Anderson on epistemology and public protest


Best wishes to the protesters on the streets today.

Some relevant thoughts from The Imperative of Integration by Elizabeth Anderson:

The epistemic powers of democratic practices are best understood in light of three features: diversity, communication, and feedback. Consider first diversity. Public problems and policies have asymmetric effects on different parts of the population. Those most familiar with these effects tend to be those most affected by them. This entails that knowledge relevant to the articulation and solution of public problems is asymmetrically distributed. Citizens are therefore epistemically diverse. To understand and solve problems of public interest requires that information held by diverse citizens from different walks of life be brought to the attention of decision makers—to voters at large, their representatives, and other government officials.

In democratic theory, public communication of information relevant to articulating and solving public problems is often called “deliberation.” That term may unduly narrow our conception of democratic communication to the kinds of relatively sober talk that take place in a congressional hearing or around a negotiating table. Such discussions are essential to democratic inquiry. Often, however, bringing matters to the attention of the public requires communicating with loud voices, in large numbers, with theater, drama, and symbolism. It may require disrupting the normal routines of citizens so that they sit up and listen. This is why the right to mass public assemblies and demonstrations is such a critical feature of democracies.

Restricting communication to quiet rooms governed by norms of subdued and polite conversation can be a means the powerful use to suppress the communication of grievances. Consider the difficulties blacks encountered in North Carolina. White elites in North Carolina prided themselves in upholding a kinder, gentler style of white supremacy than in the Deep South. They saw the unequal race relations they enforced as amicable, grounded in norms of civility. But they rigged the rules of civility to block any polite way for blacks to express their legitimate demands. They characterized blacks who demanded desegregation as rude, unruly, and irresponsible. They selected, as purported spokesmen for the black community, “responsible” blacks whose economic dependence on white employers made them reluctant to challenge segregation. “Credible” blacks had to express their claims in such mild, indirect, and apologetic terms that whites could represent their own neglect of black interests as an accommodation of black claims. Civility provided excuses for endless stonewalling. Time and again, North Carolina’s activists had to resort to sit-ins, strikes, and demonstrations to force white elites to pay attention to their demands.

The necessity of disruptive communication is closely connected to the epistemic consequences of segregation. When advantaged groups are able to segregate themselves from the disadvantaged, they lose personal contact with the problems of the disadvantaged. They become ignorant. Enclosed in secure enclaves, insulated from the problems their segregative practices impose on others, they become complacent and insular: those people’s problems are not ours. Disruptive demonstrations are needed to break through these walls of complacency, insularity, and ignorance. They prevent the advantaged from continuing their everyday routines. They make “those” people’s problems everyone’s problems. Only so will the advantaged sit up and listen, and thereby learn from those from whom they have closed themselves off.

[from pages 98-98; endnote numbers removed]


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