The SMU controversy: How not to do things with words

The “words are not actions” defense is misguided, and here’s why…

Like many people, I’ve been following the recent and ongoing furor about the highly publicized frosh week “rape” chant at St. Mary’s University (SMU). I’ve noticed a lot of responses to the widespread anger over this incident that go something like: “It’s not like they were out raping women, they were only saying words!”

I’m interested in how the response that “words aren’t actions” can stop the conversation dead in its tracks, because it shouldn’t be given even as much weight as a raindrop. That’s because while it’s true that words aren’t actions, the fact that words aren’t actions is utterly trivial and completely irrelevant. Nonetheless, pronouncing it in public debates like this one powerfully derails attempts to take stock of important situations. Thus, we should analyze it.

In what follows I want to explain what I mean. I want to articulate and, more than that, understand my own frustration with many (appalling) responses to the chant and hopefully also contribute to the attendant discussion a little bit. I’m particularly motivated to contribute to the discussion because even though I’m not teaching right now I’m still in touch with a fair number of students and still want to engage and encourage them. I’ve lived and worked in university residences and I’m aware of how challenging and difficult this part of a person’s life can be, and I am in a position to say that group activities like this chant are anything but separate from other forms of behaviour. I’ve seen how people in university communities are hurt by the sexual violence touted in this chant. The basis of my objection is not that the chant is offensive. Offense has nothing to do with it for me; indeed, the situation is too important to waste energy and time on being offended. I object because it’s dangerous.

“The basis of my objection is not that the chant is offensive. Offense has nothing to do with it for me. I object because it’s dangerous.”

I should say up front that—surprise!—I’m going to tackle this thing from the point of view of philosophy; not just because it’s how I try to tackle a lot of problems, but also because the distinction between words and actions has some roots in philosophical thinking. It’s a popular assumption today that common sense resides in everyday life and speculative thinking in special situations only, but that’s not true. Many, many times every single day you—yes, you reading this—activate artifacts and fragments of philosophical thinking in the activity of every day life. This fact alone, in my view, makes teaching philosophy in schools absolutely necessary: it helps us take responsibility for our behaviour. But that’s another story for another time.

Every time a controversy like one this pops up, many people rush to defend the responsible parties by protesting that words are not actions. In this case, the claim is that a chant that promotes raping underage women is not the same thing as raping underage women. Of course, it goes without saying that drawing a line between words and actions is in a real way the very basis of what most people accept in our society as the right to, and virtue of, free speech: you should be allowed to say whatever you want, so long as you don’t act on whatever terrible things you say. For my part, I don’t think that saying whatever you want has anything to do with free speech, and in many cases, I think it destroys the idea and practice of what I think of as true free speech. This issue unrelated to that of free speech, however, if for no other reason than that the SMU students called to account for their behaviour have insisted that the chant doesn’t express their opinions or feelings. Free speech is only relevant where matters of self-expression or statements of fact are concerned. Therefore, free speech has no part in this debate.

Understanding language 1: Willing, conceiving, judging

For a long time now (but not since forever) a commonplace about language has been that it essentially does one of two things: either it expresses some subjective feeling or opinion, or it describes, denotes, or refers to some feature of the world, well or poorly; the latter is what some people call the sphere of objectivity, or something like that. How old is this assumption? Very unfairly, and arbitrarily, I’m going to tell this story beginning with René Descartes. Descartes, after Plato, is probably the biggest whipping boy in the history of philosophy. I think that’s unfair; however, I’m going to make a bit of whipping boy of him, for my purposes. I’m sorry, René.

In his most widely known work a physics, he tends to focus on the relationship between the second and third kinds of mental operations he identifies.

Since Descartes, this setup has slowly leeched its way into our everyday assumptions about the subjective and the objective (although Descartes didn’t even use the concept “subjective” and used “objective” in a considerably different way than we tend to today), about our minds, language, and the world. It’s commonly assumed, not just by philosophers but by many of us in our everyday lives, that language is something like a combination of a toolbox and a screen between our minds and the world. We communicate with each other by using the tool of language, reaching out through the world and coming into contact. We tell each other how we feel, what we think, and we collaboratively furnish mutually agreeable descriptions and explanations of the world we share.

Why is this conception so prevalent? Like every complex story, this one is probably neverending; however, it’s worth noting that we also live in a society that favours the expression of opinions in public, and that sees that kind of expression as the vehicle of social and political stability and change. We agree, we dissent, we make and change the world. We sometimes argue angrily, but in our system that’s okay as long as we don’t physically hurt each other. We make our world together by talking and convincing each other. At least, that’s a more or less truthful story we tell each other day in and day out. But it’s a plausible reason why we tend to foreground the ways we use language to express opinions and feelings or to describe the world.

The problem is that we distort our perception of language and ourselves as living beings when we only foreground those functions. To talk about that distortion, I’m going to perform a huge historical jump – so please keep in mind that I’m doing a little bit of undue foregrounding myself. There are a lot of gaps to fill in.

Understanding Language 2: Performing actions with words

In the 1950s, a philosopher named John Langshaw Austin gave a series of lectures at Harvard University that were later collected and made into a book called How To Do Things With Words (1962). That lecture series features perhaps the most comprehensive analysis of how the basic picture of language that I just mentioned is wrong. In fact, Austin argued, language is composed of many different functions that can’t be boiled down to reporting a feeling or opinion or to describing some feature or features of the world. He introduced a basic notion called the “speech act”. Austin showed that all of our reporting and describing only happens in a much richer, more complicated sphere of linguistic activity: they are really a rather small set of operations when looked at from this point of view.

What is a speech act? A speech act is something we do in language that does something with language. Examples: christening a ship, admonishing a child, swearing an oath, apologizing to someone that you’ve hurt, condemning someone to death, making a call in a sports game, performing part of a religious ceremony – the list could go on and on. The point is that a huge swath of what happens in and with language is neither about expressing something “subjective” or about describing something “objective”. Language includes a diverse array of functions, because human life includes a diverse array of situations. And what I want to point out here is how inattentive people are to the diversity of situations when they respond to controversies just like this SMU controversy by jumping to the “words aren’t actions” defense.

The irony, then, is that the commonplace “words aren’t actions” is actually not a piece of common sense, as many people think.

Here I want to dispel the possible objection that I’m about to get into some highfalutin’ theory. Look: every one of us knows that what Austin points out is true. We may — may, a huge may — not know it explicitly, but we live it all the time and we know it implicitly at least. We wouldn’t be able to carry out the bulk of our daily activities if we didn’t. In our day to day lives we move through many more-or-less well-structured situations in which verbal language, and systems of signs more generally, operate quite differently. If we don’t acknowledge that, it’s pretty much impossible to describe, much less explain, anything about human behaviour. If you’re a parent and you’ve ever admonished and corrected your child, you know that you’re performing a certain set of operations: you’ve set up what I’ll call a structure of anticipation, or anticipatory structure, for you and your child. If you’ve ever driven in traffic, you know that you’re participating in and reproducing one of those structures. If you’ve ever played team sports, been in a band, choir, or orchestra, or performed some kind of secrecy ritual with your friends when you had a club as little kids, for example, you know exactly what I’m talking about. To put it more bluntly: if you were born and made it far enough to read this, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

Our day to day lives are absolutely jam-packed full of these more-or-less well-structured situations, these anticipatory structures. You know this. Example: if you can imagine the difference between a good boss and a crappy boss, you know that “Yeah, you can knock off at 5 this Friday” can mean different things, because you already know what to anticipate when your boss says something like that in your work situation. Again: you already know this stuff. I do too. Unless we’re asleep, we all know it. The irony, then, is that the commonplace “words aren’t actions” is actually not a piece of common sense, as many people think. It is a commonplace, but it’s also a meaningless abstraction. It is highly abstract, especially when measured against how you know everyday life works when you actually pay attention to it in your own experience.

Understanding language 3: Expanding the scope of responsible speech

To loop back to the SMU incident: it is entirely beside the point that words aren’t actions. Words are parts of utterances, utterances are parts of actions, and actions are parts of what I’ve called structures of anticipation. The question isn’t whether the chant expressed subjective opinions about rape or “objectively” described these students’ attitude toward rape – both may be true or false of this particular group of students, but it’s beside the point. The point is the anticipatory structure the chant belongs to: what is a team chant for, taken in the context of a structured set of activities meant to welcome seventeen-to-nineteen year-old people to the community that will be their home for the next several years? Who, having paid even a little bit of attention, could waste their time wondering whether it’s meant to express something “subjective” or describe something “objective”?

“…if these people really didn’t know what they were doing, then they essentially made a series of arbitrary decisions and acted on those decisions for no reason. And if that’s really true, then these people shouldn’t be allowed to walk around in the streets, let alone participate in inheriting a community and handing it on to others.”

It’s entirely beside the point. What is the function of that activity in the situation to which it belongs? That’s the question. Its content can only be evaluated once we answer it. The answer is that an activity like a team chant, in the context of welcoming new young members of a community, is meant to incorporate them into its particular structures of anticipation. (By way of comparison, take the morning “cheer” activity that Walmart employees are expected to perform each day, for example.) Depending on the particular content of that chant, they can and will sense what they may concretely expect of that community, and what may be concretely expected of them in that community. Let me put it this way: suppose that one of the incoming students is a rapist (statistics show that this is likely). How might that student perceive his or her new community’s norms, if he or she witnesses or participates in a chant promoting rape? It’s kind of like asking: how will a young banker prone to financial skullduggery perceive his or her new community if he or she starts a job on Wall Street and sees everyone quoting the Gordon Gekko slogan “Greed Is Good”? What can he or she anticipate in that world?

The question is not of who thinks what, but of what is more or less likely to happen in the structured situations that we live in and move through every single day. Again, this isn’t rocket science. We all live it. We all know it. We’ve all felt the pressure these situations exert, and we all know that what we say in them very often has nothing to do with what we really think, or with telling a true story about the world as such. It’s what makes the unbelievable disavowals offered by student “leaders” in this situation so appalling: if these people really didn’t know what they were doing, then they essentially made a series of arbitrary decisions and acted on those decisions for no reason. And if that’s really true, then these people shouldn’t be allowed to walk around in the streets, let alone participate in inheriting a community and handing it on to others.

Seeing through language

Words aren’t actions. Mother Goose stories aren’t news reports. Basically different things are basically different. Big whoop. It’s important and heartening to see critical concepts being applied to the situation — “rape culture,” “privilege” — even though I tend to hang back from using them because I’m always wondering if there aren’t even more scalpel-like concepts to apply. These concepts bring out pertinent features of every day life that are often underexamined, and often underexamined to the detriment of many people. I’m interested in highlighting the similarity between the protestations of these young people — “we didn’t know what we were doing!” — those of their enablers, such as Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter — “they didn’t know what they were doing!” — and the behaviour of a multitude of politicians, bankers, and other powerful public figures who express a similar separation of their actions from any understanding of those actions every time they get caught doing some dirt.

The view of language that puts speech in one sphere and action in another is mistaken at best, a lie at worst, and false either way.

I see misogyny and many other ugly things at work in our culture, but I also see a very apparent willingness to deliberately thwart, circumvent and undermine what I’ve called these anticipatory structures, coupled with an equal willingness to feign complete ignorance upon being caught. The really disturbing part of it is that you have to understand a system in order to thwart it. This is why Dante wrote in his Inferno over seven hundred years ago that fraud is the crime “that in every conscience leaves a sting”; it’s why the protests that these people didn’t know what they are doing are so implausible. It’s why it’s impossible to shake the perception that they knew exactly what norms they were rejecting, and that they knew why.

What does this behaviour do, other than create a world in which people aren’t even in contact with themselves? Is this not the poisonous psychic life depicted in Breaking Bad? The view of language that puts speech in one sphere and action in another is mistaken at best, a lie at worst, and false either way. The sooner we drop this basic falsehood about language and action, the sooner we can demand that people like this chant’s “composers” cut the crap, because they know as well as anyone else exactly what they’re doing, and we all know it too. It can only give us a world in which people tell themselves they can get away with stealing pears.

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