Assertiveness and testimonial injustice

In my first blog post, I talked about one aspect of the phenomenon identified by philosopher Miranda Fricker as epistemic injustice – namely, hermeneutic injustice. In this post (originally published at my personal blog) I want to talk about the other form that epistemic injustice can take – testimonial injustice, and how this might be perpetuated.

My thoughts on this issue were prompted by an exchange with a friend on Twitter. She was uncomfortable with the themes in a television programme she had watched, and tweeted her concerns. Out of a desire not to appear overly aggressive or confrontational, she preceded her thoughts with a disclaimer along the lines of: “now maybe it’s just me being oversensitive, but…”. A dissenter immediately replied, calling her view stupid, and using that disclaimer against her: “you said it yourself; you’re oversensitive”.

This led to my friend feeling silenced and not taken seriously; her attempts to explain her reasons for objecting to the themes of said tv show were ignored, as she was dismissed as stupid and oversensitive. But crucially, she blamed herself for having been treated in this dismissive way. She thought she had brought it on herself for expressing her opinions in an apologetic, self-effacing manner. By preceding her thoughts with the caveat “maybe it’s just me”, she had invited rude and aggressive responses along the lines of “yes, it’s just you, idiot”.

This got me thinking about my own behaviour, because I do just this sort of thing all the time. Especially in philosophy seminars. When I need further clarification of a point, I will often begin: “sorry, I didn’t quite understand, can you explain point X a bit more for me?” Or “I’m sorry, perhaps you addressed this point and I missed it”. Often this is genuinely done from lack of confidence in my own capacities – I frequently worry that I’m not as smart as the other people in the room, and hence that I don’t know, or don’t understand, something they do. But I also do this at other times. Even when I’m reasonably confident that the question I’m asking isn’t a stupid one, or the comment I’m offering is valuable and interesting, I still frequently preface my contribution with some kind of apologetic, self-effacing caveat.

When discussing my tendency to do this with a friend and colleague, he suggested – like my friend on twitter seemed to be suggesting about herself – that this is something I ought to work hard at eradicating from my speech. Doing this, he said, is to put myself in a position of weakness and inferiority from the outset. I am encouraging others to dismiss my opinions as mistaken. By presenting my thoughts in such a hesitant and apologetic way, I am inviting others to regard what I am saying as probably false, and not worth taking seriously.

Now, I suspect that this is a tendency we are more likely to see from women than by men. (This is mere speculation based on my own experience, and anecdotes of others. I’m sure there must be some empirical data on the subject, but I’m not familiar with it, so I’m just throwing the hypothesis out there for now.) And further, I’m sure many women are familiar with the experience of struggling to be taken seriously, just because we are women. Feminist philosopher Miranda Fricker labels this phenomenon ‘testimonial injustice’: when your credibility as a source of knowledge is deflated due to prejudices held by the hearer. Again, throwing empirical hypotheses around without any attempt to verify them, I have a feeling that this is a form of injustice that women are often subject to. Women are frequently – even if only subconsciously – regarded as less credible sources of knowledge and less competent reasoners than men. This is especially likely to occur in contexts that have historically been dominated by men, or continue to be populated by disproportionate numbers of men. And academic philosophy is certainly one of those contexts.

So then the worry is that when I make these self-effacing, timid sounding preambles to my arguments, I am not only undermining my own status as a bearer of knowledge and encouraging my listeners not to take me seriously. I am also reinforcing these prejudices in the minds of my audience. Given that I am a woman, they may have already been predisposed to deflate my credibility. When I express myself in an apologetic, tentative manner, I thereby present them with more evidence to confirm their biases, both with respect to myself, and women speakers in general. The prejudice is perpetuated, and my listeners are more inclined to dismiss my contributions, and further, those of other women. So perhaps I owe it not only to myself, but also to other women, to try to eradicate these displays of reticence from my speech, and be more confident and assertive. Perhaps I ought to be much bolder, more direct, perhaps even aggressive, in the way so many other people (men?) seem to be when engaging in debate. It’s especially tempting to think like this in the context of the philosophy seminar. These can be highly combative, adversarial environments, and it seems like if I want to keep up, be taken seriously and make a name for myself in this profession, I’m going to have to get over my timidity and get more assertive, quickly.

Perhaps. But I’m not so sure. There are a couple of reasons why I resist that conclusion, even if it might result in me and my arguments being taken more seriously.

First, as I noted above, this self-effacement is not always caused by lack of self-confidence or reticence on my part. Sometimes it is. But often, it’s simply a function of the way I relate to people. I’m just not an especially aggressive or confrontational person (or at least, I don’t think I am, anyway). Being forceful and assertive – especially when expressing disagreement or challenging someone – is something that I find deeply uncomfortable. Maybe this is because I’m not naturally oozing with self-confidence, but I would like to believe it’s at least partly because I’m the kind of person who likes to facilitate social relations, to encourage consensus and harmony, to prevent conflict and people feeling uncomfortable or under attack. Basically, I’m a nice person with a healthy capacity for empathy, so I don’t enjoy seeing people being vigorously criticised or attacked, even when I can plainly see that their arguments are mistaken. And I think that’s a good thing. These are positive aspects of my personality, and I don’t really want to have to change, to become more confrontational and aggressive, in order to be respected as a bearer of knowledge.

Now, the defender of the philosophy-seminar-as-gladiatorial-arena model may respond that it’s all well and good to be nice, but the purpose of a seminar is not for everyone to get along and feel happy and cosy – the purpose is to arrive at the truth. And on the way to the truth, there’s going to be a bit of rough and tumble; a certain amount of hostility and belligerence towards clearly false claims or poor arguments is inevitable. The same can be said of political argument – the purpose is not to respect everyone’s viewpoints equally, no matter how clearly irrational. Rather, the purpose is to work out what is the right thing for us to do. If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the argumentative kitchen.

But, to me at least – see the caveat there? – this seems too quickly to assume that these goals are not compatible: that if we are engaged in the pursuit of truth, we can’t possibly be expected to be nice to one another. And this brings me to my second reason to resist modifying my behaviour: the above response puts the blame for their exclusion squarely on the shoulders of the timid and tentative, rather than considering that perhaps the environment in which we are debating is unnecessarily adversarial and aggressive. It puts the onus for change on those who are less assertive and confident, rather than asking those who are more combative to consider altering their behaviour.

When this happens, everybody loses. Some of the timid people might manage to ‘toughen up’ and get more confrontational, but many more will simply retreat from debate, unable to handle the discomfort. Many shy, hesitant people will stop expressing their opinions altogether, for fear of public embarrassment. And the loss of those voices from the debate isn’t going to help us arrive at the truth.

So I don’t accept that my friend invited the insulting and dismissive response to her cogent and articulate tweets. And I don’t accept that I must get louder, more aggressive and more combative if I want to be taken seriously.


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  1. Dyami Brawley-Hayes

    I fully support your judgement here. The worst part about philosophy discussions, be it seminar classes or @ my school’s philosophy club, is when it degrades into a barking match among men.

    Also, there was some research done this year that suggested the most confident, loud, assertive, etc. will be more respected REGARDLESS of their truth value…

    Depending on whom I’m discussing with, and how much I know about their position, I’ll sometimes respond in a manner similar to you, and sometimes be more reactionary. As a skeptic, the latter method is a more dishonest one, and one I try to avoid (but passions get the best at times, which is acceptable).

    I think striving to hear the quieter voices can help fill a void in one’s intellectual journey. This whole mentality of late, that being extroverted is superior to introverted (similar to our topic, but not identical per se), is completely baseless yet being shoved down people’s throats; from gradeschool to gradschool to the workplace. It’s the unfortunate yet ironic result of buying their own bias.

  2. “…so I don’t enjoy seeing people being vigorously criticised or attacked, even when I can plainly see that their arguments are mistaken.”

    …and I don’t really want to have to change, to become more confrontational and aggressive, in order to be respected as a bearer of knowledge.”

    Saying this as an extremely non-confident and non-assertive person in general, I do think there is a way to challenge someone’s “mistaken arguments” that is not aggresive but assertive, as you say. That is the distinction that is important. It is possible to be assertive, but courteous. It is much more difficult to be aggressive and courteous.

    When I was in school, I had a philosophy professor who hated when we used phrases like “In my opinion” or “well that’s just me.” He took those as a kind of caveat as well. Obviously, those are our opinions. These phrases only lead the hearers to get the sense that we ourselves believe we are wrong.

    Also, I completely agree that the onus is on the hearers to change their tendencies. Sadly, that is not how the world works though. And that is something that the timid need to deal with.

  3. My dislike of overly aggressive and ultra-self-confident styles of argumentation is so pronounced that I tend to disbelieve those who practice them and to credit those who are hesitant or self-doubting.

    So with someone like me, expressing hesitation about one’s opinions pays off.

    I don’t know what percentage of people have this bias that I have against aggressive and self-confident styles of arguing.

    By the way, I rarely challenge aggressive arguers, but that does not mean that I accept their arguments. I tend to avoid them, because I don’t like to be around them at all.

  4. The knockdown argument, the ‘folding body press and victory roll’ of freestyle intellectual wrestling is beloved of the young male of the species and if you wonder why more women aren’t involved in academic philosophy this might be the reason. I see it as the equivalent of the ‘good manly tackle’ in football that induces temporary concussion. Forget about the tentative and the modest, hit early and hit hard.

    The other annoying thing is the ‘I can’t follow you’ meaning that if a person of my superior intellect and perspicuity is puzzled you are clearly being incoherent. The ‘I suspect’ dope trope is another one, academic archness writ large. There’s a lot of that about.

    I would say, stick to your guns, don’t be put off by gamesmanship but also be specific about precisely where you don’t follow. It’s not a question of putting anyone on the ‘back foot’ (as it were). Express uncertainty as ‘this problem hasn’t been settled definitively’ rather than ‘I’m not sure’, topical not personal is important. Is truth impersonal or must it be realized personally? That’s a debatable point.

  5. My advice is do not try to change. To do so would necessitate putting on an act and you would not be yourself and this in itself could be inhibiting. I do not think our paths have ever crossed, but from what I know you appear to be highly successful in your chosen career and I am sure are quite capable of holding your own in debate in a civilised manner.
    Often we do not agree with what others say but as civilised people we endeavour to be courteous in our questions and replies. I remember as a philosophy undergraduate, I was introduced to the Principle of Charity and Humanity. This entailed amongst other things an attempt to suspend our own beliefs, and seek a sympathetic understanding of the new idea or ideas.  We assume for the moment the new ideas are true even though our initial reaction is to disagree; we seek to tolerate ambiguity for the larger aim of understanding ideas which might prove useful and helpful. This is best done in a non-abusive and civilised manner. I am not so naive as to think this is always the case, however other people’s bad behaviour is no excuse for bad behaviour generally. A pompous overbearing berating school masterly attitude with constant reference to one’s own erudition and the determination to give no quarter in argument and directing this to another professional person publicly, is intolerable. I have witnessed this kind of behaviour myself on more than one occasion.
    I do not do Twitter myself, but from what I hear of it I am not impressed by what goes on there. However I do know that to call someone stupid and over sensitive is an abomination, which says volumes about the writer none of which is attractive. If one thinks someone is being over sensitive there is surely a civilised way of suggesting this, with appropriate inoffensive examples to support the case, and the proviso the we all differ in what is offensive and what is not, and all entitled to our own opinions.

  6. When I reflect upon it, in my personal experience, most people are not convinced by intellectual bullies, although they rarely challenge them.

    Intellectual bullies tend to get their own way, not because people are convinced by them, but because very few people want to engage in an endless aggressive discussion.

    By the way, the popularity of the TV show Columbo (for those old enough to remember it) was based on his apparent intellectual modesty and hestitating manner (“I’m not a learned expert like you are and I’m probably completely wrong, but I notice…..) in the face of arrogant and pretentious highly educated villains. That says something about how lots of ordinary people view intellectual arrogance.

  7. I have done this sort of self-undermining all of my life and for a long time regretted it. But then it occurred to me, those who actually take advantage of this are not themselves too bright. There are two major types of self-effacement: 1)maudlin, even attention seeking, which is destructive and boring and in this case corrective criticism should be appreciated:2) genuine recognition that one may not be completely right, or even partially right, or the recognition that one’s opinion even though correct may be objectionable to some because of their particular socialization or mental/physical condition, sentiments etc. That’s called tact and open-mindedness and if some take advantage of it they betray their own stupidity, so let them deal with it. A good argument doesn’t need to be pounded down the throat and is not jeopardized by a tentative approach – in my opinion – which may not be shared by all.

  8. The caveats can certainly be appropriate in some contexts. e.g., the Pyrrhonians prefaced everything they said with expressions of humility like, “It seems to me that…”, and they are one of the few groups of ancient philosophers who we still talk about today. But assuming we are not Pyrrhonians, it would be better to think of appropriateness as contingent upon the pragmatics of speech. And the pragmatics of speech involves two things: context and confidence.

    (1) Confidence. In cases where you do not have warranted confidence in what you want to say, then caveats are always rationally appropriate. If you get called out on it, then there’s no trouble.

    (2) Context. If you have warranted confidence in the thing you’re about to express, you have to think about how much and in what manner you trust your audience. (Suppose that trust means ‘a risk-laden assumption of being in a common cognitive environment’.) There are two extremes. If you mistrust your audience, then there’s nothing to rationally gain from any engagement whatsoever, and so nothing is rationally appropriate. If you have complete trust in your audience, then even a vice like false modesty can be rationally appropriate.

    Most situations are somewhere in-between these poles. So in order to gauge the risk of what to say, you must start to ask yourself questions like this:
    (1) If you tell the truth as you see it, will your audience be able to handle it without effectively losing their shit?
    (2) Is your audience going to misrepresent you, either intentionally (through malice) or unintentionally (through lack of discipline)?
    (3) Do you think you and your audience have a common set of rules on how to have a productive conversation?
    (4) Do you and your audience have any common points of reference (say, access to relevant authorities) which might help you to establish and reinforce those conversation rules?
    (5) Do you, in general, think your audience is worthy of consideration, and that they treat you as being worthy of consideration?

    The more positive answers you arrive at to (1-5), the more you can legitimately say that you trust your audience.

    So, bringing theory to practice, I have to ask: why, and in what manner, does your colleague trust their audience on Twitter? I don’t have enough experience with Twitter to be able to answer the pragmatic questions (1-5) above. But my impression has been that Twitter is a combined gossip factory, PR dump, and dialogical spittoon. So on a purely instinctual level, I would not risk false modesty in that context.

  9. Thanks, Ben (BLS Nelson).

    That’s a helpful set of guidelines.

  10. Excellent post and excellent comments. Allow me to add myself to those who support you not changing. The emotional thrust of saying ‘I’m sorry but’ is interpreted in excellent discussions as ‘I respect you and your argument is wrong in this way’. People who use your respect of them as a emotional wedge to disrespect aren’t interested in a real discussion anyway.
    ‘I’m sorry but’ is a problem if your purpose is winning. If your purpose is excellent discussion-injecting respect as often as possible is the way to go.

  11. We all differ, but some of us are not impressed by people who discuss highly controversial or finely nuanced issues without ever using expressions like “I think” or “it looks to me as if…” or “here’s one way we could look at it”, or the like. With many of the sorts of issues we discuss in philosophy, progress is incremental and uncertain, if it takes place at all. Often a point will depend on some judgment or intuition that is going to be difficult to defend to people who don’t share it. If you want to persuade people, you may need to cajole them along one small step at a time. As long as it’s not so extreme as to seem like an affectation or to slow things right down, a certain ongoing acknowledging of this is actually impressive. Well, at least to me.

    People who make very confident statements about murky, difficult, issues are likely to appear ignorant, naive, hectoring, or self-deluded. As a result they won’t be taken as seriously (by some of us) as people who show an awareness of the difficulties.

    E.g., when someone makes a bold, unqualified claim in discussion on my blog (or here at TP), with no evident awareness of all the controversial assumptions they are making, I tend to write them off as not to be taken very seriously.

    It may be true that people with a more straightforward asertiveness will get their way in some situations where listeners don’t want to know that what is under discussion is murky and difficult – e.g. it might be best to say things very positively, without caveats, in a political speech. Political audiences probably want to be led to think that the answers are straightforward and the vision is clear.

    In some other situations, such as in pay negotiations, a certain lack of hesitancy and even outright aggressiveness may help people get their way precisely because it makes them unpleasant to deal with. As was referred to upthread, others may give them what they want partly to cut transactions short. Thus, a preparedness to seem unpleasant might be an advantage in, say, your annual performance review, and that fact may, indeed, tend to advantage men over women, though of course some individual men are relatively modest and self-effacing and some individual women can be quite prepared to seem unpleasant in the way we’re discussing.

    But engagement in philosophical discussion is very different from delivering a political speech or taking part in a performance review. Philosophers know very well (and philosophy students need to learn) how murky the issues are. Someone who seems unaware of this and makes a lot of confident seeming pronouncements may well make a bad impression. I’ll certainly get my back up (and tend to write people off) if I think an interlocutor in discussion of a difficult issue is essentially making a political speech at me or acting unpleasantly to get their way.

  12. One question might be to ask “What is the purpose of academic discussion of philosophy?”

    As you yourself point out, dealing with highly nuanced issues might be better done with the time and space a written academic paper or even a book might afford.

    It seems unreasonable to suggest that a person’s verbal reasoning match up to the reasoning they might express through a paper.

    This suggests to me that academic debates on philosophy have several purposes other than developing well-reasoned arguments.

    A positive purpose might be to stimulate thinking, through innovative ideas and interesting debate, and to help people discover the points in their arguments that require further research and thinking.

    A negative purpose might be to permit the kind of masculinist posturing and self-promotion you describe.

    If the negative environment is persisting, one option is to find a different group to debate and discuss with, finding strength and solidarity in each other, another is to propose a discussion on the purpose and ground rules of the debate itself.

  13. I love those diagnostic questions, BS Nelson. They will change my life. I don’t worry about being too tentative, but I think that I often inadvertently say things that will make people “effectively lose their shit.” I have always thought that so long as what’s being said is genuinely truth-seeking, it will be welcome — especially so if it’s truth-seeking at the level of fundamental assumptions. But that’s actually totally false empirically. I love your list!

  14. Sorry, should have been BLS. :-)

  15. Rgroff, “They will change my life” — wow, what a compliment! Glad it helped!

  16. I am not especially good at thinking on my feet. I do not know if this ability can be acquired. I have seen the odd professional philosopher temporarily stumped by a comment or question, but with great ingenuity, and speed of thought, somehow defuse the situation. Politicians are also good at this. The point is I think, not to loose face. I remember being trained as an instructor in the Army we were advised never bluff your way; if you do not know, or are not sure say so, and undertake to find out and clarify the situation at a later date. The points given by Ben Nelson are excellent advice, but additionally for me I would need to spend some time trying to predict in the light of what audience I am to confront, what unforeseen circumstance may occur, in so far as questions , comments and attitudes are concerned. I guess Ben’s points cover all of this but the concern of being initially full of confidence then suddenly finding myself completely stumped by a question or retort, is something bothersome for me, and I speak from experience in that connection.

  17. Out of a desire not to appear overly aggressive or confrontational, she preceded her thoughts with a disclaimer along the lines of: “now maybe it’s just me being oversensitive, but…”.

    I thought that sort of disclaiming was a normal thing to do, and something that usually serves as a way to save face in case one has misunderstood things. Indeed, in my view, judging from reports of what the dissenter said, he/she came off looking like a fool. Unless the dissenter offered an actual argument as to why this friend was oversensitive, all s/he offered was content-free abuse.

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