Lecture by Prof. Karen Frost-Arnold, Visiting Scholar in GSWS, "To Lurk or Not to Lurk: A Feminist Philosophy for the Internet" | Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies
University of Pittsburgh

Lecture by Prof. Karen Frost-Arnold, Visiting Scholar in GSWS, "To Lurk or Not to Lurk: A Feminist Philosophy for the Internet"

January 12, 2017 - 4:00pm - 5:15pm

In recent years, philosophers have turned their attention to understanding socially constructed ignorance.  People with privileged identities (e.g., straight, white, male, cisgender) are often unaware of their privilege, and many people do not know that they have unconscious biases.  Philosophers have tried to understand how this ignorance is generated and maintained, and what strategies we might take to reduce it and make people aware of their privileges and prejudices.  In this paper, I argue that the internet provides powerful opportunities for people to unlearn their socially constructed ignorance.  The privileged can read blogs, tweets, Facebook posts, and Reddit threads written by members of marginalized groups in order to learn more about the oppression others face.  This can make lurking a powerful epistemic practice.  By ‘lurking,’ I mean reading online communications without engaging in the conversation oneself.  Lurking can be a source of knowledge.  However, lurking is not a perfectly innocuous practice.  By merely lurking, a reader forgoes the sustained interactions and relationships that many philosophers argue are important to unlearning ignorance.  Merely lurking also protects one from having one’s own prejudices openly challenged.  Thus, habits of lurking need to be carefully balanced with critical dialogue across differences.  But there are also dangers in these online conversations.  For example, ontological expansiveness is a habit of white privilege that poses one such threat to cross-racial online engagement: ontological expansiveness encourages whites to expect control, to focus on their own interests, and to assume that they have the right to enter any public space (Sullivan 2006).  These habits of privilege manifest themselves in common practices of whites derailing or hijacking online spaces and conversations for people of color.  While well-intentioned whites may aim to unlearn their ignorance by engaging with people of color in online conversations, these good intentions need to be balanced with good judgment about when to engage, when to lurk, and how to avoid derailing or hijacking conversations.  Using examples of beneficial and problematic online behavior, this paper seeks to provide guidance on how to use the internet to unlearn one’s ignorance in a responsible manner.

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