Epistemic Exploitation and Ontic Burnout31 October 2022
Picture a scene where, Amina, a Black woman, is out with a white male acquaintance, Ben. During the meal, a white woman approaches her, reaches out to touch her hair, and exclaims how soft it is. Amina, as politely as possible, tells the white woman not to touch her hair. Offended, the white woman, responds, “I was just trying to give you a compliment,” and leaves angrily. Ben then asks Amina why she was “so rude” to the woman who was “just being nice.” Amina is tired and does not feel like defending her right to bodily autonomy or explaining the history of white objectification of Black women’s bodies and the racist entitlement that is inherent in a white person touching a Black woman without her permission. However, she knows that if she refuses to explain herself to Ben or simply says, “I don’t want to talk about it,” she runs the risk of being painted as overly emotional, irrational, hypersensitive, unfriendly, and aggressive. She thus faces a double bind: she can either engage in the coerced labour of explaining why the white woman’s action was racist and justify her response to it, or she can risk being seen as confirming the misogy-noiristic controlling image of the angry Black Woman.” (Berenstain, 2016, p.576)
Imagine you are Amina. The above happens on a Monday. On Tuesday you are out with work colleagues for drinks where a similar exchange occurs. On Wednesday, on your way to work on the bus, upon learning that you are an academic, a well-meaning person sitting beside you repeatedly queries your assessment that it is harder for a woman of colour to progress professionally because of structural inequalities. ‘Surely it is a meritocracy’, they suggest, and ‘race or gender doesn’t come into it at all?’ Thursday is no better, when a male colleague despairs about gender and diversity quotas in university settings, asserting defiantly that his promotion application was turned down because he ‘wasn’t woke enough; wasn’t the right colour or gender’. Friday wasn’t exactly much fun either. At a faculty meeting, your department head informs you that you must head up a new committee on diversity and inclusion. Already overstretched and doing comparatively more objectively speaking than your colleagues, your petition to politely but firmly decline falls on deaf ears.
Now, consider another less nuanced example:
Professor A wants to source a speaker for an international lecture series on Mental Health, Resilience and Education, to be held via Zoom. He has a professional acquaintance in mind, a first generation academic who has publicly lived with mental health issues for most of her adult life. Shortly after he contacts her, she responds politely, thanking him for the invite but regrettably declines on account of the fact that she is exceptionally busy and cannot take on any new work. Slightly perturbed by this, the Professor responds, waxing lyrical about the high-profile ministers and various other leading figures from media and other state agencies who will be in attendance, and the opportunity it presents to have a first-personal account from an academic dealing with these struggles throughout their professional careers. He goes on to add that this is a vital opportunity to inform policy and make real changes in the lives of those affected. To conclude he adds that, even if she doesn’t feel she owes it to herself to accept such an opportunity, she at least owes it to fellow sufferers to tell their story, for without her presence, this vital perspective will be left out. Reluctantly, after much soul-searching, the academic agrees to give the talk, to what turns out to be an ambivalent, and in some cases, unreceptive audience, some of whom conflate mental health difficulties with a lack of resilience and positivity (Dunne and Kotsonis, 2022, p.3).
The first scenario captures the triggered oppressive double-binds marginalised or oppressed individuals might find themselves in, while the second describes how this double-bind can be weaponised and used to exploit, moreover, in some cases, harm vulnerable and marginalised individuals. By harm, I draw on the NIWA (Negative Influence o Well-Being Account), according to which, “what it is for an event e to harm an individual S is for e to adversely affect S’s well-being” (Johansson and Risberg, forthcoming, p.3). Though the particulars no doubt change, marginalised and/or oppressed individuals are bombarded with requests to ameliorate ignorance on almost a daily basis. Some are tired. Some are wrung out. Some feel their daily struggle is enough of a battle. Some feel angry at the fact that the privileged expect real-time access to their hurt locker testimony to change hearts and minds; that consciously or unconsciously, they weaponise standpoint theory to designate it the responsibility of the oppressed to stamp out prejudice and injustice. Though not confined to issues of race, in the words of Cooper (2015), some might feel:
asking black women and other women of colour always to explain, show and prove to white people what is so wrong about what they have said or done, when we have no guarantees that they will change, shift or grow, is unacceptable. I demand better conditions of work.
This brings me to the point of this post. What precisely is at stake in situations of epistemic exploitation, where, privileged persons, [repeatedly or otherwise], compel marginalised knowers to educate them [and others] about the nature of their oppression? Relatedly—to what extent do marginalised persons suffer harms as a result of requests to, ‘turn themselves inside out on demand’ for emancipatory principles? This short precis seeks to foreground how a combination of triggered internalized emancipative epistemic obligations, attendant emotional burdens, and oppressive double-binds (Hirji, 2021) can lead to a phenomenon we refer to as ‘ontic burnout’—a form of dissociative explanatory fatigue culminating in oppressed persons engaging in a conscious or unconscious decoupling from their socially constructed identity, from the burdens and injustices associated with being a member of a certain social kind.
First, let’s get clear about the parameters of the claim under scrutiny. One obvious risk to avoid is privileged people feeling that they can never ask marginalised knowers to explain the nature of their oppression. This would be a mistake, of course, another form of injustice, and no doubt have deleterious effects for knowledge acquisition, sharing and auditing. Strong arguments can be made that such non-transactional requests, when carried out sensitively and appropriately, are bona fide examples of combatting testimonial injustices through the incorporation of relevant agent-embedded, polyvocal perspectives. What is worth considering in more depth, I argue, is privileged persons’ unchecked expectation that already overburdened marginalised or oppressed knowers bear the obligation or responsibility to educate others, that being a member of a certain social kind not only uniquely equips them (this is not contested, though it’s a more complex problem than it might first seem), but rather behoves them to endlessly challenge this kind of injustice, even if doing so comes at a personal cost they aren’t willing or able to pay. To my mind, this is what is at stake here: marginalised people feeling free, and being able to say ‘no’ to repeated requests to educate, without fear of self-loathing or being labelled a defector or reluctant part-time labourer in service of their ‘own’ cause. To help bring this about, I suggest, privileged persons, on occasion, ought to recalibrate their expectations around the extent to which such attitudes are driven by entitlement. Such expectations, perhaps borne from self-serving rational motivated ignorance in the shape of unchecked privilege and entitlement, hinge on the presupposition that the painful knowledge of the oppressed, their thoughts, their feelings, their palatably upcycled trauma, is somehow a public educational tool—public property—open source software—a fair price to pay to ameliorate ignorance—something time and time again to be willingly accessed and offered, without question, in service of the public good. One of the tragedies of such a misguided view is that, cost-benefit metrics, in the eyes of educators, routinely place the projected pedagogical value of the intervention above the ontological cost for the Speaker.
Ontic burnout is a concept we use in a recent paper (Dunne and Kotsonis, 2022) to capture dissociative explanatory fatigue—a specific subset of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion (harms) triggered when privileged persons (in this case, educators) repeatedly or otherwise compel marginalised or oppressed knowers to educate them [and others] about the nature of their oppression. This dissociative fatigue leads to oppressed persons dissociating themselves (itself a protective measure) from the exhausting, unreciprocated and frequently expected labour associated with being members of a certain kind. Similarities can be drawn with the concept of ontic injustice, where ‘an individual is wronged by the very fact of being socially constructed as a member of a certain social kind, where that construction consists, at least in part, of their being subjected to a set of social constraints and enablements that is wrongful to them’ (Jenkins, 2020, p.191).
Ontic burnout, characterized as a specific form of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion, is, on my account, a subset of burnout simpliciter. It is ontic in the sense that it captures the situationally triggered dissociative erosion of the self under oppressive conditions. Here the oppressed suffer because of who they are. Systematic and chronic situational stress occur as a result of an identity that lies outside the norm—an identity that carries with it, in the eyes of some of the privileged, a lifetime’s subscription to public service, to belief revision based on turning yourself inside out, to unwavering energy and draining explanatory gymnastics in pursuit of emancipatory ideals. At times, this is further compounded by a world characterized by unjust structural and interpersonal dynamics, situations where marginalised or oppressed persons have “joined the table, but are still on the menu” (Bilge, 2020, p.317). Time and again, this is exacerbated by means of requests to educate others about what it means to be marginalised, what it means to be oppressed, what it means to be different, to sustain and share painful knowledge at times in hostile or recalcitrant epistemic environments. This has the potential to culminate in feelings of despair, hopelessness and disillusionment.
Such harms might even lead oppressed persons at times to even wish away part of their identity, to fantasize about not being the spokesperson, not being the 24/7 personal tutor, not being the go-to for all things inclusive, not being the person of colour, the objectified spokesperson whose primary function in the eyes of educators lies in the exchange value of the projected shared understandings expected to come on foot of their painfully shared situated knowledge. Arguably, there are times when they tire of carrying the weight of what it means to be them—in reality—this is hard enough as is without the added expectation they carry others emancipatory goals, however well-conceived, on top of their fleeting causes too. Not all want to be the poster boy or girl for your ‘diversity week’. Expectations to educate the privileged about the nature of oppression constitute a Sisyphean task. There is no end to it; no glory when you reach the top of the hill. It does not stop. Unlike Sisyphus, however, marginalised persons may choose (and be free to do so) lay aside the boulder. They need not agree to educate. Yet, to refuse, to resist that which is expected of them, they must turn down the opportunity to resist oppression. Should they choose to ‘accept’ the request to educate, they then carry an even bigger burden to represent their constituency well and somehow bring about a metanoia (change of heart) of sorts in their audience, some of whom will assign them a credibility deficit or excess. This is why we coin the phrase ‘ontic burnout’.
The emotional demands which engender ontic burnout, as we have seen, are most often caused by a combination of unrealistic expectations, non-reciprocity, recognition-failure (failure to see you as a knower), explanatory fatigue, educator induced oppressive double-binds in epistemically hostile environments, and chronic situational stresses. Every educative encounter in this context is an exercise in asymmetrical expectations. The educator expects too much from the marginalised person; the marginalised person too much of themselves. Explanatory fatigue, for those affected, kicks in when you spend your life explaining yourself to others. Trying to get others to see the world through your eyes is tantalising: the very possibility of ‘shared perspectives’ or ‘belief revision’ can move mountains, but it comes at a cost to those who spend an inordinate amount of time investing in others’ epistemic growth. What is sensible and reasonable to one person might very well be incoherent, fatuous or unreasonable to another.
Educators must exercise care not to instrumentalize the vulnerability of marginalised knowers in service of what they perceive to be public educational goods. The commodification of painful knowledge —and often of trauma —is a questionable practice that needs to be looked at carefully, so that we make every reasonable attempt to avoid harms for marginalised populations. Both individually and collectively, these stressors contribute to what can culminate in ontic burnout. Being exploited in such a way that you expose yourself to environments where you suffer testimonial injustices because of a triggered internalized duty to ‘fight the good fight’, and ‘finish the race’, so to speak—especially in situations when you are continuously fatigued —is a recipe for burnout. Carrying other people’s unrealistic expectations to emancipate the ignorant or the prejudiced is also a recipe for burnout. The need for meaningful educative exchanges—for your work and testimony to matter, to be valued, not just by those who receive it positively, but more so by those that don’t—erodes your spirit, and soon your work as spokesperson offers negligible personal reward. Soon enough, the stresses associated with such activities far outweigh the rewards. Burnout, on this basis, becomes inevitable.
Berenstain, N. (2016). Epistemic exploitation. Ergo: An Open Access Journal of Philosophy, 3, 569–590.
Bilge, S. (2020). We’ve joined the table but we’re still on the menu. Clickbaiting diversity in today’s university. In J. Solomos (Eds.), International Handbook of Contemporary Racisms (pp. 317–331). Routledge.
Cooper, Brittney (2015, February 25). Black America’s Hidden tax: Why this Feminist of Color is Going on strike. Salon.
Dunne & Kotsonis (2022): Epistemic exploitation in education, Educational Philosophy and Theory, DOI: 10.1080/00131857.2022.2094249
Freudenberger, H. (1974). Staff burn-out. Journal of Social Issues, 30(1), 159–165. https://doi. org/10.1111/j.1540-4560.1974.tb00706.x
Grubbs, J. B., & Exline, J. J. (2016). Trait entitlement: A cognitive-personality source of vulnerability to psychological distress. Psychological Bulletin, 142(11), 1204–1226.
Hirji, S. (2021). Oppressive double binds. Ethics, 131(4), 643–669.
Jenkins, K. (2020). Ontic injustice. Journal of the American Philosophical Association, 6 (2), 188–205.
Johansson, Jens & Risberg, Olle (forthcoming). A Simple Analysis of Harm. Ergo: An Open Access Journal of Philosophy.
Pines, A., & Aronson, E. (1988). Career burnout: Causes and cures. Free Press.
Williams, Daniel (2020). Motivated ignorance, rationality, and democratic politics. Synthese 198 (8):7807-7827.
 Standpoint epistemology aside, there is a strong prima facie case for what Jennifer Lackey in her book on Epistemic Reparations refers to as a ‘right to be known’ by means of direct testimonial exchange with the injured party or at least a proximate source. I take no issue with this point only to say that how the testimony is acquired and at what cost are equally important questions. I suspect we are talking about different ends of the spectrum.
Here we characterize entitlement as a vicious attitude/personality trait animating an unfettered sense or feeling of unmerited deservingness and demandingness (see Grubbs & Exline, 2016 pp.1204-1226 for an overview of the phenomenon). In simpler terms—it captures the feeling that one deserves better or more than others’—that being a member of a certain social kind authorises them to access, exploit and appropriate others’ testimony (epistemic and emotional labour) for their own ends, even if those ends are based on emancipatory principles.
 When ignorance is motivated by the anticipated costs of possessing knowledge, not acquiring it, we might refer to it as ‘rational motivated ignorance’ (see Williams, 2021). Ignorance of this kind might be self-serving in the sense that it enables privileged members to preserve psychologically comforting half-truths and avoid accountability.