Given who we are, how should we listen to others?

by Grace Boey

ListeningHow should we listen to others? The social act of listening necessarily involves two parties: the listener, and the speaker. In many situations, the answer to the question depends on the comparative standing between the two.

Consider, for instance, how I should listen to my doctor. I ought to place more stock in his medical judgments than my own, since he is a medical expert and I am not. Suppose my doctor tells me that my sore throat has been caused by a virus, which will not be cured by a course of antibiotics. I should trust what he says, even though there may be a slim chance that he is wrong. And I ought to do this even if I suspect that antibiotics might help me, since they have cured a painful case of strep throat in the past.

Yet it is not the case that everyone ought to defer to my doctor’s medical judgments. Consider a senior medical specialist who has much more experience diagnosing painful throats than my doctor. If she concludes that my sore throat is bacterial, and not viral, then she ought to place more stock in her own judgment than his, and advise him to prescribe me a course of antibiotics. So whether or not one ought to defer to my doctor’s medical judgments depends on who they are. In this situation and others like it, the question now becomes: given who we are, how should we listen to others?

The medical case above is uncontroversial, as are similar cases involving other types of expertise like engineering, science, math, and so on. We have no problems recognising that we should listen to experts in these fields, since they have important skills and information that we lack. But there is one type of listening which is, although socially and morally salient, much less often conceived in these terms: listening to others about oppression. So: given who we are, how should we listen to others about oppression?

Oppression: identity and authority

A good amount of controversy exists over whether people of certain identities are more likely to be correct about certain issues than others. Consider, for instance, the question of whether certain abortion policies are unfairly burdensome to women. Some think there is nothing special about being a woman that gives her any authority over whether or not these policies are sexist. At the other extreme, some think that men should never have a say in this debate, which should only be had amongst women. Amongst other things, both sides disagree over whether women’s voices on the sexism of abortion policies carry any more weight than men’s. Who is correct? The answer, of course, may lie somewhere in between. So, to revise the question: is there any difference between how likely it is that a woman's judgment is correct compared to a man's, with respect to the sexism of abortion policies?

Here is another case that highlights the same concern. Consider an ethnically Chinese woman who, despite being a born-and-bred American, receives frequent compliments on her English-speaking skills and questions about ‘where she’s from’. Most days, she grins and bears it. But one day, she finally snaps at a white bartender who greets her by saying, “Where are you from? You speak English really well!” She rolls her eyes, and tells the bartender, “You really shouldn’t say that to me—it’s racist!”, and walks out of the bar. The bartender says to his co-worker, “What’s her problem? I was just trying to be friendly. It’s ridiculous that she thinks that was racist.” Whose judgments about racism in this case are more likely to be correct—the Chinese American woman’s, or the white bartender’s?

Based on what the bartender's co-worker witnesses, there is good reason for him to believe that there was indeed something racially suspect about his colleague's comments. And in general, there is good reason to think that in most cases, marginalised groups are indeed more likely to be correct with respect to judgments about oppressive practices against their own group.

This will be an intuitive proposal to many, but it is good to precisify the reasons why. It is useful, in particular, to think about things in terms of what philosophers call epistemic privilege or epistemic advantages—privilege and advantages with respect to ‘knowing things’. A medical expert has epistemic privilege with respect to the domain of medicine. In a similar way, marginalised groups enjoy certain epistemic advantages which make it easier for them to identify forms of oppression perpetrated against them. In other words, the oppressed are in a better position to know the relevant things about oppression.

The epistemic advantages of being oppressed

Some of these epistemic advantages come in the form of psychological biases, which affect how likely someone is to notice that something is oppressive. For instance, the emotional cost of being wronged brings many instances of oppression, as well as their moral significance, sharply into focus. Someone is more likely to notice when they are being badly treated than when they are not. Moreover, people are more likely to notice things that are happening to them. This means that for any public instance of oppression, targets are much more likely than mere bystanders to notice the event, and be in tune with its oppressive nature.

Other obvious cases of epistemic advantage for the oppressed—or epistemic disadvantage for the privileged—are cases where members of privileged groups are literally physically excluded from witnessing active oppression. Take, for instance, the phenomenon of catcalling—which is often, amongst other things, an exercise of a man’s power over the woman being catcalled. Since this most frequently occurs when women are walking alone, the ‘good guys’ are mostly barred from witnessing this phenomenon. Hence it is difficult for good guys to grasp full psychological, practical, and moral import of the phenomenon. As a result, many non-catcalling men find it difficult to know why women can’t simply just ‘shrug it off’.

Another type of epistemic advantage that members of oppressed groups enjoy is superior knowledge of new problems that emerge when small harms accumulate. Catcalling, for instance, results in the emergent harm of women having to structure their physical routines around places where they expect to be harassed. And to return to the case of the Chinese American woman and the bartender—one instance of being complimented on one’s English-speaking skills can be laughed off as a minor misunderstanding. But not only has the Chinese American woman been subject to such ‘compliments’ all her life, she has also been subject to a host of other seemingly-trivial but implicitly racialised interpersonal encounters, which are common to the East Asian American experience—such as being greeted in Korean and Japanese on the streets, being overlooked by her white peers in school, being exoticised by non-Asian men, and so on. It is only when one has been subject to a constant string of such experiences that the larger emergent harm of profound racial alienation from one’s birth country sets in. Not only is the full import of racial alienation difficult for others to see, it is also difficult for her to communicate.

The way social networks cluster also confer powerful and synergetic epistemic advantages upon members of marginalised groups. Social networks in America tend to be homogeneous with respect to many socio-demographic characteristics—the biggest factor being race and ethnicity. Amongst other things, this gives members of the group ample opportunity to witness and hear about forms of oppression they have been lucky enough to avoid.

These epistemic advantages enjoyed by marginalised groups are simultaneously epistemic disadvantages for members of privileged groups. These epistemic barriers are surmountable to some degree. They do, however, take a considerable amount of time and energy to overcome. There is also a relative limit to how much one can learn from books, testimony, and even immersion in oppressed communities. In contrast, the epistemic advantages enjoyed by members of marginalised groups are almost impossible to avoid. Motivational roadblocks in place also serve to deepen the asymmetry between oppressed and privileged groups. It is, after all, in the interest of the privileged to remain blind to oppression that sustains their privilege. On the other hand, it is in the interest of the oppressed to work towards bettering the lives of themselves and their loved ones.

Weighing reasons to trust

All of this is not to say that members of marginalised group will always be correct with respect to judgments about oppression. Of course, members of marginalised groups are often wrong. Disagreement between group members show this much. Also, the fact that someone is oppressed does not by any means guarantee that she will recognise it. Cases of internalised sexism or racism make this clear. Yet it is far from clear that that this is sufficient to negate the effects of the epistemic advantages discussed above on the marginalised group as a whole, or that we cannot use methods to systematically weigh reasons for and against trusting someone's judgment.

How should we go about weighing such reasons? A number of good things may legitimately undermine our confidence in someone's judgment. This includes them having been consistently proven wrong in the past about such matters, definitive evidence that they are lying in this situation, disagreement by a very large number of others who can be legitimately trusted on the type of issue in question, strong evidence that their judgment might be clouded in some relevant way, and so on.

But there are a number of reasons which people often illegitimately count against the judgments of the marginalised. The fact that they are ‘being emotional’ is not always a good reason to think that they are wrong. After all, it is natural for one to respond to oppression with expressions of emotion. Moreover, emotions such as outrage and humiliation are often instrumental in helping identify something as being oppressive. The fact that one might have a self-serving interest to identify something as oppressive is also not, in itself, a good reason to think they are incorrect. After all, identifying and fixing oppression is naturally in the self-interest of people who are oppressed (and on the flip side – ignoring oppression is often in the interest of privileged listeners). It is also important to note that weighing reasons for and against trusting judgments is a prime opportunity for implicit bias against marginalised groups to slip in. Given this, one must be wary even if one is able to generate explicit rationalisations for doubting their judgments.

Given who we are, how should we listen to others about oppression?

There are, of course, many qualifications and nuances to the discussion above. But the main takeaway from all of this is an answer to our question: given who we are, how should we listen to others about oppression? If we are lucky enough to be privileged, then the answer is this: closely, carefully, and with the right amount of epistemic humility.