Mac Donald, in her diagnosis of where the social justice warriors have gone astray, schools “the victims and the gatekeepers of victim culture” on what they’ve misunderstood about language:Scheiber believes this response reveals 'a glaring lack of understanding of how language works.' He says
The meaning of language arises in a particular context and with reference to authorial intention, implicit or explicit. … It was a breakthrough in philosophy, starting with Plato, to recognize the conventional nature of language—that a linguistic sign is not the same thing as the signified. That understanding opened the way for the sophisticated study of language and interpretation, known as hermeneutics. A return to a belief in word magic, however, whereby words directly impinge on their referents, radically limits human expression and imagination.According to Mac Donald, the social-justice leftists have forgotten that the meaning of language isn’t fixed, but relies on “authorial intention” and “particular context”. Mac Donald discusses in particular “the elaborate rituals around the ‘n-word’” as evidence for the sort of belief in “word magic” that she criticizes.
“Speech acts” is a term coined by the British philosopher J.L. Austin to characterize the ways we “do things with words”. In addition to rules governing the syntax, or grammar, of a language, and its semantics, or meaning, there are also hidden regularities underlying the pragmatics of language — how the words we utter can bring about predictable effects in the world around us.The problem here is that 'predictable', for pragmatics, must be Bayesian and based on the user's priors- even if they are wildly off the mark. I may believe that my jihad against the Iyengars of Dollis Hill is succeeding because all the Iyengars I drunk dial to roundly abuse for their blasphemous denial of the possibility of a jivanmukta confess to actually being Iyers who killed and stole the identity of the original occupants of the house and so, for fuck's sake, could you move on to harassing Iyengars in a different post code?
Since Bayesian priors can't be common knowledge- otherwise speech acts would be redundant- it follows that, if either 'income effects' are non-neglibible or 'hedging' features, then pragmatics must be anything goes.
Schieber believes otherwise- He says if McDonald is right
then it would not be a feature of the way language normally functions that someone, regardless of their intention, could either (1) fail to perform a particular speech act or (2) be unable to avoid performing a certain speech act — due largely to structural, social facts.This is quite mad. I fail to perform particular speech acts in German coz I don't know German. I can't avoid performing certain speech acts in English because I may be sent to prison if I don't. McDonald never denied this plain fact. Nobody ever has. Austin's notion of a 'performative speech act' is one which can be substituted for. Thus, if it falls to me to nominate the Fuehrer of the German Chapter of my Anti Iyengar Jihad, some translator will do the job for me and there will be some protocol by which I give assent.
Schieber gives the following example of a person being unable to perform a particular speech act regardless of their intention.
Prior to the 1980’s, it was legally impossible in most states of the United States for a husband to rape his wife. This is because the law contained what was called a “spousal rape exception”.Does Schieber think a woman couldn't say 'he raped me' just because she was married to the rapist? Even the Judge could say 'you, Sir, are a depraved and evil rapist. However, such being the law of the land, I can't sentence you for that crime. So I'm giving you the maximum sentence for grievous bodily harm.'
To put it another way, prior to the 1980’s, a wife uttering “No” or “Stop” to her husband would have had no – legal – right to expect that her words would have their intended effect.Schiber is being silly. Plenty of women said 'no' or 'stop' and quite rightly expected their words to have the intended effect. Why? Rape is unconscionable. There are extra-legal sanctions which can be applied. Even from the legal standpoint, marital rape would have had consequences- for e.g. in a divorce case or claim for alimony. Mental suffering, even from an act not illegal in itself, can still feature in a civil case.
Schieber next tries to imagine a situation where 'it is impossible for that speaker, whatever his intentions (contra Mac Donald), to avoid performing certain speech acts when using certain words.'
Suppose you’re the boss of a crime syndicate, and your henchmen regularly engage in nefarious practices to solidify your hold on your crime empire. One day, thinking about a person who has been a thorn in your side for a while, you muse out loud, in the presence of your henchmen, “That guy has been a pain in my neck for far too long. It would be better if he’d just disappear”. The next day, you read in the paper that the person has turned up dead.Schieber is being silly. The boss of a crime syndicate is known to kill any of his henchmen who misunderstand him or, indeed, fail to read his mind. Scheiber's scenario is not a realistic. Suppose we are henchmen. I say to you 'listen, we'd better go bump off that guy. The Boss just ordered us to do so.' You reply, 'Did he say that to you explicitly? Think about it. Why has the Boss not killed this guy already? He must have a reason. Let us clear it with the Boss first. Don't forget he'll kill us and our families if we bump off a guy he's still got a use for.'
Assuming that it was your henchman who did the deed, then you bear at least some responsibility for the person’s death.Hilarious! Schieber thinks Crime Bosses care about their 'responsibility' for some wiseguy's death!
This strikes me as being true even if, in fact, you did not intend for your henchmen to draw the inference that you were ordering a hit when you said that you wanted the person to “disappear”. Given your role and status, and the power that you have over your henchman, you should have been more aware of the effect that your words would have.Wow! Schieber thinks Mob Bosses aren't aware of the effect their words have. What he doesn't get is that killing more people or getting more of them killed is what increases the effect of the Don's words.
What this case illustrates is that one’s social position and status can endow their words with a power that the same words, when uttered by others, would not have. When you, the crime kingpin, wish out loud that a person who is a nuisance to you would disappear, you can make yourself culpable for that person’s murder. When I, a meek philosophy professor, wish out loud that an annoying colleague would disappear, nothing happens.
The Mob Boss's Bayesian priors are likely to be common knowledge for his henchmen- because otherwise they just get killed and replaced- thus his performative speech acts are likely to be more, not less, intentional from the point of view of pragmatics.
By contrast, a meek philosophy professor may have a homicidal nutjob in his class- indeed, I think the thing is pretty much de rigueur at them fancy-shmancy East Coast Collidges- and so his speech act is more likely to be unintentionally performative. To be clear, a henchman checks before killing a wiseguy. A crazy sophomore doesn't. Why? The Mob boss will kill you if you screw up. Your Philosophy Professor, will probably just say something sarky about your grasp of the later Wittgenstein.
The same words, with the same literal meanings, can have completely different effects – and have them in systematic and predictable ways. And the reasons for those different effects – and for why those effects differ systematically and predictably – are “institutional and systemic”, rather than resulting from the speaker’s intentions or the literal meaning of what he says.This is foolish. Either the speaker is stooopid- like me- and has crazy Bayesian priors and thus doesn't understand anything about the 'institutional and systemic' features of Reality- in which case the systematic and predictable effect of his speech acts is people tittering politely and edging away- as happens to me at cocktail parties ; or else, where salient performative speech acts occur, 'institutional and systemic' facts have already been factored into the speaker's utterance leaving a pure intentionality whose pragmatics all concerned parties will have invested time and trouble to accurately decipher.
The cases show that Mac Donald is wrong because they show that, regardless of intention, some speakers are either incapable of performing certain speech acts or unable to avoid performing certain speech acts.In other words, Scheiber is saying a raped wife couldn't say she was raped whereas the truth is she could. Moreover, if she said it to her brother, the Mafia Don, guess what would happen to the rapist? He'd sleep with the fishes with concrete boots and his dick in his mouth.
Similarly, the Don who is blowing off steam against a made man won't actually be making a 'performative speech act' because his henchmen know they have to be double and triple sure before pulling the trigger because their own necks are on the line.
In other words, Mac Donald focuses too much on the intention of individual speakers, and ignores the ways that forces outside of those speakers can shape the impact that their words may have.It is perfectly reasonable for MacDonald to do so. Language wouldn't be much use to us if it genuinely suffered from the signal extraction problem Schieber attributes to it on the basis of his assumption of the universality of a stupidity unique to himself.
Actually, Shieber probably isn't really stupid. He is just pretending to be so as to be able to make the following claim-
Plausibly, much of what makes speech racist is that it functions to reinforce and sustain an historically established social hierarchy built on subordinating “whole groups of people, based on hoary stereotypes”.No group of people has ever been subordinated on the basis of 'hoary stereotypes'. They have been subordinated on the basis of beating and killing.
The fact that people like me continue to claim that Darwin was wrong- the Earth does not go round the Sun because my grandpappy was a monkey and climbed the sky tree and cut the string- does nothing to reinforce and sustain anything whatsoever.
The history of the N-word, for example, is inextricably linked to a society that brutalized black bodies and saw people of African descent as less than human.That particular Society got rich of African and indigenous peoples. It did so by beating and killing them- not by saying rude things. Then it found a way to make even more money by letting such people move up into more productive jobs and professions. No doubt, the courage and patriotism African Americans showed on far flung battlefields was also a factor. The N word or the K word or the I word (for Iyengar) don't matter very much.
So in fact it is Mac Donald who indulges in magical thinking when she supposes that a single person’s intentions, however innocent or well-meaning, could be enough to change the racist effects of using that word. A white person using that word cannot, simply through the force of his or her own will, erase that history.The history they can't erase is that of the Sixties. Also, getting stomped on discourages the thing. America has its own rules. I don't suppose they'd tolerate Tottenham Hotspur's traditional chant 'We are the Yids' or 'Go Yiddoes' either. Indeed, with the rise of anti-semitism in England- something few of us ever thought we'd see- the younger generation is turning against the use of certain epithets us old geezers use among ourselves with affection and nostalgia for the good old days when instead of women wearing hijabs, we were obliged to put a brown paper bag over our heads in order to get our end off. My friends deny that any such thing happened to them probably coz they were all virgins. My memory is that even the sluttiest girls insisted on it- probably in the mistaken belief that it constituted 'safe sex'.
Returning to Scheiber, this is the punchline to his article-
There is no corresponding history of the systematic subordination of white people by black and brown people on which to draw.There is a corresponding history of white people beating the fuck out off black or brown people who tried to subordinate them- or, that failing, simply running away, like the French from Haiti.
It is a good idea to beat up or run away from a bunch of guys coming at your people shouting racialist or confessional slurs. 'Fighting words' are exactly that- you either fight or run away or else get so ground down you can't run away.
The fact that something hasn't happened doesn't mean a particular course of behaviour is irrational or mischievous. It may be the principal reason the thing hasn't happened.
So, while someone from an historically oppressed group can be criticized for employing false generalizations about white people, for indulging in unfair or even hateful negative characterizations, or – yes – for their boorish trolling of white people, they cannot engage in racist speech against white people.Sure they can, if their Bayesian priors are such that they believe they can win in a fight and get to subjugate white people. Take ISIS type nutters. They thought they could win. So they went on spewing hate speech and knifing people till even the Brits lost patience and cracked down on their brand of racism. This was 'eusocial'. Even if a guy can't beat you up, it makes sense to stop him from working himself up to make the attempt. Fewer of his bones get broken and you too are saved time and trouble.
In Economics there is a theory of wasteful competition. Virtue signaling is an example. Some Jewish intellectuals in London felt they had to be more Anti Zionist than the Palestinians. Poor old Jeremy Corbyn was currying favour with them and ended up spewing vicious lies against Israel which has the same right to self-determination as any other nation. He's now being dragged over the coals for it. For the rest of us, this type of competitive (but, I believe, insincere) anti-semitism is simply a nuisance. It is perfectly proper for the Law to step in and curb it. On the other hand, my sacred jihad against the Iyengars must be allowed to continue. Far from ever having oppressed any Iyengar, the only one I was able to press a little forced me to wear a paper bag over my head. Come to think of it, what happened to me was statutory rape. My 'Yes! Yes! Yes!' actually meant, according to Scheiber, 'No! No! No!'.