In this piece, I aim to set out a rough idea on the politics of epistemic injustice. Or, in English: I want to explore the role of knowledge and truth in our current political situation, examining American politics as an example of how knowledge is weaponized to amplifying the oligarchic few while silencing the suppressed many, and what the consequences of such weaponization are.
A small digression to begin: long a pet project of mine, this exploration gained new fuel after Milo came, saw, did not speak, yet apparently conquered. This was the event after which I decided that Undocumental would be more than a personal project; that it must become an interdisciplinary, intersectional, and international forum driven by many contributors, all of whom are illegalized.
Though there are many nuanced takes on free speech in light of Milo Yiannopoulos (See here, here, and here)–and some really shitty ones (see here)–I find it important to continue discussing the epistemic environment that produces the furor, especially in light of the Trump Administration.
I want to focus on the twisted rationalization inherent in the idea that free speech is something deserving of uncritical protection. This view assumes that speech is just the act, the utterance, and not constitutive of or a produced by the power relations in which such discourse takes place. Speech reflects power, and the fact of speech necessarily presupposes a certain position in the social sphere.
Or maybe this rationalization is not so innocuous: my view is that far-right groups have a keen sense of the power relations present in political discourse, and the role such power dynamics play in silencing marginalized views. And maybe–to critique my previous work–the problem is not one of the epistemic Wild West, but that of an epistemic wilderness. Mobilizing a kind of anti-politics and anti-expertise, positioning itself in various places in political discourse as neutral and objective, the form of knowledge, rather than its content, becomes weaponized in silencing illegalized people. And this weaponization of knowledge’s form is what I title mob epistemology.
As a term, mob epistemology aims to expose how people are pressured into adopting certain views toward the form of knowledge, i.e. that appeals to knowledge and expertise take a certain form in the context of political discourse. Though this draws from the social psychological concept of mob mentality, which posits that a group is more likely to certain behaviors that an individual would not do, I argue that this concept captures a distinct phenomenon (even though I may be merely gesturing at an idea and not explaining it yet).
As an example, Donald Trump has mobilized the value of news media and their ostensible objectivity to denigrate those very outlets as “fake news”. Thus, the news media is not only false in content, but news media is the enemy of the American people, thus being insidious in form. Given the United States’ position as the global superpower, the movement for maintaining a free press suffers greatly, and the far-right movement is emboldened to assume political office. As this example shows, mob epistemology can shed light on how truth becomes a tool for politicians in the political discursive sphere.
I hope to more incisively argue that mob epistemology manipulates juridical understandings of speech’s role in political discourse, much to the detriment of the marginalized. This manipulation has manifested most clearly in the conflation of rejecting certain forms of speech (such as hate speech) with censorship of speech. But there is another, larger conceptual error at play here. It can be broken down into three parts: that all people participate in political speech, that all speech is equally situated, and that, in the equal sharing of ideas, hateful speech will give way to just speech. This mistaken idea has dangerous effects: institutions saying no to hateful speech and students protesting hateful speech not only receive blowback from the usual suspects, but from the liberals who claim that only by fighting for the right of hate speech to proliferate can we protect marginalized speech.
To prevent this article from being a dissertation prospectus (though I don’t think I would mind such a development), I will stop here. Nevertheless, analyses of discourse along these lines should be more publicly available, and I hope this site and the pieces that come through here will provide that.