UNDERSTANDING IN A TIME OF UNREST
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On May 25, 2020 an event transpired that would spark a global response. In Minneapolis, Minnesota, George Floyd—a 46-year-old Black man—was apprehended by police on suspicion of buying cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill. George was snatched from this world when officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds while Chauvin’s fellow officers—Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Keung, and Tou Thao—stood by and observed.
Just a few weeks earlier, a video surfaced of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery being shot at point-blank range by Travis McMichael. And about a month or so earlier, on March 13th, 26-year-old Breonna Taylor was shot at least 8 times as police in Louisville, Kentucky forced their way into her home, executing a no-knock warrant and in turn, executing Taylor. Arbery’s, and to a lesser extent, Taylor’s, killings sparked national attention but more localized protest. Floyd’s killing, however, has sparked a global multicultural response that has moved politicians to at least pay lip service to concerns about the state of policing. Given public fervor and global attention over policing, could this be a moment of possibility, one that allows for the reimagining of how we as a society come to understand the world and each other?
There is a lot of pressure at the moment to do something, but how are people understanding the thing about which something must be done? At the moment, we are seeing a lot of symbolic gestures by companies and politicians, like releasing “Black Lives Matter” statements and removing public statues that honor confederates and imperialists. In response to unrest, the White House released an executive order on “Safe Policing for Safe Communities” in which the main proposals are (1) a ban on chokeholds, “except in those situations where the use of deadly force is allowed by law;” (2) use of independent credentialing bodies—approved by the Attorney General—to assess state and local law enforcement practices and policies; (3) the creation of a database to “coordinate the sharing of information between and among Federal, State, local, tribal, and territorial law enforcement agencies” concerning excessive use of force; (4) and lastly, the designating of mental health professionals as the primary responders for encounters with individuals who “suffer from impaired mental health, homelessness, and addiction” and the training for officers to better deal with encounters with such individuals.
The White House’s response signals that it understands the situation as one of “a few rogue cops” and that the institution of policing is fundamentally sound. The diagnosis, in short, is that despite the horrific killings that have taken place, these are isolated incidents and not emblematic of any institutional failure. This more subdued diagnosis is in stark contrast to the opinions of those residing in heavily policed communities. In 1966, James Baldwin characterized the relationship of the police to Black communities as that of an occupying force in occupied territory. He writes that the police are the “hired enemies of [the Negro] population. They are present to keep the Negro in his place and to protect white business interests, and they have no other function.” Angela Davis, the great philosopher and activist, expressed a similar sentiment reflecting on her childhood growing up in Birmingham, Alabama: “We knew that the role of the police was to protect white supremacy.”
In the Policing Portals Project, Gwen Prowse, Vesla Weaver, and Tracey Meares surveyed the experiences and perceptions of members of highly-policed communities through the use of livestreaming technology that allowed participants in different locations to interact directly with one another. The participants were residents of highly-policed areas in places like Baltimore, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Chicago, Newark, and Brooklyn. The authors noted that “participants characterize police as contradictory—everywhere when surveilling people’s everyday activity and nowhere if called upon to respond to serious harm.” They refer to this duality of the police as distorted responsiveness.
As far as I can tell, the two broad perspectives I’ve just mentioned are representative of views held by many in the populace. Many Americans in predominantly white middle-class suburban neighborhoods and rural white neighborhoods tend to adopt a more minimalist view; that is, a view that conceives of the policing institution as fundamentally sound. According to a Cato Institute National Survey from 2016, 68% of white Americans had a favorable view of police. In contrast, only 40% of African Americans held a favorable view of police. These findings clearly represent clashing perspectives, conflicting understandings of the state of the world. They represent what I call a hermeneutical impasse.
Broadly speaking, a hermeneutical impasse refers to a break in understanding due to a gap in shared hermeneutical resources. Hermeneutical resources are essentially cognitive, affective, and expressive tools we use to make sense of and communicate our experiences. In my paper “Hermeneutical Impasses” I described four basic types. Type 1 impasses have as their source a lack of shared linguistic items, for instance, interlocutors who do not share a common language. Resolving this impasse would involve supplying a common medium of exchange, or maybe a translator. Once this is provided, moving from a state of non-understanding to understanding becomes possible.
Type 2 impasses involve interlocutors who share the same language in some sense yet find themselves with non-overlapping sets of hermeneutical resources to make sense of at least some conversational contributions. Participants in this interaction share a medium of exchange, in some sense. The source of the impasse is the places where their hermeneutical resources do not overlap. Resolving this impasse might involve clarification or translation of specific lexical items.
With type 3 impasses, linguistic remedies are less effective. For instance, in grappling with a difficult text an impasse can arise that need not be due to ignorance of the meaning of lexical items. Conceivably, one could know or come to know the meanings of all the words used in the text and still be left with a gap in understanding. What is needed to fill this gap is not immediately clear. It could be the possession of some concept, certain beliefs, experiences. Whatever is missing, linguistic knowledge will not necessarily resolve the impasse. Type 3 impasses also include cases where the gap is supported by a lack of cultural familiarity. More broadly, the hermeneutic obstacle involved is non-linguistic ignorances. Someone unfamiliar with the intricacies of African American life in large Southern urban centers will likely miss much of the humor in Donald Glover’s show Atlanta, for instance. Even if a translation manual is provided for the African American English used in the dialogues, “outsiders” to this cultural paradigm will lack the familiarity with personalities, practices, and situations crucial for uptake. And to the extent this gap can be closed, it is evident this will not be accomplished by learning new linguistic items.
Finally, type 4 impasses are characterized by instances in which understanding is assumed but not achieved due to the interpreter’s holding certain prejudices. According to philosopher Miranda Fricker, “Prejudices are judgments, which may have a positive or a negative valence, and which display some (typically, epistemically culpable) resistance to counter-evidence owing to some affective investment on the part of the subject.” One example of this might be a Hollywood executive who is predisposed to think white viewing audiences will be hesitant to embrace stories that center Black life and Black characters despite recent successes in film and TV.
I have presented four types of impasses, which can give the impression that they are stand-alone instances. But I am thinking of them as much more integrated than that. An impasse can be multi-layered, consisting of both linguistic and extra-linguistic breakdowns. If we look again at the differences in the ways people understand the situation with police, we can begin to see the presence of a hermeneutical impasse. This obviously presents a challenge for the moment in which we find ourselves. Remember that thing about which we are supposed to be doing something? How this thing gets talked about and understood has pretty clear implications not just for which remedies are suggested as a fix, but also for what sorts of things enter the realm of possibility as a reasonable suggestion.
The Black Lives Matter movement has been active in its push for the redressing of racial injustice, in the United States after the murder of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of George Zimmerman, as well as in Canada and the UK. The movement has also been attempting to shift the way we talk and think about these issues. How an issue is framed is extremely important. It might be said that the one who controls the narrative controls reality. In our current public discourse there is a bubbling of social commentary. Plenty of voices are struggling to break through and be heard, to offer diagnoses and prescriptions. In more mundane settings of relative social calm, public officials and news media pretty much control the frames within which issues are discussed. Arguably, both states and the media are pretty conservative in how they define the boundaries of reasonable discourse. The news media achieves this by being extremely selective in who they bring on air to discuss matters; politicians achieve it by telling us all what “most Americans” believe and value. But what happens in moments of social unrest, when scores of people hit the streets and demand justice?
The “pressure from below” might give the impression that the setting of the frame is somehow inverted; that is, the ordinary citizenry takes control of the diagnostic process. How we talk about the issue, how we define what the issue is, is dominated by the interests and concerns of ordinary citizens. Or at least, the framing is not set by state officials. In an article appearing in the journal Critical Policy Studies, Amit Avigur-Eshel argues that policy elites—who are essentially state legislators—are put in a reactive position during moments of social unrest. But this does not mean that they just roll over and give in to the demands of the people. Rather, he claims that the state adopts a particular tactic—what he calls containment—to manage the situation. According to Avigur-Eshel, policy elites “will accommodate their discourse to engage with public pleas, in a manner that reaffirms the ideational framework that currently underlies policy-making.” In other words, the state attempts to engage with the public outcry for drastic change in the most conservative way possible, a way that maintains the way policy has been determined all along. This is accomplished by the use of two complimentary practices: Boundary Setting and Tailored Framing.
Boundary setting is concerned with delimiting what is possible; “the speaker sets the boundaries by acknowledging the possibility of applying alternatives but only to de-legitimize them. Tailored framing is used to “fill the discursive spaces” opened by boundary setting. Avigur-Eshel notes that “policy elites use ideas that conform to the boundaries set to produce explanations and interpretations specifically tailored to public concerns.”
As you can probably discern, policy elites attempt to surreptitiously maintain control of the broader narrative even as they appear to accede to public demand through the use of this tactic of containment. If policy elites can successfully control the boundaries for what counts as possible, that is, legitimate in public discourse, this provides ammunition for excluding certain voices from the conversation about remedies.
Let’s think for a moment about some of the moves currently being made by some businesses and politicians. Recall that Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the playing of the national anthem at football games in support of Black lives was not popular among large swaths of the US. San Francisco police even threatened to refuse security service for games because of it. Fast-forward to 2020 and we’ve witnessed police officers taking a knee during recent protests! Also recall that the slogan “Black Lives Matter” was not universally accepted. The “All lives matter” retort was not an uncommon one. Again, flash forward to the present and we see companies plastering Black Lives Matter all over their websites, mayors having it sprayed onto the streets, and even Mitt Romney out in the streets chanting it. My how times have changed!
These kinds of symbolic gestures coupled with the sort of very modest “reforms” found in the White House executive order are the kind of moves that attempt to manage what policy elites would consider the more radical calls coming from movement organizers and activists. Consider calls to “Defund the Police.” Opposition to these calls are coming from a variety of places. The police, of course, resist these calls suggesting that to do so would lead neighborhoods into bedlam; Republican politicians reject it as an attack on police and an abandonment of vulnerable people to criminals. Even Democratic politicians voice opposition, in some cases fearing that such calls are politically inexpedient. Perhaps a unifying note sounded in each of these oppositions is that the calls to defund, and by proxy those who do the calling, are outside of the bounds of reasonableness, are illegitimate.
If you stop to think about it for a moment, the framework for discussing public issues is often taken for granted. Not much attention is paid to who gets excluded from discussions of public concern. Consider for a moment who has appeared on network news shows to discuss policing and incarceration issues. Figures like Angela Davis, Mariame Kaba, and Ruth Wilson Gilmore are not typically booked for interviews on “mainstream” news shows despite being leading voices in the prison abolitionist movement. Further, how often do you hear the viewpoints of people who live in highly policed communities on these shows? Not very often
What this amounts to is a type of exclusion from the “mainstream” conversation, which arguably has consequences for how the framing of issues of public concern is constructed. In essence, those voices are excluded from a process that plays a significant role in shaping the hermeneutical resources people come to use to understand what is at issue.
This kind of exclusion has been characterized by some as a hermeneutical injustice. A hermeneutical injustice occurs ‘when a gap in collective interpretive resources puts someone at an unfair disadvantage when it comes to making sense of their social experiences. Miranda Fricker notes that certain social groups often face an inequality in hermeneutical participation. There are some situations—what Fricker refers to as ‘hermeneutical hotspots’—in which it serves the interests of the socially powerful to maintain ignorance or a misinterpretation of certain social experiences. Contributions to interpretations of experiences by members of marginalized groups are excluded or evaded through misinterpretation. Fricker describes this exclusion as hermeneutical marginalization: ‘when there is unequal hermeneutical participation with respect to some significant area(s) of social experience, members of the disadvantaged group are hermeneutically marginalized’.
I believe this is what is happening with respect to abolitionists. There is, or appears to be, deliberate misinterpretation of abolitionist positions as well as marginalization from the discussions that produce hermeneutical resources. But this kind of marginalization is no way to foster genuine understanding. I concur with Russian literary critic Mikhail Bahktin that understanding is a cooperative affair. According to him, “any true understanding is dialogic in nature.” Coming to a true understanding of our current situation with policing can hardly occur if the perspectives of those most affected are excluded from the conversation.
The danger for not paying attention to framing is two-fold. Firstly, failing to take a critical stance towards how we as a society approach public discourse will invariably mean the exclusion of voices in vulnerable communities from democratic deliberation. This in turn leaves groups disgruntled and only leaves non-deliberative strategies as an option for being heard. Many have focused on rioting during recent unrest over police malfeasance, using it to condemn and dismiss the movement. But, as Martin Luther King Jr. observed, “riot is the language of the unheard.” Leave people without a substantive influence in the way policies and laws that affect their livelihood are constructed, and they will find another way to be heard.
And secondly, not paying attention to framing leaves societies with an impoverished set of hermeneutical resources upon which to draw. This limits the range of the political imagination for addressing social ills as well as detaching one from reality. People detached from reality have to construct a fantasy world to fill the void. They also have a nasty habit of scapegoating innocent people in an attempt to protect their fantasy world when reality comes crashing in. This is attested to by white terrorist riots against Black Americans in Tulsa in 1921, East St. Louis in 1917, and Wilmington in 1898, the Salem witch trials, and the Holocaust in Nazi Germany, to name but a few instances.
The example with policing is but one of many where hermeneutical impasses arise. Some impasses will be more entrenched than others; a few may even be unresolvable. The challenges raised by these impasses, as well as the proclivity of the state and other trustees of the “mainstream” mechanisms of public discourse to unjustly exclude certain voices from discussion are serious. Their difficulty is heightened by the fact that the tactics employed to control the narrative appear to be largely undetectable to large swaths of the American populace. What is needed, in part, is a greater appreciation of language’s entanglement with power. Drawing from Baldwin again, he notes, “It goes without saying . . . that language is . . . a political instrument, means, and proof of power.” Seeing our way toward a more just society will undoubtedly require dismantling unjust structures of discursive power that help to maintain hermeneutical impasses and perpetuate hermeneutical injustices. But this can only be done if we abandon fantasized worlds of private interest and join in a collective effort of understanding.
* Associate Professor of Philosophy & Affiliate Faculty, Women’s and Gender Studies and African American Studies, Syracuse University; Lander04@syr.edu
 “Executive Order on Safe Policing for Safe Communities” https://www.whitehouse.gov/presidential-actions/executive-order-safe-policing-safe-communities/.
 James Baldwin, James Baldwin : Collected Essays : Notes of a Native Son / Nobody Knows My Name / The Fire Next Time / No Name in the Street / The Devil Finds Work / Other Essays, ed. Toni Morrison (New York: Library of America, 1998), 734.
 Gwen Prowse, Vesla M. Weaver, and Tracey L. Meares, “The State from Below: Distorted Responsiveness in Policed Communities,” Urban Affairs Review, August 2019, 1–49.
 Luvell Anderson, “Hermeneutical Impasses,” Philosophical Topics 45, no. 2 (2017): 1–19.
 Miranda Fricker, Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 35.
 Amit Avigur-Eshel, “Speaking to the Outraged: Discursive Responses of Policy Elites to Social Unrest Over Economic Issues,” Critical Policy Studies 13, no. 4 (2019): 471.
 Avigur-Eshel, 475.
 Avigur-Eshel, 476.
 Pam Morris, ed., The Bakhtin Reader: Selected Writings of Bakhtin, Medvedev, Voloshinov (Bloomsbury, 1997), 35.
 Baldwin, James Baldwin, 781.