventional holder of knowledge.  While I have not met him, the stories I hear on Australian Story subtly indicate a man who can be problematic at times.  But his message persists.  And what helps his case greatly these days is that he now has a powerful patron in Gerry Harvey. No one argues about Gerry: he has money; runs a major corporation; loves racing and a bet on the gee gees; and owns some beautiful country.  So no one is going to gainsay Gerry Harvey as someone who might "know".

This is what governments and powerful corporations are doing to local communities across the nation: Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory; well-heeled landed gentry on the Liverpool Plains in New South Wales; irrigation farmers in the Goulburn Valley; and surfies on the Bass Coast in Victoria.

And who has the knowledge?  A Magic Circle.  It is quite circuitious.

If you want to be some sort of "water expert", what do you do?  You go to university.  The departments that are relevant are funded by industry, funded by government.  When people graduate as "water experts" where do they get employed? In industry, in government.  Then there are the industry associations which attract membership from...industry, government.  And there are study tours which attract people from...industry, government with some form of industry sponsorship.

But if you are a self-educated "water expert" with a wealth of on-the-ground experience, who are you?  You are discriminated against in the same way that the murder eyewitness was discriminated against.  You are completed ignored.  You are treated as an irrelevance.  How on earth, why on earth should you know anything that matters?

So I'm thinking of writing to Dr Fricker to ask for her thoughts of applying her premise of epistemic injustice on a social level.  You see, I think she is on to something of great value.

Networkers, I would like to know your thoughts, and your experiences with relevance to epistemic injustice.  If we put our heads together, we may well be able to put our joint knowledge to use to overcome the prejudice of governments against community knowledge and wisdom.

Further reading:
Simone Weil
American Weil Society
Books by Simone Weil


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