Words and Actions

Daniel Fincke’s been talking about slurs and abusive language after a whole lot of people got uppity when he said he didn’t want people to insult each other on his blog. Now what Dan does on his own blog is his own business, but I’d like to weigh in on the discussion of the harm behind words, as I am particularly interested in linguistics and the philosophy of language. Many people are saying that words are just words, they don’t mean anything until we give them meaning, and so we all should stop being so sensitive about things like calling each other stupid.

But here’s the things. There’s an entire field of linguistics called pragmatics, which is about how we use words. It looks at how the context of and participants in a conversation allow words to mean. Most of the research in pragmatics shows that one speaker does not get to choose the meaning of their words, but rather their words take on meaning through an interaction, a history of the word, and the associations of all the participants in a conversation. In philosophy of language, one of the most prominent theories since the 60s has been speech act theory, which says that when we use words, we don’t simply communicate or put something forth into the world, but we actually undertake an action, often with consequences for other people.

Together, these two ideas make it clear that when you’re using language in a context, with other people, you don’t simply get to use words to mean whatever you like, your words don’t exist in a voice, and certain kinds of utterances are actually an action even more than just an utterance. When you begin a sentence with the word “why”, you can’t say that you aren’t asking a question with your utterance because the word why only means when you give it meaning. As part of the social context and general understanding of the English language, we all know that what you’re doing with that sentence is asking a question. Similarly, when you use an insult or a slur, you are attacking someone. When you say to someone “you’re stupid”, you don’t get to take your statement out of the pragmatic context of the utterance and say it doesn’t mean anything: it means in a context in which stupid has been used to denigrate and harass any number of uneducated, minority, and oppressed people.

The people who study language understand that language never exists in a vacuum: there are all sorts of conversational implicatures, connotations to words, and other pieces of a conversation that happen at a different level than the words uttered by themselves. Each utterance contains an action of some kind. And when your action includes a word that in context includes hatred, anger, or vitriol, then you should be held responsible for that action. We may want to say that we all have the right to our opinion, or to say what we wish, but just like any other action, we have to deal with the consequences. While many people want to make a distinction between saying and doing, and put more responsibility on someone for their actions, the line between the two is actually quite hazy. In reality, we are responsible for all the things we do, whether those actions are with words or without.

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Olivia is a giant pile of nerd who tends to freak out about linguistic prescriptivism, gender roles, and discrimination against the mentally ill. By day she writes things for the Autism Society of Minnesota, and by night she writes things everywhere else. Check out her ongoing screeds against jerkbrains at www.taikonenfea.wordpress.com

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