Wednesday, August 04, 2021

Making Non-Oppressive Speech Unspeakable

I have a thought (sketched below), which I'm curious as to your views. Specifically, is this thought an at all interesting or novel thought (obviously even if it is either/both it would still need to be fleshed out in much more detail/rigor)? So please read the below and let me know if I'm on to anything.

I recently reread Rae Langton's legendary "Speech Acts and Unspeakable Acts" article, and it got me thinking about a case I'm not sure has been fully discussed (related to but also different from what Langton is talking about): one where structural oppression (misogyny, racism, antisemitism) causes an illocutionary misfire by making it impossible (or at least far more difficult) to express an "innocent" thought (one that, in of itself, presents a legitimate argument that does not depend on or appeal to misogyny, racism, antisemitism, etc.) without it actually being misogynistic/racist/antisemitic/what have you.

Some examples to illustrate the problem:

(a) Tim is a defense attorney, representing a client who is charged with sexual assault. He client admits that he had sexual contact with the accuser, but insists that she expressly consented and that she's falsely accusing him now. Tim wants to make this defense, without in any way imputing that women generally lie about sexual assault or that the accuser is lying because she's a woman. Nonetheless, he knows that making this argument will, despite his best efforts, be heard by many as making such a claim; and worse, he knows his defense is more likely to be taken up by a jury precisely because it "appeals" (again, in spite of his own intentions) to this misogyny.

(b) Paula is a politician. She believes that most social ills on the planet -- from Colombia to Colorado to Gaza to Georgia -- are attributable a global class of ultra-rich capitalists, who promote a system that profits them while immiserating others. By "global class of ultra-rich capitalists" she does not in any way mean Jews; she does not argue that Jews are especially likely to be part of this class or that this class has any particular connection to Jews. Nonetheless, she knows that talking about the "global class of ultra-rich capitalists" will be heard by many to talking about Jews (especially when, as will be periodically be the case, when the proximate subject of her ire does happen to be Jewish), and worse, she knows that his political pitch is more likely to be taken up by the public precisely because it "appeals" to this antisemitism.

In both cases, Tim and Paula have an intention regarding what they want their speech to do (or more accurately, not do) -- they want it to not subordinate women/Jews, make accusations against women/Jews, denigrate women/Jews, and so on. In both cases, their speech plausibly will defy their intent and "do" what it's supposed to not do anyway. In both cases, it would be difficult if not impossible to avoid having the speech taken up in the way they do not desire (note that merely disclaiming -- "Just to be clear, when I make this argument I am not talking about 'women'/'Jews'" -- probably wouldn't work: if anything, it sounds like protesting-too-much; it may make the problem worse). In both cases, all of this happens despite the fact that we could not say that the actual intended thought (this accuser is being untruthful; there are rich people who bolster a global unjust system) is one that should be out-of-bounds per se. And in both cases, the unavoidable-undesired misfire actually aids in the direct desired end result -- the unintended misogyny makes it more likely the jury will conclude that this woman was lying about her claim; the unintended antisemitism makes it more likely that the citizenry will believe that the global system is controlled by an elite global ultra-wealthy class.

Notice how this problem eludes some normal attempts to resolve it. We already mentioned that one can't just disclaim the bad intent. Here are a few more possible resolutions that I don't think work: 

(a) Sometimes people dismiss cases like what I'm talking about by claiming, in essence, that because there's no bad intent and because the literal content is innocent, any inference of misogyny/antisemitism is invented or made in bad faith -- "you're just hearing things that aren't there." But that's not quite right -- while it's true that the inference of bad intent may be mistaken, the listeners are in fact hearing something real -- they're aware of and identifying the likely reasons for the idea being taken up by the audience. That's not invented! Likewise, telling the putatively aggrieved group to grow a thicker skin misses the mark -- the problem isn't really with how *they* understand the speech, but with how the speech is taken up in society writ large; their negative reaction is based on accurately identifying the illocutionary misfire that's in process. Even if the speaker was trying not to say anything about Jews, and even if the Jews agreed that the speaker was indeed not trying to speak of Jews, neither of those facts would do anything to affect whether non-Jews were taking up the speech to be about Jews. 

(b) On the other side, we can't reduce the problem to being "unintentionally" misogynist/antisemitic. The problem runs deeper -- it's that certain innocent ideas which it may well be *important* to express become impossible to express without triggering the misogyny/antisemitism problem. It becomes "unspeakable" to critique an international elite of ultra-rich individuals without attacking Jews. One hears glimmers of this in the frustration some people have surrounding "trope" discourse -- *everything* is a trope, they say, and this ends up indiscriminately capturing innocent arguments. And they're right! But they're wrong to infer that this is because of bad faith or seeing things that aren't there. It rather suggests that the ubiquity of structural oppression renders legitimate arguments in certain domains unspeakable insofar as they are intended to be spoken sans a hook with the oppression. Which seems like a serious problem. 

(c) Sometimes people frame this serious problem by saying something like "claims of racism/misogyny/antisemitism" are silencing. But that isn't actually what's happening here -- it's not the claim but the reality of racism/misogyny/antisemitism that's doing the "silencing" (that is, by converting the "innocent" statement so that, against the speaker's intention, it is publicly understood to mean something else and the speaker's actual thought becomes unexpressable). One thing misogyny does is that it makes it so that certain (typically negative) talk that is not meant to be about women-as-a-class is publicly understood to be -- and is accepted as -- indeed about women-as-a-class. It is because there are powerful misogynist narratives about women lying about sexual assault that an attempt to specifically claim this-woman-Jane-Smith-is-lying-about-this-incident unavoidably becomes imbricated with the broader misogynistic narrative, whether the speaker wants it to or not (and whether Jane Smith the individual IS being untruthful about this incident or not).

So: am I thinking a remotely interesting thought here?


Ddch said...

That is certainly an interesting quandary. It's certainly a novel thought to me, so I'm glad that you shared it for that if nothing else. The only potential solution that comes to mind is speaking with such specificity of detail did it becomes abundantly clear that a specific claim is only being used in a specific instance, without tied to broader patterns of societal thought. How feasible this would actually be to practice, I'm not sure.

Mismos said...

I find almost all of your writing interesting, this piece included. It is indeed a quandary.

Ian said...

You might be interested in Sukaina Hirji's "Oppressive Double Binds." Her goal is a general account of situations in which people are forced to choose between playing along with norms that oppress them or getting caught in their teeth. (For example, the choice faced by many closeted gay men & lesbians in the 80s-- damned if you come out, damned if you don't.) I think your examples could be usefully understood as another token of this type. (Though your examples have the added twist that the oppressive norms oppress people other than the agent making decisions about what to say.)

David Schraub said...

Thanks everyone (and Ian especially for the recommendation)!

Benjamin Lewis said...

This is definitely a class of situation that really occurs, seems likely to be under-explored, and I'd be interested reading your deeper analysis of it.
I encounter it pretty routinely at the intersection between anti-semitism and my wife's job, as I will proceed to demonstrate: She teaches in the East Ramapo schools, where it is literally the case that the local Hasidic Jewish community (a plurality or outright majority of voting-eligible residents due to large immigrant communities) catastrophically defunded k-12 public ed and also illegally filtered public money to private yeshivot. In general there is not a Jewish conspiracy to control government agencies, screw over all the gentiles, and steal money. But in this specific case there kind of is.