Kristie Dotson on Ignorance in Epistemic Violence

I wanted to elaborate (previous article) on the concept of ignorance in epistemic violence discussed by Kristie Dotson in her essay, Tracking Epistemic Violence, Tracking Practices of Silence.

Dotson rightly and importantly claims that some ignorance is indeed necessary for testimonial hearings. One could argue that ignorance always leads to the potential for misery and should then unmistakably be discouraged and shunned.

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And although it is definitely true that ignorance should by no means be encouraged, Dotson argues that it does not have to be presumed evil or as a “harm” (239). Dotson makes a helpful distinction between (1) “pernicious ignorance,” that is that which is destructive and purposeful, and (2) a “benign” ignorance which does not result in any necessary evil. Obvious problems with this view arise which Dotson, in my view successfully, begins to dismantle. Her rebuttals are not exhaustive but they are satisfactory.

She disposes of the critique that all ignorance is harmful by stating that ignorance only becomes harmful if it “actually causes harm” (239). That may seem straightforward but it serves as an important clarification. Ignorance need not be considered dangerous if it does not plant seeds of hatred or harm.

Why should it?

These are all dependent on context, of course, as Dotson clarifies. Some cases of perfectly benign speech could be dangerous in different contexts by the same “epistemic agent” (239). Dotson’s second objection that she predicts can be raised to her thesis is that the concept of epistemic violence can be too broad to be effective in theory. From the consequentialist view it is, thus, not pragmatic enough (239). She relates this point to the epistemic ignorance of a three-year-old in the case of not being able to vote (completely justifiable and beneficial to the collective) versus their ignorance of a fire (very harmful to the child). This objection is less clear to me but it seems as if Dotson’s conclusion is that, in certain circumstances, ignorance is harmful and in others, it is not. It is up to our discretion to discern as to which of these categories epistemic harm falls into.

Dotson’s third objection she raises to herself is the understanding that all cases of silencing, and thus acting actively against epistemic agents, are inevitably harmful. Here Dotson makes distinctions between the continuous practice of silencing and the single instance of silencing, the latter of which is clearly 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 less benign, arguably.

I find these clarifications helpful since they guide us in understanding the inevitability of ignorance in culture. Wherever we look, there is the potential for analyzing why ignorance exists and whether it is harmful or not. Dotson adds to this literature and offers some beneficial guidelines in regulating the damage that can be inflicted on us by not paying enough attention to the epistemic violence that is caused by those that simply do not know.

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Author of “Up in the Air: Christianity, Atheism & the Global Problems of the 21st Century” on AMAZON | Exploring Ethical Living | IG: jakub.ferencik.official

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