Views from above and epistemic injustice

As some of you may know, I have started a Science and Disability reading group. I thought it might be useful, too, to record some of what goes on in a reading group, so that people who couldn’t make it or people who don’t know what to expect can see what goes on.

This session, we discussed Views from Above by Mel Baggs.

Almost immediately, it started really well, with people talking about how a “view from above” contrasts with the narrowness in life experiences that disabled people are implicitly assumed to have in “view from above” narratives and how this links into inspiration porn – the fetishisation of disabled people who succeed (or do perfectly ordinary things) because, apparently, we’re supposed to spend our lives wallowing in misery. Or something. We also had really good conversations about how a supposedly neutral (but actually quite patronising) “view from above” is a little like the oft-weaponised view from nowhere, a way of knowing that presents itself as more objective than really is and claims to demonstrate the “objective” inferiority of disabled people.

The conversation turned to epistemic injustice – when someone’s knowledge is treated as less valid because of who they are, or because the audience has no reference points for meaningfully understanding that knowledge. This is particularly relevant when talking about disability or chronic illness: disabled and chronically ill folks are more likely to be spoken over than abled people, whether our disabilities and illness are recognised as actually existing or not. Epistemic injustice is a philosophical concept and we were very fortunate to have a philosopher working on epistemic injustice in this session with us!

Epistemic injustice can also lead to epistemic violence – damaging someone’s ability to speak and be heard. We used this term in a slightly different context, talking about the violence done to disabled and chronically ill people by epistemic injustice: for example, the PACE trials which ended up leaving a number of people with ME worse off than they were before, or the physical and mental deterioration that disabled people experience when trying to demonstrate to the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) that they need benefits, or the physical and mental deterioration due to being forced into work.

I’m realistic about what a group like this can do: a small gathering of highly educated people sitting in a room is not automatically going to undo institutional epistemic injustice. Sorry.

What a group like this can do is demonstrate that there are ways of knowing beyond what make it into an academic journal, get people thinking new things, get people agitating for real epistemic justice and get people thinking about what that might mean.

It was a really productive session. I’m glad we had it – and looking forward to the next time.

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