Assertiveness and testimonial injustice

I have been contemplating beginning to blog for a while now, but have finally been motivated to take the plunge following an exchange with one of my favourite people on Twitter.

She was uncomfortable with the themes in a television programme she had watched, and tweeted her concerns. Out of a desire not to appear overly aggressive or confrontational, she preceded her thoughts with a disclaimer along the lines of: “now maybe it’s just me being oversensitive, but…”. A dissenter immediately replied, calling her view stupid, and using that disclaimer against her: “you said it yourself; you’re oversensitive”.

This led to my friend feeling silenced and not taken seriously; her attempts to explain her reasons for objecting to the themes of said tv show were ignored, as she was dismissed as stupid and oversensitive. But crucially, she blamed herself for having been treated in this dismissive way. She thought she had brought it on herself for expressing her opinions in an apologetic, self-effacing manner. By preceding her thoughts with the caveat “maybe it’s just me”, she had invited rude and aggressive responses along the lines of “yes, it’s just you, idiot”.

This got me thinking about my own behaviour, because I do just this sort of thing all the time. Especially in philosophy seminars. When I need further clarification of a point, I will often begin: “sorry, I didn’t quite understand, can you explain point X a bit more for me?” Or “I’m sorry, perhaps you addressed this point and I missed it”. Often this is genuinely done from lack of confidence in my own capacities – I frequently worry that I’m not as smart as the other people in the room, and hence that I don’t know, or don’t understand, something they do. But I also do this at other times. Even when I’m reasonably confident that the question I’m asking isn’t a stupid one, or the comment I’m offering is valuable and interesting, I still frequently preface my contribution with some kind of apologetic, self-effacing caveat.

When discussing my tendency to do this with a friend and colleague, he suggested – like my friend on twitter seemed to be suggesting about herself – that this is something I ought to work hard at eradicating from my speech. Doing this, he said, is to put myself in a position of weakness and inferiority from the outset. I am encouraging others to dismiss my opinions as mistaken. By presenting my thoughts in such a hesitant and apologetic way, I am inviting others to regard what I am saying as probably false, and not worth taking seriously.

Now, I suspect that this is a tendency we are more likely to see from women than by men. (This is mere speculation based on my own experience, and anecdotes of others. I’m sure there must be some empirical data on the subject, but I’m not familiar with it, so I’m just throwing the hypothesis out there for now.) And further, I’m sure many women are familiar with the experience of struggling to be taken seriously, just because we are women. Feminist philosopher Miranda Fricker labels this phenomenon ‘testimonial injustice’: when your credibility as a source of knowledge is deflated due to prejudices held by the hearer. Again, throwing empirical hypotheses around without any attempt to verify them, I have a feeling that this is a form of injustice that women are often subject to. Women are frequently – even if only subconsciously – regarded as less credible sources of knowledge and less competent reasoners than men. This is especially likely to occur in contexts that have historically been dominated by men, or continue to be populated by disproportionate numbers of men. And academic philosophy is certainly one of those contexts.

So then the worry is that when I make these self-effacing, timid sounding preambles to my arguments, I am not only undermining my own status as a bearer of knowledge and encouraging my listeners not to take me seriously. I am also reinforcing these prejudices in the minds of my audience. Given that I am a woman, they may have already been predisposed to deflate my credibility. When I express myself in an apologetic, tentative manner, I thereby present them with more evidence to confirm their biases, both with respect to myself, and women speakers in general. The prejudice is perpetuated, and my listeners are more inclined to dismiss my contributions, and further, those of other women. So perhaps I owe it not only to myself, but also to other women, to try to eradicate these displays of reticence from my speech, and be more confident and assertive. Perhaps I ought to be much bolder, more direct, perhaps even aggressive, in the way so many other people (men?) seem to be when engaging in debate. It’s especially tempting to think like this in the context of the philosophy seminar. These can be highly combative, adversarial environments, and it seems like if I want to keep up, be taken seriously and make a name for myself in this profession, I’m going to have to get over my timidity and get more assertive, quickly.

Perhaps. But I’m not so sure. There are a couple of reasons why I resist that conclusion, even if it might result in me and my arguments being taken more seriously.

First, as I noted above, this self-effacement is not always caused by lack of self-confidence or reticence on my part. Sometimes it is. But often, it’s simply a function of the way I relate to people. I’m just not an especially aggressive or confrontational person (or at least, I don’t think I am, anyway). Being forceful and assertive – especially when expressing disagreement or challenging someone – is something that I find deeply uncomfortable. Maybe this is because I’m not naturally oozing with self-confidence, but I would like to believe it’s at least partly because I’m the kind of person who likes to facilitate social relations, to encourage consensus and harmony, to prevent conflict and people feeling uncomfortable or under attack. Basically, I’m a nice person with a healthy capacity for empathy, so I don’t enjoy seeing people being vigorously criticised or attacked, even when I can plainly see that their arguments are mistaken. And I think that’s a good thing. These are positive aspects of my personality, and I don’t really want to have to change, to become more confrontational and aggressive, in order to be respected as a bearer of knowledge.

Now, the defender of the philosophy-seminar-as-gladiatorial-arena model may respond that it’s all well and good to be nice, but the purpose of a seminar is not for everyone to get along and feel happy and cosy – the purpose is to arrive at the truth. And on the way to the truth, there’s going to be a bit of rough and tumble; a certain amount of hostility and belligerence towards clearly false claims or poor arguments is inevitable. The same can be said of political argument – the purpose is not to respect everyone’s viewpoints equally, no matter how clearly irrational. Rather, the purpose is to work out what is the right thing for us to do. If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the argumentative kitchen.

But, to me at least – see the caveat there? – this seems to too quickly assume that these goals are not compatible: that if we are engaged in the pursuit of truth, we can’t possibly be expected to be nice to one another. And this brings me to my second reason to resist modifying my behaviour: the above response puts the blame for their exclusion squarely on the shoulders of the timid and tentative, rather than considering that perhaps the environment in which we are debating is unnecessarily adversarial and aggressive. It puts the onus for change on those who are less assertive and confident, rather than asking those who are more combative to consider altering their behaviour.

When this happens, everybody loses. Some of the timid people might manage to ‘toughen up’ and get more confrontational, but many more will simply retreat from debate, unable to handle the discomfort. Many shy, hesitant people will stop expressing their opinions altogether, for fear of public embarrassment. And the loss of those voices from the debate isn’t going to help us arrive at the truth.

So I don’t accept that my friend invited the insulting and dismissive response to her cogent and articulate tweets. And I don’t accept that I must get louder, more aggressive and more combative if I want to be taken seriously.

17 thoughts on “Assertiveness and testimonial injustice

  1. One thing that should be considered is that distantiation is a central part of the ironic, postmodern zeitgeist. One cannot read a text by Derrida without, already at the level of style, coming across the persistent use of quotations in order to problematize or distance the reader from the assertion that is being made.

    If one were to hand Guatari Spivak an set of car keys and ask her what they are, she never would have said, “These are a set of car keys.” Instead, she would have said, “If we accept the metaphysical notion, that symbolic representations mark ontological presence and if we accept the basic coordinates of a certain historical language game, then, taking these factors into account, may we not risk the assertion that these are a set of car keys.”

    The very mark of postmodernity is that an assertion cannot be made without the inclusion of a self-effacing distantiation. This sketpicism toward knowledge claims had percolated into the wider culture (with deeply problematic results)…..One cannot discount this tendency when explaining the phenomenon to which you draw attention.


  2. Well said! When I first started my (non-academic) job, I had to train myself out of that by putting on a sort of “business head” – by imagining myself to be the kind of woman that doesn’t do all of the things you’ve mentioned above… As much as that’s my default setting too!

    It’s amazing – and just a little bit worrying – the difference in the way people respond to me when I’m like that, as opposed to in an academic setting, when I’m more reserved and less sure of myself. And in all honesty, I’m not sure which one I’m happier with!

    Great post – look forward to reading more!


    1. Thanks Katie!

      Interestingly, the solution is probably to stop worrying about trying to come across as confident or assertive and just to make peace with appearing hesitant and tentative, and by doing so I would inadvertently come across as more comfortable and authoritative. Perhaps that’s what I’ll work on – making peace with being apologetic and deferential!


  3. An excellent post and a subject I can readily agree with. I too often started philosophy discussions at uni with ” I’m not explaining this very well ….” and worrying that my often simplified way of explaining something was dumming down the discussion instead of translating the often over complicated ideas put forward by the tutor.


    1. That’s another one I say all the time. “Sorry, I’m not explaining that well”, or “sorry, does that make sense?”

      You shouldn’t ever worry about explaining philosophical ideas is a clear, simple way. There’s no such thing as dumbing down in philosophy, or at least, explaining something clearly and simply is not that. It’s actually a great skill and very important. I’m a big stickler for clarity and simplicity of explanations!


  4. Wow, this is fantastic! I’m so glad something that wasn’t a particularly pleasant experience (for other people reading this: that’s me in the first few paragraphs) partially motivated such a good post. It’s brilliant to see the underlying problem – and the strategies we use in the face of them – articulated like this. And to have a very good argument to stop berating myself, that helps too…!

    I think it also potentially extends – in terms of structural factors, not just personality ones – beyond just women’s experience and probably tracks the experiences of members of other marginalised groups. For one example, my timidity and the framing of my opinion (‘okay, I’m a super-sensitive crazy lass, but…’) the other night was at least as motivated by the context of speaking as someone with experience of mental health problems in a general forum interacting with others without that experience (or with non-disabled privilege, to put it differently), as by personality and/or gender factors. There’s also perhaps – ah, more caveats – something here about experience is sometimes used as a disqualifying factor, as if it somehow violates the demand for objectivity and therefore invalidates your contribution as well – ‘oh, well you would say that…’ – though I’m struggling to formulate this very well.

    Plus, I think there’s something quite specific about exchanges, seminars in particular, at universities and how, particularly at certain universities (not naming any names), there still remain quite strong assumptions about whose space they are and, particularly, what kinds of voices should be listened to within that space. And I don’t use ‘voice’ accidentally. In my experience, despite having a tonne of middle class privilege, my accent (Hull/now just ‘northern’) and the way I expressed myself did mark me out when I spoke and informed some of my feelings that it wasn’t ‘my’ space to impose myself on. There seems to be a tendency to dismiss voices that don’t sound ‘right’ based on various – in this case I think probably class – assumptions and prejudices.

    As for the specific philosophy context, my partner and other PhD friends (mostly female, surprise, surprise) often talk about how awful the gladiatorial seminar thing is and how they too use self-effacing strategies – perhaps partially because they expect their opinions to be rejected. Similarly, they have been advised to modify their approach in order to accommodate this and so it’s incredibly refreshing to have it said how this falsely locates responsibility and is to the potential detriment of everyone involved – I shall be sending this around, one particular friend needs to read this as a matter of urgency!

    Really, it’s such a good piece, I feel like I’ve only quite superficially engaged with it, despite the length (sorry!) Again, thank you for writing it. And well done! x


    1. Thank you for inspiring my first ever blog post!

      You are absolutely right to say that this phenomenon definitely extends beyond gender, and beyond individual psychologies. Some people have a very strong and robust sense of their right to speak, and are comfortable and relaxed about doing so, while others seem to have a sense that they do not have this right to speak. And it would be odd if this weren’t affected by structural factors such as class and social hierarchies! So then this will intersect across different groupings, so we might expect women of colour to experience this to an even greater degree than I do.

      That’s something I’ve really noticed teaching at Oxford for the first time this year, incidentally. The students aren’t hugely different from those I’ve taught before, but one very noticeable way in which they are is the ease and confidence with which (some of them, anyway) carry themselves and present their views. They are a lot more assertive than I was at 19 (or even than I am now!) And such an interesting point about voices and regional accents, too. There are so many dimensions to it. I suppose to a large extent our ideas about accents are linked to ideas about social class – Northern accents are likely to be regarded as less prestigious. But still, there’s more to it than that – that story that went round Twitter the other week about Des Lynam saying that women’s voices are too grating to commentate on sport springs to mind…

      Academic philosophy is particularly adversarial and combative, but, so is internet debating, which is partly what explains that person’s dismissive response to you the other evening. He would never have said to your face “that’s stupid, you are oversensitive”. A lot has been written about civility and internet discourse, and how the removal of the face to face seems to increase that kind of conduct. I think there are a number of factors contributing to that too – but the main point is that I don’t think your reticence was what prompted him to be dismissive. He would have called you stupid regardless, only probably been even ruder and more obnoxious, had you presented your arguments more forcefully.

      Thanks again for the inspiration, and the great comment 🙂


  5. I think there’s a sort of middle ground here. You can simply say something like ‘I didn’t understand X; can you go over that again?’ (Or, alternatively, ‘I’m not sure I followed X; can you elaborate on that?’ – which is perhaps even better.) Without the ‘maybe it’s just me’ disclaimer tacked on the front, that leaves open whether the fault (if there is any) is with you or with the speaker for not explaining it well the first time. I think that’s a behavioural change that wouldn’t lead to you becoming an aggressive questioner.

    That said, even if you do say ‘maybe it’s just me’ that can be understood in many ways. Some may (wrongly) interpret it as a sign that you’re stupid. Even if that were the case, to infer that all women are stupid would be plainly unreasonable. And a far better interpretation is simply that you say it out of politeness to the speaker. A disarming approach to questions, like this, can conduce to a far more productive seminar than one where the questioner and speaker become attacker and defender. (And this was part of your second point, I take it.)


    1. Thanks Ben.

      Obviously you are right – the options aren’t binary, which is how I’ve presented them here. It is certainly possible to remove these apologies and expressions of my own stupidity off the front of my questions, without being more aggressive and confrontational.

      I think it’s true to say though that I’m often doing it out of politeness to the speaker. Sometimes I’m not; sometimes it is caused by lack of confidence, and fear of making a fool of myself. But other times I think I’ve done it, like you say, simply to disarm the other person and make them feel comfortable, and not under attack. Because as we all know, philosophy seminars can frequently feel like combat. I have frequently used the word ‘bloodbath’ to describe talks I’ve been to.

      Sometimes I won’t even make my point at the time; I’ll wait until the seminar is over and mention it one-to-one with the person, so we can talk about it in depth. I am especially likely to do this if I think the speaker has made a serious error somewhere, so as to avoid their public embarrassment. Now, if the only purpose of the philosophy seminar was to help the paper-giver arrive at the truth, that would be fine. My comments would still be helpful over a cup of tea later. But if another unstated aim of the seminar is to display to everyone else just how clever and knowledgeable we are, then I’m going to lose out. (Related to this, I’ve lost count of the amount of times I thought of a clever, insightful criticism but wasn’t confident enough to raise my hand, only to watch someone else make the same point.)

      None of this would matter if nothing rested on how you are perceived in contexts like this. I would be happy for people to judge me as shy and nervous and tentative, but ultimately nice and warm and friendly, if that’s all that hung on it. But I have heard at least one anecdote of a person being hired for a job on the basis that other people had witnessed him in seminars and been impressed with his questioning of others; and this is a person I know to be exceptionally combative and aggressive in seminars. So that’s a worry. All the time I’m being quiet and polite and saving my brutal questions until later, I’m being judged as nice but not that smart, while the loud, cocky and aggressive people are impressing future hiring committees.

      Very long response, sorry!


  6. Is this a catch 22 situation for women? Being direct and unapologetic may be perceived as more aggressive when it comes form a woman than when it comes from a man – indeed, it may be perceived as disturbingly aggressive. (Which can hurt one’s career, not just one’s social relationships.)

    But I think you are right that the solution is to make peace with being apologetic. I know a female academic who is always exceedingly polite and deferential, and yet comes across as very intelligent and self-confident – without a trace of arrogance. A great role model.


  7. When I was studying discourse analysis one activity was to guess from a written dialogue who was female and male, and their relations to each other. Obviously, the doubtful and overpolite ones were females. I got a little pissed because it was presented as a right or wrong answer, as if an overpolite guy was just not possible in our universe, and got a bit of an argument going with the professor. Anyway, we also read some paper-I wish I could link to it, but it was so many years ago-that showed just what you were suspecting, there is a femenine and a masculine way of talking. At least by now, because I’m a firm believer that this phenomenon is completely cultural.
    That doesn’t mean that we have to be more assertive any more than that they have to be less aggressive, I don’t think the masculine way should be the default at all, and imitating them just acknowledges the fact that they rule the public sphere-the academic sphere in this case. That’s why I love that you defend your style of talking, because you should not have to change it. Just make sure your politeness mechanisms come from your wish to facilitate social interaction and not from your patriarchal cultural inheritance. And please, pretty please, if you find a way to figure THAT out, post it. Immediately.

    (I’m not a native, so I apologize if anything sounds weird. I hope I got my points across)


  8. Surely better to shyly ask a question, perhaps through placing blame on yourself, than to allow the shyness to get the best of you and to let the question go. Appearance of ignorance is infinitely better than allowing your shyness to endorse and cultivate ignorance through letting an important question go.


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