Hermeneutic Injustice and Public School Reforms
By: Logan Bohlinger
In the past few months, Missouri State senators and representatives in the Republican party have introduced a flurry of bills placing restrictions on course materials and classroom instruction in public and private schools alike. These bills aim to restrict teachers’ abilities to broach topics of racial justice, gender, and sexual orientation. While there are too many bills under consideration in the state legislature to list them all here, a brief survey of some of the more sweeping reforms will be sufficient to begin an analysis of the moral valence of this current educational agenda.
House Bill 952 restricts the teaching of “critical race theory” and related notions of racial justice in K-12 education as well as in post-secondary education. The Senate is currently considering a similar bill, Senate Bill 4, that also restricts the teaching of critical race theory while providing teachers bonuses if they undergo training to teach “patriotism” to their students. House Bill 634 is one of a few pieces of legislation under consideration that would restrict classroom instruction on topics related to sexual orientation and gender identity. Senate Bill 134 goes even further. No school personnel, including counselors and medical staff, are allowed to discuss sexual orientation or gender identity with any student unless said personnel are certified mental healthcare practitioners that have the permission of a student’s parents to do so. Finally, SB 775, which recently passed, has led to the removal of over 300 books from Missouri Public School libraries for containing what could possibly be deemed sexually explicit material, according to an investigation conducted by PEN America. Memoirs of transgender people, but also books on the Holocaust and on art history, were caught up in this ban.
I wish to characterize these legislative efforts, and efforts like it across the country, as instances of a particular type of moral harm called “hermeneutic injustice.” Most contemporary discussions of hermeneutical injustice have their origin in the writings of the philosopher Miranda Fricker. As such, I’ll refer to her influential book, Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing, to lay out the main features of this form of moral harm. She defines hermeneutical injustice as “the injustice of having some significant area of one’s social experience obscured from collective understanding owing to hermeneutical marginalization.” Now even this definition requires explanation. To lay out the central idea roughly, human beings interpret their experiences through what are called “hermeneutical frames.” Hermeneutical frames are a collection of concepts we bring to bear on our experiences when we interpret them for ourselves and explain them to one another. For instance, an individual might interpret their experiences of anhedonia, malaise, lack of motivation, and weight loss as depression. In doing so, this individual is interpreting their experience through the hermeneutical frame of mental health. But note that the same set of phenomena is compatible with competing interpretations. One could, for instance, interpret a person exhibiting these symptoms as merely dull and lazy.
While there are, in theory, indefinitely many hermeneutical frames one can use when interpreting their experiences, not all frames are equally good. Some frames render phenomena intelligible in a way that is of greater benefit to the interpreting agents. Our former example is one such case. It is in the interest of a depressed person to understand their symptoms as constituting depression. Understanding these symptoms in this way empowers an individual to seek treatment. On the contrary, interpreting one’s experiences as mere laziness naturally leads to feelings of guilt and inadequacy, likely compounding the very phenomena one is misinterpreting.
That the quality of our hermeneutical frames is variable creates the possibility of injustice. Miranda Fricker takes, as a paradigm case, the concept of post-partum depression. Before the feminist movement of the 1960s and 70s, there wasn’t a widely known medical concept of post-partum depression. Many women who experienced post-partum depression were likely to believe that they were bad mothers who were incapable of adequately caring for their children. Their doctors and husbands also lacked the understanding that these experiences are normal after childbirth and surprisingly common. Thus, women experiencing these symptoms were often targets of moral blame from the very people best situated to provide assistance. Importantly, though, this lacuna in social understanding didn’t arise by accident. The systematic exclusion of women from medical and academic professions is a significant reason why this concept remained poorly understood into the late 20th century. This gap in women’s collective understanding was a by-product of the broader injustices women faced.
It is typically the marginalized peoples in one’s society that lack the hermeneutic resources to render their experiences intelligible to themselves and others. The harm of hermeneutical injustice is two-fold. First, the individual experiences distress at the inability to render herself intelligible both to herself and to others. She can find no language with which to communicate an important part of her life to those who ought to know about it. The second set of harms arises out of the first. The lack of concepts with which to make oneself understood often leads to harmful consequences for the marginalized. Before the adoption of the concept of homosexuality in Western society, gay men and women were harshly punished for perversion. Later, the concept of homosexuality was taken up by the nascent psychological sciences and pathologized. Gay men and women were treated as though they were mentally ill. Without the ability to meaningfully participate in the collective meaning-making around homosexuality, queer people were forced to have their experiences interpreted by them by others. As a result, many queer people were criminalized, institutionalized, or, in some cases, sterilized.
Returning to Missouri’s proposed education reforms, preventing the discussion of topics like race and sexuality in the classroom constitutes hermeneutic injustice because it prevents marginalized students from gaining access to concepts that would allow them to interpret their experiences in ways that are in their interest. Without concepts like redlining, privilege, generational wealth, and the like, it can be hard for students of color to understand the ways that historic injustices negatively influence their lives still today. Queer students may struggle to understand why their experiences of gender do not match those of their peers without a good understanding of human gender diversity. In both cases, this lack of knowledge can lead to serious moral and psychological harm on the part of the student. In fact, it seems as though this is the very purpose of these reforms. Understanding enables political action. There can be no progress on issues of racial justice if the forms of injustice faced by people of color are poorly understood.
Access to accounts of transgender experiences may lead to students recognizing themselves in the experiences of others. While it seems that some politicians think that students can be turned trans by discussions of gender identity, this is patently untrue. All depriving students of the hermeneutical frame of gender identity does is lead to confusion and suffering on the part of students who cannot make sense of their own lives. When these students find themselves unable to conform to the gendered expectations of their family and community, the hermeneutical resources of a queer theoretic understanding of gender identity can save them from acute distress, mental health crises, and suicidality. This isn’t mere speculation either. My life was saved, in a very literal sense, by the thoughtful discussions my high school psychology teacher led on the psychology of gender and sexuality. I had believed for years that being gay made me immoral and perverse. Learning instead that homosexuality is natural, psychologically explainable, and to a greater or lesser degree innate saved me from seriously harming myself.
Hermeneutical injustice is injustice resulting from a lack of knowledge and understanding. As a distinctly epistemic harm, it demands an epistemic solution. While more marginalized voices need to participate in collective meaning-making to patch up our interpretive gaps, we must also ensure the insights that have already been gained are accessible to all who need them. If we cannot depend on our educational institutions to rectify the wrongs that arise from ignorance, what institutions can we count upon?