Humans are born into a web of space and time, and are socialized within an epistemological framework. We come to “make sense” of our social and physical environments through the epistemological dominant discourse that gets reified through discursive politics in any given society. Because our collective epistemologies determine the scope of our human understanding; if a society is predominantly narrow in its epistemology it can be oppressive toward particular groups among their own population as well as those outside of it. In her article, “How is Epistemology Political?,” Linda Martin Alcoff demonstrates the relationship between epistemologies and politics; as well, how narrow-mindedness is a grave hindrance to embodying a greater human understanding.
Alcoff defines politics as, “anything having to do with relationships of power and privilege between persons, and the way in which these relationships are maintained and reproduced or contested and transformed…;” and because “discourse is produced and circulated through all social practices, all discourse has political involvements” (2008:710). We often ignore the fact that epistemologies are generated by groups of privileged individuals who are interested in preserving the system of scientific, political, economic, and social institutions that benefit themselves regardless of whether it is at the expense of other groups. Therefore, the conditions in which epistemologies are produced and reproduced are political in that these conditions denote a hierarchical system of social power and privilege; which therein, determines whose values, arguments, discourses, interests, and voices are legitimate and whose are not.
The discursive political ploy to advance one dominant discourse and silence all others has socialized people to internalize ignorance, and thus, generate multitudes of subordinating stereotypes. Ignorance often breeds a reductive mentality. Yet, there is an important distinction to make between harmless discrimination between light-skinned individuals and dark-skinned individuals, tall persons and short persons, elders and babies, females and males, etc., and harmful discrimination that occurs when simple (harmless) discrimination breeds hostility, and prejudice behavior becomes normalized.
Alcoff also makes this distinction when she references Michel Foucault and admits that, “the existence of hierarchical relations between discourses is inevitable—an absolute proliferation of discourses without distinction is neither possible nor desirable” (2008:715). Nonetheless, she proceeds to remind her audience Foucault’s theory on power and knowledge, and his claim that “discourses are created through the structured relations among meaning, power/knowledge, and desire, and power should be generally understood not as a system for constraint and oppression but simply as a field of structured possibilities” (2008:715).
Therefore, “it is not the influence of politics per se we need to eliminate from epistemology;” but rather, “the influence of oppressive politics”; and additionally, “it is not epistemology itself but particular epistemological theories that have oppressive political effects…” (Alcoff, 2008:714). That said, if we agree that it is the nature of the hierarchical structures of power and extent of hegemonic control that are the aspects worth criticizing of epistemologies, then one begs the question as to how a minority group, up against a domineering dominant discourse, might go about dismantling the normalized dominant epistemological structures? Can it be argued that we are seeing this type of epistemological rupturing taking place in the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning community in local Memphis as well as across the nation?