Structural Gaslighting, Racism in Canada, and Ableism in Philosophy

During the past week, I’ve worked on my presentation for the upcoming philoSOPHIA 2020 conference at Vanderbilt University. As I indicated in an earlier post, I decided not to attend the conference in person due to the air travel that my doing so would require. I’ve chosen instead to participate in the equally exciting Speciesism and Other Discriminations symposium in Montreal where I will speak on a panel with Alice Crary about ableism and speciesism. My plan is to Skype into the philoSOPHIA conference on the morning of May 15th and present at the Montreal symposium in the afternoon of May 15th. The title of my presentation for the philoSOPHIA conference is “Structural Gaslighting, Epistemic Injustice, and Ableism in Philosophy.” My title for the panel at the Montreal symposium is “Ableism, Animals, and Apparatuses.”

Given that I regard disability as a politically potent artifact of force relations rather than a natural human characteristic (Kittay), a mere human difference (Barnes), or a politically neutral human attribute (Silvers), my philoSOPHIA presentation draws upon the work of Michel Foucault, Nora Berenstain, and Kristie Dotson rather than the claims of Eva Kittay, Elizabeth Barnes,  Anita Silvers, or other philosophers of disability. Whereas the latter philosophers tend (each in their own ways) to naturalize disability, the former philosophers identify the epistemological elements of oppression in ways that enable me to unpack how the apparatus of disability is constituted as natural, as prediscursive, as politically neutral, and so on.

I take the term structural gaslighting from Berenstain’s forthcoming article “White Feminist Gaslighting” (the penultimate draft of which is currently on PhilPapers here). As Berenstain defines it, structural gaslighting is “any conceptual work that functions to obscure the nonaccidental connections between structures of oppression and the patterns of harm that they produce and license.” Structural gaslighting, Berenstain explains, enables dominant social groups to both retain oppressive systems of belief and hamper conceptual resources that subordinated social groups could use to articulate the nature of their oppression and thereby promote resistance.

Berenstain, in order to motivate a discussion of the gaslighting that characterizes white feminist methodology and epistemology, distinguishes the effects of structural gaslighting from the effects of the more familiar form of gaslighting associated with epistemic harms inflicted upon individual subjects. The latter type of gaslighting, popularized in the 1944 film Gaslight, is a form of emotional and psychological abuse in which someone repeatedly undermines the perceptions of another person who is led to increasingly doubt their own observations and conclusions, especially their observations and conclusions about their own circumstances and states of affairs that surround them.

The feminist philosophical literature on the type of gaslighting that targets individuals invariably refers to the process as a concerted effort to make a given subject feel crazy or as if they are losing their mind. My remarks about gaslighting will, however, avoid appeal to such explanations which I regard as ableist, even when their terms of reference are cocooned within scare quotes.

Berenstain notes that although structural gaslighting is less widely recognized than the understanding of gaslighting that the Ingrid Bergman film popularized, it is more pervasive than that familiar form of gaslighting, causing harm on a scale that exceeds individual psychology. Consider the following example as an illustration of Berenstain’s claims about structural gaslighting.

I contend that people in Canada can be said to participate in structural gaslighting when they engage in what black journalist and activist Desmond Cole (2020a; also see Cole 2020b) refers to as the “magical thinking” according to which race doesn’t operate in Canada. This magical thinking, Cole explains, conceals the ongoing racism and settler colonialism of Canada whereby black men in Canada are disproportionately apprehended by police and even killed by them and the Canadian government continues to confiscate unceded Indigenous land.

Miranda Fricker’s Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing—in particular, Fricker’s ideas about hermeneutical injustice—is the primary target of Berenstain’s critique of the structural gaslighting central to feminist philosophy. As Berenstain explains it, Fricker’s book is representative of the “serious white feminism problem in feminist philosophy.”

In order to substantiate their claims according to which Fricker engages in gaslighting of women of colour and other groups marginalized within philosophy and society at large, Berenstain draws upon the work of (among others) Kristie Dotson (2011, 2012, 2019), Elena Flores Ruíz (2012, 2014, 2019a, b) and Rachel McKinnon (2017), as well as upon my criticisms of Fricker’s claims about hermeneutical injustice (see Tremain 2017a, b). In particular, Berenstain uses my criticisms of Fricker’s distinction between hermeneutical disadvantages that involve epistemic injustice and hermeneutical disadvantages that do not.

As I will indicate in my philoSOPHIA presentation, I think that the idea of structural gaslighting holds considerable critical potential for feminist philosophy of disability and analyses of racism in Canada. For example, I think the idea of structural gaslighting can be used to talk back to justifications that philosophers continue to employ in order to legitimize their persistent appeal to ableist metaphors and other devices of ableist language, as well as used to counter arguments that bioethicists (including feminist bioethicists) employ to naturalize and depoliticize the apparatus of disability. When combined with Foucault’s work, furthermore, the idea of structural gaslighting will enable analysis of genealogies of power and its current formations that do not take recourse in foundationalist claims about ideology.

I encourage you to check out Berenstain’s forthcoming article “White Feminist Gaslighting” here. To increase the accessibility of the presentations that I mention above, I will post to BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY the full text of my philoSOPHIA presentation immediately prior to my delivery of it via Skype on the morning of May 15th. Later that day, I will post my Montreal presentation to BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.


Berenstain, Nora. Forthcoming. “White Feminist Gaslighting.” Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy. Pre-publication draft at PhilPapers.

Cole, Desmond. 2020a. “Interview for The Current.” CBC Radio. February 6.

Cole, Desmond. 2020b. “I Don’t Care If You’re Racist. I Care If You’re Hurting Me.” The Tyee, February 14.

Dotson, Kristie. 2019. “On the Costs of Socially Relevant Philosophy Papers: A Reflection.” Journal of Social Philosophy.

Dotson, Kristie. 2012. “A Cautionary Tale: On Limiting Epistemic Oppression. Frontiers 33 (1): 24-47.

Dotson, Kristie. 2011. “Tracking Epistemic Violence, Tracking Practices of Silencing. Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy 26 (2): 236-57.

Fricker, Miranda. 2007. Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McKinnon, Rachel. 2017. “Allies Behaving Badly: Gaslighting as Epistemic Injustice.” In The Routledge Handbook on Epistemic Injustice, edited by Ian James Kidd, José Medina, and Gaile Pohlhaus, Jr. New York: Routledge.

Ruíz, Elena Flores, 2019a. “The Secret Life of Violence.” In Frantz Fanon and Emancipatory Social Theory, edited by Dustin Byrd. Boston: Brill Press.

Ruíz, Elena Flores. 2019b. “Between Hermeneutic Violence and Alphabets of Survival.” In Theories of the Flesh: Latinx and Latin American Feminisms, Transformation, and Resistance, edited by Andrea Pitts, Mariana Ortega & José Medina. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ruíz, Elena Flores. 2014. “Musing: Spectral Phenomenologies: Dwelling Poetically in Professional Philosophy”. Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy 29(1), 196–204.

Ruíz, Elena Flores. 2012. “Theorizing Multiple Oppressions Through Colonial History: Cultural Alterity and Latin American Feminisms.” APA Newsletter on Hispanic/Latino Issues in Philosophy 11(2): 5-9.

Tremain, Shelley L. 2017a. Foucault and Feminist Philosophy of Disability. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Tremain, Shelley. 2017b. “Knowing Disability, Differently.” In The Routledge Handbook on Epistemic Injustice, edited by Ian James Kidd, José Medina, and Gaile Pohlhaus, Jr. New York: Routledge.

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