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"Knowingness" and Forms of Oppression

Concept Index

California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Latest update: January 24, 2000
E-Mail Curran or Takata.

"Knowingness" Excerpts from Oppression and Revolution

Introduction: Knowingness and Oppression
Psycho-Physical Anchors in Reality
Women Who Challenge Men's "Knowingness"
Paulo Freire's Circles of Certainty
Hockenberry's Codes That Prevent Others From Testing Reality
Normative Ordering and "Knowingness"

Questions to Spark Your Thinking



Introduction: Knowingness and Oppression

These excerpts from Curran and Takata's Oppression and Revolution illustrate the extent to which they believe that our "need to know," our need to be certain, to eliminate ambiguity and complexity, to categorize and classify sets up a social context in which it is nearly impossible not to oppress others. Minow makes a similar agument in her emphasis on the harm of unstated assumptions which privilege a limited perspective by failing to recognize difference and how it must be incorporated not only into our own apperceptive masses, but also into the laws and norms we permit to structure our society.



A Psycho-Physical Anchor in Reality

In the 1970s Jones and Gerard (Foundations of Social Psychology) summarized a theoretical concept of great solace. After all our careful study of knowledge and the extent to which we can or cannot rely on it, the extent to which we can "know" reality out there, after all the concern we have raised over solipsism and the need to recognize that what we "know" is deeply affected by the perspective of our own experiences, we begin to share the philosopher's angoisse over the impossibility of ever "knowing" anything. The psycho-physical anchor in reality offers solace and security, despite its pedantic name. This theory says simply that we even though we are limited in some ways by our own perspective, even though absolute "knowing" of other perspectives might be impossible, we can get feedback on those other perspectives. We can cast out an occasional anchor into whatever is out there to see if it will hold. We can test our ideas of reality and of knowledge by checking to see how others perceive that same context. If we are the only ones to see that reality as we do, we might consider that "fifty million Frenchmen can't be wrong," and maybe reconsider our position. On the other hand, we might recall that everyone agreed the earth was flat until a few great minds began to understand astronomy and recognized the earth was spherical, and soon, that it was not even the center of the universe. "Fifty million Frenchmen" would probably have assured them they were wrong.

An anchor out into reality (socially constructed in this context by our peers and colleagues), if it holds its mooring, assures us that we are not alone. To a very real extent that validates our thinking for us. And that gives us some stability and security, just what an anchor ought to do. Unfortunately the anchor could be mired out there in "wrong thinking," lending us a spurious or false sense of security about our beliefs. That is the essence of the feminist critique of male-centered theory about women. Some of the greatest discoveries have come from those who had the courage to tolerate the ambiguity of not knowing, of not having their ideas confirmed in the immediate present. Einstein's theory of relativity was not accepted overnight.



Women Who Challenge Men's "Knowingness"

Catharine MacKinnon sails right out there and challenges some of our most cherished concepts, offending many of us. Marilyn French's heroine in The Women's Room, concludes that even her two sons are the enemy. Mernissi challenges the truth of the hadith. Such forcefulness, such open discrediting of the male perspective remains controversial. Their anchors must not hold in many moorings. Yet their faith and persistence in challenging are often what forces us into rechecking our own moorings for spurious stability, for a false sense of security based on the misperceptions of theorists who have failed to hear many women's voices. We need leaders who forge into new territory. And we need leaders who moor the anchors firmly, at least according to the adversarial concept on which our system of justice is based. Over time, we hope to find a course that works for most of the world's women.

The concept of the psycho-physical anchor in reality serves us well in another context. It reminds us that we must not cease checking our moorings. We must not cut off knowledge, even knowledge that fails to support our perspective. The anchor keeps us from locking ourselves in an ivory tower or a harem, protected from the real and functioning world out there, the world where others' subjectivities must be taken into account along with our own. There is a certain comfort to chosen isolation from confrontation and opposition. But that comfort can lead us astray into paths that others cannot follow. It can destroy our usefulness to social change, if that is what we seek. When our ideas do not take into account the reality measured by that psycho-physical anchor, our ideas are far more likely to remain isolated and sterile. The anchor brings us back to the focus of making actual social changes in which the condition of women will improve.



Paulo Freire's Circles of Certainty

Paolo Freire, in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, expresses this concept of the anchor in another way. He calls "sectarian" anyone, right or left, who closes him(her)self into "circles of certainty." To "know" is to shut oneself off from hearing others, to patronize them by making decisions for them, in the surety that you are right. Note how similar this concept is to the "privileging of subjectivity." Says Freire, "The radical and the reactionary both suffer from an absence of doubt." (p. 21) Another way to say this might be: the radical and the reactionary have each decided that there is no longer any reason for them to throw a psycho-physical anchor out there into external reality. They are sure they are right. They don't need to test reality. And therein lies the terrible danger of "privileging subjectivities."



Hockenberry's Codes That Prevent Others From Testing Reality

Hockenberry, in Moving Violations, raises the issue of how we sometimes, in our desperation of loneliness and uncertainty, choose isolation over feedback from the many realities out there. Some of us are so frustrated over the silencing of our voices that we wrap our isolation around us and choose not to let others in.

"Though this is a nation of suspicious enclaves and ignorant spectators, I have come to believe that the experiences of struggle that define the peoples of America, and ultimately their world, can be shared. We are taught to believe that knowing what others have been through is impossible in our rainbow coalition of American enclaves (members only need apply). With hate and suspicion, each group claims that no one outside its enclave can know their experience, and that the indecipherable walls around each group grow higher. The Tee shirt says: "It's a Black Thing." The codes of experience are like closely guarded family secrets where the key to the code has been thrown away. As a white person I understand the feeling of not knowing the code, as a person in a wheelchair I know the experience of selfishly guarding the code and punishing those outsiders who don't know it."
(Moving Violations, p. 352)

Hockenberry's definition of multicultural diversity is twofold:

The pattern of behavior he describes that is indicative of the fear, anger, frustration, is the recognition of the passing on through membership, initiation, and orthodoxy rituals of a code of experience. In particular, he notes that no one could know the code unless invited to learn it by the group, and that the group does not invite the sharing because that would violate insider status. Then, the group uses the fact that outsiders do not know the code to punish them by rejecting them, and to take that as proof that outsiders cannot know the code. We see this pattern repeated in men trying to understand women, and vice versa. We see it with adolescents and adults. We see it with ethnic and religious groups.

One of the excerpts in this text, Breaking Bread, was based on a desire to have you recognize the extent to which it is important that we try to explain the code to one another, even when we aren't sure what the code is. Remember that the apperceptive mass includes much experience that is out-of-awareness, not clearly and easily articulable. But when we invite others to listen in, as bell hooks and Cornel West do in Breaking Bread, we are making an effort to bridge the gap of solipsism, to open doors that have been too long locked.



Normative Ordering and "Knowingness"

Normative ordering, as used here, is a theoretical concept that suggests that we view institutions through a certain normative context. We have expectations of how the institutional system works, we respond to the system in terms of those expectations. Those who have experience in making decisions, having risen to a certain level of power in one institution are normally able to transfer their power and decision-making skills to their perceptions of different institutional systems and transfer their skills in negotiating the system. On the other hand, those who have experienced powerlessness lack such skills in wielding power. They are more likely to coneive of the intstitution as working in ways similar to the individualized experiences of their lives. Their normative perceptions of the institution are different from that of those who have experienced empowerment. Their manner of ordering their relationships to the institution is reflective of their ordering of personal experience. This often leads to their finding barriers to their negotiation of the system.

Women who have had no experience of administrative power might well accept derivative power from a supervisor, never thinking to seek actual and direct decision-aking power on their own intitiative. They may also negotiate the system through interpersonal relationships, not seeing the overall power relationships, and not making any effort to move into the power network. Normative ordering provides a framework for us to understand the kinds of relationships we develop with respect to other individuals in institutions and to the institution itself.



Questions to Spark Your Thinking