Hermeneutical & Epistemic Injustices in “Unbelievable” (Netflix)
In this blog post, I will analyze the hermeneutical and epistemic injustices the protagonist of the series Unbelievable, Marie, faces with the help of the philosophical works of Miranda Fricker, Rebecca Kukla, and Kristie Dotson.
I will first turn to Fricker’s definition of hermeneutical injustice which describes when an individual’s potential for understanding is tampered with because of the experiential restrictions that are imposed on the individual.
Secondly, I will discuss Kukla’s definition of performance in speech acts and compare it to Marie’s testimony. Then I will look at epistemic injustice, as described by Dotson, which is related to discrimination concerning how knowledge is interpreted by a listener.
In the opening scene of Unbelievable, we find a shaken up young girl, Marie, a victim of rape, being consoled by her mother (2019). The consoling ends with an abrupt knock on the door with the mother’s exclamation that “help” has arrived. It is, thus, ironic how little help the police are to the victim throughout the episode. We can sense the hermeneutical injustice Marie is about to face by the indignance in the tone of the police officer, Curran, when addressing her. Marie faces a hermeneutical injustice because she is not able to properly understand what has happened to her. As viewers, we can see that she has been raped and her understanding of the events is being tampered with because of the lack of trust shown by the police officers.
Fricker: Hermeneutical Injustice
In Hermeneutical Injustice, Fricker claims that hermeneutical marginalization always occurs because of this social coercion (153). She is repeatedly told that she is wasting the time of the police officers, is dealt with impatiently by them, does not feel supported by her family, and is blamed by other victims of sexual abuse for fabricating her stories. Because of this social coercion, Marie does not feel comfortable enough to share the details of her rape, which slowly makes her reconsider whether her memory is accurate enough to be shared. She is suffocated by her poor memory of the incident which is then reinforced by the doubt in everyone’s tone of voice when asking her about the rape.
However, the injustice does not end there. Marie is not given the right to understand what had happened to her but is also not able to relay the information to the detectives because of the constraints on the performance of her speech.
Kukla: Speech Acts & Epistemic Injustice
In Performative Force, Convention, and Discursive Justice, Kukla helps explain why Marie finds herself crippled by her speech acts. It is not solely because of Marie’s poor vocabulary or lack of charisma but because of her gender. Kukla explores how gender affects speech in pragmatic ways, particularly in how speech “enhance[s] existing social disadvantages” (440). Marie’s delivery is distorted because of her hierarchical disadvantage to the police and social disadvantage as a young girl. Marie’s speech is received in a way that she does intend for. For a speech act to have a significant impact on the listener, Kukla argues, it has to be recognized in a “relational space” and within the rules of what she calls the “discursive game” (448). Marie, however, does not yet exist within a relational space. Severely disadvantaged members of marginalized groups, Kukla notes, do not primarily speak to advance in the game, but rather to get access to it in the first place (448).
Kukla names these speech acts, “entreaties” (448). It is often the case that women believe they are already included in the game until they realize that their speech is not being accepted in the way they intend for. Marie is not allowed to understand that she is not trusted by the police, peers, or her family, showcasing the hermeneutical injustice she is situated in. Marie’s speech acts are not considered accurate because of the lack of performative power they have. Instead, her testimony is considered credulous. Marie, thus, finds herself in a cycle between not understanding what is happening to her due to belonging in a disadvantaged group which results in a further disadvantage in the performance of her speech acts.
Why is Marie Silenced?
We can compare Marie’s social disadvantage and the corresponding lack of reception she receives to the case of Susan Brownmiller, mentioned in Fricker’s essay, Brownmiller struggled with depression most of her life and did not realize that her sadness and loneliness were not her fault. It was only upon entering a support group of women, that she realized that her sadness was correlating with the “real” isolation she felt (149). Before meeting this group, she thought that her depression must be the result of something intrinsically wrong with her. Afterward, she became aware that post-natal depression is common and completely natural which helped her gain peace of mind and “self-understanding” (149).
In comparison, Marie is placed in a group of doubters that distrust her testimony and publicly shame her for retrieving it when the police scare her into believing that she fabricated her story.
Dotson: Methods of Silencing
Marie is silenced because she does not have an existing relational space in which she can speak the truth. In conjunction, Dotson’s essay, Tracking Epistemic Violence, Tracking Practices of Silence, analyzes how members of marginalized groups, especially women and minorities, are not given the epistemic rights they deserve by this method of silencing and “delineate[s]” between particular instances of silencing (237).
Silencing is the act of not providing the epistemic agent the ability to communicate with the speaker’s audience, which to Dotson is the most essential component of a “successful linguistic exchange,” borrowing from Jennifer Hornsby (237). Hornsby says that to successfully participate in “reciprocal” communication, the audience must: (1) listen and comprehend the words of the speaker, and (2) receive the words of the speaker in the way they were originally meant to be understood (237).
The success of the speaker, then, depends on the epistemic understanding of the audience. In relation, Dotson claims that the extent to which the speaker is not being engaged by the audience is the extent to which the injustice is being committed.
It is difficult to see whether an epistemic injustice was unavoidable in this circumstance. Dotson claims that some ignorance can not be avoided in testimonial hearings (238). For Dotson, harm does not follow from ignorance necessarily, nor does ignorance have to be presumed evil or harmful (239). Dotson, thus, makes a helpful distinction between (1) “pernicious ignorance,” which is destructive and purposeful, and (2) a “benign” ignorance, which does not result in any necessary evil (239). Dotson further makes distinctions between the single instance of silencing and the continuous practice of silencing, the latter of which is more damaging (241).
There is a difference, thus, between a single instance of silencing and the continuous practice of silencing, the latter of which is more damaging (241). That is mainly because the single act can occur because of predictable or unpredictable means (241). If they occur because of unpredictable means, then they are arguably less benign. If they occur because of predictable means, then they may result in repetitive injustice. Dotson states that the latter would require us to either (1) educate the epistemic agent, or (2) confront the agent about their lack of understanding on the relative topic. These clarifications are useful in interpreting the active silencing of Marie. She is experiencing a benign ignorance yet it results in her psychological harm because it is continuous.
How to Deal With Ignorance?
If ignorance is inevitable, as Dotson claims, and, at times, benign, then perhaps we should not doubt it as extremely as if it was intentionally malicious. Dotson quotes Lorraine Code in claiming that “[knowers are] at once limited and enabled by the specificalities of their locations” (248). If this is, in fact, true, we should consider whether the interrogators were performing an injustice or whether they were simply acting out of innocent ignorance. We can contrast the behavior of the detectives with the example Dotson uses of Cassandra Byers Harvin. Harvin, the “early-50s-looking” white woman, as Dotson describes her, found it questionable that raising a black child in America would be different from raising a white child in America.
If we do grant this anonymous white woman the fact that she was raised without epistemic access to the injustices that people of color, especially African-American citizens, face in America, we would have to have sympathy even for this microaggression. However, we do not think racism is excusable no matter where it is allocated or for whatever reason the person may have it. Ignorance, then, should not be excused because of the “specificalities” of location (248). It should instead be met with the ability to listen and confront the prejudices of the speaker.
In conclusion, the lack of reciprocal communication the police have with Marie can be exemplified by the interrogative process of the police officers, notably by how Marie is verbally coerced into accepting that she was not raped. As is mentioned above, the police methodologically manipulate and distort the memory of the victim by questioning whether her story is consistent with her previous testimonies. It is once even posed to Marie that every moment the police officers waste with her, they could instead be using productively in stopping crime out in the real world with real cases of injustice.
It is, thus, unsurprising that the protagonist doubts herself and the reliability of her memory. There are, of course, different conditions that should be met in accepting claims from victims, such as physical evidence, but the most productive means of achieving epistemic justice is to listen carefully and with care for the speaker. In guaranteeing the victim the certainty that they are being listened to, we can prevent countless pointless misery, to say the least.
In this blog post, I have analyzed the hermeneutical and epistemic injustices Marie faces in Unbelievable with the analyses of Fricker, Kukla, and Dotson. I have looked at how Fricker addresses the social coercion a disadvantaged member of society faces by not being given the right to understand the injustice.
Then, I looked at speech acts and how their performance does not solely depend on the speaker but also on the listener and how Marie is not listened to in the way she hopes for.
Finally, I analyzed Dotson’s important differentiation between methods of silencing and considered whether the ignorance of the police officers is pernicious and harmful, or simply benign. For future cases of injustice, it is important to listen to the victims in the way they hope to guarantee a more equal and just society.
Fricker, Miranda. “Hermeneutical Injustice” from Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.
Dotson, Kristie. “Tracking Epistemic Violence, Tracking Practices of Silencing.” Hypatia, Vol. 26. 2 Spring 2011.
Kukla, Rebecca. “Performative Force, Convention, and Discursive Injustice.” Hypatia Vol 29.2 Spring 2014.
Unbelievable. Directed by Susannah Grant, Ayelet Waldman, Michael Chabon, performances by Merritt Wever, Netflix, 2019.
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