The Unbearable Whiteness of Racist Speech

by Joseph Shieber

The controversy over the hiring of Sarah Jeong by the New York Times has largely subsided. However, we can still learn some important lessons from the discussion of Jeong’s social media posts that were – depending on your perspective – cases of either ironic troll-trolling or of anti-white racist speech.

Jeong’s hiring came close on the heels of another controversy, sparked by an apology by the editors of The Nation for a poem by Anders Carlson-Wee, a young white man who wrote in African American vernacular and employed ableist imagery. While critics of the magazine from the left decried the tone-deafness of the poem, critics on the right took the magazine’s editors to task for silencing the poet.

Since I’m gearing up for a fall semester in which I’ll be offering a course on the philosophy of language, the juxtaposition of the two controversies was particularly striking for me. In particular, I want to examine the way that two prominent conservative critics reacted to the controversies and show how their responses reveal a glaring lack of understanding of how language works.

First, let’s look at the controversy regarding The Nation, discussed in a piece by Heather Mac Donald for Quilette.

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:

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. We’ll return to this in a moment.

Before we do, let’s consider the second case, that of Sarah Jeong. Here’s the lesson that Andrew Sullivan draws from Jeong’s case:

But the alternative view — that of today’s political left — is that Jeong definitionally cannot be racist, because she’s both a woman and a racial minority. Racism against whites, in this neo-Marxist view, just “isn’t a thing” — just as misandry literally cannot exist at all. And this is because, in this paradigm, racism has nothing to do with a person’s willingness to pre-judge people by the color of their skin, or to make broad, ugly generalizations about whole groups of people, based on hoary stereotypes. Rather, racism is entirely institutional and systemic, a function of power, and therefore it can only be expressed by the powerful — i.e., primarily white, straight men. For a nonwhite female, like Sarah Jeong, it is simply impossible. In the religion of social constructionism, Jeong, by virtue of being an Asian woman, is one of the elect, incapable of the sin of racism or group prejudice.

Unhelpfully, Sullivan writes in terms of Jeong’s being racist herself. It seems more appropriate, however, to consider whether Jeong’s posts are racist.

What Sullivan is saying is that whether someone’s speech is racist isn’t a function of the identity of the author or the particular context in which they are writing, but can be read off of the words that they employ: whether those words express a “willingness to pre-judge people by the color of their skin, or [involve] broad, ugly generalizations about whole groups of people”.

Let’s take stock of where we are. According to Mac Donald, the problem with leftist social justice warriors is that they treat certain words or actions as intrinsically racist, regardless of intent or context. On the other hand, according to Sullivan, the problem with those same SJWs is that they focus on intent and context, rather than recognizing that certain words or actions are intrinsically racist.

You see this too, right? It’s not just me? Mac Donald and Sullivan can’t both be right about the way that words function. They can, however, both be wrong. In fact, they both are.

There are a number of problems with the views of language at the root of Mac Donald and Sullivan’s commentaries. I want to focus, though, on the following problem for both Mac Donald and Sullivan. Both of them fail to consider the role of speech acts in the way that language works.

“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.

What Mac Donald and Sullivan don’t appreciate is that what makes particular instances of speech racist is less likely to involve the meaning of certain words or expressions than what they do – what effects they have.

Austin presented a theory of the ways in which we can make sense of the effects of speech. Later philosophers – perhaps most notably Searle and Grice – extended the ways that we can think about the pragmatics of language. (Just an aside for Andrew Sullivan: nobody would mistake Austin, Searle, or Grice for neo-Marxists.)

More contemporary philosophers have applied this earlier work specifically to racist and sexist speech. In particular, philosophers like Jennifer Saul, Rae Langton, Jennifer Hornsby, Miranda Fricker, José Medina, Kristie Dotson, and many others, have applied lessons from the analytic philosophy of language to these forms of speech.

For our purposes there’s no need to dive into the details of speech act theory. It’s enough to recognize that there’s more to the way speech functions than its literal meaning. Our best theories of how language actually works suggest that social and institutional facts play a large role in determining the effects of particular speech acts — in ways that go beyond the mere literal meaning of those speech acts.

One of the ways that philosophers argue against a certain view is by demonstrating that the view has implications that are false. If the view implies something false, then the view itself must be false. So let’s look at a couple of implications of Mac Donald’s and Sullivan’s views on language.

If either Mac Donald or Sullivan is correct, 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 all very abstract. Here are two concrete examples of what I mean.

First, let’s look at an example of the first kind of case, one where someone is unable to perform a speech act both regardless of their intention (contra Mac Donald) and because of social and institutional facts (contra Sullivan).

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”.

There were different legal justifications for the spousal rape exception, but one of the oldest derives from the 17th century English jurist Sir Matthew Hale, who wrote that

the husband cannot be guilty of a rape committed by himself upon his lawful wife, for by their mutual matrimonial consent and contract, the wife hath given up herself in this kind unto her husband, which she cannot retract.

What this means, in other words, is that – as far as the law was concerned – a wife was literally incapable of witholding consent from her husband, regardless of her intention or the literal meanings of her words. 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.

So much for the first sort of case. Here’s the second. It demonstrates that sometimes, due to a speaker’s social or institutional roles (contra Sullivan), 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.

Assuming that it was your henchman who did the deed, then you bear at least some responsibility for the person’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.

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 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.

Let’s be a bit more explicit about why these cases are counterexamples for both Mac Donald and Sullivan — why they show that both pundits espouse incorrect views of how language works.

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, 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.

The cases show that Sullivan is wrong because they show that the explanation for when people are capable of performing, or refraining from, certain speech acts inescapably involves “institutional and systemic” facts. In other words, Sullivan focuses too much on the facts governing the literal meaning of what is said, but ignores the other sorts of socially-determined, speaker-independent facts that play a role in the way that language functions.

Now let’s return to the case of racist speech. 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”. 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. 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.

Of course, Mac Donald was correct in one respect when she suggested that particular words aren’t special – at least in the sense that it is certainly possible to employ racist speech without ever using a particular word (such as the N-word). For example, a white man in a position of power who routinely called black men “stupid” and black women “dogs” would obviously be engaging in racist speech. What matters in this case as well is that the speaker is drawing on a long tradition of very specific forms of disrespect of African American humanity. (John McWhorter is much more eloquent about this than I could be.)

There is no corresponding history of the systematic subordination of white people by black and brown people on which to draw. 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.

What this suggests is that positions that appeal to “institutional and systemic” facts to understand the phenomenon of racist speech actually fit better with current theories of how language works. This is why it is not inconsistent for someone to claim both that a white person using the N-word – regardless of intention – is thereby employing racist speech, and that Sarah Jeong – also regardless of her intentions – wasn’t engaged in racist speech when trolling white men on her Twitter feed.

It would be a mistake, however, to think that conservative commentators are the only ones to harbor misconceptions about language. In fact, many of those who defend Jeong from the left seem unaware that the most promising theoretical foundation for that defense rests on speech act theory.

What this demonstrates is that both sides of this discussion would benefit from a better grounding in the lessons that linguistics and the philosophy of language can teach us about the ways that language works.

In a strange twist, Sarah Jeong’s first piece for the New York Times Magazine deals with the ways that derogatory terms function differently when used by white people than they do when employed by members of the historically oppressed groups who were the targets of those expressions. In her entire discussion, Jeong never once brings up the theory of speech acts.