The Gettier Problem with Activism

Edmund Gettier is most well-known for a thought experiment that challenged the fundamental understanding of epistemology and what understanding is. In the experiment, a character makes an assumption about the outcome of an event based on a justified belief, but is wrong because he still fails to collect all of the data.

The story is about two people who are applying for a job, I’ll call them William and Amanda, and I will temporarily exclude gender issues. Each of them are wearing a Columbia jacket and they are each waiting for the results of their application. Amanda comes to the conclusion (belief) that the person wearing a Columbia jacket will get the job. From this belief, she infers that William will get the job, failing to realize that she is also wearing a Columbia jacket because it was a gift and she never paid attention to what brand it is. Furthermore, she is the one who will be getting the job, not William. Amanda does not know that the person wearing a Columbia jacket will get the job, therefore it is a belief. It being validated by her getting the job on account of her also wearing a Columbia jacket, though unwittingly, does not make that belief knowledge because of precisely the fact that she didn’t know. Her belief is justified, but only happens to be true by virtue of luck.

This thought experiment became relevant to me yesterday as I was thinking about the mobilizing structures of some activist groups, in particular the anarchist movement. In talking with some self-proclaimed anarchists, I have noticed this idea of us vs. them repeated regularly. This is an important part of social movements, as activists require an outsider identity in order to build strength for their campaign. But sociology, and in particular the idea of symbolic interaction, is a generally collectivist interpretation of the workings of society; that we are all a part of the building of society, and society is a part of the the building of the self and identity.

Personally, through my own experience, I have come to take the “Looking-Glass Self” to be the fundamental truth behind the workings of society. In other words, the idea of us vs them is impossible, we are all equally complicit in the creation of the problems in our society, because, through the process of interacting with each other in certain ways, we are creating the society around us. Marx would likely agree with me because he argued precisely for an oppositional movement not against specific people or organizations, but against the fundamental structure that he had declared to be the problem. “Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains.”

Yet the fundamental structures of our society that participate in creating social problems are not seen as the problem, instead the burden is placed on specific people (i.e. the 1 percent). In so doing, an oppositional movement is still created, which does indeed create social change, but only because by opposing those in power people refuse to provide for the system that gives those people their power.

As a result, the appropriate effect is reached, but for a misunderstood reason. Just like Amanda.

By the way, I only happen to be wearing a Columbia jacket, this is not intended to be an advertisement for Columbia, though I’m sure there are wonderful people who work in that company.

Posted in Blogging, Soapbox, Sociology by Preston on September 19th, 2012

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