In these times, uncertainty is being actively made.
For the last few months, I have gotten many emails that seem to both lament and deploy uncertainty. I hope this message finds you well in these uncertain times, the emails sometimes say, offering uncertainty as a kind of community. In these uncertain times, we’d like to provide a virtual space for our community to come together.
Under the guise a community, though, comes a kind of justification for cruelty: We understand that you want to plan for the future, but we simply don’t know if we’ll have a teaching position for you in the fall—the coming months are too uncertain. Given the uncertainty of the current moment, we’re going to be laying off 80% of our staff. Good luck out there!
The exaggerated uncertainty of the chirpy corporate email has primed me to notice other forms of strategic uncertainty elsewhere, in the news and in social media.
It’s true: there’s a lot we don’t know about what will happen next. Will there be a vaccine? Will protestors win a victory over police brutality, or will we descend further into fascism? Will industries like music and theater that depend on large gatherings of people survive? Who among us won’t make it? So, yes, there are many mysteries afoot—but the constant refrain of “these uncertain times” isn’t just the result of not being able to tell what the future holds.
Ignorance, science and technology studies shows us, is not merely a lack of knowledge. Along with its sidekick uncertainty, it’s something people make. What we “don’t know” is the result of social practices that point our attention in one place or another, that deem particular facts or realms of knowledge important or not, or that result in a certain consensus to let something go unspoken.
All kinds of knowledge can be rendered not known through a variety of these practices. This is why it’s valuable to understand the creation of uncertainty. Sometimes it’s a matter of knowledge existing in one realm, but not being transferred to another. In the 18th century, as Londa Schiebinger has demonstrated, European colonial botanists traveling to the Caribbean encountered and wrote about the abortifacient properties of the peacock flower—but they never introduced that knowledge to Europe.
Other times, similar to right now, uncertainty can be actively emphasized. In the 1980s, as Michelle Murphy has shown, corporations were able to deflect blame and avoid responsibility for their building conditions resulting in the cluster of physiological symptoms that would become known as Sick Building Syndrome by arguing that no one knew exactly what the problem was.
Or, inconvenient knowledge might be actively overlooked: today, governing bodies ranging from the International Olympic Committee to the United States federal government continue to operate as though scientific research dating back to the nineteenth century hasn’t shown again and again that sex is much more complicated than a male/female binary.
Among these variations on the creation of not knowing, a throughline exists: in each of these cases, someone benefits from manufactured ignorance. Making knowledge about abortifacient herbs widely available would have threatened a slavery-driven mercantile empire’s pronatalist politics, and taken control of women’s bodies out of doctors’ hands just at the moment that obstetrics was becoming a professionalized medical specialty. Pinning Sick Building Syndrome on corporations’ labor conditions would have made them liable for the harm done to workers—better for the bottom line if no one could agree on its cause. The US government acknowledging that people aren’t so easily classified as male and female would, at the very least, mean they would have to find something to do other than legislate against trans people trying to pee in public (maybe they could have spent that time preparing for a pandemic instead).
The point, though, is that what knowledge matters, and what knowledge is accepted as truth, is influenced by various stakeholders’ social values. So, returning to our current situation, we need to ask who benefits from the repeated refrain that our times are so uncertain.
Because there’s a lot we do know. We know, for example, that COVID-19 is disproportionately killing black and brown people—and we know that we didn’t know that until mid-April because the federal government and most states had not bothered to compile racial data, because they didn’t consider it important. We know that places where workers already faced dangerous conditions for little pay, like meat processing plants, have become hot spots of deadly outbreaks. We know that the Trump administration has spent the pandemic thus far artificially lowering the caseload numbers by refusing to make testing widely accessible (how’s that for manufactured ignorance).
The way that this pandemic is affecting exactly who one would anticipate it affecting if one paid attention to social determinants of health, and the way that the federal government has abdicated responsibility for everyone other than large corporations, are not at all uncertain.
Most of us are anxious about our futures, and rightly so. But for most of us, the reason that we’re feeling anxious has less to do with the novel coronavirus itself and more to do with the fact that most of us don’t have access to affordable healthcare, we won’t be able to afford rent if we stop getting paid, and we know for sure that a government run by pro-capitalist, misogynist, white supremacists who are happy to take the eugenic path of sending working-class people back to work so that they can get a haircut in exchange for a brown person’s life isn’t going to step in on our behalf.
The current emphasis on uncertainty makes it easy to misidentify these problems as the result of a pathogen that, to be fair, we still don’t know that much about. But we must be just as suspicious of appeals to uncertainty now as office workers were in the 1980s when their employers tried to wriggle out of supporting them through their illness.
Just as this article was about to go live, Minneapolis police murdered George Floyd. As police across the United States have responded to protests with further brutality, defenders of antiblackness and state violence have again turned to strategic uncertainty as they deny any wrongdoing and attempt to delegitimize resistance.
The reliance on passive voice in headlines and the Hennepin County medical examiner’s muddying the waters with assertions of hypertension and hypothetical intoxicants—or perhaps the best example, the CNN headline “Video appears to show NYPD truck plowing through crowd during protest” attached to a video that very obviously shows a NYPD truck plowing through crowd during protest—are a clear attempt to make people unsee what they saw, and unknow what they know.
Meanwhile, calls for the defunding of police departments and abolition of policing as a whole have been met, as usual, with gasping assertions that we couldn’t possibly do that because we don’t know what we’d do instead. This denies decades of black liberationist thought and activism, from the Black Panthers’ community patrols to Minneapolis’ own Reclaim the Block organizers, that has already addressed precisely what could exist when police are no longer terrorizing communities of color. There is nothing uncertain here, either.
Let’s not mask everything we know by starting every email with “in these uncertain times.” Let’s not allow the people who have the power to solve these problems get away with saying that they would do something but they simply don’t know what to do, or that they can’t take action because things are just too uncertain.
There’s a lot we can do to take care of each other while we figure out all the details.
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