Structural Gaslighting, Epistemic Injustice, and Ableism in Philosophy

In the coming days and weeks, readers and listeners can expect additional posts about the pandemic and disability, including posts about nursing homes and institutionalized ableism and ageism (check out my earlier post about nursing homes here), about the ableism that conditions a recent statement on rationing from the Canadian Medical Association, and about how feminist philosophers have responded (or not) to the ways in which ableism continues to shape discourse about COVID-19 on social media, in academia, public policy, and the mainstream press.

These COVID-19-related posts will appear amidst other analyses and items that regularly appear on BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY, such as the upcoming installment of Dialogues on Disability. Indeed, I hope that you will join me and a special guest on Wednesday for the fifth anniversary installment as we reflect upon the past year’s interviews with discussion of passing, ableist privilege, and more. Of course, the entire archive of interviews can always be found on the Dialogues on Disability page of BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY here.

Today, I hope that you will enjoy reading or listening to the text version of a presentation that, under different circumstances, I would have delivered later this month to a Minorities and Philosophy (MAP) workshop at the University of Minnesota. The title of the presentation is “Structural Gaslighting, Epistemic Injustice, and Ableism in Philosophy.”


This presentation builds upon my previous inquiries into the ways in which disability is naturalized and depoliticized in philosophy. Although most philosophers and theorists of disability understand it as a natural human attribute, biological difference, or personal characteristic that only some people embody or possess, I maintain that disability is an apparatus of power relations in which everyone is implicated and entangled and in which everyone occupies a position.

Michel Foucault wrote that “the coupling of a set of practices and a regime of truth form an apparatus [of knowledge-power that] marks out in reality that which does not exist and legitimately submits it to the division between true and false” (2008, 19). The production of truth by and through an apparatus is intentional and nonsubjective, directed at certain strategic and political ends. For an apparatus, in Foucault’s sense, is an ensemble of (among other things) discourses, institutions, scientific statements, laws, administrative measures, and philosophical propositions that responds to an urgent need in a given historical moment (see Foucault, 1980, 194). My position, according to which disability is an apparatus of power, assumes that normalization is the urgent requirement to which the apparatus of disability continues to respond.

Given that I regard disability as a historically contingent and politically potent artifact of power rather than a natural human characteristic, biological difference, or personal attribute, my presentation relies upon the work of Foucault, Nora Berenstain, and Kristie Dotson rather than the claims of Eva Kittay, Elizabeth Barnes,  Anita Silvers, and other philosophers of disability. Whereas the latter philosophers tend to naturalize disability, the former philosophers identify the epistemic elements of subjection and 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. Indeed, a steady focus on force relations animates this presentation in which I consider ways that philosophers engage in “structural gaslighting” about disability.

I borrow the notion of structural gaslighting from Berenstain’s forthcoming article “White Feminist Gaslighting.” 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, the type of gaslighting popularized in the 1944 film Gaslight, is a pervasive form of emotional and psychological abuse in which someone intentionally and consistently 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.

Berenstain notes that although structural gaslighting is less widely recognized than the understanding of gaslighting that the Ingrid Bergman film popularized, it is more ubiquitous than that familiar form of gaslighting and causes harm on a scale that exceeds individual psychology.

In brief, Berenstain uses the term structural gaslighting to refer to “any conceptual work that functions to obscure the nonaccidental connections between structures of oppression and the patterns of harm that they produce and license.” People engage in structural gaslighting, Berenstain notes, “when they invoke epistemologies and ideologies of domination that actively disappear and obscure the actual causes, mechanisms, and effects of oppression.”

Let me offer this example to illustrate Berenstain’s description of structural gaslighting. People in Canada can be said to participate in structural gaslighting when they engage in what black journalist and activist Desmond Cole (2020) refers to as the “magical thinking” according to which race doesn’t operate in Canada, doesn’t hold anyone back. This magical thinking, Cole argues, conceals the ongoing racism and settler colonialism of Canada whereby black and Indigenous people in Canada are disproportionately apprehended by police and even killed by them and the Canadian government continues to confiscate unceded Indigenous land while depriving Indigenous communities in Canada of equal services, infrastructure, opportunities, adequate educational systems, and so on. 

In their outline of structural gaslighting, Berenstain refers to my remarks about epistemologies of domination, an idea that I introduced in Foucault and Feminist Philosophy of Disability to replace the notion of epistemology of ignorance, a notion which, as I explained, is both ableist and classist. The term epistemology of domination, I asserted, accomplishes the same conceptual purposes as the term epistemology of ignorance; yet, the former term leaves aside the pernicious effects of the latter term. Indeed, I maintain that the justifications that philosophers employ to legitimize their persistent use of ableist metaphors and other devices of ableist language ought themselves to be recognized as strategies of structural gaslighting.

As Berenstain points out, structural gaslighting enables dominant social groups to both retain oppressive systems of belief and sabotage conceptual resources that subordinated social groups could use to convey the nature of their oppression and thereby promote resistance. Structural gaslighting is in fact a vital element of apparatuses of oppression and the epistemologies of domination that reinforce and sustain them. As Berenstain argues, for example, structural gaslighting is central to white feminism, the dominant framework of understanding in feminist philosophy.

Following Iris Marion Young, Berenstain explains that white feminism is feminism that takes a single-axis approach to gender-based oppression, ignoring the intersections of sexist oppression with racism, classism, ableism, transphobia, and other systems of power (Berenstain, forthcoming, 5). Although white feminism is by no means universal feminism, it regards itself as such. As Young states, white feminism is a “one-size-fits all [feminism, where] middle class white women are the mold that others must fit. It is a method of practicing feminism, not an indictment of every individual white feminist, everywhere, always” (Young 2010, in Berenstain, forthcoming, 5; emphasis in Young).

In “White Feminist Gaslighting,” Berenstain wants to show that Miranda Fricker’s book on epistemic injustice engages in the structural gaslighting representative of “the serious white feminism problem in feminist philosophy.” Berenstain (2-3), using Dotson’s insights, is concerned to show that Fricker’s account of hermeneutical injustice participates in structural gaslighting in three ways: first, the account  construes gender-based oppression within a “whitewashed single-axis framework”; second, the account suggests that a conceptual understanding of sexual harassment did not exist until predominantly white women’s consciousness-raising groups gave it the name by which it is now commonly known; and third, the account fails to recognize the historical legacies of women of colour who, as Dotson points out, have produced epistemological resources of resistance to sexual harassment for as long as it has existed (8).

In short, Berenstain contends that insofar as Fricker ignores the conceptual knowledge that women of colour have produced about the norms, practices, and systems that license sexual harassment of them, she participates in a form of structural gaslighting that “fails to treat women of color as knowers [and knowledge creators, reflecting] the colonial meta-epistemological commitments of white feminism” (Berenstain, forthcoming, 2-3).

In Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing, Fricker (2007, 146–48) writes that the capacity of relatively powerless social groups to understand the world is jeopardized if dominant social groups disproportionately influence the interpretive resources available in social discourse at any given time. Asymmetrical relations of social power, Fricker explains, can skew shared hermeneutical resources in ways that both enable powerful social groups to understand their experiences and prevent relatively disempowered social groups from likewise understanding their experiences. Fricker asserts that the mid-twentieth-century feminist consciousness-raising groups, in which women publicly articulated experiences that had been systematically obscured and routinely privatized, were a direct response to the fact that epistemological resources had been unavailable to them. As I have indicated, however, Berenstain contests these claims, arguing that they do not account for the conceptual resources about sexual harassment that women of colour have produced nor for the forms of resistance to these infractions that they have devised.

In a pivotal section of Fricker’s book, she quotes an excerpt from Susan Brownmiller’s memoir (1990) about one woman’s epiphany in a group discussion of postpartum depression. As Brownmiller describes it, the woman realized that the depression she experienced—and for which she and her husband blamed her—was not a “personal deficiency [at all, but rather] a combination of physiological things and a real societal thing, isolation” (Brownmiller 1990, 182, in Fricker 2007, 149). Fricker asserts that the lack of understanding with which the woman had lived until this discussion constituted a harm inflicted upon her in her capacity as a knower, that is, it constituted a form of epistemic injustice, namely, a hermeneutical injustice.

Berenstain refers to my criticisms of Fricker’s claims about hermeneutical injustice in this context in order to substantiate their argument according to which Fricker misrepresents the effects of structural injustice as “one-off instances” of hermeneutical marginalization, that is, as the unfortunate consequences of “bad luck” that accrue to individuals.

My criticisms of Fricker’s well-known claims about hermeneutical injustice were designed to show that Fricker naturalizes and depoliticizes disability in these ways: first, by assuming a medicalized conception of disability as a tragic state of affairs; second, by denying that institutional structures and mechanisms create the social, economic, and political disadvantages that disabled people confront; and third, by ignoring the conceptual resources and epistemologies of resistance that various groups of disabled people produce about their own situations.

In feminist philosophy (as elsewhere in philosophy), disability is generally not conceived as a product of force relations, but rather remains widely regarded as an intrinsic, unfortunate, and politically neutral human characteristic or attribute, offering little that a politically informed feminist philosophy should analyze and interrogate. Indeed, Fricker’s discussion of hermeneutical injustice reproduces these sorts of biases about the taken-for-granted, apolitical, and philosophically uninteresting character of disability. Fricker understands disability as external to relations of power, that is, she assumes that force relations are external to the production of knowledge about disability, an assumption that a politically astute feminist philosophy of disability must eschew. 

As I have indicated, Fricker argues that not all hermeneutical disadvantages amount to hermeneutical injustices, drawing a distinction between hermeneutical disadvantages that inflict epistemic injustice and hermeneutical disadvantages that result from “bad luck” (2007, 149, 152, in Tremain 38-41). Fricker explains the distinction thus:

If…someone has a medical condition affecting their social behaviour at a historical moment at which that condition is still misunderstood and largely undiagnosed, then they may suffer from a hermeneutical disadvantage …. They are unable to render their experiences intelligible by reference to the idea that they have a disorder…and may also suffer seriously negative consequences from others’ non-comprehension of their condition. But they are not subject to hermeneutical injustice; rather, theirs is a poignant case of circumstantial bad luck. (Fricker 2007, 152)

For Fricker, the salient difference between women with postpartum depression and the person in the cited example is that in the former case, but not the latter, “background social conditions [prevailed] that were conducive to the relevant hermeneutical lacuna” (Fricker 2007, 152). Revelations about postpartum depression, Fricker claims, emerged in feminist consciousness-raising groups during a historical moment in which women were still markedly powerless in relation to men. This powerlessness, she writes, entailed that women had unequal hermeneutical participation, “[which] sort of inequality provides the crucial background conditions for hermeneutical injustice” (152). She asserts, furthermore, that when this kind of unequal hermeneutical participation exists with respect to some area of social experience, members of the relevant disadvantaged group are likely “hermeneutically marginalized” (153).

Berenstain, referring to my criticisms of this distinction in Fricker, argues that Fricker’s remarks in this regard typify the structural gaslighting that conditions her work in analytic feminist epistemology wherein nonaccidental structures of oppression are obscured in favour of individualized explanations.

Indeed, as I (2017) argued in Foucault and Feminist Philosophy of Disability, people with an “undiagnosed condition” whose social behavior is subject to “negative consequences” (41) due to the ways in which others perceive them are also members of a hermeneutically marginalized group; that is, the detrimental consequences that accrue to these people are produced by precisely the sort of social conditions from which Fricker claims that a hermeneutical disadvantage must result to qualify as a form of hermeneutical injustice.

Certain forms of unequal social power—that is, mechanisms of the apparatus of disability—produce an array of disciplinary norms about appropriate social behavior and interaction, modes of communication, rationality, emotional self-control, and so on. These historically specific forms of unequal power—that is, these “background conditions”—shape the public perceptions and authoritative epistemologies from which negative social, political, interpersonal, and economic consequences accrue to some people, naturalizing, medicalizing, and depoliticizing these perceptions and epistemologies in ways that conceal their contingent and artifactual character. The replication in feminist philosophy of practices that depoliticize and naturalize disability in this way constitutes ableist structural gaslighting par excellence. Indeed, my work to denaturalize and politicize disability in feminist philosophy points unambiguously in this direction.

Medical and juridical classifications that emerge from unequal background conditions produce the kinds of subjects that they are claimed to (merely) identify and represent. People are not naturally sorted into social groups and kinds in accordance with ontologically pre-existing categories such as sane and mad, healthy and sick, normal and pathological. Social groups and kinds of people come into being because we make them that way by and through the practices that we use to describe them.

The performative and artifactual character of human classifications in general and psychiatric diagnoses in particular does not nullify their disciplinary and punitive effects. People who, for any number of reasons, do not conform to highly regulated standards of (for instance) social behavior and interaction—such as people who are classified as “mentally ill” or perceived to be “insane”—are routinely discredited, ignored, vilified, and stigmatized.

Until the relatively recent formation and rise of “the mad pride movement” and related social movements, the hermeneutical resources that many disabled people required to collectively understand the political character of their situation were unavailable to them.

Nevertheless, disabled people in the mad pride movement and other social movements that aim to both subvert ableism and address how it is constituted by and with racism, sexism, settler colonialism, and classism, unfailingly manage to create practices of resistance  to ableist epistemologies of domination and other mechanisms of oppression, increasingly generating conceptual resources co-constitutive with these acts of resistance. Needless to say, the sort of complicated analysis that guides this mutually constitutive and mutually reinforcing theory and praxis is missing from Fricker’s single-axis framework, as Berenstain refers to it.

That Fricker neither takes account of the discourses of resistance that disabled people have articulated about the political origins of the “negative consequences” that attach to them, nor recognizes the unequal hermeneutical participation to which these defiant discourses in part respond is indicative of her participation in structural gaslighting, as Berenstain describes it.

Fricker’s assumptions, according to which disability is a disadvantageous personal characteristic or property that exists apart from and prior to relations of social power, reinforce and extend the marginalized and subordinated status of feminist philosophy of disability and foster ableist gaslighting in feminist philosophy more generally.

Due to the pervasiveness within the broader discipline of philosophy of the belief that disability is separate from social power relations, that is, because of the uncritical acceptance of this assumption in subfields across the discipline, most philosophers do not feel compelled to examine how their theoretical, professional, institutional, and discursive practices reproduce the apparatus of disability.

I want to point out, therefore, that the refusal on the part of (most) philosophers to reflect upon how the apparatus of disability conditions their epistemologies and practices is intertwined with and reproduces the continued exclusion of disabled philosophers from the profession and the persistent marginalization of philosophy of disability within the discipline. Indeed, the refusal on the part of philosophers to reflect on how the apparatus of disability and other apparatuses of power condition their own epistemologies and practices implicates these thinkers in a complicated pattern of ableist, racist, ageist, sexist, and colonialist gaslighting and other mechanisms of structural oppression that they should, instead, work to tear down.

The idea of structural gaslighting has considerable critical potential for feminist philosophy of disability; for analyses of racism in Canada, philosophy, and academia more generally; and for increased interrogation of nondisabled white feminism in feminist philosophy.

For example, the idea of structural gaslighting can be used to talk back to justifications that philosophers employ to legitimize their persistent appeal to ableist metaphors and other devices of ableist language, as well as used to counter arguments that bioethicists advance to naturalize and re-biologize the apparatuses of disability and race, including disabling claims about the glorious fictions of “quality of life” and “wellbeing”  and racialized assumptions with respect to (for instance) sexual desire, pain, and body size. When combined with Foucault’s work, the idea of structural gaslighting will, I predict, enable the articulation of genealogies of power relations and analysis of their current formations that do not take recourse in foundationalist claims about ideology.

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