IN THE 2017 series of the UK reality television show The Apprentice, a group of women discussed a sales strategy for maximizing the revenue of their burger stand in London's financial sector. Celebrity businessperson Karren Brady eavesdropped on their conversation. One contestant remarked that since the financial sector is male dominated, they should make sure that the team members chosen to sell the food are "attractive." Here, Brady cut in: "What do you mean about attractive?" The contestant, now more tentatively responded that the salesperson must be "good at selling and ... they have to be good to sell to men, if you see what I'm saying." Brady pressed her: "No, I don't know what you're saying. What are you saying?" (1) The team of hopefuls fell silent, Brady's feigned misunderstanding of a widely understood and commonly used sexist sales strategy hanging in the now charged air. They all knew what the contestant was saying, and they knew Brady understood and was pretending not to. To explain would be to bring the sexism into the open, to commit to its assumptions, and to admit to having suggested that those assumptions be capitalized on and thereby entrenched. The contestant, precisely because Brady refused to understand, was made to confront the fact that her comment was ethically dubious.
In this paper, I develop and endorse a generalized version of the tactic of epistemic resistance that Brady deployed to expose and disarm the contestant's sexism. In doing so, I draw on the work of Gaile Pohlhaus Jr., who shows that imploring marginalized people to understand marginalizing practices amounts to a request that they legitimize their own oppression. (2) I expand on Pohlhaus's analysis in two novel ways. First, I rehearse what it is to understand by exploring its association with explanation. Using Van Fraassen's and Achinstein's pragmatic theories of explanation, I describe explanations as answers to why-questions and as speech acts whose success depends on the explainee revising her background assumptions as directed by the explainer. (3) The revision to the explainee's background assumptions sometimes requires the acceptance of generalizations that are ethically and epistemically troubling. In those cases, the explanation should be blocked. I advocate a variety of explanatory resistance in which the explainee feigns misunderstanding to corner the explainer into exposing or retreating from the false, harmful assumptions upon which their explanation depends. I call this strategy "disunderstanding."
Second, I situate this strategy within Fricker's epistemic injustice schema as a response to what I call "explanatory injustice," emphasizing the fact that marginalized people are not able to participate fully in the construction of explanations and are liable to be harmed by wrongful explanations. (4) I conclude that we should be more cognizant of the way power and marginalization delimit the epistemic terrain, and be prepared to undertake resistance in order to uncloak the ensuing ethical and epistemic shortcomings.
1. STRATEGIC REFUSALS TO UNDERSTAND
Conventional wisdom has it that attempting to understand others and follow their reasoning is ethically and epistemically virtuous. Consider...