Situated Knowledge and Speaking For: Protests in Iran and Why We Should Talk about Them
By Genae Matthews, AEP Graduate Fellow
On September 16th, 2022, Mahsa Amini died in a hospital in Tehran, Iran. She was twenty-two years old. Three days prior, Amini had been detained by the Iranian Gasht-e-Ershad (morality police) for violating an Iranian law which requires all women to wear a hijab in public. By way of announcing Amini’s death, the Gasht-e-Ershad released a statement saying that she had collapsed from a heart attack at the detention center while receiving training on hijab rules. Amini’s family immediately disputed that claim, saying that she was perfectly healthy prior to being detained.
In Iran, Amini’s death has sparked a countrywide reckoning not just over religious laws, but over a decades-old authoritarian clerical state and a deeply divisive supreme leader. Iranian women have ripped off and burned their hijabs in raging bonfires, and demonstrations have erupted in nearly every major city and college campus. While Iranian women have contested hijab mandates for decades, the current protests are one of the largest mass mobilizations against the Iranian regime’s strict ‘morality’ laws since the country’s 1979 revolution.
In the West, Amini’s death urges us to reconcile two seemingly intractable commitments: the idea that there are certain experiences, like those of Iranian women, that we will never be able to fully know about by virtue of not being Iranian women ourselves, and the idea that we ought to give voice to those experiences as Iranians’ access to social media and news outlets becomes increasingly restricted. If we think that we should assert only what we know, then, since we are not in a position to know (at least in some full, experiential sense) about Iranians’ experiences of the protests, it might seem like we should retreat from asserting much, if anything, about them. In what follows, I argue there is strong reason to resist such a response.
Western reporting on the Middle East and Central Asia has a long and storied history of depicting the respective regions as static, underdeveloped, ahistorical, barbaric, and simultaneously both alluring and threatening to Western civilization. Nevertheless, decades of activism have also resulted in a striking shift in our way of thinking about both regions. A notable cause of this, particularly in academic philosophy, has been the popularization of ‘standpoint epistemology.’ Briana Toole (2019) helpfully characterizes standpoint epistemology as a “cluster of views that pays special attention to the role of social identity in knowledge acquisition.” Among the views that have gained the most traction is the situated knowledge view, which states that what I am in a position to know about what certain experiences are like depends on some facts about my social identity. For instance, by virtue of being both adopted and ethnically Vietnamese, I am in a position to know what it’s like to be raised by parents who do not look like me. Plausibly, I would not be in a position to know what such experiences are like were I not both adopted and Asian-American.
The situated knowledge view seems to entail that there are some experiential facts about the world that we may never be in a position to know. If it turns out that facts about our social identities determine, to at least some degree, what we can know about certain experiences, then there are some experiential facts that we may just never be in a position to know because we just do not occupy the relevant social identities. In particular, it may turn out that Western reporters tend to err in their reporting about, in particular, the experiences of individuals in the Middle East and Central Asia precisely because they take themselves to know about what those experiences are like when in fact, they are not in a position to know nor will ever be in a position to know as much.
There is a popular philosophical principle according to which knowledge is the norm of assertion. If I adhere to this principle, then I should assert only what I know. However, if we combine this principle with the situated knowledge view, we get the result that because I am not in a position to know things about certain experiences, I should not, generally speaking, not make assertions about what those experiences are like. In particular, we might think that because we are not in a position to know certain things about the experiences of Iranian women during the protests, we should stay silent ourselves and solely center and amplify the voices of Iranian women themselves at least as far as the experience of the protests is concerned. Let’s call this move ‘the retreat response.’
Close attention to feminist philosophical work on speaking for others gives strong reason to think that the retreat response is a mistake. Crucially, however, our mistake is not in thinking that generally speaking, we ought to center and amplify the voices of those who are directly experiencing the events (and the experiences of them) about which we are concerned. Doing this is important and ought to be encouraged. Our mistake is rather to think that recognizing the importance of centering and amplifying other voices with respect to these matters is incompatible with also speaking for others, particularly when social and political barriers render it difficult for them to be heard themselves.
Linda Alcoff (1991) powerfully argues that the retreat response has the “sole effect of allowing [us] to avoid responsibility and accountability for [our] effects on others,” but does not negate such effects. In other words, though refraining from speaking for others appears to absolve us from harming them (namely, by committing a speech-based harm), such an appearance is based on a false conception of the effects of our silence. This is in part because the absence of speech, particularly when it would have otherwise challenged the current discourse, affects others indirectly by virtue of allowing for the continued dominance of that current discourse. And, in some cases (e.g., ones in which the current discourse is to depict Muslim women as ‘needing saving’ or ‘inherently backwards’) this unchallenged dominance can have deeply harmful effects on the individuals on whose behalf we otherwise would have spoken.
Moreover, to claim that I can ‘only speak for my own experiences’ and thus retreat from speaking for the experiences of others is to presuppose that what I say about my own experiences has no bearing on others’ experiences. But this is hardly true – Alcoff notes that when we depict ourselves as a particular kind of person by virtue of having certain sorts of experiences, in so doing we also offer that kind of person as a way of being to others, whether we intend to or not. In other words, we offer our way of being as a possible way that they could be. For instance, when I say being a feminist has a certain experiential character for me, I offer that feminist self as a kind of self that others could be. And, so too do I construct myself in response to the possible ways of being that others have offered to me. The retreat response thus appears to rest on the false assumption that when we speak for our own experiences our words have no effect on the experiences of others. Far from it: what we say about how we experience the world plausibly affects (sometimes in profound ways) how others experience the world and how they construct or view themselves in response.
We thus ought to take seriously the idea that the retreat response is ill-advised. Crucially however, doing so does not thereby license us to speak for others unrestrictedly. Rather, Alcoff asserts that “anyone who speaks for others should only do so out of a concrete analysis of the particular power relations and discursive effects involved.” In practice, this means that we should be aware of our impulses to speak and carefully analyze them, recognizing that both speaking for others and refraining to do so are actions that can occur only from a place of privilege. It also means that we must be sensitive to how our social location bears on what we are saying. If our social location makes it the case that there are certain features of an issue that we are not in a position to know about, we should flag as much. Lastly, we should be responsible and accountable for what we say and analyze the effects that our words might have on those who hear them. ‘Speaking for’ is a deeply privileged act which comes with immense responsibility, and we should recognize it as such.
Let us return to the events with which we began. Protests in Iran show no sign of stopping even as the government continues to curb internet usage and power. This presents a situation that is apt for ‘speaking for;’ namely, speaking for the experiences of Iranians. Importantly, to speak for these experiences is neither to assert knowledge about the totality of what those experiences are like nor is it to imply that Iranians cannot speak for themselves. Rather, it is to raise awareness about those experiences by asserting what they are like to the extent that we can and thereby keeping coverage of them ongoing outside of the region even while such coverage is cut off within it. This historical moment is being upheld by Iranians, for Iranians, and it is not our place to take part in or romanticize it. We can, however, make sure that our communities (and the rest of the world) bear witness to it.
Acknowledgement: For extremely helpful comments, I’m very grateful to Giulia Napolitano and Calvin Wilder.