Whose knowledge? Whose power?

Whose knowledge? Whose power? September 18, 2012

Here’s an interesting quote I found while reading the book Feminist Research Practice, by Sharlene Nagy Hesse-Biber and Patricia Lina Leavy (emphasis mine):

In many societies…knowledge is produced and controlled by the ruling class. The prevailing interpretation of reality will reflect the interests and values of the ruling class. Because of its commitment to maintaining power, the ruling class seeks to conceal the ways in which it dominates and exploits the rest of the population. The interpretation of reality the ruling class presents will be distorted such that the “suffering of the subordinate classes will be ignored, redescribed as enjoyment or justified as freely chosen, deserved, or inevitable (quote from Alison Jaggar).” The positions of power and privilege that members of the ruling class inhabit allow them to separate and insulate themselves from the suffering of the oppressed, and to be more convinced of their own (distorted) ideology.

We see this all the time–this idea of the “suffering of the subordinate class” being ignored or redescribed.

Ignored? How many times have you heard someone say that we live in a post-racial society, so we don’t have to bring up racism anymore?

Redescribed as enjoyment? I’ve often been told that a woman being ruled over by her husband is chivalry, a system under which women can flourish without having to worry about bearing the burdens of decision making and “real” work.

Justified as freely chosen? Calling homosexuality a sin or a rebellion against the natural order, or telling women with unwanted pregnancies that they made a choice to carry a fetus to term when they “chose” to have sex.

As deserved? Telling a rape victim she had it coming, or calling a homeless man a lazy drug addict…

As inevitable?  Ever hear a preacher say “the poor will always be with us,” or someone say, concerning sexual harassment, “boys will be boys?”

Often, something as basic as knowledge–how we know things, who decides which knowledge is logical/objective/legitimate, how we’re told the world is–can be used to oppress people. You’ve heard the saying, “knowledge is power.” That saying is true. But that power can be used for good or evil., depending on who is controlling knowledge.

"Knowledge is Power" Mosaic at the L...
“Knowledge is Power” Mosaic at the Library of Congress (Washington, DC) (Photo credit: takomabibelot)

Often, those in dominant positions claim objectivity, something that Sandra Harding calls “the ultimate in bias.” They claim that, since they have no personal connection to an issue that affects those in the subordinate classes (issues like racism, rape, domestic abuse, marriage equality, etc.), they are able to see those issues through a clearer lens.

Yet their “lens” is actually the foggiest of all. As the people who benefit the most from the way society is, people in the dominant classes of society have the most motivation to keep society the way it is. Because they “encounter little in their daily lives that conflict with” (Alison Jagger) their already established view of how the world is, nothing challenges that view. It remains sheltered, never challenged by peer review or tested by repeated experiments.

Their values, combined with the detachment from actual issues that prevents them from sensing and experiences those issues (something considered necessary for empirical knowledge) makes their knowledge subjective, biased, and unfounded. Yet we often unquestioningly accept it as fact.

Subordinate groups, on the other hand, have the benefit of what Patricia Hill Collins calls the “outsider within” phenomena. While dominant groups rarely experience and sense the lives of subordinate groups, subordinate groups must frequently experience the lives of the dominant groups in order succeed or  even survive in everyday life.

The black housemaids (who form the basis of Collins “outsider within” theory) who spent the majority of their days in white households…

The lesbian woman who has had to pretend to be straight in order to be accepted by society…

The atheist teenage whose parents give him the choice between attending church or leaving home…

The minimum wage employee who cleans the bathrooms of a wealthy CEO…

The women in abusive relationships who must get to know the moods and shifting personalities of their abusive partners in order to avoid saying the “wrong thing” at the “wrong time”…

Far from their positions in society clouding their ability to produce knowledge, subordinate groups are able to experience and analyze the world from multiple angles. They are able to sense both their position and the position of their oppressors. They know how racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, etc. affect their own lives and they see better than dominant groups can how dominant groups subconsciously avoid looking at the reality subordinate groups face.

So, who is defining our reality? What gives them the right to do so? And more importantly, is the reality that they produce even real? Whenever someone claims to know something, these are the questions we need to ask ourselves.

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  • The most frustrating part about this is that those who do define reality in popular knowledge are those who simply state “this is just the way it is,” without every recognizing that no this is the way you made it.

  • That’s an excellent point about how people think “those without a personal, emotional connection to some issue have an unbiased, neutral perspective- the best perspective”- why doesn’t that idea get challenged more? More often, those without a personal connection to some issue are very ignorant of how that issue actually plays out in reality.

  • kalimsaki@yahoo.com

    There is no doubt that youth will depart; it will change into old age and death as certainly as the summer gives its place to autumn and winter, and the day changes into evening and night. All the revealed scriptures give the good news that if fleeting, transient youth is spent on good works, in chastity and within the bounds of good conduct, it will gain for the person immortal youth.11.th Ray, from Risalei-Nur Collection by Said Nursi

  • Jim Fisher

    Great post, Sarah! I could add volumes, but I’ll focus on one tiny bit because it relates directly to my extended family.

    A post-racial society will only be seen when we eliminate racial vocabulary. Referring to anyone by their skin color is racial. I am not white. My skin color is light reddish brown with occasional dark brown spots and blue venous striping. My ethnicity is mostly American (8th generation) with northern European ancestry.

    My sister’s son is a ninth generation American and his ethnicity is also northern European and central African (maybe the Congo). His kids are a rainbow of ethnicity and their skin color is irrelevant.

    In a post-racial society, he is not bi-racial and neither are his children. They ARE multi-ethnic — just like most of us. And those who argue that they are bi-racial, are using racial vocabulary and racial thinking And that thinking can be used to exert the power you are talking about.

    I wish we all could get to the skin-color-is-irrelevant part. It’s hard, isn’t it?

    It is only when we move beyond treating our fellow humans as if they were breeding stock, assigning them to a breed (i.e. race) based on physical attributes, do we ever hold a prayer of moving beyond racial thinking and towards the a-racial society I believe we eventually will become.