Is the English far-right hermeneutically marginalised?

EDL supporter and a police officer at an EDL march

In Epistemic Injustice: The Power and Ethics of Knowing, Miranda Fricker introduces the theory of epistemic injustice, an injustice that someone encounters when their status as a knower, thus a human being, is degraded. Fricker distinguishes between two forms of epistemic injustice: testimonial and hermeneutical injustice. I will focus on the latter; hermeneutical injustice is defined as the inability to intelligibly understand an experience due to the required concept that can render the experience intelligible being absent. In other words, someone cannot understand their experience because there is no concept that they can use to understand the experience. There can be a variety of reasons why a concept is missing; however, in order for the absence to constitute an injustice it is essential that the person is the victim of hermeneutical marginalisation.

Hermeneutical marginalisation refers to an occasion of unequal hermeneutical power, in which an individual is incapable of participating in those practices where concepts are constructed and developed in order to provide intelligible understanding about experiences. For example, prior to the development of the concept of sexual harassment and its familiarity within the general public, intelligible understanding of this concept was obscured for most individuals. This represents a historical example of hermeneutical injustice, as the lack of concept was owing to the hermeneutical marginalisation that victims of sexual harassment (overwhelmingly women) suffered, as they were excluded from the male dominated practice of generating social meaning so that the concept could be intelligibly understandable for all.

In the following, I assess whether contemporary far-right fringe groups in England are hermeneutically marginalised, and thus excluded from participating in those practices where concepts are generated. By applying this framework, I aim to enhance our understanding of why far-right fringe groups are excluded from participating in those practices where concepts for understanding experiences are developed; provide questions about whether such marginalisation should be addressed; and if far-right fringe groups can provide us with concepts that are appropriate for contemporary multicultural England.

Before assessing whether hermeneutical marginalisation can be applied to far-right fringe groups, it is necessary to outline the contributory factors that cause hermeneutical marginalisation. These casual factors can be divided into two categories: the effect of material power and the effect of identity power. Those who possess and have access to considerable levels of material power will tend to possess more hermeneutical power, as material power provides them socioeconomic standing that offers significant access to those positions that influence the practices where understanding is generated. For instance, socioeconomic positions such as those that lawyers and politicians enjoy possess a considerable level of hermeneutical power. In contrast, those who possess less material power will find that their socioeconomic background will thwart their attempt to attain those positions that possess more hermeneutical power.

Additionally, the effects of identity power may operate in order to hermeneutically marginalise someone. Identity power is a form of power that someone can employ in order to control the events and activities that another individual can execute within the social world, according to their social identity. To illustrate, the hermeneutical marginalisation that women suffer is due to identity power being actively or passively operated in order to exclude their specific social identity from participating in processes where understanding of their positionality is generated. Identity power can operate in two ways that can cause hermeneutical marginalisation: it hinders an individual’s ability to access levels of material power that grant more hermeneutical power, or it can cause certain social identities to be excluded from the process in virtue of the stereotypes attached to their social identity that suggest they should be excluded from participating in the mutual practice of generating concepts that render experiences understandable.

In a previous blog I suggested that far-right fringe groups are hermeneutically marginalised in virtue of the class demographic that their supporters belong to. For instance, the far-right British National Party (BNP) was mainly comprised of members who belonged to the lower social classes. Similarly, a study of the English Defence League (EDL) considers the organisation to consist of supporters who belong to the working class. Generally, those who belong to the working class will confront substantial obstacles due to the effect of material power on their socioeconomic position, hindering their attempts to gain positions that possess more hermeneutical power. Nevertheless, even though some working class individuals have turned to far-right fringe groups, this does not imply that such groups are exclusively comprised of working class individuals. Empirical evidence obtained from the testimony of former members of far-right fringe groups and research suggests that far-right fringe groups consist of a diverse collection of individuals who originate from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds. Thus, my previous claim that far-right fringe groups are hermeneutically marginalised due to the effect of material power is not as straightforward as previously assumed.

However, hermeneutical marginalisation can still be applied to far-right fringe groups by examining the effect of identity power. Here, far-right fringe groups are excluded from the process of generating understanding, as their hermeneutical power is limited in response to their perceived social identity. For example, far-right fringe groups often confront protest and occasionally have their demonstrations prohibited on the basis that their social identity and its presence is associated with violence and disorder. Additionally, far-right fringe groups and prominent figures within their groups have recently been excluded from participating online. Facebook for example, banned a variety of far-right fringe groups from their platform in response to growing political and social pressure on the media platform to prohibit groups and prominent figures within the far-right from spreading their rhetoric. However, there is scepticism about whether the internet can fulfil its democratising potential and be a place where concepts can be mutually developed. For instance, it is suggested that the internet possesses limited democratising power because: (1) it excludes the poor, those who cannot afford the internet, from participation in the democratic process, (2) it can be used as a means of control through censorship and the manipulation of information, and (3) the internet is structured to reflect ideological echo chambers owing to: (i) people’s socio-psychological tendency to pursue evidence and membership of groups that affirm their biases, and (ii) the algorithms that are employed by social media and internet firms lead individuals to material that will affirm their preconceptions in order to ensure their increased engagement on the internet. Even though it can be stated that the internet is not achieving it democratising potential due to a variety of reasons, it is still an important tool in the modern world for dispersing: information, beliefs and experiences, those things that are vital to a democratic society and the development of concepts, besides the suggestion that it is too early to judge whether it can achieve it democratising potential. If we are to acknowledge the internet as a place where the democratic process of developing concepts can potentially happen, the exclusion of the far-right from the internet can be identified as hermeneutical marginalisation. Thus, far-right fringe groups can still be identified to be hermeneutically marginalised regardless of whether it is in relation to the effects of material power, as identity power can be recognised to effect exclusion from the process of generating understanding.

Therefore, far-right fringe groups in England can be considered to be hermeneutically marginalised, according to how identity power is operated in order to exclude them from those practices where concepts are developed in order to render experiences intelligibly understandable. However, this prompts additional questions about whether far-right fringe groups should be permitted to participate in the practice of generating social meaning. If so, whether their contribution would be suitable, and if not, will this cause further animosity between these groups and society at large?

Mr Callum Downes is a Doctoral Fellow at CARR and a Doctoral candidate in Department of Sociology, Philosophy and Anthropology, University of Exeter. See 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).