Today’s post is by Tasia Scrutton who is Associate Professor at the University of Leeds. Her research interests include philosophy of religion, philosophy of emotion, and philosophy of psychiatry, as well as theology, and social epistemology.
Special thanks to Lucy Moore and her wonderful contributions to Leeds Civic Trust and Wikipedia.
Just hours after the Leeds Civic Trust installed the blue plaque commemorating the distressing and suspicious death of David Oluwale in 1969, the plaque was stolen. This occurred on the night of 25th April 2022 and is being treated as a hate crime.
At the time of his death in May 1969, David Oluwale, who had come to England from Nigeria in 1949, in search for a better life, was homeless and living in Leeds. He had already experienced ongoing ‘systemic, varied and brutal’ abuse by individual police officers. This was witnessed by other members of the police, who made no effort to prevent it (Sim 2010 159). Ultimately, Oluwale drowned in the local river, aged 39.
Independent witnesses testified to seeing two uniformed police officers chasing Oluwale along the river on the night he drowned. Two police officers were eventually convicted of grievous bodily harm, though not of manslaughter. Activists have documented the way in which the court case was whitewashed through the portrayal of Oluwale as dirty, an animal, and a burden and menace to society; the judge instructed the jury to find the police officers not guilty (see Aspden, 2008).
The theft of the blue plaque, 53 years after Oluwale died, is another attempt to deny the existence of Oluwale, or, alternatively, to protest against the commemoration of Oluwale’s wrongful death. It both seeks to silence structural, including police, racism, while also demonstrating that such racism is alive and well in the UK today.
Silencing people’s stories – and especially the stories of disadvantaged and disempowered groups – is a familiar theme also to perceptive readers of the Bible. A comical Easter cartoon depicts Jesus’ male disciplines, just after the female disciples tell them they have seen the risen Jesus, saying to the women, ‘thank you ladies, we’ll take it from here’. The cartoon is apt, since, while it is clear from the Gospels that women were among Jesus’ disciples, Christian Scriptures were written and interpreted largely by men, with male interests and experiences in mind (see e.g. the important work of Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza).
The story in Judges 21 after which the Shiloh Project is named is a particularly sinister example of the silencing of women’s stories in the Hebrew Bible. (For the full account of the origins of the Shiloh Project and its name, including the story of Judges 21, see here.)
Silencing can be deliberate or inadvertent, even unconscious; it can be performed by individuals, or groups, or it can be systemic. The philosopher Miranda Fricker draws attention to two kinds of ‘epistemic injustice’ (that is, injustice relating to people as knowers) (see Fricker, 2007). These forms of epistemic injustice relate closely to silencing and shed further light upon it.
The first of these is ‘testimonial injustice’, which happens when someone is not believed because of the type of person they are. An example Fricker gives of this is of a Black man who is not believed by the police, precisely because he is Black. The example is relevant to the case of Oluwale because, while the violence against him was not a mere case of testimonial injustice, the fact that he could be abused by police officers without them having to fear he could press charges against them, certainly is. Of course, Oluwale would more likely be disbelieved not only because he was Black in a systemically racist wider setting, but also because he was homeless. This shows how different aspects of a person’s identity (being Black; being a migrant; being homeless) intersect, so that the person is even more likely to be a victim of testimonial injustice. The police officers, in contrast, had what is called ‘a credibility surplus’: this means, their testimony was likely to be believed.
Indeed, Oluwale’s case was highly unusual, in that his death ‘resulted in the first successful prosecution of British police officers for involvement in the death of a black person’ (see here). The reason was that there were other witnesses deemed reliable, as well as other evidence of gross misconduct concerning one of the police officers sentenced for grievous bodily harm.
The second kind of epistemic injustice Fricker discusses is called ‘hermeneutical injustice’. This is where disadvantaged groups of people do not have access to concepts that help them make sense of their experience, or to communicate their experience to others. Hermeneutical injustice often results from the reality that disadvantaged groups do not get to have input into formulating the concepts that are supposed to reflect human experience: precisely because, as a group, they are not considered, or not considered consequential enough for their experiences to be taken seriously – or even just acknowledged.
An example Fricker gives of hermeneutical injustice is of a (real life) woman who experienced sexual harassment at work but before the concept ‘sexual harassment’ was named, or talked about, or better understood. As a result, the woman was unable to explain why she felt miserable at work, became depressed, and ultimately left her job. She was unable to get another job (since her reason for leaving her previous job, without any reference, was mystifying) and was also unable to claim unemployment benefits (because she was understood as having left her job without good reason). The lack of a concept, such as ‘sexual harassment’ in this case, not only affected others’ opinions of her and of her material circumstances, but also her own self-esteem: she was unable to explain her unhappiness and her reasons for leaving her job not only to others, but also to herself.
The example of hermeneutical injustice is strikingly relevant to the case of the women of Shiloh. The mass rape of the women is not called a mass rape in the biblical text, because the word ‘rape’ (today meaning, to be penetrated against one’s consent with the perpetrator knowing consent to be absent) was not understood in those terms when the biblical narrative was written. While rape (i.e. what the word now signifies) certainly existed (and hurt and harmed just as much), the experience of women – the group most often depicted as victims of rape in biblical and other ancient texts – was not considered important enough for there to be a concept that expressed the world from their point of view.
One might imagine the women in the Shiloh story, like the woman who suffered sexual harassment, wondering why they felt distressed, violated, depressed, but without the resources or language to make sense of their experience. Alternatively, perhaps they did have some concept that described their experience, but since their perspective was never written down, it was not conveyed in the biblical story – thereby enabling the story to perpetuate rather than challenge sexual violence against women.
Silencing, then, can be blatant and crass, as when the plaque telling Oluwale’s story is stolen; or, it can be more subtle, as when particular people do not get input into the concepts used by the rest of their society. It can be individual, as when a police officer refuses to believe a person who is Black, but more often it has a systemic dimension, too, as when police officers in general are less likely to believe persons who are Black, or homeless, or when an entire group lacks or is denied certain concepts or hermeneutical resources. In every one of these cases, silencing is brutal and destructive. Silencing is also deep-rooted, insidious, and pernicious; it works in different, often invisible, but extremely harmful, ways. Because of this, it is easy to feel hopeless: because it is not clear what we can do in response to something that is both subtle and systemic.
One thing we can do is to keep the stories of people like Oluwale and the women of Shiloh alive.
Fricker, Miranda (2007). Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing. Oxford: Oxford University Press