This post is by Alessandra Tanesini (pictured above). Alessandra is a Professor of Philosophy at Cardiff University working on epistemology and philosophy of language. In this post she summarises some of her recent work on collective amnesia and epistemic injustice.
Thanks to Ema for inviting me to contribute this snapshot of my current research for the readers of the blog. Epistemologists, unlike psychologists, have in the past focused on notions such as knowledge, truth, justification, belief or virtue that have positive epistemic status. Instead, I want to develop accounts of those things whose epistemic status is negative. These include: vices, bias and ignorance. I have written a paper on intellectual arrogance which I shall deliver at the Joint Session of the Aristotelian Society and Mind Association in July. A pre-proofs draft is already available here. I have also given talks on the epistemology of implicit bias. A podcast can be heard here.
More recently I have written and given talks about a special form of ignorance, that I have labelled ‘collective amnesia’, which is responsible for a pernicious kind of epistemic injustice. Collective amnesia happens when collective memories are shaped by processes that strongly promote ignorance. Consider British collective memories. These are enduring memories (including of events that current members of society have not directly witnessed) which are constitutive parts of a group’s identity (Hirst and Manier 2008). In the UK these memories are often representations of white, male Britain. They may include portrayals of heroism during wars, narratives of colonial invasions presented as adventurous expeditions, warm beer, green lawns, and the sound of leather on willow. These memories mostly fail to represent Black Britons at all. Those memories which portray them tend to focus on (male) Black British people as either victims of crime (e.g. Stephen Lawrence) or as criminals (e.g. rioters or gang members). Either way, they are depicted as a problem.
In my work I discuss the mechanisms that lead to the formation of these deeply misleading (because they result from biased selections) collective memories and analyse their ethical and epistemic consequences.
Some of the processes that lead to the development of highly selective collective memories are deliberate distortions and deceptions. Others, however, are less conscious but equally pernicious. These are mechanisms that promote mnemonic convergence where different individual memories eventually merge into a common account of the past by means of the systematic forgetting of some memories and the implantation of new ones. Interestingly, mnemonic convergence is mediated by perceived authority and expertise so that the resulting shared memories will be closer to the initial memories of people who are thought to possess these qualities than to those of other members of the community. Given the connection between social power and perceived authority and expertise, collective memories bear the mark of the most powerful in society.
Among the mechanisms that promote convergence are the gamut of phenomena known as the social contagion of memory where fabricated or partially false memories are implanted into unsuspecting listeners who may even have personally witnessed the event in question (Loftus 2005). This phenomenon is not rare; it is made worse when one individual is able to arrogate the role of 'official' narrator of the event. Mnemonic convergence is also facilitated by retrieval effects (the more often a memory is recalled the more accessible it becomes) and by socially-shared retrieval-induced forgetting (Stone et al. 2012). The latter occurs when one recalls some things but not others (as one inevitably must). Those things which are not explicitly recalled but are semantically related to retrieved memories will become as a result more inaccessible for speakers and for their listeners than other, equally un-retrieved but semantically unrelated, representations.
In these ways, even in the absence of a deliberate intention to mislead, shared memories will converge in the direction of the memories of those who have social power. Since memories serve to strengthen social bonds, collective memories have the function of nurturing a sense of belonging to an in-group which they represent in a positive light. However, they can only serve this purpose for those who are represented by them as members of the group.
One effect of this systematic, although not fully conscious, exclusion from collective memories of the positive contributions of Black Britons to Britain is the erosion of intellectual self-trust. Intellectual self-trust is an optimistic stance toward one’s own cognitive abilities which is manifested in assertiveness, confidence, and a belief in the reliability of one’s intellectual capacities. Self-trust is formed and sustained in a social setting so that children learn to trust themselves by calibrating their views with those of authoritative others and by being trusted (Jones 2012). Those people who are portrayed negatively in the shared memories of a group are prevented from becoming fully self-trusting since they are likely to believe the negative depiction, and others treat them in a manner that accords with it. Given that possessing self-trust is essential to the exercise of any other aspect of one’s cognitive agency, harms to self-trust when they constitute a wrong are examples of a deep form of epistemic injustice. Podcasts of talks based on these ideas can be found here and here.
A paper on these themes entitled ‘Collective Amnesia and Epistemic Injustice’ is forthcoming in Socially Extended Epistemology, edited by J. Adam Carter, Andy Clark, Jesper Kallestrup, S. Orestis Palermos and Duncan Pritchard, and published by Oxford University Press.