Wednesday 10 January 2024

When is dismissing a report an act of injustice?

There is a fable by Aesop called The Stag and the Fawn. The stag scares the rest of the herd with his stamping and bellowing but is terrified by the hound. Aesop tells us that this is a story about courage and cowardice but it can also be seen as a story about power relations in a group. The stag can afford to terrorise the other deer because he is more powerful and more highly respected than they are.


The Stag and the Fawn by Aesop  

A STAG, grown old and mischievous, was, according to custom, stamping with his foot, making offers with his head, and bellowing so terribly that the whole herd quaked with fear of him; when one of the little fawns, coming up to him, addressed him thus: Pray, what is the reason that you, who are so formidable at all other times, if you do but hear the cry of the hounds, are ready to fly out of your skin for fear?

What you observe is true, replied the stag, though I know not how to account for it. I am indeed vigorous and able, and often resolve that nothing shall ever dismay my courage; but alas! I no sooner hear the voice of a hound but my spirits fail me, and I cannot help making off as fast as my legs can carry me.

Moral: The greatest braggarts are the greatest cowards.

(Aesop's Fables, 1881, WM.L. Allison, New York)

Consider another story featuring a fawn, mother and father deer, and a mountain lion. Watch the video below, which was produced by Squideo from a script I wrote in order to illustrate what epistemic injustice is.

The Fawn and the Mountain Lion 

When is dismissing another's report an act of injustice? 

Father deer (to Mother Deer and Fawn): It’s late let's go to the lake to get some water before it gets dark.

Fawn (eyeing an acorn in the bushes): Wow I would love to gobble that up! (spotting a mountain lion): Oh no, never mind the acorn! 

Fawn (running to catch up with Mother and Father Deer down the lake): Mommy Daddy I just saw a huge mountain lion behind the bushes! We have to go, it is not safe here!

Father Deer (sceptical): If there was a mountain lion behind the bushes I would have heard the steps… you must have imagined it.

Mother Deer (concerned): I am not sure we should stay. Shouldn't we listen to Little Fawn and get back to the herd? Fawn has never lied to us before! 

Father Deer (in a patronising tone): Calm down, young ones don't distinguish reality from imagination and they always try to draw attention to themselves. (then smiling to Fawn) Why don't you get some water little Fawn, you will be thirsty otherwise! This water is delicious, so fresh!

(Mountain Lion attacks Father Deer and bites his the leg but is chased away by Owl descending on the scene with loud screchees)

Mother Deer (to Father Deer): Are you okay?

Owl (to the viewers): We sometimes dismiss a report when we don't trust the speaker due to some negative stereotype but in dismissing what the speaker has to say we pay a high price. We reject information that can be valuable to us.

Mother Deer: You are right wise owl.  In our herd, females and fawns are never listened to but little Fawn recognizes a mountain lion when he sees one! To dismiss him is not just risky, it is an injustice! He should not be silenced when he has something to say.

In this story, the fawn sees a mountain lion and warns his father that there is danger but is not believed. The reason why the fawn is not believed is important: the fawn is not known for lying, being unreliable, or seeking attention, as his mother points out. However, his father assumes that the fawn's report is not something worth acting upon, based on the assumption that fawns are likely to confuse reality with imagination and to draw attention to themselves. 

As the dismissal of the fawn's warning is motivated by stereotypes usually associated with the young, it is a case of epistemic injustice. Not an isolated case either: mother deer reflects bitterly on the fact that in a very hierarchical society like theirs, the views of fawns and females are often openly disregarded, whereas the views by the dominant males are taken seriously. What are the effects of this?

In the story we see two types of effects. First, the fawn and his mother are saddened and disappointed by the deer's lack of consideration for what they have to say. We can imagine the fawn deciding not to warn his herd in the future for fear of being ignored and ridiculed. We can also imagine the fawn internalising his father's criticism and coming to consider himself as unreliable.

Second, father deer, who ignores the warning, is attacked and wounded by the mountain lion, who runs away only when the owl screeches loudly causing a commotion. Ignoring the warning caused him harm as he could not avail himself of important information that would have prevented the mountain lion's attack.

The story is so short that there is no time to explore the further consequences of the event and the development of its characters. However, it shows some interesting features of epistemic injustice, including the pervasive and harmful nature of unquestioned stereotypes and the fact that it harms the vulnerable person whose report is dismissed but also, more subtly, the powerful person who dismisses it.

Young people are often thought to be lazy, immature, lacking resilience, and seeking attention. They are often called "snowflakes" and "drama queens" in the press. These are not harmless stereotypes as they may affect the likelihood that we listen to what they have to say and take their testimony seriously. Their capacity to acquire and share knowledge is even more severely challenged when they experience mental health problems, as their reports may be taken to be a product of their illness as opposed to a reflection of their experiences.

This is what interests me about EPIC, our project on epistemic injustice in the healthcare context: how we can make sense of the dismissal of young people who experience mental health difficulties, and how we can stop it.

This post is by Lisa Bortolotti, who is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Birmingham and an investigator in EPIC. Among other things, Lisa creates and gathers resources to bring philosophy to everyone at The Philosophy Garden, where you find the video of The Fawn and the Mountain Lion and other videos on a number of timely issues that deserve attention.

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