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Open for Debate

The Case for Epistemic Reparations

13 December 2021

In 1976, 15-year-old Deann Katherine Long was raped and murdered near her home in Indiana County, Pennsylvania. Five years later, Lewis “Jim” Fogle was arrested for his purported involvement in these crimes, and in 1982 he was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison based largely on the testimony of jailhouse informants. 32 years later, DNA testing done by the Pennsylvania Innocence Project excluded Fogle as the contributor of the male DNA found in Long, and in 2015 he was released from prison and exonerated.

Even after the external injustices of incarceration and wrongful conviction were reversed, however, there is a further desire that Fogle has: “I want people to know the truth about my case.”[1] Knowing the truth about his case is to know the truth about him—that he did not harm Deann Katherine Long and is neither a rapist nor a murderer. In other words, there is an additional kind of reparative active that Fogle is requesting—to be known. This is a familiar reaction. When people are the subject of lies, false accusations, or wrongful judgments, we often hear them say that they want to “set the record straight,” or “get their story out there,” or have people “know what really happened.” Even when there are no monetary, legal, or social consequences, this desire to be known often lingers.

Reparations are actions that are intentionally taken to redress or make amends for wrongs that have been inflicted on individuals or groups. There are three central aims of reparations. The legal/political aspect includes making victims whole, such as through the restoration of citizenship, liberty, jobs, and property. The psychosocial side includes relieving suffering, distress, anger, powerlessness, and the sense of violation experienced by victims and their family members. And the moral includes recognizing and restoring the dignity of victims and reaffirming or reestablishing the moral order of a community.

But there is a crucial dimension missing from standard discussions of reparations, which we can see hinted at in Fogle’s response above: the epistemic. We are members of an epistemic community in addition to a legal/political and moral community. We have epistemic needs and rights, in addition to psychosocial ones. And we are agents not just in a political and moral sense, but also in an epistemic one.

In 2005, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights released an updated report that addresses the impunity of perpetrators of civil and political human rights violations. According to this report, victims and their families have the “inalienable right” to “know the truth about the circumstances in which violations took place and, in the event of death or disappearance, the victims’ fate.”[2] There are at least four features that emerge from this UN report that are of interest for our purposes. First, possessing certain kinds of knowledge is a right that belongs to individuals and communities. Second, and related, there can be a right to something distinctively epistemic in nature. This is significant, as the more common rights we hear about are moral or political, such as the rights to life, liberty, bodily autonomy, the pursuit of happiness, property, freedom of speech, and so on. It is quite rare for discourse on rights to focus on epistemic goods, such as knowledge, truth, evidence, and so on. This brings us to the third feature: the UN is here talking about “inalienable” natural rights that involve not just the sharing of evidence, but the transmission of knowledge. The idea is that there are natural epistemic rights, not dependent on law, culture, or government, that cannot be repealed. Finally, these rights arise out of gross violations and injustices, often perpetrated by States, governments, or groups. In particular, those most directly impacted by the violation or injustice in question, such as the victims, family members, and communities, have the right to the corresponding knowledge.

It is crucial that we acknowledge the distinctively epistemic dimension of the reparative work being called for by this UN report. Victims and their communities need to be made whole, not just materially, legally/politically, psychologically, and morally, but epistemically as well. They need to be told the truth, they need to know what happened, and they need to have an accurate history documented and remembered, not only for themselves, but for future generations. Indeed, in many cases, other kinds of reparations are dependent on the epistemic ones. Legal reparations cannot be pursued, for instance, without the relevant parties knowing the relevant facts; victims might not be able to psychologically heal without knowing the truth, and so on.

But there is a prior epistemic reparation entirely absent from the UN report—the right to be known. Before we can properly apologize, memorialize, and educate, we need to listen and bear witness. We need to know victims, not merely as a means to the ends of fulfilling the rights of others to know, but as an end itself.

The right to know involves a knower and a proposition or propositions and thus need not be interpersonal. For instance, it can be fulfilled by making available, even through video footage impersonally captured, certain facts or truths, with only the broader story involving other people, such as the testimony of victims and perpetrators, the judiciary, the State, archivists, and so on.

In contrast, the right to be known is an overtly interpersonal phenomenon. Given that it doesn’t make sense to be known by an impersonal object, being known requires at least two persons at the most fundamental level—the knower and the one being known.

The right to know has the corresponding duty to tell. Since people have a right to know about gross human rights violations, for instance, the State has a responsibility to do things to enable the creation, preservation, and transmission of knowledge. Here there is the implicature of at least partial ignorance on the part of those most harmed. That is, victims, their families, and communities have a right to know about gross human rights violations, so the State has the duty to investigate, remember, and archive so as to uncover and make available what really happened and who was involved. Since victims, their families, and communities are typically singled out as special bearers of this right, the idea is that there are truths to which they do not have access, and it is the responsibility of the State to make sure they are informed.

The right to be known, in contrast, has the corresponding duty to listen. It is not just that people have a right to know what happened to victims in certain contexts; it is also that these victims themselves have a right to be seen and heard—to have their stories be given proper uptake. There is no implicature here of ignorance on the part of the victim; they do not need to be given access to truths or facts. Instead, they need to be able to be givers of knowledge. This goes beyond merely making information available to the community. In order to give knowledge, others have to actually come to know what the victim is saying.

Consider Fogle again: not only was he wrongfully convicted and incarcerated for decades, he was also denied a voice in the epistemic community. He was doubted, silenced, and forbidden from playing a credible role in his own defense. Because of this, he was not heard or listened to and, thus, he was not seen for who he is. Instead, he was falsely believed to be a liar, a rapist, and a murderer. The community both failed to know who he was and believed him to be something altogether different—someone who is vilified in the community and is alien to Fogle himself. Justice for Fogle involves not only release from prison, exoneration, and financial compensation, but also repairing his fractured relationship within the epistemic community. We need to hear him, believe him, and see him for who he truly is, not as the person presented to us by the State. We need, that is, to know him.

What I am arguing, then, is that what Fogle is expressing a desire for is something that he is owed as a victim of a gross violation or injustice, one that led to him being erased from the epistemic community. While there are a number of ways of being erased in this way, I here want to highlight two.

Invisibility is one way of not being known—if I don’t have any relevant beliefs about you because you are invisible to me, especially as a person, then ipso facto I don’t know you. There are, of course, different kinds or degrees of invisibility. Targeted invisibility involves knowing some facts about a person, but lacking relevant beliefs in particular domains, especially ones that are important to the person, such as qua co-worker, political participant, member of the moral community, and so on. Complete invisibility involves lacking beliefs about a person qua person, which is often found in cases of the dehumanization of a racial or ethnic group during times of mass genocide.

Vilification or demonization is another way of not knowing someone. Instead of not at all seeing someone or a particular dimension of her, this epistemic wrong involves replacing the image of the person in question with an inaccurate and vilified or demonized version. In the case of Fogle, for instance, it is not that he was invisible to investigators, prosecutors, the judge, and the jury, but, rather, that he was looked upon as a liar and, thus, as a rapist and murderer of a child. He was regarded as a person, and was afforded credibility assessments, but was turned into an epistemic and moral degenerate in the eyes of the community. This sort of epistemic harm is widespread in the United States where Blacks are systematically represented and treated as “criminals.” In this sense, they are not invisible at all, for it is not that they are erased from consciousness, but instead are massively overrepresented in inaccurate and vilified ways.

When Fogle expresses a desire to be known, then, it is crucial that we see the true normative force at work here. This is not an expression of a mere personal preference but, rather, is a powerful and legitimate epistemic claim. In particular, those who suffer gross violations and injustices that result in invisibility or vilification and demonization have been epistemically wronged and have the epistemic right to be known. We, in turn, owe them epistemic reparations, the most fundamental of which is to know them. It is only by listening and bearing witness that we can truly begin to repair the epistemic damage done to victims in our communities who have been harmed the most.



Photo Credit: Gacaca court, 2006. Photo Elisa Finocchiaro / Flickr