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Hybrid Workplaces and Epistemic Injustice

photograph of blurred motion in the office

The pandemic has, among other things, been a massive experiment in the nature of work. The percentage of people who worked from home either part- or full-time jumped massively over the past year, not by design but by necessity. We are, however, nearing a time in which people may be able to return to working conditions that existed pre-pandemic, and there have thus been a lot of questions about what work will look like going forward. Recent studies have indicated that while many people want to continue working from home at least some of the time, many also miss face-to-face interactions with coworkers, not to mention having a reason to get out of the house every once in a while. Businesses may also have financial incentives to have their employees working from home more often in the future: having already invested in the infrastructure needed to have people work from home over the past year, businesses could save money by not having to pay for the space for all their employees to work in-person at once. Instead of having everyone return to the office, many businesses are thus contemplating a “hybrid” model, with employees splitting their time between the office and home.

While a hybrid workplace may sound like the best of both worlds, some have expressed concerns with such an arrangement. Here’s a big one: those who are able to go into the office more frequently will be more visible, and thus may be presented with more opportunities for advancement than those who spend most of their working hours at home. There are many reasons why one might want or need to work from home more frequently, but one significant reason is that one has obligations to care for children or other family members. This may result in greater gender inequalities in the workplace, as women who take on childcare responsibilities will especially be at a disadvantage in comparison to single men who are able to put in a full workweek in the office.

Hybrid workplaces thus risk creating injustices, in which some employees will be unfairly disadvantaged, even if it is not the explicit intention of the employer. While these potential disadvantages have been portrayed in terms of opportunities for advancement, here I want to discuss another potential form of disadvantage which could result in injustices of a different sort, namely epistemic injustices.

Epistemic injustices are ones that affect people in terms of their capacities as knowers. For instance, if you know something but are unfairly treated as if you don’t, or are not taken as seriously as you should be, then you may be experiencing an epistemic injustice. Or, you might be prevented from gaining or sharing knowledge, not because you don’t have anything interesting to contribute, but because you’re unfairly being left out of the conversation. While anyone can experience epistemic injustice, marginalized groups that are negatively stereotyped and underrepresented in positions of power are especially prone to be treated as lacking knowledge when they possess it, and to be left out of opportunities to gain knowledge and share the knowledge they possess.

We can see, then, how hybrid workplaces may contribute to a disparity not only in terms of opportunities for advancement, but also in terms of epistemic opportunities. These are not necessarily unrelated phenomena: for instance, if those who are able to put in more hours in the office are more likely to be promoted, then they will also have more opportunities to gain and share knowledge pertinent to the workplace. There may also be more subtle ways in which those working from home can be left out of the conversation. For instance, one can still be in communication with their fellow employees from home (via virtual meetings, chats, etc.), they will miss out on the more organic interactions that occur when people are working face-to-face. It tends to be easier to just walk over to a coworker if you have a question then to schedule a Zoom call, a convenience that can result in some people being asked for their input much more frequently than others.

Of course, those working in hybrid environments do not need to have any malicious intent to contribute to epistemic injustices. Again, consider a situation in which you and a colleague are able to go back to the office on a full-time basis. You are likely to acquire a lot more information from that colleague who you are able to have quick and easy conversations with than the person working from home whose schedule you need to work around. You might not necessarily think that one of your colleagues is necessarily better than the other, but it’s just easier to talk to the person who’s right over there. What ends up happening, however, is that those who need to work from home more often are gradually going to be left out of the conversation, which will prevent them from being able to contribute in the same way as those working in the office.

These problems are not necessarily insurmountable. Writing in Wired, Sid Sijbrandij, CEO of GitLab, writes that, “Unquestionably sticking to systems and processes that made an office-based model successful will doom any remote model to fail,” and mentions a number of measures that his company has taken to attempt to help remote workers communicate with one another, including “coffee chats” and “all-remote talent shows.” While I cannot in good conscience condone remote talent shows, it is clear that if businesses are going to have concerns of epistemic justice in mind, then making sure that there are more opportunities for there to be open lines of communication, including the possibility for informal conversations with remote workers, will be crucial.

The Black Wall Street Massacre, Contributory Injustice, and HBO’s Watchmen

black and white aerial photograph of Tulsa Race Riot

On October 20th, the latest adaptation of Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore’s ground-breaking 1987 graphic novel Watchmen premiered on HBO; its opening scene featured the Tulsa Race Massacre, potentially “the single worst incident of racial violence in American history,” where thousands of buildings were burned and hundreds of black Oklahomans murdered in the Spring of 1921. Also known as the Black Wall Street Massacre, it was sparked when tensions escalated after a local black shoeshiner was accused of accosting a white elevator operator; because there was talk of an impending lynching, the black community protested, leading to an exchange of gunfire.

For many HBO viewers, the most surprising thing about the scene was not its graphic violence, but the later realization that the Massacre was, indeed, a historical event – an especially bloody episode in American history which, by and large, goes undiscussed in American schools.

Consider now the message that President Donald Trump, embroiled within an impeachment inquiry about multiple cases of corruption and misconduct, tweeted on October 22nd:

“So some day, if a Democrat becomes President and the Republicans win the House, even by a tiny margin, they can impeach the President, without due process or fairness or any legal rights. All Republicans must remember what they are witnessing here – a lynching. But we will WIN!”

Immediately, Trump was criticized for comparing the constitutionally-outlined impeachment process to the lawless brutality of lynching, a form of domestic terrorism almost exclusively used to reinforce racist oppression throughout the country by torturing and murdering black men. For anyone to draw (or defend) such an analogy requires, at best, an embarrassing level of ignorance or insensitivity about the actual history of racial abuse in the United States.

In different ways, both of these cases evidence what Ta-Nehisi Coates has called “patriotism à la carte” – a selective awareness of our national history that highlights certain favorable elements (or, at least, elements favorable to a particular subset of Americans) while quietly ignoring others. To Coates, such an approach to history is dishonest and, when it prevents some groups of Americans from being able to fully understand and engage with their current social situation, oppressive. Rather than cherry-pick the stories which we collectively magnify into cultural icons, Coates argues that an honest treatment of history will include multiple perspectives – even, and especially, if some perspectives emphasize that the U.S.A. (and its heroes) has not always been heroic for everyone: “If Thomas Jefferson’s genius matters, then so does his taking of Sally Hemings’s body. If George Washington crossing the Delaware matters, so must his ruthless pursuit of the runagate Oney Judge.”

Furthermore, both the general ignorance about Black Wall Street and the specific ignorance about the cruelty of lynching demonstrate various forms of what Kristie Dotson, professor of philosophy at Michigan State University, has dubbed “third-order epistemic injustice” or, more simply, “contributory injustice.” In general, epistemic injustice relates to the ethical implications of how society mistreats knowledge claims from various parties. If a woman accuses a man of sexual assault, but her testimony is, as a matter of principle, treated with skepticism, then she may be the victim of first-order epistemic injustice, often called “testimonial injustice,” because her testimony is unjustly discredited. Cases of second-order injustice – also known as hermeneutical injustice – result when a person is not only unable to communicate their experiences, but is prevented from even privately conceptualizing their own experiences, such as in the case of harassment or assault victims prior to the coinage of terms like “sexual harassment,” “date rape,” or “marital rape.”

Contributory, or third-order, epistemic injustice comes about as a matter of what Dotson calls “situated ignorance” which prevents the voices of marginalized groups from contributing to the wider cultural conversation. By “maintaining and utilizing structurally prejudiced hermeneutical resources,” perpetrators of contributory injustice define what “counts” as “real” history; the fact that audience members of HBO’s Watchmen were surprised to learn about the violent mistreatment of the actual residents of Greenwood, Oklahoma may well stem from the systemic “à la carte” approach to America’s racial history that Coates decried. Importantly, those guilty of maintaining dominant perspectives may not consciously realize that they are silencing marginalized groups, but – whether such actions are intentional or not – such silencing remains and, therefore, remains a problem.

And when Donald Trump or others try to dilute the severity of America’s racist past by comparing professional accountability (and potential prosecution for legitimate crimes) to the painful history of the illegal and immoral lynching of innocent people, this also evidences Dotson’s concern to highlight the role that social power plays in maintaining the process of contributory injustice. As she points out, hermeneutical injustice entails that both a speaker and an audience are unable to understand the thing in question; in a case of contributory injustice, the marginalized group can fully conceptualize their own experience, but differential social positions prevent the confused people in power from attending to the less-powerful perspective – it is a lopsided confusion propped up by the ignorance of the powerful.

Interest in philosophical considerations of epistemic injustice, and the wider field of “social epistemology” as a whole, is growing; it remains to be seen just how long it might take for its insights to substantively contribute to the broader public conversation.

The Djap Wurrung Trees, Hermeneutical Injustice, and Australia’s First Nations People

photograph of road construction beginning with trees in distance

As I write this, a tense standoff between authorities and the traditional owners of a sacred Aboriginal women’s site is coming to a head in the state of Victoria, in southeastern Australia. The state government is preparing to bulldoze an area containing more than 260 large eucalyptus trees, some of which are as old as 800 years, that belong to an area sacred to the women of the Djap Wurrung nation: the Indigenous people and traditional owners of this area in western Victoria.

The proposed destruction of the site, to make way for an extension of a stretch of highway that links the two state capitals Melbourne and Adelaide, has led to a protracted battle between traditional owners and authorities, and some of the protesters have been there for over a year. Tent embassy spokeswoman Amanda Mohamet said: “We are the traditional custodians of this part of country, and we have a cultural obligation to be here.” The government insists it has sought and gained permission from traditional owners, but the protesters reject this, arguing that authorities have instead confected a ‘manufactured consent’.

The official reason for this extension is safety; authorities argue that this is necessary after 11 deaths since the beginning of 2013 on the stretch of road due to be upgraded. Protesters have now issued a red alert as fencing and machinery are being moved in. This situation is deeply distressing to the Djap Wurrung people, to the wider Indigenous community and to all Australians who stand in solidarity with them. It must be understood as a continuation and entrenchment of dispossession and colonial violence done to Australia’s First Nations people at the hands of British and European settlers. The history of the colonization, or invasion, of Australia is a history of violence to Aboriginal people and theft of the land to which their physical, ancestral, and spiritual lives are inseparably connected.

When the British colonizers arrived in Australia, a little over two hundred years ago, they encountered a land that had been peopled by its original occupants for over 60,000 years. Just pause for a moment on that number – on that length, and depth of time. The settlers encountered an ancient and complex culture formed from hundreds of different Nations, speaking hundreds of different languages; all with rich and deep religious, totemic, cultural, and ancestral connections to the land – to ‘country’. But, in another way, the settlers did not ‘encounter’ that culture at all. They saw Aboriginal people but they did not ‘see’ them. As Nayuka Gorrie writes of the Djap Wurrung efforts to save their sacred ground:

“The inability to see these sites as worthy of being protected or that they are significant is fundamentally racist. It is white selectivity that deems sacred trees unworthy of protection. This white selectivity spans across all elements of our life.”

This situation highlights an especially deep and entrenched kind of epistemic, hermeneutical injustice. The term ‘epistemic’ refers to knowledge, and the term ‘hermeneutic’ refers to interpretation. Miranda Fricker coined the term ‘epistemic injustice‘ and her original work recognized hermeneutical injustice as one type of epistemic injustice. Epistemic injustice occurs when a person or group of people are wronged specifically in their capacity as knower(s); when they are disadvantaged by being prevented from sharing or accessing knowledge.

Epistemic injustice affects those who are sidelined by others in positions of greater social power – when members of non-dominant groups are prevented from participating in meaning making of ‘shared concepts’. Those experiencing epistemic injustice may not be believed, may not be understood, or their knowledge and experience may be discounted or ignored.

Hermeneutical injustice occurs when an individual or group encounters a blind spot in how their experiences or concepts are understood. This can happen in situations where the individual or group is relegated to a position of relative social powerlessness, from which their experience is not recognized by, or reflected in, the collective conceptual vocabulary of the dominant social group.

Hermeneutical injustice is preceded by hermeneutical marginalization. Non-dominant groups are hermeneutically marginalized when they aren’t able to participate fully in the process of meaning making, so that the dominant group’s shared concepts fail to recognize the experiences of those marginalized groups. This happens when those in power are allowed to define the experience or control the conceptual apparatus. Conceptual gaps then open up in the social fabric, where a marginalized group can’t communicate to the dominant group, and where their experience, ways of understanding it and attempts to communicate it, are not acknowledged. The process whereby a group is hermeneutically marginalized is a spiral in which their communication is frustrated as a result of their marginalization, and then the frustrated communication further entrenches their marginalization.

Many levels of epistemic injustice are, in a multitude of ways, central to the experience of Australia’s First Nations people and hermeneutical marginalization is one of the central features of the colonial mindset; hermeneutical injustice is present at the very roots of colonial attitudes to Aboriginal people’s experiences – historically and contemporarily.

Aboriginal people’s deep cultural knowledge of the land did not register in the European consciousness. That is no mere accident of cultural difference. It has to be understood, historically, as embedded in the intentions with which the European settlers arrived on the continent. They came to take ownership of the land, to acquire and use it for the purpose of their own prosperity, and that intention mediated all their interactions with Aboriginal people.

When the first settlers arrived they saw a vast country ripe for the taking. Their determination to own and exploit the land blinded them to the truth about the Aboriginal people’s relation to the land. The settlers refused to acknowledge, refused even to see, the deep and ancient knowledge structures of the Indigenous cultures. They had no register in which Aboriginal knowledge of the land could be understood.

Consider for instance the type of knowledge known as the Songline, or dreaming track. Songlines are complex maps that record creation stories and histories that navigate vast terrain and map story onto country. They are recorded in songs, stories, ceremonial dance, and artworks. They take in landscape, its features, things people need to know (like where to find water or other local plant or hunting knowledge), as well as history and ancestry, things related to ceremony and other sacred knowledge. This knowledge is not ‘about’ the landscape, it is embedded in it, it is inseparable from it – and so destruction of country is destruction of knowledge. It is a kind of epistemic violence, which is related to, leads to, and sustains actual physical violence.

Fricker discussed the ‘virtue of hermeneutical justice’ whereby sensitivity to the gap in hermeneutical resources might be cultivated to prevent hermeneutical injustices. In Australia that means listening to Aboriginal people’s account of their experience, and learning from them what they know about the vast landscape of the continent.

Indigenous author Bruce Pascoe, in his recent book Dark Emu, has seriously challenged the view, upon which Australian history is based, that the first Australians lived a simple hunter-gatherer lifestyle. His research uses records from the settlers such as letters and diaries reveals a much more complicated Aboriginal economy based on land care, manipulation of landscape by building of dams and wells, planting, irrigating, harvesting, and food storage.

Many of the documents from which this picture of Aboriginal knowledge emerges also reveal the hermeneutical marginalization that Australian history rests on, because the settler accounts are epistemically blind to Aboriginal knowledge about the land, and therefore to the nature and depth of their cultural relationship to it. Many of these documents reveal details of Aboriginal land use while at the same time, perversely, dismissing or underplaying it.

So we could see, in the fight to save the Djap Wurrung trees in western Victoria, an opportunity for redress, and to promote epistemic justice, rather than a clash of interests between traditional owners and road safety concerns.

As Djap Wurrung man Nayuka Gorrie points out,

“The official line given by the Major Roads Project Authority is safety. This framing can be understood as a way to undermine land defenders and position us as against the interests of the rest of the population.”

To treat the issue as though the claims of safety were in some way ‘equivalent’ to, and therefore can be balanced against, sacred relation to country is a form of epistemic injustice through equivocation. The ‘road safety’ defense is a form of hermeneutical marginalization in the way it uses well-healed concepts (like “safety”) that are unmistakably tied to the goals and interests of the dominant group. These concepts effectively erase the very different language of Aboriginal people in their attempts to convey their physical, cultural, and spiritual connection to country. As Sissy Austin explains:

“This is a landscape that forms the basis of Djab Wurrung identity – from the roots of the trees that are more than 800 years old, the rolling hills, the kangaroos, eagles and black cockatoos, to the stories of the stars, the moon and the sun. You cannot have one element of country without the other.”

Before European settlement Aboriginal Australians were astronomers, they had complex maps of the stars represented in constellations which they recorded in rock paintings. They had highly developed systems of agriculture, oral literary traditions, and fine art – yet the settlers’ concepts of ‘civilization’ did not recognize them as civilized. That hermeneutical marginalization and the injustice it perpetuates continues as authorities ignore the pleas of the Djap Wurrung for the preservation of their sacred country.

Could Gender-Blind Casting Limit Epistemic Injustice?

Photograph of Edwin Austin Abbey's painting of a scene from Shakespeare's King Lear

Following on the heels of her 2018 Tony award for her role in the revival of Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women, Glenda Jackson is set to reprise her portrayal of the title role in King Lear when it comes to Broadway next season. Lear’s extreme emotional range has led many to consider the role to be one of Shakespeare’s most difficult characters to portray, but Jackson’s embodiment of the mad king in Deborah Warner’s 2016 production at London’s Old Vic was hailed by audiences and critics alike as an artistic and cultural success. Undoubtedly, Jackson’s talent will once again have an opportunity to shine in New York, but this example of gender-blind casting (Jackson did not play “Queen” Lear) offers an interesting suggestion for addressing a problem within the world of entertainment — one that Miranda Fricker called “hermeneutical marginalization.”

In her 2007 book Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing, Fricker outlined various ways that an individual might be wronged when they face a disadvantage to accessing or sharing knowledge that others can access freely. Some kinds of epistemic injustice are preceded by what Fricker called hermeneutical marginalization, which are particularly evident in the case of marginalized groups, whose reports of mistreatment, for example, might be ignored or minimized by audiences with greater social power. This concept, as explained by Dr. Emily McWilliams on the Examining Ethics podcast, is what happens “when members of non-dominant groups don’t get to fully participate in the process of meaning-making as we develop our shared pool of concepts through which we communicate.”

Many examples of attempts towards this sort of marginalization can be found in wide-spread responses to recent productions of shows like Hamilton, comic books like Thor and Spider-Man, and movies like Star Wars, Ocean’s Eight and the 2016 reboot of Ghostbusters. When John Boyega was named as a primary cast member of the then-unreleased Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens in 2015, white supremacists called for a boycott of the franchise on the grounds that it should be “kept white.” Donald Glover endured similarly racist criticisms after he was proposed as a possible choice to take over the role of Spider-Man in 2012, as has the cast of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s award-winning Broadway show Hamilton for its re-envisioning of the American founders. When Marvel Comics recast the character of Jane Foster as the new Thor in 2014, detractors criticized the move as “politically correct bullsh**,” a complaint also suffered by the rebooted Oceans Eight and Ghostbusters projects. The upcoming season of the BBC’s Doctor Who that will premiere later this year with Jodie Whittaker at the helm of the T.A.R.D.I.S. faced the same criticism. In particular, the 2016 Ghostbusters film withstood an organized campaign of sexist attacks that was specifically designed to damage the movie’s profitability, even before the film was actually released. In each case, the attempt to remove these criticized women and people of color from the meaning-making process of big-budget storytelling means that they have been likewise victimized by Fricker’s hermeneutical marginalization.

And while endeavors like the Time’s Up campaign and the #MeToo movement have offered opportunities to spread awareness and aid to victims of such marginalization, it seems unlikely that gender-bending reboots hold much promise for changing the landscape of American culture — in fact, as Alexandra Petri has argued, they may actually contribute to the problem of “the male experience being taken as a proxy for the human experience.” Instead of intentional gender-bending, perhaps Glenda Jackson’s gender-blind casting may offer an opportunity to provoke a more widespread “mooreeffoc” moment in the minds of an audience.

Coined by Charles Dickens as reported in his biography by G.K. Chesterton, “mooreeffoc” refers to the sign on the windowed door of a coffee room, read backwards from the inside, to indicate the sudden re-appreciation of something previously taken for granted. Much like how someone might at first be confused, then suddenly pleased to realize that they now understand something obvious in a new light (as when realizing that you can, in fact, read an at-first-confusing sign), the mooreeffoc moment comes uncontrollably when one recovers a “freshness of vision” (to quote J.R.R. Tolkien’s description of the effect) about something previously considered trite.

This is what is needed for representation in Hollywood and beyond: not simply more diverse roles and casts (although that is certainly crucial), but the proper appreciation of those casts on the part of the public at large. Though Fricker promoted a “virtue of hermeneutical justice” wherein sensitivity to “some sort of gap in the collective hermeneutical resources” might function to offset or even prevent the harms done by hermeneutical injustices like marginalization, gender-bending casting decisions do not seem to serve such a purpose. Unfortunately, dominant groups — members of which would do well to reconsider their marginalizing attitudes and actions – will likely continue to raise questions (however unfounded) of political intentions and suspicious concerns over subversive messaging surrounding these roles. Indeed, gender-bending productions may currently be too charged to promote reflective considerations that could precipitate a mooreeffoc.

Yet gender-blind casting might bypass such accusations entirely with its firm foundation on simple actorial merit. Although many may not realize it, gender or race-blind casting has led to some of the more memorable roles in cinematic history, such as Morgan Freeman’s portrayal of Red in The Shawshank Redemption and Sigourney Weaver’s depiction of Ellen Ripley in the Alien franchise. Certainly, if diverse representation is to truly become more common in Western entertainment, then even resistant audiences must come to have a freshness of vision about the possibilities for the depiction of fictional characters (and, by extension, individuals in general). Particularly in light of research that indicates the empathy-promoting power of literature and immersive storytelling, proving to suspicious members of dominant social groups that members of marginalized groups perform perfectly well in the same roles might offer the very wedge needed to provoke a mooreeffoc moment. If gender-blind-casting could bring about this effect even if only for a time — therefore offering an alternative pathway to promote a more equitable entertainment industry — then it seems like it would be worth considering more frequently.