Righting the Wrongs of Erasure

Why we have ethical reasons to revise the dominant historical narrative.

Posted Sep 27, 2019

There is, at present, considerable attention being paid to our narratives about the past, with the aim of correcting the historical record by reinserting voices that have been excised. Popular publications like the 1619 Project are representative of this moment. It aims to recover and widely disseminate facts about the centrality of enslaved Africans and their descendants to the history of this country, from colonial times to the present. Other publications attend to the erasure in elementary school curriculum of indigenous populations subjected to colonial violence and to the erasure of enslaved people from the narratives presented at historical landmarks.

The project of revising the historical narrative to include the voices of individuals and groups who’ve been unjustly excluded isn’t new. That doesn’t make it any less worthwhile. There are good reasons to re-inscribe erased voices into the book of collective memory. But not all of these reasons are given their due.

James Lee/Unsplash
Source: James Lee/Unsplash

Let’s begin by separating the wheat from the chaff. One motivation to revise our representation of the past is that it advances a political agenda. It’s happened before. And there are surely some who would lob similar suspicions on those engaged in current attempts to revise the dominant historical narrative. But the fact that it would advance one’s political agenda is not a good reason to alter our understanding of history. Those engaged in writing the story of where we’ve been should be guided by the aim of accuracy. The fact that a revision to the dominant historical narrative would render it more accurate is surely a good reason for making the change.

Now, it’s entirely possible that a more accurate understanding of history may happen to align with a particular political agenda. It’s even possible that a particular political orientation or agenda may motivate one to investigate the accuracy of the dominant historical narrative. But this is not the same thing as allowing one’s political aims to guide one’s reinterpretation of history. Sometimes the truth serves one’s ends; sometimes it doesn’t. An honest historian should be open to the facts, whatever their relationship to their political orientation.

Accuracy is a good reason to revise the historical record; ideology is not. But there is a third kind of reason for correcting our narratives about the past by, in particular, restoring the contributions of those who have been erased. It’s the right thing to do. Historical erasure of the sort that concerns those engaged in the scholarship mentioned at the outset of this post constitutes a form of epistemic injustice. It wrongs various people in their capacity as members of our epistemic community, as individuals engaged in the collective project of grasping where we’ve been, where we’re at, and where we’re going.

Epistemic injustice is typically characterized as taking one of two forms. The central case is that of testimonial injustice, in which an individual or group is unfairly granted less credibility because of their identity. Examples include African American patients whose testimony regarding their own pain is discounted or explained away by members of the medical establishment, as well as women whose contributions to boardroom discussions are ignored or not taken seriously. These people are wronged as givers of knowledge. They may suffer a loss of intellectual confidence and develop a distorted sense of their own identities, adopting and living up to self-conceptions shaped by externally imposed, deleterious stereotypes. Failure to give them their due credit as knowers and sources of knowledge is to treat them as less than human. They may be epistemically marginalized, even to the point where they’re excluded from the class of individuals considered capable of possessing knowledge. They may, in a word, be dehumanized.

What’s more, testimonial injustice doesn’t only wrong those whose contributions to the collective body of knowledge are discounted, excluded, or otherwise discredited. It also wrongs those who draw on this body of knowledge and those to whom it will be passed down. Epistemic injustice anywhere is a threat to knowledge everywhere.

Andrew Ruiz/Unsplash
Source: Andrew Ruiz/Unsplash

This brings us to the second form of epistemic injustice. People suffer hermeneutical injustice when their attempts to understand their experiences are hampered by a lack of epistemic resources to make sense of them. For example, in the 1619 Project’s lead essay, Nikole Hannah-Jones recounts her inability to understand her father’s patriotism in light of the meager historical resources of her school curriculum and popular culture. She had been taught, often implicitly, that the American flag, which her father flew from the front porch, didn’t really belong to people like her. It wasn’t until she recovered for herself African Americans’ historical contributions to the origin, development, and protection of this country and its founding ideals that she was able to fully understand her father’s pride in his country. And in light of her understanding of the distance between the common historical narrative and the actual historical record, she was able to better understand her youthful confusion.

The primary wrong of hermeneutical injustice is that one is incapable of grasping and communicating something of deep interest. As with testimonial injustice, this can involve unwarranted exclusion from the community of knowers—it can involve dehumanization. It can also hamper self-development and lead to various other practical and epistemic harms. And both forms of epistemic injustice can feed off each other. Those excluded from the epistemic community because they’re unfairly discredited as knowers will likely lack resources for making sense of their situations, and lacking the ability to appropriately communicate one’s own experiences may be taken as evidence that one isn’t a credible informant.

It may be unclear, however, how erasure from the dominant historical narrative is supposed to constitute a form of epistemic injustice. Let’s begin by considering the similarities and differences between erasure and silencing. Miranda Fricker, who wrote the book on epistemic injustice, discusses two forms of silencing in connection with testimonial injustice. First, one may be silenced by not being allowed to speak in the first place. This amounts to a form of pre-emptive testimonial injustice when it stems from an unwarranted judgment that, because of one’s identity, one has nothing worth sharing. Erasure is like this form of silencing in that it also involves a failure to register a subject’s testimony about the world in the collective body of knowledge. But it’s different in at least this respect: the erased subject’s words and deeds were, for a time, at least, part of the historical narrative. Their contribution to collective understanding was not pre-empted; it was expurgated after the fact.

A second way in which one may be silenced is by being granted so little credibility that, even though one is allowed to speak, what one says fails to register as testimony. Fricker’s example here is of a woman who says “No!” to an unwanted sexual advance. She speaks, but her words don’t register with her assailant because she’s not taken seriously. Someone silenced in this way is treated as a mere source of information, like any other object in the world, rather than as a subject capable of informing others about their own experience of the world. Erasure is like this second form of silencing in that those whose voices are excised from the dominant historical narrative are erased as historical subjects. But erasure is often more totalizing than this form of silencing. Those erased from our collective understanding of history often aren’t even included as sources of information; they’re simply absent from the story.

Erasure, like silencing, looks a lot like a form of testimonial injustice. In at least some cases, it involves unfairly discrediting and excommunicating people of particular identities from the community of knowers by erasing them from the historical narrative. It treats them as if they don’t have anything to add to our understanding of the past by simply removing them, in the re-telling, from the grand play of history. But does this wrong them? If these people are no longer alive, it may seem as if they can’t be harmed by their erasure. This may seem to undercut the claim that there are ethical considerations in favor of restoring their voices.

There are two reasons to reject this skepticism. First, it’s just not clear that the deceased can’t be harmed. Consider the reasons you have not to dishonor your relative’s will after they’ve passed away. It’s natural to think that to do so would be to, in some sense, harm them. But even if you don’t find that convincing, there are ethical reasons to correct erasure from the historical record having to do with the living. Those of us trying to understand the past are hampered in our ability to do so when credible sources are unduly removed from the body of collective knowledge. And the situation is even worse for those whose ability to make sense of their own experience is hampered by the erasure of voices, especially voices from subjects they identify with, who could otherwise shed valuable light on things. Thus, erasure is not only a form of testimonial injustice; it can contribute to hermeneutical injustice.

It seems, then, that there are at least two kinds of reasons to correct the historical narrative by re-inscribing voices that were unjustifiably erased. One set of reasons has to do with accuracy, but there are ethical reasons to do so as well. And while this project may coincide with a particular political orientation or agenda, it need not be motivated by a desire to further that agenda. It may be rooted in a good-faith attempt to treat people—past, present, and future—with the dignity they deserve as subjects capable of testifying to the nature of their experiences and thereby contributing to greater collective understanding. We can all benefit as a result.