Stop the Epistemic Marginalization of Taiwan

Whether through intent or incompetence, Donald Trump has broken established US and international norms by speaking to the president of Taiwan on the phone. By now, every mainstream media has published at least one article that says, in one way or another, Trump needs to learn how to talk about Taiwan.

As I read these articles, it became clear that Trump is not the only one who needs to learn how to talk about Taiwan. From my perspective as a Taiwanese citizen and a professor of philosophy, the way that the Western media covers Taiwan constitute a textbook example of what philosophers call epistemic marginalization. By excluding Taiwanese voices, intentionally or not, the media is extending the existing political marginalization of Taiwan to the to the domain the press likes to call its own — the domain of knowledge.

As producers and transmitters of knowledge, the media plays an indispensable role in shaping how a society learns about and understands a topic. Individuals’ beliefs are significantly impacted by the voices that are amplified in the media they consume. However, a key insight from philosophers who study knowledge in the social context is that the choices of voices amplified are, unfortunately, often driven by factors like race and gender that are irrelevant to knowledge. People who occupy dominant social positions — Whites, Westerners, men — are standardly given more credibility than they deserve.

We can witness the epistemic marginalization by observing who gets quoted in articles about Trump’s Taiwan phone call. While the US and Chinese political actors are given the agency of chess players, Taiwan is represented as merely a pawn. The most basic articles include a quote from an American and a Chinese government official. The more advanced articles add quotes from an expert on China, Taiwan, or Asia — typically a White person working in a Western institution. The very advanced articles add quotes from expats or journalists working in the region — again, typically White and Western. In mainstream publications like The Financial Times, The New Yorker, and The New York Times, there was not a single quote from a Taiwanese perspective. Instead, it is those who already occupy dominant social positions who get to be heard.

We can also witness the epistemic marginalization by observing the narratives that get amplified. In these articles, the media typically repeats the historical narrative offered by the Chinese government. For example, in trying to provide historical context, Evan Osnos of The New Yorker writes, in a piece endorsed by The Atlantic’s James Fallows, “Taiwan broke away from mainland China in 1949”.

Such claims mislead readers who are unfamiliar with the history of Taiwan. Taiwan was a colony of Japan until the end of World War II. After World War II, the Chinese Civil War continued on mainland China between Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China and Mao Zedong’s People’s Republic of China. In the end, Chiang Kai-shek lost and retreated to Taiwan. And so the official name of the government that occupies Taiwan remains “Republic of China”. Since those leading People’s Republic of China (or, simply, China) never stepped foot on Taiwan, it is misleading to suggest that Taiwan “broke away” from them. Even worse, this narrative marginalizes the views of many indigenous people and Han immigrants who lived in Taiwan before Japanese colonization, to whom Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China was yet another foreign colonizer. Yet again, political and epistemic marginalization goes hand in hand.

Finally, we can witness the epistemic marginalization in the reporting of political emotions. As reported in The Economist, according to the Chinese government, nothing hurts Chinese feelings more than acts of kindness toward Taiwan. This posture of hurt feelings is especially ironic given China’s continual provocation and aggression toward Taiwan. Rather than evincing skepticism, the media — including commentators — simply reported that the incident might anger China. In doing so, they systematically legitimized China’s hurt feelings without questioning whether that response is appropriate. In contrast, Taiwanese political emotions — indignation from years of international alienation, fear of the uncertainty to come — remain unmentioned and unconsidered.

True enough, one inevitably misses finer points in speaking of “the media” in broad brushstrokes. Yes, one LA Times article included one quote from a Taiwanese international politics professor. Yes, one Economist article gave context about China’s international bullying of Taiwan.

Still, the broad brushstrokes paint a painful reality for the people of Taiwan. Even when the media finally turns its attention to Taiwan, we remain excluded from equal participation in the discourse. And so we remain marginalized — politically and epistemically.

I am an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at University of Puget Sound. My academic website is The views are all mine, but the post got help from Grace Boey, Tyler Doggett, Regina Rini, Jennifer Saul, and Yuan-chieh Yang.

I drafted the oped above the night after the story came out. I sent it around on to a few newspapers, but got no takers. Since then, the media coverage has, fortunately, included more Taiwanese voices (NYT, CNN). Unfortunately, the commentaries mostly remained confined to Chinese and American perspectives. For some alternatives, consider the commentaries by Taiwanese-Americans Lee-Sean Huang and Kevin Hsu and by expats in Taiwan such as Michael Turton.