Polyphemus and "Nobody" —a tale of epistemic injustice
Image source: https://www.bigheadpress.com/otr?page=13
The Odyssey is the story of my life. I left the sheltered hills of Ithaca 8 years ago to go fight a war, and I've been tempest tossed, shipwrecked, imprisoned, and driven mad ever since. I'm a complicated man, polytropos.
I've often found myself and others in my life perfectly embodying Homer's characters. I've been Penelope, playing host to suitors who just won't leave. I've been Telemachus, outraged at injustice but powerless to stop it. I've been Odysseus, using my cunning and guile and ability to tell stories in order to survive. I've even been Argos the aged dog, laying on pile of dung while waiting to die.
A couple nights ago, I realized that I've been a few of the "villains" of the tale as well, most notably the monstrous cyclops, Polyphemus. My head was killing me; my migraine once again had knocked out half my vision. I felt like I had been stabbed in the eye with a hot poker. I was angry and wanted to crush and destroy whoever had hurt me. Alas, "Nobody" did this to me. And that is when I realized that I am actually a giant bloodthirsty cyclops, a bastard son of Poseidon, and that I have a fucking skewer in my head blinding me and causing me massive pain.
See, when Polyphemus captured Odysseus, Odysseus gave a fake name, rather than reveal his identity to the monster.
“Nobody is my name. My father and mother call me Nobody, as do all the others who are my companions.”
Polyphemus didn’t realize that the little human was lying to him. He accepted it as fact that the man’s name was Nobody. Odysseus, aka Nobody, waited for the right opportunity to stab Polyphemus in his only eye with a burning wooden stake. Blinded and in pain, Polyphemus cried out to his brothers “Nobody has blinded me!” — see? Clever, right?
The other Cyclopes thought that Polyphemus was mad. Madness was of course a curse from Zeus*. His brothers advised that Polyphemus pray to their great father, Poseidon, to restore him to sanity. Odysseus could have gotten away with blinding Polyphemus, scotch free, but he had to run his mouth and boast of his cleverness, accidentally revealing his true identity. So then Polyphemus did pray to his dad, Poseidon, Earth-shaker, to curse Odysseus, thus adding years to his trip home to Ithaca.
What does this all have to do with epistemic injustice? —What is epistemic injustice?
Miranda Fricker, in her book titled Epistemic Injustice, argues that in addition to social and political injustice that minority groups face, there can be two types of epistemic injustice. The first type is called testimonial injustice. In this type, minority witnesses and victims are deemed less credible in their testimony of their own experiences than privileged individuals. Wilda White, in her recent keynote address at the 2018 Alternatives Conference, placed her own experience in a malpractice suit against her psychiatrist within this framework of testimonial injustice. She illustrated, with passion and clarity, that this injustice affects psychiatrically labeled/crazy/mad/neurodivergent people throughout the psychiatric and court systems. We are deemed unreliable and not credible by the very nature of our diagnoses. Black and brown mad people, are seen as even less credible than white mad people, being doubly marginalized by racism and sanism.
While testimonial injustice describes so much of our oppression and has huge implications to our movement, the second type of epistemic injustice, hermeneutical injustice, is what I actually want to focus on in this piece, in relation to Polyphemus’ disastrous encounter with “Nobody”. This describes the kind of injustice experienced by groups who lack the vocabulary and shared social resources to place their individual experiences within a broader context of oppression. Before women had a term for “sexual harassment” they were largely unable to communicate and raise awareness to the widespread violence and mistreatment happening to women by men in the workplace.
We could argue, that Polyphemus experienced hermeneutical injustice when he cried out for help, and was assumed to be mad, because “Nobody” had blinded him. He lacked the vocabulary and had been deliberately misled and fed lies and falsehood, such that he could not get the support he needed or the justice that he felt he deserved.
I believe that I with my maddening migraine, and most if not all of us out there who have been psychiatrically labeled, have to one extent or another, just like Polyphemus, experienced hermeneutical injustice. We have been told repeatedly that our pain and distress, our coping skills, our anger, our gifts, our peculiarities, our passions and interests, are all symptomatic of mental disorders. Often we are given the message that nobody in particular is to blame for our disorders. We’ve been told about chemical imbalances in our brains which have never been substantiated. We’ve been asked about our family histories of mental illness, and told that there are likely genetic factors.
We have had to scramble in the darkness, muttering curses upon the “nobody” who did this to us while we pray to the gods to take away our pain.
Of course, it is entirely possible and likely that some people do have genetic or neurological differences that contribute to their experiences. I have sensory processing differences that I believed are inborn and have always been with me. Humans are diverse, and neurodiversity is real.
But trauma is also very real. Abuse is real. Adultism systematically disempowering children is real. Racism is real. Poverty is real. Patriarchy is real. Transphobia and queer antagonism are real. Climate change causing devastation to communities is real. War is real. Police violence is real. Ableism and sanism are real. Odysseus was real! And so was the burning stake in Polyphemus’ eye! He just didn’t have the right vocabulary to accurately share his experience of being blinded by an actual person.
We’ve been told that our contexts don’t matter. That we have been injured and abused by “Nobody”.
Ours is a tale of both types of epistemic injustice. We have suffered testimonial injustice when our credibility is devalued and our accounts of our experiences are deemed not to be believed. We have also suffered hermeneutical injustice, when we’ve been told that our distress is a fault of our biology, and not a direct result of this oppressive world we inhabit. How can we hold other parties accountable and seek justice, when we aren’t reliable witnesses and our distress is just disorder? How could Polyphemus hold “Nobody” accountable?
Ultimately, who benefits from this epistemic injustice? Is it abusive parents? Abusive partners? Capitalist employers? Psychiatrists? All those cunning and clever individuals who avoid accountability by pathologizing our distress?
And my head hurts. But it’s ok, because nobody did this to me.
*Interestingly, “Zeus” comes from the Proto-Indo-European deity Dyḗus Ph2tḗr meaning "Sky Father”. The second part of that, Ph2tḗr, father, was lost from the name of the Greek deity but present in the roman Jupiter. It is also the etymological origin of the english words “father” “paternal” and “paternalism”. So since Zeus curses people with madness, clearly this translates to paternalism drives us mad. Yeah that makes sense.