Published by the Faculty of Business, Government and Law, University of Canberra


Research and Stories through a Gendered Lens

Listening to those who’ve been let down by language

Oct 13, 2023 | Commentary, Gender, Racism, Cultural politics, Justice, Language, Feature

Written by Nick Willis

The following article is a condensed version of a research paper delivered at the ANU Gender Institute symposium on ‘Understanding Coercive Control’ that explored coercive control from multiple inter-disciplinary perspectives.

We don’t always have the words to describe our experiences.  When that happens, we’re often stuck in a lonely and painful place.  Miranda Fricker argues that, sometimes, getting stuck in that place is an injustice, a ‘hermeneutical injustice’.  The term is a mouthful, but we’ll get into what it means below.  First, here’s an example.

According to Fricker, before feminists coined the term ‘sexual harassment’ in the 70s, women often couldn’t understand or talk about their experiences of sexual harassment.  Here’s Susan Brownmiller on one such woman, Carmita Wood:

“When the claims investigator asked why she had left her job after eight years, Wood was at a loss to describe the hateful episodes.  She was ashamed and embarrassed.  Upon prodding – the blank on the form needed to be filled in – she answered that her reasons had been personal.  Her claim for unemployment benefits was denied.”

More recently, marginalized communities have created terms for diverse experiences (think ‘gender fluid’, ‘structural racism’, and ‘neurodiverse’).  Before these terms existed, gaps in our shared language left many folks facing the same kind of isolation and frustration that women faced before coinage of the expression ‘sexual harassment’.  They suffered hermeneutical injustices.

The word ‘hermeneutical’ means ‘relating to interpretation’.  A hermeneutical injustice is an injustice that occurs whenever a gap in shared interpretive resources prevents us from interpreting our experiences or sharing our interpretation with others.  For example, Wood couldn’t understand her experience of sexual harassment, nor tell the claims investigator about it, because her community had no expression to name those experiences.

Here is a useful metaphor.  The tools we use to think or communicate don’t appear out of thin air.  We use tools inherited from our community – terms and concepts we borrow from a kind of neighbourhood tool-shed. For many of us, the neighbourhood tool-shed has everything we need.  But for some folks, the neighbourhood tool-shed just doesn’t have the right tools.

For example, before the 70s, the neighbourhood tool-shed had no expression for sexual harassment.  (Of course, there is not just one neighbourhood tool-shed.  Norah Berenstain’s forceful critique of Fricker highlights the resources that African American women developed to talk about sexual harassment – they had their own tool-shed, long ignored by white feminists.)

When our tool-shed has gaps like this, we’re left in a tricky spot.  We often don’t know that the tool-shed is the problem – we might instead decide we’re just not cut out for the workplace.  A victim of hermeneutical injustice is harmed in a variety of ways.  It’s painful, it can lead to self-blame, and it blocks the material support of friends and institutions.

But there is one type of harm at the core of hermeneutical injustice.  The victim is harmed as a knower: they can know fewer things about their own experiences and cannot share their knowledge with others.  This is why hermeneutical injustice is often referred to as an epistemic injustice – the wrong that occurs here is a distinctly epistemic one.

The technical term for the gap in our shared resources is ‘hermeneutical marginalization’.  According to Fricker, Hermeneutical marginalization occurs when some social group cannot participate equally forming shared resources.  For example, women were (and are) blocked from full participation in the language we use to talk about workplace relations.  As a result, we lacked a term for an experience shared by many women – ‘sexual harassment’.

So, hermeneutical marginalization refers to the situation where there’s a gap in our shared resources – where there’s a tool missing from our neighbourhood tool-shed.  Hermeneutical injustice is an effect of hermeneutical marginalization – because the tool-shed is missing a few tools, some people cannot understand or communicate their experiences.

When I tell friends about my work on hermeneutical injustice, some are relieved.  Now they can name the frustration they’ve felt when describing an experience unique to their social group.

Other friends are less enthusiastic.  They say something like, “I’m not using the ‘my community’s tools’.  I can think for myself!”

All my friends are right in different ways.  On the one hand, the concept ‘hermeneutical injustice’ names something incredibly important – a kind of wrong that occurs when our community’s language lets us down and we’re left confused and inarticulate.  On the other hand, the picture of hermeneutical injustice we get from Fricker seems to ignore individuals’ agency.  Fortunately, philosophers have thought through similar worries.

On the account of ‘hermeneutical injustice’ we have so far, the neighbourhood tool-sheds are static – it is difficult to change which tools they hold.  Suppose a woman talks about an experience of sexual harassment shortly after the expression ‘sexual harassment’ is coined.  She is lucky to come from a community that uses the expression ‘sexual harassment’.  The person she is speaking to, her hearer, is less fortunate.  He’s never heard the expression before.  When the speaker says “I was sexually harassed”, he doesn’t understand what was said.

On one interpretation of this case, the hearer’s neighbourhood tool-shed has no term ‘sexual harassment’, so he’s powerless to understand what was said.  It’s also not his fault that he doesn’t understand.  This interpretation leaves out individual agency.  In conversation, we can make up new tools for our tool-shed, or borrow tools from other sheds.  In the example above, the hearer could borrow tools from the speaker by asking “What do you mean by ‘sexual harassment’?”.

When we reintroduce individual agency, we see how individuals who passively apply their community’s tools perpetuate hermeneutical injustice.  Individuals must be more than mere hearers, but listeners who participate in conversation by seeking clarification and accommodating moments of confusion.  In Gaile Pohlhaus’s words, hearers ought to develop a “truly cooperative relation of interdependence” with their speaker.  This avoids what Pohlhaus calls ‘wilful hermeneutical ignorance’.

Pohlhaus’s cooperative interdependence can’t completely prevent hermeneutical injustice.  It doesn’t resolve the background structural problem – hermeneutical marginalization.  But, while we live within an unjust structure, Pohlhaus’s suggestion gives us some guidance on how to listen to those who’ve been let down by our shared language.

  • Please note: Picture at top is a stock image

Nick Willis is a PhD candidate in the ANU School of Philosophy.  He works on the intersections between philosophy of language, social philosophy, and philosophy of mind.  He lives and works on Ngunnawal and Ngambri country.

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