Objectification, Knowledge, and Pornography8 April 2019
Objectification is treating or depicting a person as a mere thing. What does this involve? By now we’re all familiar with the idea that it’s an aspect of women’s subordinate status in society that they are sexually objectified: they are treated and depicted as sex objects. Practices such as sex work, pornography, street harassment, and marriage have been subject to feminist critique on the grounds that they permit or even encourage the treatment of women as objects for the satisfaction of men’s sexual wants, while pornography, Hollywood films, music videos and lyrics, and advertising have all been criticised for consistently depicting women as sex objects. We’re much less familiar with the idea that objectification need not be sexual, but we can probably be brought on board pretty quickly by examples. The practice of slavery need not be sexual (which is not to deny that this is all too often one element), but it too is naturally seen as objectifying; it involves treating a person as a mere thing which can be exploited for one’s own aims, bought and sold as property, and so on.
What I want to explore here is a still less familiar idea, namely that one way to mistreat people is to epistemically objectify them. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that looks at what it takes to have knowledge, evidence, and justified beliefs, as well as what it takes to pass these on to others. To epistemically objectify someone is to treat them or depict them as mere objects within our epistemic practices: our practices of producing, gathering, and sharing knowledge. What would objectification of this sort look like?
One proposal comes from the philosopher Miranda Fricker in her influential book Epistemic Injustice. She focuses there on a phenomenon she calls testimonial injustice. When testimony goes well, it involves an audience gaining new knowledge from the words of someone else (whether spoken or written). But one way testimony can go wrong is that the audience holds prejudices against the social group that the speaker belongs to, and on that basis dismisses what they have to say. Prejudices of this sort are all too familiar; for instance, an aspect of both sexist and racist oppression has been the portrayal and treatment of certain people as less intelligent or rational. This kind of unfair and prejudicial dismissal of someone’s testimony is testimonial injustice
According to Fricker, one epistemically objectifies someone when one subjects them to a testimonial injustice. One doesn’t treat them as a person from whom one stands to learn something by listening to what they have to say. Rather, one simply dismisses what they have to say, and instead treats them as an object which one might be able to infer some information from, just as I can infer the age of a felled tree if I know the relationship between its age and the growth rings in its trunk. I can learn something from the tree, but not because I treat it as a person with the capacity to produce, gather, and pass on knowledge. Likewise, suggests Fricker, I can learn things from someone whose testimony I treat dismissively—I can learn things from their appearance and behaviour, perhaps—but again this isn’t in virtue of treating them as having the capacity to produce, gather, and pass on knowledge.
Fricker describes one way that someone can be epistemically objectified; they are treated as epistemically inert, as lacking the kind of agency required to produce, gather, and transfer knowledge. However, treating someone as inert is only one of many ways in which one can treat them as object-like, the philosophers Martha Nussbaum and Rae Langton have discussed. I think that considering the full range of different ways that one can objectify someone gives us a richer and more useful picture of epistemic objectification and its significance.
Here is an illustration of what I have in mind. One way of sexually objectifying someone is by treating them as lacking in sexual agency: as lacking their own desires, as unable to choose for themselves what kind of sexual behaviour to engage in, and so on. But a different way that one can treat a person as a sex object is by treating them as fungible: as interchangeable with at least some others for sexual purposes. Analogously, one can treat someone as epistemically fungible; one treats what they have to say as representative of what any member of a group they belong to would say; on the topic at hand, one thinks one might as well speak to any member of that group as any other. The speaker isn’t listened to as if they’re an individual with something distinctive to contribute, but rather as if they’re a mouthpiece for the homogenous views of an entire group. Sometimes treating someone this way may be totally unproblematic; indeed, one would hope that the information one gets about the price of a train ticket would be the same no matter which of the company’s employees one consulted. But sometimes the assumption that the testimony of different members of the same group wouldn’t importantly vary reflects harmful prejudices against people who share a certain social identify, prejudices that depict them as lacking individuality and as incapable of making unique contributions to knowledge. Prejudicially treating someone as fungible in this way is a second kind of dismissive attitude an audience can take towards someone offering testimony, and we might take this too to be a form of testimonial injustice (as has been suggested in recent work by Emmalon Davis).
Let me briefly suggest another place that the notion of epistemic fungibility might be applied. As mentioned above, it’s a common complaint against at least some pornography that it objectifies women. Usually, what’s meant is that pornography sexually objectifies women, by depicting them as mere sex objects. But we might add that pornography often epistemically objectifies women too, by depicting women as fungible on topics like their sexual preferences. Much pornography presents a homogenous and often distorted picture of female sexual preferences, one on which relatively unpopular and potentially harmful acts are nearly universally desired by women; these include unprotected sex, anal sex, ejaculation on the face and body, and deep-throating. There are various ways in which pornography can present women as fungible in this way, but one familiar example is the trope of the ‘girl next door’, where the women in pornographic films are expressly depicted as sexually representative of the women that men will encounter in their everyday lives; it’s this trope that’s partially subverted in the 2004 romantic comedy The Girl Next Door. Here, sexual objectification and epistemic objectification go hand in hand. This highlights the need for pornography to present a realistic and diverse range of people and sexual preferences, particularly since in many places it still too often functions as a stand-in for proper sex education. Some pornography already does justice to this kind of diversity; much does not.
There are a variety of ways that we can treat and depict people like objects such that we are prevented from acquiring knowledge about and from them. I’ve only scratched the surface of two of those ways here. However, I hope that the examples of testimonial injustice and pornography give some sense of why the task of developing a fuller picture of epistemic objectification and the different ways it manifests itself in our epistemic practices has some urgency.
Picture by Aleksandar Radovanovic on Unsplash