On Epistemic Violence and Personal Growth

by Rossella Marino

This is a reflection stemming from a particular emotional state, that, considering emotions integral to political inquiry, I did not want or intend to polish in any way.

It is about a game. A game of uttering and reacting. The game of who calls what how. A game of power, realisation, resistance.

There is unending evidence, interpreted in the light of philosophy [the philosophy of books as well as the philosophy of living], of the forces shaping today’s world.

These forces are racist. Among others, the Latin American school of decoloniality has interpreted the discussions occurring around the 1500s which concerned the presumed sub-humanity of native populations in what would then be called the Americas as integral to colonial modernity.

These forces are individualistic. Neoliberalism champions logics of financial accumulation, rationality and individual responsibility that are irreconcilable with aims of solidarity and community.

These forces are patriarchal. The entire feminist scholarship points to the embedding of a masculinist epistemology in the very foundations of the key institutions of Western society: the law, the university, the media, and so on.

All those who have contributed to the solidification of this wisdom – the intellectuals who have enlightened people of my positionality, needing intellectual elaboration to understand some concepts, and beyond – have effectively changed the world.

I’m extremely grateful to whichever, transcendent this time, force has put this kind of wisdom on my path. I, just like the majority of Western individuals, have been brought up thinking that certain things were normal/obvious/a matter of fact, as Marcuse says. The entire media system I was exposed to since I was a kid, the education system, the institutional system, pointed in one direction.

We know very well that Western liberal democracy gives the fiction of variety, opposition, justice, because it allows for the confrontation of positions that appear so very different at first sight. This is until you realise how this confrontation always occurs within the same thinking framework. The mainstream question is either to make this thinking framework slightly better – against the average it can be – or extremely bad. It’s never to disrupt it.

These critical observations towards the mainstream framework are realist, real, logical, correct, compassionate, righteous. However, the racist/liberal/patriarchal matrix underpinning mainstream thinking continues operating to frame them as idealistic, unreal, wrong, unbased, conspiracy theories.

As such, the representatives of this more powerful matrix who, more or less consciously, reproduce it, request those who champion these observations to justify their claims/tone them down/separate them from professional realms.

These dynamics occur outside of academia as well as inside it.

It is still possible to find oneself in a situation whereby data collected without making references to positionality, big amounts of data extracted in a dry manner, research done without any critical sensitivity or transformational aim, pass as self-evident, qualitative, rich, important, sensible, whereas studies basing themselves on decades of critical research and reflections, including those on the neoliberal and neocolonial nature of migration management through which I have analysed my extensive ethnographic data on the governance of returns from Europe to Africa (e.g. Geiger and Pécoud 2010; Oelgemöller 2010; Bradley 2023; Lemberg-Pedersen 2019), are targeted with diminishing comments, requests of further justification, outright dismissal. They are judged extreme, partial, unscientific, because research cannot be political, as if the politics of research was not one of the most politically-loaded aspects of our society, and pretending to be scientifically neutral a significant political choice.

Personal growth – standing on the shoulders of the wisdom that enlightened me, speaking up because I cannot be silent in front of the death, destruction, violence and despair caused by the racist/liberal/patriarchal matrix underpinning the West, and because I am nevertheless more privileged than racialised groups in doing so – means I am now able to react, as an early-career female scholar, to more powerful White men’s epistemic attacks. I feel empowered whenever I am able to achieve this, and even more when I share – or I am shared with – similar or worse experiences of scholarly undermining.

However, beyond the important dimension of individual reactions and community-building, a more structural, epistemological question forcefully presents itself and demands attendance: are studies like mine to provide the extra validity checks requested by a mainstream audience, or should critical perspectives be foundational to the training of every political or social scientist worthy of this title?

Rossella Marino has obtained her PhD in Social Work and Social Pedagogy at Ghent University in September 2023, being also a PhD fellow at UNU-CRIS since 2019. Her research has revolved around European migration governance in The Gambia. She currently teaches Social Work and Social Pedagogical Literature and Comparative Social Work at Ghent University. Additionally, she is affiliated to UNU-CRIS as Associate Research Fellow.