Sexual objectification, epistemic objectification, and the far-right

English Defence League members staging a demonstration in support of Dutch MP Geert Wilders in March 2010 in London. Photograph: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

Objectification is generally perceived as a derogatory term that is both morally and socially problematic due to it reducing a human being to the status of a commodity stripped of their humanity. Entwined with the Kantian notion that treating another as an instrument is unethical, objectification has been primarily applied to the sexual realm by such feminist scholars as Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon. However, in her article “Objectification”, Martha Nussbaum shifts from this instrumental conception of objectification, to suggest that there are seven distinctive ways that objectification can be perpetrated.

  1. Treating someone instrumentally for personal purposes
  2. Denial of autonomy
  3. Treating someone as passive
  4. Treating someone as interchangeable
  5. Treating someone as a thing that may be broken
  6. Treating someone as a thing that may be owned
  7. Denial of subjectivity

Objectification cannot only be applied to the sexual or physical realm but also to the realm of thought, or the epistemic realm. Within Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing, Miranda Fricker suggests that the primary harm of someone having their testimony disregarded owing to a prejudicial stereotype about their social identity (testimonial injustice), is that they are epistemically objectified. Similar to how knowledge of the temperature is inferred from such inanimate objects as a thermometer, when the individual is epistemically objectified they are relegated to the status of a thing or unit from which knowledge can be inferred.

Within the following blog, I shall apply this concept of epistemic objectification to far-right fringe groups in England. This will be in order to assess whether epistemic objectification can be adequately applied to this case. My purpose for composing this blog is not to exonerate far-right rhetoric and policies; rather, by applying the framework of objectification to far-right fringe groups we may come to improve our understanding of their rhetoric and gain a unique insight into how we may resolve the issues they present for society.

Before moving on to apply objectification to the far-right, it is necessary to examine whether there is a negative identity prejudicial stereotype attached to the social identity of far-right fringe groups. Members of far-right groups are often stereotyped by the media, politicians and opposing organisations as uneducated, young, anti-democratic and unemployed (however, research has proved that many of these stereotypes are wrong). Moreover, this can be supported by the claims that movements and individuals (such as the DFLA, Tommy Robinson, and Anne Marie Waters ) make about how they are perceived by those who oppose their participation in far-right fringe politics. By attaching what are understood as pejorative characteristics to their social identity, they are ultimately associated with a negative identity prejudicial stereotype.

Firstly, it can be identified that far-right fringe groups and the rhetoric they profess is exploited for the instrumental use of fulfilling the agenda of policy makers and the government. For example, in 2014 David Cameron introduced the teaching of British Values in secondary schools nationwide in order to tackle the radicalisation of the youth. By looking at the intolerance that far-right fringe groups promote, Cameron introduced this policy in order to promote tolerance and respect of those with other faiths and doxastic commitments. However, by examining far-right groups and the testimony they promote from a merely instrumental standpoint, Cameron’s policy has failed to recognise why individuals join far-right fringe groups. It is not largely due to an active intolerance or hatred, but rather due to a variety of subjective experiences and commitments. By cherry picking the testimony of the far-right, they have been objectified.

Secondly, they are denied the opportunity to act as autonomous agents, as their attempt to impart their testimony is prohibited. For example, in 2010 Theresa May blocked the EDL’s demonstrations that were intended to take part in London. Likewise, more recently far-right fringe groups and renowned leaders/ supporters of the movements have been banned from such social media platforms as Facebook. By banning these groups from two significant realms (the physical and virtual), they are denied the opportunity to be autonomous agents who can choose what to believe, think and say.

Thirdly, whilst most far-right fringe groups share similar attitudes towards social issues (such as the notion that immigration is eroding British culture), they also possess a variety of different attitudes towards other social issues that are discussed within contemporary England. For example, in their 2018 manifesto, For Britain endorses policies relating to energy, education and animal welfare; alternatively, in the EDL’s mission statement they concentrate solely on the threat they suggest Islam and immigration pose to British society. Nevertheless, in English society one far-right fringe group and the rhetoric they assert is assumed to be interchangeable with other far-right fringe groups; however, after closer examination substantial differences can be identified.

Finally, when individuals who support far-right groups provide testimony (to those who do not support far-right groups) in relation to fears about immigration and the erosion of British culture, they are often met with hostility and assumed to be ‘uneducated racist bigots’, resulting in their testimony being disregarded. By ignoring their testimony they are denied the opportunity to express their subjectivity. However, by listening to and considering the far-right’s subjectivity, it can be identified that their testimony presents a subjective narrative that is underpinned with frustration and anger about contemporary society, resorting to joining the far-right as a way of politicising their subjectivity (Winlow et al, 2017: 82-84). We are not required to be sympathetic to or reach an agreement with their subjective outlook, rather by permitting their testimony to participate in discussion they are no longer denied subjectivity, providing us with an understanding of their narrative that was originally absent and subject to an objectified caricature.

Having reviewed several UK based cases, epistemic objectification can be applied to far-right fringe groups in England, as the manner in which their testimony is received satisfies four of Nussbaum’s distinctive ways that one can be objectified. This leaves the additional questions of whether objectification can be benign or even positive in its application, and whether objectification in this scenario requires resolving. It does however indicate the inadequacy of responses and counter messages by mainstream actors when denouncing and suggesting policy solutions towards far-right extremism; something which requires a degree of introspection to get right in order to avoid counterproductive outcomes.

Mr Callum Downes is a Doctoral Fellow at CARR and a Doctoral Candidate in Department of Sociology, Philosophy and Anthropology at University of Exeter. You can find his profile here.

© Callum Downes. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).