InDepth – shortread: Epistemic extortion, between epistemic obligation and political duty

Blas Radi

The growing field of political epistemology has proved fertile for reflecting on how to understand the relationship between epistemic and social positions, raising challenging questions about the intersection of social identities, epistemic norms and structural privilege. In doing so, it has illuminated both social aspects of knowledge and cognitive aspects of society (Broncano, 2020). Along these lines, in this brief essay I wish to contribute to the field by offering the concept of „epistemic extortion“. As I understand it, epistemic extortion takes the form of a dilemma experienced by vulnerabilized groups whenever they are forced to choose between experiencing the harms of epistemic exploitation or the negative consequences of not doing so.

I draw on Nora Berenstain’s concept of “epistemic exploitation” and present a series of precisions to consider the asymmetric relation between marginalized groups and public and private institutions. I am particularly interested in those interactions in which the former are called upon to collaborate, under conditions that sustain and reinforce the asymmetry, with institutional projects that will affect their communities and will be executed with or without their participation. I will focus on trans groups, but epistemic extortion is not exclusive to them.

Forced epistemic work and the right to exit

According to Nora Berenstain, epistemic exploitation is a pervasive phenomenon that takes place “when privileged persons compel marginalized persons to educate them about the nature of their oppression” (2016:569). This unrenounceable pedagogical task is often presented as a step towards justice and truth. However,

It maintains structures of oppression by centering the needs and desires of dominant groups and exploiting the emotional and cognitive labor of members of marginalized groups who are required to do the unpaid and often unacknowledged work of provid­ing information, resources, and evidence of oppression to privileged persons who demand it – and who benefit from those very oppressive systems about which they demand to be educated.

Berenstain, 2016:570

This forced epistemic work is often ineffective: given that the social identities of marginalized people undermine their status as epistemic subjects, they are rarely taken as authority or as peers. Additionally, the efforts they must put into this enterprise imply a very high practical and emotional cost, while it lacks symbolic or material benefits. At the end, the physical and emotional erotion of epistemic exploitation is paid in “years unlived” (Berenstain, 2016: 573). This is true even if marginalized people resist providing their services, because such resistance tends to socially confirm the prejudices that sustain their very condition of marginalization.

Brennan Neal (2018) has pointed out that what is truly problematic about this phenomenon is that the presence and/or actions of privileged people infringe on a marginalized person’s right to exit. Under conditions of power imbalance, such as the ones we are considering, marginalized people are prevented from leaving the epistemic exchange voluntarily and without penalty. Penalization may take explicit and intentional forms, such as a threat of harm, or more subtle forms, such as conveying a sense of intellectual or moral failure.

Neal contends that to overcome this epistemic injustice, which he calls “epistemic entrapment”, privileged people must actively engage in dismantling social injustices. In my view, his proposal may be useful in those cases resulting from mere individual action in which privileged subjects have a cognitive and moral quality such that they are able to identify the problem and prevent it from occurring. That is, in cases where the abandonment of epistemic exchanges would have no consequences for the marginalized individuals, were it not for the privileged subjects establishing them by means of sanctions or social norms and expectations. The concept of epistemic extortion that I propose is intended to cover cases that fall outside this universe. In these cases, structural conditions result in a “catch 22” scenario[1] for marginalized people.

Damn!

Epistemic extortion occurs when members of a vulnerable group face the dilemma of experiencing either the harms of epistemic exploitation or the consequences of not acquiescing, which do not depend on the individual action of privileged subjects. This phenomenon often occurs in interactions between trans activists and scholars – on the one side – and public or private agencies on the other. It usually begins with the demand that the former contribute to the development of a certain institutional initiative whose implementation will affect the trans community at large. Trans activists and scholars are invited to add draining work with no material or symbolic recognition in uneven labor conditions (usually without a contract, as external collaborators), while it is argued that this is in their best interest and that of their community. Which in fact is usually true.

It is often the case that trans activists and intellectuals are experts on trans issues. Not all of them, nor by virtue of their gender identity alone, of course. This does not presupposes a defense of the epistemic privilege of identity, far from it. I do not take for granted that oppressed people, by virtue of being oppressed, are experts on their conditions of oppression and the ways to dismantle them. I am talking about a certain expertise, one that is not acquired with gender transition but with a sustained commitment to these issues and that can be traced in the trajectory of individuals. In some cases, it is necessary and basic knowledge if you want to live as a trans person (knowing what your rights are, for example, or how to enforce them). In others it is specialized knowledge (for example, to develop a research or design a public policy). For example, training health personnel or designing strategies for recording data on individuals that do not assume that sex and gender are the same thing.

Beyond the practical dysfunctions derived from tokenism[2], over the past decades, many trans people often took on the task of resolving the cognitive short-circuits of institutional agents convinced that gender depends on genitalia. This is not an extraordinary experience. Benjamin Singer has referred to it as the “transgender sublime”: an experience in which “the sheer variety of trans bodies and genders overwhelms [epistemic subjects’] cognitive capacity to understand them” (2006: 616). Reorganizing their gender map and its relationships can be too much for institutions, as is evident in their poor (and sometimes ridiculous) performance. This occurs, for instance, when trans users of health services are negatively impacted both because doctors focus too much on their gender identity (to the detriment of the reasons that brought them to seek medical care)[3] and because they do not understand it (and are unable to adequately interpret the case)[4]. Or when policies are developed to produce data that is sensitive to the existence of trans people but is developed as if all people were cis[5].

Dealing with epistemic extortion

Under these conditions, when trans activists and scholars are called upon to collaborate with their expertise in institutional projects aimed at their community, it is not surprising that such projects are a) usually inadequate or detrimental to its target community and b) carried out by people who do not have expertise in the field, but (far from declaring themselves incompetent) will perform the task anyway. That said, even if privileged people were to apply Neal’s remedy, as we shall see immediately, this is still a catch 22. And this is not something that can be stopped even under ideal conditions where officials are perfectly self-transparent, selfless and committed to social justice.

On the one hand, the outcome will affect the people in the community in question, which is why it is in their best interest to intervene. After all, their conditions of existence are at play, so it is in their interest to make that outcome as good as possible. Refraining from intervening entails not opposing any resistance to the development of a potentially pernicious outcome. It could also be argued that it is better to be taken into account than ignored or – as Jugov and Ypi (2019) have contended – that members of oppressed groups have a responsibility to intervene as such.

Consider for instance that a project is being developed for the institutional production of data on trans people whose data collection instruments have categorical errors. If trans people are interested in the existence of such data, they will want to contribute to the design of the collection instruments – which will surely involve training the institutional agents who are in charge of this task. They could even go further back and seek to train the people who must authorize them to provide this training. Let us suppose, moreover, that the project itself puts the confidentiality of trans persons at risk and, therefore, also their safety and physical integrity. Or that it will be used by healthcare companies to increase the fee for trans clients – jeopardizing their chances of accessing healthcare services. This kind of project requires other types of interlocutors, conversations and arguments, the precise definition of objectives, responsibilities, commitments, as well as the elaboration and implementation of monitoring initiatives after the execution of the data collection. In any case, it is a lot of work for trans people to undertake given that it is in their interest that such an initiative is well designed and executed. Failure to do so exposes them to undesirable consequences.

However, and this is the second horn of the dilemma, assuming this responsibility also has negative consequences. Not only because, as Berenstain points out, given the negative prejudices that haunt trans people through all spheres of their lives, it is quite possible that epistemic injustice will occur, and the contributions of people called to be exploited will not be taken. Or because, as Lorde (2007) has emphasized, it keeps the oppressed busy with the master’s concerns (which is also often the case, given that sensitizing the interlocutors and introducing the conceptual framework tend to take most, if not all, of the time in the interactions we are considering). But also, because if in fact trans people are successful and their recommendations are accepted, this maintains the terms of an asymmetrical relationship that feeds on itself.

In the example above, if the collaboration of trans people in data production initiatives had any impact, the outcome could be very good. However, given the conditions of their participation – as external collaborators – recognition for their work would most likely go to the institutional agents that are officially part of the institutions that executed the project, who, in addition to being paid for the work, would accumulate the resulting record and prestige. So, in the best possible scenario, getting actively involved in improving the product in question will feed on epistemic exploitation (Berenstain, 2016) and extractive logics (Grosfoguel, 2016).

The obligation to educate the oppressors or the duty to resist doing so?

The terms of this new trans no-win situation raise challenging questions. For oppressed communities, these are questions related to what negative consequences they are willing (or able) to pay: the costs of reducing harm or the costs of not doing so. For political philosophy – including political epistemology – the questions concern the relationship between the epistemic obligations of the oppressed to educate the oppressors and the political duty to resist doing so.

© Blas Radi

Blas Radi is a public philosopher and a trans activist. His current work focuses on social epistemology. He is currently pursuing his PhD in Philosophy at the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina, through a doctoral scholarship awarded by the National Scientific and Technical Research Council. He is assistant professor at the Department of Philosophy, UBA. He has been an invited lecturer on issues in social epistemology and trans studies at various universities and research institutes in Europe, Asia and the Americas. 

Literature

  • Berenstain, N. (2016). Epistemic Exploitation. Ergo: An Open Access Journal of Philosophy, 3:569-590.
  • Broncano, F. (2020). Conocimiento expropiado: Epistemología política en una democracia radical. Madrid: Akal.
  • Grosfoguel, R. (2016). Del «extractivismo económico» al «extractivismo epistémico» y al «extractivismo ontológico»: una forma destructiva de conocer, ser y estar en el mundo. Tabula Rasa, (24), 123-143.
  • Lorde, A. (2007). The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master’s House. In Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. New York: Crossing Press.
  • Jugov and Ypi. (2019). Structural Injustice, Epistemic Opacity, and the Responsibilities of the Oppressed. Journal of Social Philosophy, 50(1):7-27.
  • Neal, B.   Epistemic Entrapment – The Right of Exit. Thesis, Georgia State University.
  • Payton, N. (2015). Feature: The Dangers of Trans Broken Arm Syndrome. Pink News. July 9.
  • Stroumsa, D., Roberts, E., Kinnear, H., & Harris, L. H. (2019). The Power and Limits of Classification – A 32-Year-Old Man with Abdominal Pain. The New England journal of medicine, 380(20):1885-1888.

[1] A „catch 22“ is a lose-lose situation in which all available action alternatives (including inaction) bring about negative consequences.
[2] Tokenism consists of making small – and superficial – concessions to minority groups to avoid accusations of prejudice and discrimination. This practice is generally executed by individuals or entities that generate a fiction of equality or diversity and give a progressive image of themselves by incorporating a minimum number of minority group members. It is more than a failed attempt at integration: it is a tactic designed to hinder that process of social justice. A classic example is the „inclusive policies“ of public and private agencies that recruit, for example, a disabled, racialized or migrant person without undertaking the necessary challenges or adjustments to challenge existing power dynamics within that same space or taking other fundamental steps to ensure equity. Although people hired as tokens may have the necessary qualities to fill technical positions, they are often hired solely on the basis of their mere identity and on the condition that they do not disrupt or challenge the unjust structures in which they are included. This is how the inclusion of trans people in registration projects and data production results in worrying initiatives that favor private companies and public agencies to access confidential information.
[3] From the most explicit discrimination to what Naith Payton has called „trans broken arm syndrome,“ which refers to the tendency of doctors to assume that every ailment a trans patient presents with is due to their trans status. Payton stresses, „Everything-from mental health problems to, yes, broken arms“ (2015).
[4] As is often the case with the gynecological and reproductive needs of AFAB trans people. A sad example of this, which constitutes a case of malpractice, was discussed in Stroumsa et al., 2019.
[5] It is the case of the National Population, Household and Housing Census, that was carried out recently in Argentina. The data collection instrument adopted a definition of „gender identity“ as a subjective experience and, for the first time ever, included questions that allowed the identification of trans persons. The two-step approach was implemented so the census questionnaire first inquired about the sex assigned sex at birth and then about gender identity. To answer the first question, three options were offered: “woman/female”, “man/male” and “X/none of the above”. To answer the second, a catalog of options was offered: woman, man, trans woman/travesti, trans man, non-binary, other or ignored. Despite this, it included a specific section to inquire about live-born daughters and sons that was explicitly and exclusively intended for „women“. The census questionnaire can be found on the official website of the Argentinian National Institute of Statistics and Census https://www.indec.gob.ar/ftp/cuadros/poblacion/Censo2022_cuestionario_viviendas_particulares.pdf

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