29 October 2023 6:37 PM (Society)
Ace Week just ended, so I'm going to talk about hermeneutical injustice, because I think it's an important concept that defines a lot of the ace experience, or did when I was young. Really, it defines a lot of the experience of anyone whose life contains elements that aren't part of, or don't really have a discursive place in, their culture. The term was defined by philosopher Miranda Fricker as part of her broader theory of Epistemic Injustice.
Hermeneutical injustice is the inability to interpret the events and experiences of your own life to yourself and to other people. Asexuality is, or at least was in years past, an obvious example. Nowadays there's a name for it and most people acknowledge it exists. Back then, when I told people I had no interest in having sex with anyone, I was constantly told “That's not a thing.” and they insisted that, actually I was just gay and in denial. I didn't have a word to describe it and ended up coming up with my own, ‘antibisexual’, because “You know how bisexual people like having sex with men and with women? I like having sex with neither men nor women.” It was frustrating, but still better than when I was younger and hadn't quite realized that there was even an experience I was having that others weren't.
Being asexual in an Evangelical church is a surreal experience; people keep sternly warning you about not doing things. Sometimes they'd name them, sometimes they'd just give you the ‘You know what I mean.’ nudge and a wink. I didn't. When I was a little older I did, but I had no idea why anyone would want to do any of the stuff they were warning us against, and kept wondering when I'd start to. People kept coming down the aisle and confessing to marital infidelity, and the only thing I could think of that might count as violating marriage that seemed even remotely appealing might be if you met someone you like a whole lot more than the person you're married to and ignore your spouse. “Just don't have sex.” seemed completely reasonable because…really, who would want to?
This, itself, is an interesting example of secondary effects. By being denied the means to understand myself, that there was something real and existing that made me different from other people, I failed to understand others as well. This, also, is an example how nonsensical treating privilege as the reciprocal of marginalization is. Privilege, as a useful concept, means being in circumstances that make ways in which the world is harmful to other people invisible to yourself because, in those respects, the world suits you perfectly. My part of the world kept saying sex was bad and not to be engaged in. I didn't want to and didn't understand other people's drive and kind of suspected people kept pretending to be really into sex to score points for how mature they were. That's privilege. You can be marginalized and still have privilege, because marginalization is not a hierarchy.
I can't hold people telling me that I was gay and unwilling to admit it to myself or that I just needed to meet the right person against them (the people who told me I needed to go to a psychologist and get 'fixed'? Basically telling me I should book myself in for conversion therapy? I totally hold that against people.), because it's another second-order effect. The concept of being ‘out to oneself’ exists for a reason. At that time people knew gay and lesbian folks existed, and they were often discussed or represented in media. The representations in media were often highly stereotyped, and discourse in religion was simply horrible: telling outright lies that gay relationships can't be ‘stable’ and ‘loving’. Of course people would hear that, see comedic characters, and say to themselves “That's not me!” and only be able to reason about themselves when they started realizing those depictions weren't accurate.
Mental health issues also have that problem. People see how those with anxiety disorders, bipolar, depression, eating disorders, schizophrenia, and others are portrayed and don't identify with it, because, at best, it depicts a very narrow slice of experience and is most often simply distorted into caricature.
All this is one reason I'm so supportive of people being able to speak about their experiences where others can see and understand them. If nothing else, it lets other people make sense of their own lives.