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Composite image of book cover for Justice in the Age of Agnosis Socio-legal explorations of denial, deception and doubt edited by James Gacek and Richard Jochelson published by Palgrave Springer. Followed by photos left to right of Richard Jochelson and James Gacek.

Justice in the Age of Agnosis is a new book edited by Dr. Richard Jochelson, Dean of Law at the University of Manitoba (photo by Dr. Amar Khoday), and Dr. James Gacek, Associate Professor in the Department of Justice Studies at the University of Regina.

Justice in the Age of Agnosis examines sources of oppression and the role of ignorance

UM Faculty of Law scholars’ work featured in new book

May 23, 2024 — 

A new book edited by the UM Faculty of Law’s dean, Dr. Richard Jochelson, with University of Regina Department of Justice colleague Dr. James Gacek, examines sources of oppression and the role of ignorance and where it might stem from. The book titled Justice in the Age of Agnosis: Socio-Legal Explorations of Denial, Deception, and Doubt, was published by Springer as part of the Palgrave Socio-Legal Studies book series, and includes chapters written by five other legal scholars affiliated with the Robson Hall-based law faculty.

In seeking to further the understanding of the human experience of coerced and forced ignorance on social, human rights and criminal justice related topics, the editors of this book have drawn together scholars from multiple disciplinary fronts. As a whole, the book argues that people in our social world are forced or coerced through either implicatory or interpretive denial that is normalized through specific cultural and social mechanisms by which we refer to as non-knowledge or agnosis.

This book’s focus fills a gap in scholarship examining how human victimization and power intersect through the systematic orchestration of forced ignorance and doubt upon daily human life. The chapters examine the ways in which people find themselves in social spaces without empirical clarity and understand that absence as satisfaction, stability, or perhaps even pleasure. This book seeks to make visible the role of ignorance in governing society, highlighting how the late modern human experience in a post-World War II human rights era subsumes, subverts, and sublimates the complex relationship between knowledge and denial; and that the empirical gulf between knowledge and resistance may indeed breed complicit bliss.

The book includes chapters written by other UM Faculty of Law affiliated scholars including: Assistant Professor Martine Dennie, author of “You Just Roll with the Punches”: The Production of Ignorance in Professional Ice Hockey“; Gacek and Jochelson with former Associate Professor David Ireland [JD/2010; LLM/2014] (now a Manitoba Provincial Court judge), co-authors of “Gone, but Not Forgotten: The Agnotological Necropolitics of Inquest Fatality Reports“; Shawn Singh [JD/2022] and Assistant Professor Brandon Trask [JD/2012], co-authors of “Faded by Design: Manufacturing Agnosis of Settler-Colonialism in an Era of Indigenous Truth and Reconciliation in Canada“; Dr. Katie Szilagyi, author of “Fragmenting Epistemologies: Toward Philosophical Foundations for Machine Learning in Law“; and finally Shawn Singh and Brandon Trask individually with papers titled “Shortfalls of the Bioethical Approach to COVID-19: Vaccine Hesitancy, the Right to Choose and Public Health Management in Canada” (Singh); and “Call It Democracy: The Slippage Amongst Rights, Laws, and Values in Canada During the Pandemic Era” (Trask).

Upon the release of Justice in the Age of Agnosis Jochelson and Gacek addressed some questions regarding the need for this book at this time in this era of widespread access to information and widespread ignorance and misinformation.

What inspired you both to join forces to publish a book on this topic?

Gacek: During the height of the pandemic I watched how various conspiracy theorists seemed to be gaining traction on social media. I, like the rest of the world, was concerned about the uncertainties of Covid-19, but I was also alarmed with how misinformation was being weaponized to attack scientists, academics, and health care practitioners. Speaking to Richard on these topics, we agreed that this production of non-knowledge, or the avoidance of knowledge, seemed to leach into other areas of our social world – like how those who are climate change deniers could also potentially deny the benefits of vaccines, or believed that if they ‘did their own research’ on vaccines they would end up realizing a ‘New World Order’ was coming to replace them (i.e., where we see inklings of white nationalist thought).

[W]e felt it necessary to question whether ignorance was indeed blissful, or if the production of non-knowledge or said avoidance would worsen the conditions of already marginalized populations more so than the privileged. – Dr. James Gacek, Department of Justice, University of Regina

As an academic I’m not immune to hate mail on my justice research and teachings, but even I couldn’t believe the correspondence I received during the pandemic, with the rationales some individuals used to suggest the examples above were facts! Climate change denial, anti-vax conspiracy, white nationalism… the list goes on, but how firmly rooted these perspectives are in these people is where the ruminations on the book began. These people, whether they peddle in ignorance claims or are victims to said claims (or both), exist, and Richard and I became fascinated with them. [This was] where we set out to conceive the book.

Richard and I have worked on projects for a few years now, and given our interdisciplinary research relationship, we felt it necessary to question whether ignorance was indeed blissful, or if the production of non-knowledge or said avoidance would worsen the conditions of already marginalized populations more so than the privileged. Agnotology – the study of ignorance, misinformation, and following on, conspiracy—is a new area for us, but it is where we felt we needed to be having this discussion alongside other pertinent and cognate disciplines like law, socio-legal studies, criminology, and criminal justice (among others). Our discussion slowly evolved into where we assert in the book we are living in now: the Age of Agnosis; the political warfare and weaponization of non-knowledge and avoidance of knowledge to harm people in our world.

Jochelson: I was interested in the seeming disconnect between empiricism and the growing spiritual claims of both the left and right of the political spectrum. This is something I had commented on in 2016 upon USA presidential elections and it was a good example of how the left reacted to that election almost spiritually in its conception of repugnancy of the result. I noted that the left was making claims that were echoing some of the right’s moralistic reasoning during the 1980s.

There seems to be a late modern anxiety about waiting for science, law or disciplinary skill to yield a final result, and we seem to be advocating, shouting down and calling out each other, increasingly and at times, in a vacuum of empirical findings. In other words, in a state of ignorance. – Dr. Richard Jochelson, Dean of Law, University of Manitoba

I had always viewed the left of the spectrum as prizing evidence-based practice. In the intervening years, spiritual polarization between left and right has increasingly mobilized social movements. The Pandemic is a good example, with true believers on both sides of the political spectrum.  There seems to be a late modern anxiety about waiting for science, law or disciplinary skill to yield a final result, and we seem to be advocating, shouting down and calling out each other, increasingly and at times, in a vacuum of empirical findings. In other words, in a state of ignorance. 

What audience can benefit from the knowledge contained in this book and how?

Gacek: A wide range of readers can benefit from this book! Of course, we know undergraduate and graduate students, but also scholars, policy workers, and community activists would benefit from a fresh lens on world issues like what we incorporate here. Justice impacts all in society, but not all equally; how ignorance, misinformation, and conspiracy not only takes root but insidiously pervades our world needs to be further understood.

Jochelson: Agnosis knows no politics. From political actors through to people with main character syndrome, I think readers should challenge their views by reading the book, which contains views across a reasoned political spectrum.

What solutions to the problems of oppression and ignorance does this book offer?

Gacek: It would be easy for us to say that education, like sunlight, would be the best disinfectant to shine light upon what we don’t know – but as agnosis teaches us, the politics of ignorance is profitable. Our contributors, in various ways, demonstrate that it is not just education that we need; we need compassion and empathy for the marginalized; strong legal mechanisms to hold those tasked in the political and private spheres accountable, especially those who peddle in hate and conspiratorial claims; and better ways to reconcile with traumatic histories that still play into contemporary realities for many marginalized groups in society.

Jochelson: I think we need to return to evidence-based practice whether it is the fuel that drives advocacy, social movements or law reform. We need to learn to drop straw person arguments and tether ourselves to the technologies of something more objective than blind belief or wilful spiritualism.

Do the ideas presented in this book scratch the surface of this area of legal research or is there more work to be done in this area?

Gacek: Our book endeavours to challenge readers on how they gain their knowledge of the world, on how we think about accountability for ignorance production, and on the longstanding harms marginalized peoples continuously face because of agnosis. The potential to have a more informed and empathetic world is real, and our book is a starting point for this discussion.

Jochelson: I think it is an opening salvo. I would challenge all social science, humanities and socio-legal scholars to ask themselves about the objective foundations of their arguments. To the extent that their labour is emotional or spiritual, an objective tethering point ought to at least frame the analysis so we engage in critical analysis apprised of the best information.

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