Epistemic Injustices: the dark side of academic freedom

Eusebius McKaiser. File picture: Jason Boud

Eusebius McKaiser. File picture: Jason Boud

Published Jun 2, 2016


This is the prepared text of the 2016 DCS Oosthuizen Academic Freedom Memorial Lecture that was delivered by Eusebius Mckaiser at the Rhodes University on 30 May 2016.

  Recalling dead white men with sincere gratitude

Many dead white men play an incredibly important role in my life. I can, without needing to waste one precious second on a superfluous grammatical pause, cite countless examples of these dead white men, and recall their continued presence in my life.

In the first few weeks of my first year of studies here at Rhodes University in 1997, I was introduced to the ideas of Plato, even if that introduction was mediated by a secondary text, Seven Theories of Human Nature, written by another white man, Leslie Stevenson, and taught to me by one of the most important not-dead white men I had met at Rhodes University, Francis Williamson, my very first philosophy lecturer.

Later, with the shortcuts of undergraduate philosophy studies behind me, I had to read and engage some of the primary writings of Plato, taught to me by another not-dead white man, Marius Vermaak, who was easily the most important and influential philosophy teacher I have had - ever - with all due respect to all the amazing white men in my philosophical life that I had encountered here at Rhodes University, and, later, during health-challenging winters of discontent, at that strange place called Oxford University.

Studying The Republic in my honours year of philosophy here at Rhodes challenged my intuitive commitment to a basic conception of democracy, and instilled in me an early conviction - and one that I only revised much later when I was less childish than a drunk student dancing on the tables at The Vic - that not all epistemic agents are to be trusted, let alone to be regarded as equally capable of being the leaders of a democratic society that could govern us in a manner conducive to serving the interests of all citizens, equally and maximally.

These insights about how best to arrange a society that takes due care of everyone's interests did not seem to my 20-year-old self as inegalitarian, but rather to flow sensibly from some pretty convincing aspects of Plato's epistemology which cannot neatly be divorced from his conception of a just society.

Even some eccentric ideas about education and how to raise children seemed to me, back then, to be unanswerable truths gifted to us by Plato.

And Plato is but one of many dead white men I revered, and who shaped me intellectually, academically, and - I have to confess despite no longer being Catholic - influenced who I became, who I am. I could easily discuss, with childlike excitement, lessons learnt from the works of Kant, Rousseau, Hegel, Marx, Freud, Mill, Sartre and many others.

Such was my reverence for these dead white men that I would slide over objectionable facts about their personal lives, like Kant's unforgiving racism or the aesthetic assault of Sartre's existentialism-inducing face.

And this is only a small citation of the dead white men I am grateful to have encountered. I have not even told you about all the not-dead white men, or recently dead, who have also shaped my intellectual biography, and person, deeply.

Meet some of them. At Graeme College Boys High, in 1993 or 1994, I was introduced to philosophy by my history teacher, Mr Duncan Grant, who handed me a copy of Thomas Nagel's What Does It All Mean?. I remember taking that book home, and sitting at the back of my grandparents' house in Middle Terrace on “the other side” of Grahamstown, mesmerised by the description of what philosophy is, and what a philosopher does, at the beginning of What Does It All Mean?. I did not know back then that I might end up formally studying philosophy at university but the connection, with hindsight of course, seems most obvious. A white man had opened up a world of philosophy to me that would influence me for the rest of my life.

I can, still without pausing, randomly pick out the influences of white men on me ever since. I mentioned Francis Williamson and Marius Vermaak, briefly. To this day, even though I suspect he sometimes thinks I have forgotten him (because I do not always pop in to say “howzit” with the same regularity as I used to when I first returned home to Grahamstown), hardly a week goes by when I do not silently appreciate the teachings of Marius.

It is only a minor exaggeration to say that, in some ways, my entire career - or multiple public careers as broadcaster, writer, occasional lecturer, and political analyst - piggybacks on my argumentation skill. And my understanding of argumentation theory (or informal logic) and argumentation practice was instilled in me through the lectures of Marius Vermaak, not just in a brilliant, legendary first year course he taught back then on argument, but also a special Master's module he had put together especially for me, and my fellow philosophical traveller (and one of my most gifted classmates and friends), Walter Brown.

Walter was annoyingly talented despite being from East London. He and I still cherish a memory of being thrown out of the Rhodes University library for giggling like little children while reading the mad aphorisms of another dead white man, Nietzsche. The librarian's aversion to our happiness did not stop us from getting distinctions for our Nietzsche exam. If you're a student anxious about your upcoming exams, you may want to go to the library, giggle while reading and hope to be thrown out too.

And that is not even to mention my exposure to the pedagogical skill of other white men here at Rhodes - Tom Martin, Ward Jones, Gordon Lyon, Jeremy Allcock, Tony Fluxman - and the many white men who did brief teaching stints here at Rhodes while visiting from far away corners of the world like epistemologist Tom Stoneham. I might even have had a crush on him.

When white men are so ubiquitous in your life, the law of large numbers surely dictates that you will fall for one eventually.

These contemporary philosophers introduced me also to some of my favourite contemporary philosophical texts and thinkers, like John Rawls, Daniel Dennett, Bernard Williams (whose mere existence was a reason I had wanted to go to Oxford but who passed away before I had met him), Galen Strawson and his dad P.F. Strawson, John McDowell, and so many others.

This exposure to, and influence of, white men, dead and alive, continued at Oxford University - from John Broome to Ralph Wedgwood, and even the college supervisor appointed by my college to look after me “pastorally”, Professor William Beinardt, a South African historian.

This pattern was equally true of my second major at Rhodes University, legal theory. In my three years of studying legal theory, I had only met white men as my lecturers and tutors, and was mostly assigned textbooks written by white men. The exceptions, to which I return later, were Francisco Khoza (who taught me constitutional law) and our famous Professor Mqeke (who taught me law of contract). The response to the arrival in the law faculty of Professor Mqeke is instructive in service of the main thoughts I want to explore on the other side of this biographical recall.

Where are the women who have shaped my intellectual and academic development? Where are the black people who have shaped my intellectual and academic development? Where are the citizens of the Global South who have shaped my intellectual and academic development? Their familiar absence in stories of my schooling and university education is simultaneously an epistemic and moral injustice.


Epistemic injustices

Miranda Fricker is right to warn us in Epistemic Injustice to not conceptualise “injustice” in wholly negative terms, as the absence of justice. That might seem intuitively and logically correct but it obscures the fullest possible account of the nature of injustices in our world.

A negative conception of injustice could lead us, inadvertently, to spend all our intellectual and activist energies, if we're not careful or strategic about how we allocate our limited time, on theorising a just ideal. And ideal theories are, of course, important, but a close examination of reality is as important since we need to get a grip on the myriad ways in which injustice is experienced, not in an imagined world, but in our world. And ideal theories of justice cannot by themselves constitute a proper or complete empirical account of injustice in the actual world.

Yet, despite this being so, but of course unsurprisingly, we find much more of the focus in academic philosophy - political philosophy in particular - to be on ideal theory rather than on making sense of the world we actually inhabit. The reason is obvious: talking about injustices, and acknowledging them, is jarring. And so the institutional gatekeepers of knowledge production would far rather prioritise normative thought over empiricism. That is, at the very least, the case in the Anglo-American tradition of analytic philosophy in which I was raised.

And maybe that is why I have not yet grown up fully. Rehearsing fine-grained distinctions provide more delight to many students of philosophy than acting on the world to move it closer to a just ideal.

Perhaps the most uncontroversial instances of injustice are to be found in discussions on law and morality. The forcible removable of tens of thousands of South Africans from their land at the hands of colonial and apartheid regimes were acts of injustice. The daily rape of South African women by us men are the most vicious acts of injustice we commit and bear witness to in our cruel society. And in between these kinds of injustice there exists a tear-inducing list of immoral behaviour that constitute daily injustices.

What all acts of injustices have in common is that they are actions which infringe upon the inherent self-worth of victims. Different injustices also have different kinds of effect on victims and survivors, from eroding the autonomy of a person to obliterating such autonomy with deadly action.

Just as societies can approximate ideals of justice with varying degrees of success, so too can individuals, institutions and societies commit a range of injustices with varying degrees of callousness, and differing levels and types of violence.

Sadly, the human capacity for injustice is so impressive that we can inflict harm in non-physical ways that are not easily observable. A tempting mistake, and one that some activists make, is to focus primarily - and some even wholly so - on intentional and observable behaviour, which is why the biggest volume of public discussion about injustices tend to track what is deliberately done to us and less often exposes the silent effects of habitual ways of being unjust.

One consequence of this mistake is that the full range of injustices that exist in the world is not always articulated publicly and so sometimes falls between the discursive cracks. But maybe these omissions provide some much needed temporary psychic breaks for victims of injustice - albeit not by design.

One category of injustices that has been under the radar in public discussions about injustices in South Africa, perhaps until now, is epistemic injustices. These are injustices that pertain to knowledge production. How we define these injustices differ between philosophers, and some initially focused fairly narrowly on injustices that undermine the credibility - the believability - of an epistemic agent. I think that is a good start but too narrow whereas the preferable concept of “knowledge production” has the advantage of picking out the broader range of injustices that can occur within epistemic communities. Believability is only one dimension.

There is a lot at stake here that we need to attend to with desperate urgency.


Epistemic erasure, moral violence

Academics have the freedom to decide what to research, write about and teach. The fewer the constraints on the choices they make, the freer they are. The most feared intrusions on academic freedom, traditionally, are abusive exercises of state and corporate power. (Although, as a former philosophy colleague of mine, Luke Buckland usefully pointed out to me, some habits within academic communities can also constitute pernicious pressure on academic freedom such as the power, for example, of a head of department or senior staff member to influence or even stipulate the research, writing and teaching choices of a new or junior member of staff.)

Since our universities are public institutions, and institutions facing horrific funding crises, the potential to use money to erode academic freedom for nefarious ends is very real, and such pressure is rightly instinctively resisted by the South African academy.

The motivation behind this resistance to external influence is presumably a belief that a decision about what to research, write about or teach lacks a certain kind of academic integrity if the decision procedure about what to research, write about or teach was influenced by external considerations - as opposed to being decisions that reflect the wholly subjective preferences of the academic.

I want to challenge this kind of view as one that is far from axiomatic, and irresponsibly silent on the potential effects of how academic freedom is (not) exercised.

It seems that the fear of the abuse of state power and corporate power - which are good fears to have ordinarily - can become an excuse to simply be left alone in your solipsist academic world. But you cannot be an actor in society, especially one situated inside a public institution, and yet want to be immune to scrutiny for the choices you make and the choices you do not make.

Unless academics imagine themselves to be amoral, they have to be open to social critique for the choices they make and do not make. Which brings me to the moral violence of epistemic erasure that is inflicted on society daily in the South African academy under the guise of academic freedom.

There is a reason why white men, dead and not-dead, have had a disproportionate influence not just on my life but on most of your lives. Because white men are centred in the academy, despite this being a university at the tip of Africa with an overwhelming majority of black people and half the population not identifying as male.

Yet if I look at who has taught me at Rhodes University, and who and what I was taught at Rhodes University, and if I knew nothing else about the society in which Rhodes University is located, perhaps as a visiting alien of average intelligence with some curiosity, I would surely conclude that Rhodes University is located in Europe.

This is true of almost every tertiary institution in this country, and it is true of the former Model-C and private schools in this country. These odd institutional identities are, in the first instance, the result of the epistemic erasure of black thought.

But it is not just a racial injustice. There is also a gender injustice here. Women, too, are rendered invisible by the curricular choices of departmental heads in our schooling system and the uncritical exercise of academic freedom in our universities.

The exercise of academic freedom has consequences that academics must take responsibility for. If, for fifty years, you have been in an English literature department in this country that does not teach African literature or, when it does so, it quickly establishes an “African literature” department as an off-shoot from that which is mainstream and non-negotiable teaching material for a “serious” literature graduate to master, then you clearly are committing epistemic violence. Invisibilising the works and thoughts of blacks and women are forms of violence.

A couple of months ago, I wrote an opinion piece about domination. In it, I argued that racism is not the only form of domination in society. Other forms of domination, such as homophobia, patriarchy, classism, etc, also exist. This isn't rocket science, of course, unless you are a race reductionist who does not want to talk about injustices other than racialised ones.

One critic suggested that my article, although correct in its central thesis, is itself an example of epistemic erasure. The article's focus on the intersection of different forms of domination, they argued, is a point that had been well-established by many black women thinkers for the longest time. But, due to unearned male privilege, the point travels well now that a man has written about it. Why, asked the critic, did I erase the thoughts and existence of black women from my article while ironically trying to skewer those who pay inadequate attention to intersectionality? I needed to practise what I preach.

What this critic didn't pay attention to is the extent of epistemic erasure in society and its effects on so many of us in the public space, myself included. My ideas about domination, I am afraid, do not come from Kimberlé Crenshaw. The concept of domination was illuminated for me by a white, putatively heterosexual man, one Tony Fluxman, in a postgraduate seminar on domination, and a dead white man, Hegel, whose work on the master-slave dialectic secretly underpinned the column in question.

If only my sin was to have been guilty of working off “crib notes” from black women. I was, in fact, working of memorised and internalised “crib notes” from the works of white men that are centred in the academy.

As a 37-year-old fart with privileged access to near-endless literary and other resources, I am not in a position to hide behind the choices of my teachers and lecturers. I can no longer blame Marius Vermaak or Tony Fluxman. I now have to take responsibility for my own ignorance, research questions, reading choices, and which thinkers I in turn expose my own readers and broadcast audiences to, given the earned and unearned privileges I now enjoy in abundance.

But isn't it instructively tragic that that critic gave me more credit than I deserved? What he forgot is that black women are so invisible in the academy that he in fact ascribed to me an academic education I did not have at Rhodes University nor at Oxford University.

And here is the crux of the matter: can academics really use a fear of pernicious state power and pernicious corporate power to run away from accounting to society for the ways in which they exercise academic freedom? Methinks not.

At the very least, academics cannot pretend that they can evade criticism for being epistemically violent, and therefore legitimating injustice in our society, just on account of wanting to be left alone when deciding what to research, write about and teach.

If my teachers and lecturers had exercised their academic freedoms with a greater sense of social responsibility about what it means for an academic to be aware of and responsive to the context within which they exist, I would surely be more familiar today with black thought and the thoughts of women than I am with the thoughts of dead European men. Sadly, the South African academy remains a colonial outpost.

These are not just epistemic injustices that scar black people and women as epistemic agents. They are, simultaneously, moral injustices because the consequences of epistemic violence reaches deep into the fabric of society.

Take our fight against anti-black racism. How can a racist even begin to recognise the full humanity of a black person if they are bombarded by pedagogical messaging that black people are less capable of knowledge production than white people are? This is why there was so much resistance from law students when Prof Mqeke, an academic of international repute, joined the law faculty.

Because black men are not visible at Rhodes as academics (let alone as heads of department), Prof Mqeke was assumed to be unqualified and incompetent, an assumption confirmed for many students, including, tragically, by some black students, because he “spoke with an accent”. The number of students who complained that they “could not understand” Prof Mqeke, was astounding.

This brutalising of Professor Mqeke's person is a moral injustice, one whose foundation rested on a history of black thought being erased from the academy. Epistemic injustices are not self-contained injustices. They are partly constitutive of an immoral society.

It should not surprise that we do not easily believe women when they tell us they have been raped if we are not in the habit of trusting women as epistemic agents. It should not be surprising that many of us do not easily believe black people's reports of experiences of racism since black people are not regarded as as believable in their testimonies in spaces like the academy as white men are.

This means that groups like “women” and “black people” suffer multiple forms of epistemic injustices, routinely: As an individual member of these groups you are less believable than white men, typically; and as a group you are structurally assaulted in terms of the skewed social epistemologies that consequently are produced in our society and especially within the academy under the uncritical guise of academic freedom.

Eliminating injustices should therefore not be restricted to finding ways of reducing material inequality, poverty and the more familiar tropes of violence. We should also aim to reduce injustices in the production of knowledge.

It is little wonder that a majority of South Africans do not feel at home in the academy, a reality that is true also of Rhodes University, as documented in an edited volume of work on this issue, Being At Home, compiled by Pedro Tabensky and Sally Matthews. It is a beautiful and disturbing chronicle of the phenomenology of exclusion. The South African university reproduces hegemonic identities instead of eliminating hegemony, and yet many of us defensively pretend that our alma maters are exemplars of freedom.


Concluding thoughts

I want to end this lecture with three concluding sets of thoughts. First, there is some resistance to the use of the term “violence” in the phrase “epistemic violence”. The fear is that there is a kind of “concept creep” that we should guard against. In other words, if we expand the definition of violence too much, it will become meaninglessly broad. Or that is the worry.

This is an exaggerated fear. It is a fear, in my view, that is motivated by false analytic hygiene. It is not a matter of semantics whether the erasure of some bodies from the academy are a form of violence. This is a serious and substantive disagreement (and, by the way, something about which we can genuinely and reasonably disagree). But those who refer to “epistemic violence” as real violence aren't making a mere linguistic move in social discourse. We are insisting that there are real harms that are experienced when epistemic injustices are committed. Psychological harms, for example, are not less serious because no physical bruises manifest when you experience them. The same, surely, is true of the compromised dignity of excluded groups who are systemically discriminated against on the basis of their group membership.

An important gain in expanding the definition of violence in the sort of way I have done in this lecture is that we might have a better chance of recognising epistemic injustices as genuine injustices. Why should the term “violence” be restricted to the spilling of blood when the social and psychological scars of epistemic erasure run so deep?

Second, some might argue that they accept that academics must have regard for their social context but that this does not justify prescriptions for what they should research, write about and teach. This is a neat response but one that misses the central point about the effects of how you exercise your academic freedom. It is one thing to say 'I have regard for my social context' and another to demonstrate that you do.

Jonathan Shapiro, popular South African cartoonist, routinely tells us that he has regard for his social context and yet the number of missteps in his work are increasing, and some might claim that these have become habitual, even. How do you have regard for a history of black people depicted as subhuman and yet still choose to publish a cartoon depicting a black man as a monkey (and use as one of your defences the fact that a second black person you had drawn in the same cartoon is depicted as human)? The proof - of due regard for social context - must be in the proverbial pudding.

If an academic demonstrated that their choices are responsive to the social context in which they exist, then we are all on the same page, as it were. Too often, however, many of us pretend to get, and to accept, that we are accountable for how our actions impact society but we still continue to behave as if it is business as usual. Don't tell us you are socially responsible. Show us that you are.

There is, at any rate, something incoherent about the idea of a kind of freedom that can be exercised without any influence from social reality. When an academic decides to teach J.M. Coetzee but not to teach Mandla Langa, that is not a decision that is an expression of some kind of “ultimate freedom”. “Ultimate freedom”, as Galen Strawson explains in his wonderfully pithy paper Mental Ballistics, is elusive once we strip away facts beyond our choosing that influence who we are and what we do.

I am of course not suggesting that our behaviour is random or never ours in any meaningful sense. The opposite: Just as we take responsibility for who we are and what we do despite external influences on our identity, so too should academics not exaggerate what it means to think through, and even be influenced by, social duties. We can debate the content of such duties, including whether there are any, but it does not seem to me that the mere fact that one might feel the pull of social pressures when deciding what to research, write about or teach would mean that one is thereby trampling on academic freedom. Academic freedom, like all other kinds of freedom, is exercised contextually. And only a hermit, surely, would have no regard for social context when deciding what to do.

I am not convinced, consequently, that the proper exercise of academic freedom requires the complete absence of any social pressures. Some pressures might be more pernicious than others. Some pressures might be more justified than others also. And our academic integrity can remain intact even as we decide, responsibly, to recognise the pedagogical duties that come with certain social realities.

Last, as a proud alumnus of Rhodes University, I have observed from a distance how some conversations about eliminating injustices on campus have played out recently. I am not just immensely proud of, but also positively jealous, of the courage of mostly black women who are leading by example with their activism aimed at making this campus one that is more inclusive, a safe space for all members of the Rhodes community, and holding management and academic staff accountable.

Sadly, many of us are dismayed that legal action has been used to engage students and staff members. Let me say that it is of course not true that all protesters are averse to perpetuating injustices in their own behaviour. Some student activists, in my view, are recalcitrant, want to be regarded as epistemically virtuous with unique access to indubitable truths about the world, and so they are susceptible to epistemic and moral criticism too.

But the bulk of power in this institution lies with management. It cannot be right that we are soon, as the Rhodes community, to be in the news again and this time for a court case in which battle lines are drawn between management and staff in relation to an interim interdict. To paraphrase, for the last time, another white man who has shaped me, Prof Midgely the former Dean of the Law Faculty here at Rhodes, our legal system is inherently adversarial. It declares winners and losers. It does not aim to restore relationships or to develop relationships anew that never were properly constituted in the first place.

Management has a pedagogical, epistemic and moral imperative to abandon the adversarial court action still in play, as soon as possible, and role-model to other universities in the country how to be in conversation with fellow adults.

I do not regret the influence of white men in my life. But I am ashamed of the absence of women and black men in my Rhodes University journey. Such is the dark side of academic freedom. It is perhaps time we replace the proliferation of annual academic freedom lectures with annual academic justice lectures.

Thank You

* Eusebius McKaiser is the best-selling author of A Bantu In My Bathroom and Could I Vote DA? A Voter’s Dilemma. His new book - Run, Racist, Run: Journeys Into The Heart Of Racism - is now available nationwide, and online through Amazon.

** The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Independent Media.

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