Jason Stanley on Silencing and Political Speech

Good stuff!

The feminist scholar Catharine MacKinnon famously declared, “Pornography silences women.” In the 1990s, the philosophers of language Jennifer Hornsby and Rae Langton developed an account of the mechanisms of silencing that could substantiate MacKinnon’s claim. But their basic ideas extend beyond the examples they chose, and can inform us about silencing in our political discourse today.

59 thoughts on “Jason Stanley on Silencing and Political Speech

  1. Hornby’s and Langton’s work seems spot on, and it’s great that Stanley is bringing it into his work.

    Still, I’m wondering whether it is easily extended to Obama’s case. One question is really a simple one: how extensive and effective does something have to be before it does silence? Another is also pretty simple: is Stanley offering an account of what is going on or of what could be going on?

    Suppose, for simplicity’s sake, that 45% of the US believes Obama is a muslim foreigner who is lying about it. Is he really silenced? Maybe we could say something like the birthers’ tactics deprive him of any voice in the conservative arena?? But it isn’t even clear that he would have had a voice if the birthers had not existed. It might be his being black is a cause of such distrust that that is why the birther nonsense got a foothold.

    I suppose we could say that the propoganda is intended to deprive Obama of a voice in some arenas. Here again, though, we might wonder about joint causes and about the intentions of those spreading the garbage. Their intentions might be more directly to spread racial hatred. And so to make Dems look like the foes of ‘ordinary’ (by which they may mean ‘white’) citizens. Is Stanley making heavily empirical claims about causes and intentions?

  2. I’m glad Stanley wrote this piece, and it’s an interesting extension of the Langton/Hornsby work. I’m presenting on some of this material at a conference next month, and I’m going to think a little bit about this example and how it might be incorporated.

    In Obama’s case (and in lots of cases), I think the effectiveness of the silencing depends on the specific environment and the effectiveness of the subordination (the first half of MacKinnon and Langton’s formulation – subordination and silencing) in that environment. I think this is in line with what jj said…that silencing Obama is probably only going to work in those domains in which one of Obama’s features/social groups (liberal, black, Democrat, etc.) are already subordinated.

  3. Matt, I’m not sure. I think it is important that a lot of people didn’t believe the muslim foreigner story. I should think that, most unfortunately, almost anyone can be severely harmed by rumors that are believed. Perhaps subordination comes in as one of the factors that could make the rumor believable. But mightn’t there be others?

    Perhaps a rumor could be believed because it is something vividly feared and, a la Hume, we can get a transfer of vividness from the fear to an idea. E.g, we might find we can spread the rumor that the town’s beloved doctor is actually a child molester. (Similar things have happened, clearly.) The rumor itself will make denials unbelievable.

    I wonder if it would be possible to spread the rumor that Queen Elizabeth spent much of WW II in Nazi children’s camps. We might find out that while the country has not turned against her, it is close to a tipping point, and really just the presence of the rumor – ‘no smoke without a fire’ – pushes the whole institution of the monarchy over. And silences the lot.

    So tipping points might end up as one sort of factor.

    Anyway, all off the top of my head.

    It would be great to get a solid abstract of your paper to discuss here.

  4. I think more feminists should question their use of the metaphor of “silence” itself. (Some of us already do.) Does that metaphor itself do some of what Stanley is claiming other speech does? Many Deaf activists and theorists have, by now, long argued that it does. They eschew the negative connotations attributed to “silence” and “silencing”. Is the persistent use of the metaphor of silence to signify manipulation of speech and the refusal to attend to certain (usually marginalized and subordinated) perspectives actually facilitating the subjugation of some knowledges and enabling their subjugation to endure?

  5. It’s not clear to me that it’s always a metaphor. What if silencing is a literal form of preventing someone from being heard by those that can and should hear her? However, Shelley certainly makes me think more about hearing as a metaphor for what Sarah Hoagland more accurately refers to as attending.

  6. I’m not so sure about “attending.” Non-attending might be one kind of (what’s been called ‘silencing’) effect, but some Obama haters do attend to what he says. They do not trust any of it, though.

  7. I think JJ’s concerns are just right about the Obama silencing claim, but that they apply equally to the porn silencing claim. To have any plausibility, any claim like this needs to be restricted as to context and audience. (Many women and also many men will *not* misunderstand a woman’s “no” even if some do.) And intention is, again, a tricky issue for both kinds of cases. (Langton freely admits that pornographers don’t *intend* to silence women.)

    Thanks for raising those concerns, Shelley. Similar concerns are the reason I always write of ‘audiences’ rather than ‘hearers’, and I have wondered about ‘silencing’– though it’s difficult to avoid since it’s so central to the literature.

  8. jj, my sense with the entire “Muslim foreigner” business is that Obama had certain features (mainly his race and his middle name, but there’s probably some element of partisanship working its way in…) that show up to lots of people in certain ways, as threatening or as something to be feared or hated. So when someone starts a rumor about Obama, these things are unleashed.

    But the Queen Elizabeth example might get at a weakness. I’m thinking of all this as already being built into the environment that people live in. Maybe rumors and speech have more creative power than I’m crediting them for.

    Anyway, sure, I can send along an abstract. If I recall from the schedule, there are actually about 4 or 5 papers at this conference addressing issues with subordination and silencing…most of it based around Langton’s work on pornography.

  9. Jenny, Thanks. I was thinking simplistically that most or even all guys look at porn. But your point would still hold -not all become unable to take a refusal literally.

    I also have some problems with his second category, where labeling can make it difficult to express one’s view. The anti-abortionists have been masters (NB) of this in at least one respect. But in the political domain in the States and many other countries we need an explanation of why the labels stick. It seems to me that Lakoff’s view about metaphors both explains why some stick and why they make disagreement difficult. So it seems at least an explanatorily stronger thesis.

  10. With all due respect, I think that feminists should not appeal to the current centrality of the term to “accepted” literature in the area as justification for its continued use. We could, I’m sure, come up with racist forms of argument and speech more generally, once prevalent in feminist discourse, that have more recently been avoided or considered unacceptable.

    The term “audience” actually does not seem an improvement over the term “hearers”. “Audism” is the term many scholars use to signify discrimination against Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing people.

  11. ‘Audience’ is the term I was taught to use by deaf psycholinguists and linguists that I encountered as an undergraduate. I suppose the reason it’s an improvement is that although one meaning is specifically about hearing, another isn’t: it is quite common to talk about the audience for a visual work of art, for example.

    Of course, none of this demonstrates that ‘audience’ is OK, and I do take your point about ‘silencing’– it’s problematic.

  12. well, I don’t know what those people had in mind but nowadays Deaf (the capitalization signifies a claimed identity) scholars point to the root “aud” in terms like audible, audience, audio, to demonstrate its association with hearing.

  13. Matt, I think I agree with your account of the Obama phenomenon, but I think it puts Stanley’s account under some pressure. He thinks there’s a causal story to be told: Rumors of Islamic faith cause people to distrust Obama. And, if I remember correctly, there’s some suggestion that that is what is behind the spreading of such rumors; i.e., it’s the intended effect. I should think both of these are questionable. The first causal story can be questioned because it isn’t clear that the Islam story would be taken seriously unless Obama was already thought to be untrustworthy. I just don’t know how the facts are. Secondly, equallly, it isn’t clear that the birthers are after making Obama seem untrustworthy; they must know they are preaching at least largely to the already converted, or to people who will never agree. So there point may be something else, as it is actually often said to be. Racial divisions help the radical right, some commentators say, so that might be their aim. Also, Trump was said just to be wanting to get a lot of press.

    I’m for avoiding large factual claims, I should say, unless one has evidence. We are learning that we really don’t have a great grasp on why people do things.

  14. Shelley, do you happen to know if there’s a preferred substitute phrase for ‘audience’? Writing about context and communication, I need some term for the recipient of a communication, and ‘recipient of a communication’ is awkward.

  15. Jenny, in a completely different context (writing about angelic communication in medieval authors), I’ve been using the terms ‘producer’ and ‘receiver’. In that context, I needed terms which would be neutral with respect to the medium of communication (as presumably angels do not ‘speak’ or ‘hear’), and producer and receiver has been working alright for me so far. Could they be an alternative given the considerations raised by Shelley?

  16. I share jj’s uncertainty about the analogy between the standard silencing cases and the Obama case. Here’s an attempt to put my finger on what I think might be the discrepancy.

    There’s a difference between: (i) generating skepticism about what is said; (ii) making the context such that a collection of words doesn’t communicate what it ordinarily does.

    The Obama case looks like an example of (i). The birthers know what he means — they ascribe the same meaning to his words that anyone else does. But their background beliefs give them a reason not to believe any of his assertions. That is, they think that when Obama says “I was born in America”, he is trying to communicate that he was born in America; they just think he’s lying. So it’s not that Obama can’t communicate the standard content of “I was born in America”. It’s that when he communicates this content, he isn’t believed.

    I’ve always thought that the idea behind the silencing cases is that when a woman says “no” she’s interpreted as being coy or engaging in a flirting game, rather than refusing. What one would usually mean by an utterance of “no” has been altered by the background assumption that women use the word “no” to play hard to get or be cute, rather than to genuinely refuse. The woman is “silenced” because there’s no way for her to voice her refusal. We usually voice refusal by saying “no”. But if you’re placed in a context where utterances of “no” are interpreted as meaning “aren’t I sexily demure?”, you’re deprived of the words that allow you to refuse.

    Whether this type of silencing is widespread is a tricky issue (I think Jenny is right: lots of men won’t misunderstand a woman’s “no”). But I think we can at least conceptually distinguish between background beliefs which make us prone to doubt what is said, and background beliefs which change the meaning, in some contexts, of a word or utterance (perhaps making it impossible to communicate certain things).

  17. magicalersatz, given your interpretation, I’m now unclear about what Stanley is claiming. He says,

    Hornsby and Langton’s work raises the possibility that a medium may undermine the ability of a person or group — in this case, women — to employ a speech act by representing that person or group as insincere in their use of it.

    It isn’t exactlly that they are represented as insincere; rather, they are represented as doing something else.

  18. Shelley, could you recommend some reading in Deaf scholarship and silence? I am surprised by the discussion, and google and “academic search complete” are both failing to enlighten me. I would have thought thought that the idea that deafness and silence are substantially connected is just so wrong that we shouldn’t thinking of the negativity of “silencing” as denigrating to the Deaf.

    I do see there is a popular connection between, e.g., Helen Keller and a “world of silence,” but I thought that was strongly contested.

  19. In haste– not being believed can be a form of perlocutionary silencing. This is also discussed in the literature referred to, even though the main focus is on illocutionary (where a central case is not being understood).

  20. I guess I was somewhat confused by what he took the analogy to be. (And fair warning: it’s been a *long* time since I’ve read the literature on silencing, so I probably remember it poorly and selectively. . .)

    He starts out by describing the problem like this: “Words are misappropriated and meanings twisted. I believe that these tactics are not really about making substantive claims, but rather play the role of silencing. They are, if you will, linguistic strategies for stealing the voices of others.”

    He then describes the familiar case of silencing by saying: “Women, then, will not be understood to be refusing, even when they are.”

    That made me think he had illocutionary silencing in mind. I guess it could just be that he had the more general idea of silencing in mind, started with some descriptions that point toward illocutionary examples, but then went on to discuss key cases where the central notion is perlocutionary. (Caveat: I find it harder to get my head around the idea that there’s a general phenomenon of silencing once a skeptical attitude toward a speaker counts as a type of silencing, so that’s was probably informing my reading of Stanley’s article.)

  21. I may just confuse the issue, but I thought that if you are refusing, then you are performing the illocutionary act, so his comment about not being understood even though you are refusing suggested to me that he’s got some further perlocutionary condition in mind.

    However, it now occurs to me that he may not have understood fully that Austin’s requirement of illocutionary uptake means that a social response may be required even for basic things like refusals. In fact, I now realize that Austin is an important philosopher who got that we may depends on others for conditions of successful saying. This idea does seem to me very foreign to the current zeitgeist.

  22. I will probably respond at greater length later this evening or tomorrow, but I did want to point out that the problematic character of ‘silencing’ involves the fact that most Deaf people don’t use oral language (with the exception of oral deaf people with cochlear implants). They use manual language; they don’t identify with oralism. When someone is said to have been ‘silenced,’ it means that she or he has been prevented through some means from “speaking out” in some way. The problem is not silence per se, which deaf people identify with; the problem is the connotations attributed to “not having a voice,” “not speaking out,” “being in a state of silence,” etc.

    This is one of those stances that one becomes so accustomed to encountering if she is around the Disability studies/Deaf studies community for a long time, that it’s hard to think of who in particular wrote about this. I can give you some names of leading authors in Deaf and Disability Studies and you can look for relevant remarks in their work: Carol Padden, Tom Humphries, Lennard Davis, Ben Bahan, Harlan Hahn, Brenda Brueggemann.

    There’s an EXCELLENT film, made several years ago, that deals with these and a host of other political and social issues such as the relationship of deaf people to silence (e.g., not hearing music), Deaf community and education, Deaf identity, the Deaf President NOW! movement at Gallaudet University, etc. primarily through a series of interviews. Some of the authors I mentioned appear in it. Unfortunately, I can’t recall the title (which I do recall is catchy) of the film at the moment. Maybe one of your other readers has seen it.

  23. My apologies. In my previous comment, I got a name mixed up. Harlan Hahn has been an important disability theorist (sociologist) in the American disability movement. Harlan Lane is a scholar in Deaf Studies. His book The Mask of Benevolence, in which (among other things) he describes the histories of oralism and audism in great detail, was ground-breaking.

  24. Thanks Shelley and B for the references. “The Mask of Benevolence” is such a wonderful title. I’m assuming it’s pretty easily found…

  25. I’m with magicalersatz here. I was upset at Stanley’s article. The comparisons (he wants to give a case that is a different kind of the same thing, ‘silencing’) could not be more ill-conceived. Whatever people think about his arguments for something, Obama gets obeyed by those whose role it is to obey his orders. (If he tells people to go into a sovereign country and assasinate someone, they do it.)

  26. I think what Stanley’s doing is perhaps what one has to do in a short article aimed at the general public: slide from illocutionary to perlocutionary silencing without noting it or discussing the difference. It’s unbelievably hard to explain this stuff even to upper-level philosophy students, after all. But you’re right that it’s a slide!

    Now, as to whether Obama is actually silenced in general: of course not. But it’s not wrong to suggest that something like silencing is *a part* of the intent of these rumours– their spreaders want us to stop taking Obama seriously.

    The bit I actually found most interesting, by the way, was the suggestion that the misuse/appropriation of words like ‘freedom’ can become a sort of silencing.

  27. Sorry about not responding sooner – I am in the midst of a very intense conference swing (packing seeing 30 talks into 10 days, giving 4 talks in that time period, and trying to skype with my newborn son at the same time, and I’m totally exhausted). I’m going to have to wait until I return to the States to have a full answer to all the different issues raised by JJ and others in this thread (my talk at this conference is tomorrow morning). Briefly, on the first comment that I read – I certainly never claimed, or even thought to claim that Obama was *effectively* silenced – my purpose was to explain the *intent* of the bizarre conspiracy claims. The intent was to silence. X can intend to F without succeeding in F. Obviously, Obama hasn’t been silenced. The intent to silence is supposed to be a hypothesis about why people put forward bizarre conspiracy claims, it never for a minute occurred to me that they were successful. I thought that point was pretty obvious, and I’m surprised that there is dispute. The main novel point of the article was the last half – that there is another kind of silencing that hasn’t been addressed in the literature (and maybe it might not be right to call it a species of the same genus), which is that robbing people of positive vocabulary is a kind of removal of speech.

  28. Just reading this thread quickly – magical ersatz says that I think that “a skeptical attitude toward a speaker counts as a type of silencing”. That’s an absurd misreading of my article. Silencing has only occurred when the someone is aware that their attempt at a speech act will have no possibility of success. X can attempt to silence Y by making it so salient that Y’s attempts at F-ing are insincere, that Y comes to have the belief that it is not possible to be taken as sincere. I’m utterly explicit about this point in the article. It also never occurred to me that Obama actually has been silenced, i.e. that Obama thinks that his critics have been successful in undermining belief in his sincerity. My point was to try to explain what his critics are attempting to do.

  29. Welcome, Jason Stanley, and no need to rush if you’re swamped. On your note, though, that “Silencing has only occurred when the someone is aware that their attempt at a speech act will have no possibility of success,” I wonder if you’d be friendly to an amendment. Wouldn’t it be rather the case that silencing has only *succeeded* when the would-be locutioner has this (justified, true) belief?

    Occurring might be separate from succeeding if the occurrence is essentially a carried-out intent, whether or not it has yet ‘landed.’ I know I’m mixing my ethics and my Austin, but I would say that silencing ‘fires’ (I know, Austin uses an amazing amount of archery metaphor) when the speaker intends to launch it from intention A, whether or not the ‘target’ has been hit.

    Hm, maybe I shouldn’t query JS after such a large dinner. Apologies if my mixed metaphors are too clumsy. It’s the roast talking.

  30. Jason, I didn’t say what you’ve attributed to me. And I didn’t intend to say (though maybe my post was confusing — it was written in haste) that you thought a skeptical attitude was a type of silencing. I was just trying to say that, in the Obama case, the phenomenon looked, at least to me, more plausibly explained as a standard case of skeptical attitude/stance rather than a case of silencing. I don’t see how that’s an absurd misreading of what you said. That’s just me being skeptical that what you said is right.

    I should say that I really enjoyed your article, and thought it was excellent.

  31. Magical Ersatz,

    It’s of course perfectly fair to suggest that what I think is an instance of X attempting to silence Y is instead better (and more simply!) described as X taking a skeptical attitude towards the truth of Y’s claims. I have the burden of explaining why the more complex description is right. I thought you were saying that I thought that X having a skeptical attitude towards Y’s claims was itself an attempt to silence, which would have been very silly on my part and hence uncharitable to attribute to me. But I now see that this wasn’t your charge – thanks for clearing that up!

  32. No worries, Jason. It was my fault for being unclear (turns out I can’t post while I’m travelling and have it make much sense).

    Again, great article.

  33. Jason, I do hope you can return. Since I first riased the issue of whether Obama is silenced, let me say I think it becomes an important issue since you do say the birthers have the intention to silence:

    “There are multiple purposes to political speech, only one of which is to assert truths. Nevertheless, we expect a core of sincerity from our leaders. We do not expect a Muammar el-Qaddafi. It is belief in this core of sincerity that bizarre claims about the president are intended to undermine.”

    And the context strongly suggests that they do that to engage in silencing. But problems with the success of the supposed intention can become problems with the ascription of that intention. Could Trump seriously think he was undermining trust in the president? Maybe what he was doing was merely attempting to get publicity.

    Given the substantial percentage of people in the US who associate being black with being untrustworthy, it seems that there might be other explanations for the birthers. One obvious one is that the claims allow them to explain their mistrust in terms they take to be not racist.

    Actually, this doesn’t seem to me to be a serious philosophical issue, and you could instead have pointed out that such discourse can silence.

    I am less clear about what sort of question is raised by the concern that silencing is not done simply by undermining trust. If I am remembering the theory correctly, lack of illocutionary uptake voids the speech act, as it were. There is then a problem, I think, raised by a quote in #21 above and discussed more in 22. I hope my faulty memory is not clouding the issue.

  34. I see that Hypatia has a good, clear (open access) article on this topic, by Mary Kate McGowan, Alexandra Adelman, Sara Helmers, and Jacqueline Stolzernberg (“A Partial Defense of Illocutionary Silencing”) here: onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1527-2001.2010.01122.x/pdf

  35. Ok, I’ve now returned from travels, and have looked at this thread. I do think that I am confusing illocutionary and perlocutionary silencing, and maybe some clarification may help with the charge that I am. Here is how I am thinking about what the Fox Channel is doing. The function of the motto “Fair and Balanced” is to suggest that that it is not possible for any apparent news outlet to be fair and balanced. This is supposed to interfere with the ability of any news channel to report information, in the following manner. If a broad audience comes to believe that no news outlet in sincerely intending to report, then what results is a systematic undermining of the ability of any news channel to report. This is because reporters will know that they will be unable to be taken to be sincerely reporting the news by their audience. They thus will not be able to engage in the speech act of reporting, assuming that a precondition to engage in that speech act is the belief that they will have some possibility of success. The case is meant to be precisely analogous to how I describe the systematic undermining of refusal. If I’m not mistaken, this is therefore a case of illocutionary, rather than perlocutionary, silencing.

  36. Ack – I meant I am NOT confusing illocutionary and perlocutionary silencing (by the way for some reason I’ve been unable to register my name, but this is Jason Stanley).

  37. Hmm… It looks to me like you’re committed to the thought that one fails to carry out the speech act of reporting if one is not taken to be sincere. And I’m not so sure that’s right. Suppose I’m a reporter, and I publish a story warning people of the dangers of say, an unsafe car. Nobody believes me– they think I’m just making things up. Then people die as a result of the car. It seems right to say that I did report on the story, but unfortunately nobody believed me– they thought I was insincere. Note that it’s not the case that I only count as reporting it once people start believing me.

    Moreover, suppose that reporting does depend on being believed. Now consider what reporters write truthfully in, say, The Nation. Some people believe them, some don’t. Have they reported relative to one audience but not relative to another?

    (I’m not 100% sure about the refusal case either, to be honest– I think there’s a lot of plausibility to the thought that the woman refuses but is wrongly taken not to be refusing.)

    Argh…. I always find after I think about this stuff for a while all my intuitions start to disappear.

    Ack! Wait! Now I’m realising that you think the crucial point is whether people *think* there’s a chance of their illocutionary act succeeding. Is that right?

  38. Jenny,

    Yes, the crucial point is whether people think there is a chance of their illocutionary act succeeding. I’m saying that the a potential consequence of some kinds of propaganda (in particular, the Fox Channel kind) is that no reporter will think that there is even a chance of their act succeeding. So one can certainly report, without being believed. But if it’s common knowledge that reporting will never be believed, that will undermine the intentions necessary to perform the illocutionary act in the first place. That’s the conceptual claim. I don’t think it confuses illocutionary and perlocutionary silencing – it’s how I read the Hornsby-Langton account of refusal.

    The empirical claims are (a) that this is what is happening in countries where propaganda is the norm, and (b) this is starting to happen in the United States.

    I could think of problems with the conceptual claim. Some people in a group consisting of Ishani Maitra, Brian Weatherson, Carrie Jenkins, and Jonathan Ichikawa (I don’t remember who) made the point the Galileo was still reporting that the earth moves, even though he didn’t think that there was a chance that he would be believed. Still, I think it’s a pretty plausible claim, and hopefully the Galileo example has another explanation.

  39. Interesting– I misunderstood what you were doing because of my reading of Langton, which focusses not on whether the woman can form the intention but whether there’s uptake. I can certainly see how your reading is meant to go with the Fox news case, but I can’t quite see how it’s meant to work with the Langton cases. In her cases, as I’ve always understood them, the women don’t *realise* that their refusal attempts won’t be understood, so they do try to refuse. But, for Langton, despite this intention, they don’t refuse due to lack of uptake. She says, e.g. “Sometimes a woman tries to use the “no” locution to refuse sex, and it does not work.” (320)

    What you’re discussing sounds like what might happen in the case of a woman who knows the man can’t understand her refusal. But that seems a different case.

  40. Jenny,

    So in my description of the refusal case, I write “If certain kinds of pornography lead men to think that women are not sincere when they utter the word “no,” and women are aware that men think this, those kinds of pornography would rob women of the ability to refuse.” I was assuming that women couldn’t anymore have the ability to refuse, because the knowledge that there was no possibility they would be successful would rob them of the capacity to have the intention to refuse. Then I was applying this to the Fox Channel case. Obviously, we are quite a bit away from people at the New York Times thinking that no one is taking them as reporting though. I’m not suggesting that this has happened – I’m suggesting that it has happened in other countries, and is a danger to worry about everywhere.

    I’m assuming in this account that one can only intend to H if one believes that it is possible that one would succeed. No doubt this is overly simplistic. Also, though you were directing your objections against another view (the view that reporting requires being believed), some of your objections still are persuasive, as directed against the view I’m adopting. Suppose that Obama knows that it is not possible for him to be taken at his word by Tea Party supporters, and knows that it is possible for him to be taken at his word by others. Then he would not be reporting relative to Tea Party supporters, and he would be reporting relative to others. I have to think about how bad this consequence would be.

  41. Jenny,

    Ah, ok, that is what prompted the misunderstandings. I was indeed discussing the case of a woman who knows the man can’t understand her refusal, and saying that this is analogous to what happens in the case of political silencing (I could have also discussed Kant on lying, or Lewis on conventions). I agree that neither Hornsby nor Langton are interested in exactly the kind of refusal case I describe. I guess I was taking one kind of case of refusal and applying that to the political case. I hope this particular detail doesn’t matter – the claim is that the dangers in the refusal case I describe are like the dangers in the political case. Be that as it may with the discussion of different kinds of refusal cases, I don’t think I’m running together illoculationary and perlocutionary silencing, right?

  42. Jenny,

    I guess it’s also the case that if Langton is right about her description of the refusal case – that up-take undermines refusal – that the worry she describes also generalizes to the political case, for the reasons I describe? It sounds like you’re objecting to the theoretical descriptions of the cases, not whether they are analogous.

  43. I’m a bit surprised that philosophers seem to have problems with examples of assertions that the speaker does not expect to be believed. Does everyone other than me think that if they come up with a newish idea and read it to some group, the group will believe them? I would have thought instead that the Gallileo style case is rather wide spread. This may actually be a problem with the original Austin theory; I’m not sure, and won’t check now. However, the article mentioned about two comments above Jason’s return has a distinction between illocutionary act and communication; it maintains that in the porn case, what is really in question is communication. One can assert all right, but one does not communicate one’s view. Of course, more needs to be said, but that also fits another common academic case.

    Another common academic case: Everyone from grant-receiving researchers to top university administrators has discovered the slippage in reporting how much money has been brought in from grants. E.g., If you get a $5 million dollar grant that is to be shared among 8 distinct universities and you are not even a PI, you might get away with saying you’ve brought in $5 million. If you are a PI, then your university may well claim to get the full $5 million even if it actually sees less than $1 million.

    Does that mean you cannot truthfully tell the university what you did actually bring in. Supposing no one is going to believe “My center brought in $8 million all of which is spent on university research, students, and facilities”. Does that mean you cannot assert it? I don’t think so. Part of my reason is that there are a number of reasons for creating a record, particularly one consistent with other records, and being believed may not actually be not high among them. Everyone has to fill in these reports, but presumably in some universities they aren’t even read.

    Another similar case might be reporting to the tax people how much one gave in charities or spent on professional needs. Does anyone actually believe one’s assertions here? Perhaps, but it isn’t clear that that’s the point of saying how much one spent on charity.

    I suspect the philosophy case shares some features here; the point of reading the paper is not to be believed, but to get good feedback. However, there may be something else that kept Gallileo and some of us going; namely, it is one’s work and one will not abandon it any more than one would abandon one’s family. (I might be exaggerating in that last part.)

    This all seems to me to argue that there are other reasons for asserting and getting uptake of the belief kind might be only one of a number of them.

  44. Hmm… You’ve said that the reporter can report even if they are not believed. But they can’t report if they know that they won’t be able to *succeed in the act of reporting* (because they won’t be able to form the intention to report). So my question now is what’s required to succeed in the act of reporting?

  45. Relatedly, do you have a specific reading in mind for the modality in, e.g., “it is not possible for him to be taken at his word by Tea Party supporters”? Even restricted to something like practical possibility, I’m finding it hard to hear “It’s impossible that the Tea Party supporters take Obama at his word” as true (or, more carefully, as something that would be true, if our propaganda situation gets worse).

    I can see the case for the truth of “Had Obama said that P, the Tea Partiers wouldn’t have taken him at his word that P”. Likewise for “Obama knows that the Tea Partiers won’t take him at his word that P” (since Obama’s belief that he won’t be taken at his word looks justified and safe). But that it’s impossible for Obama to be taken at his word is a much stronger claim, which I’m having a harder time seeing the justification for.

    I get how the justification would go in the Langton-style refusal cases. If we’re in a context where “no” has an altered meaning (it means something like “I’m flirting with you”), and saying “no” is the only means you have of voicing refusal, then I can see an argument for saying that it’s impossible for you to refuse. But I’m having a harder time seeing how this will go in the political case.

    If I’m reading what you’re saying correctly, the modal claim is really important, since I take it you need something stronger than the counterfactual claim or the knowledge claim (um, right?). So I’m wondering whether you’ve got a sense of possibility in mind that makes it plausible that it’s impossible for Obama to be believed by Tea Partiers, without overgeneralizing (i.e., it would be weird if we ended up with an argument that someone who says something really implausible or addresses an audience of skeptics would count as being silenced).

    [I’m hoping posting while jet-lagged is clearer than posting while in transit.]

  46. Jenny, was that a reference to my remarks about reporting? If so, here goes. Lots of reporting involves putting things on paper. That’s what counts as drawing up the report, and the point of it might be to provide a document that will get one through customs unless one is unlucky, or to provide a document that will be consistent with other documents just in case auditors are called in, etc.

    Here might be an example: Someone has a grant and the granting agency wants a mid-term report. I imagine many people embellish these, and the agency may cast a skeptical eye on all of them. What’s important from their point of view is that you have a record that demonstrates where you should be now. And, presumably you don’t want to end up without the product you’ve promised, so you will start to work more quickly.

    Does that mean that the reports are not reports of what you did, but reports of what you should have? I think it’s a better account of what’s going on is that you reported on what you have done and it’s a report that, like all others, is assumed to be pretty inaccurate.

  47. Hi Anne, Sorry to be unclear! My comment was actually directed to Jason, because I just completely agreed with what you said.

  48. Sorry for leaving this thread for a few days – my life is even busier than normal at the moment. Essentially, I’m assuming Grice’s condition for non-naturally meaning something in his paper “Meaning”. In that paper, Grice argues that in order for A to non-naturally mean something by x, “A must intend to induce by x a belief in an audience, and he must also intend his utterance to be recognized as so intended.” I’m assuming that one can only form the relevant intention if one thinks that there is some possibility of success. Magicalersatz is right that there is an issue about the modality underlying the possibility here, but I’m not seeing why it’s a special problem in this case, as opposed to just a general problem in action theory. (This is Jason Stanley)

  49. Sorry for leaving this thread for a few days – my life is even busier than normal at the moment. Essentially, I’m assuming Grice’s condition for non-naturally meaning something in his paper “Meaning”. In that paper, Grice argues that in order for A to non-naturally mean something by x, “A must intend to induce by x a belief in an audience, and he must also intend his utterance to be recognized as so intended.” I’m assuming that one can only form the relevant intention if one thinks that there is some possibility of success. Magicalersatz is right that there is an issue about the modality underlying the possibility here, but I’m not seeing why it’s a special problem in this case, as opposed to just a general problem in action theory.

  50. Jason, thanks for coming back.
    It is interesting that you are drawing on Grice here, and not Austin. I’m still inclined to think that we’ve been constructing counterexamples to the theory.

    Also, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia, in his 1968 paper, Grice amended his account in “Meaning” with this:
    “2.I wish to regard the M-intended effect common to indicative-type utterances as being, not that the hearer should believe something (though there will frequently be an ulterior intention to that effect), but the hearer should think that the utterer believes something.”

    This is obviously an intention utterers can have even if they know no one will believe them, and it may not fall foul of the counterexamples I’ve given, though I am not entirely sure of that. Do the customs officers believe I believe what I have declared? I suspect the suspicious administrators think faculty describing their success at grants do not believe what they say. Not entirely sure, though.

    I should think that if comments about $5 million were always lies and/or believed to be lies, there’d be a problem with meaning. I’m not sure, but I’m inclined to think that isolated parts of discourse, such as faculty reports and customs declarations, might retain their conventional meaning even when there’s great suspicion.

  51. Jason, I guess I was thinking that the reading of the modality was particularly relevant because of the way in which claims like “It’s impossible that the Tea Partiers believe Obama” and “Obama knows it’s impossible that he be believed” feature in your argument. That such claims are true is a big part of your argument for why the political case counts as a type of silencing, but I’ve been having a hard time seeing why they’re plausible (unless the reading of “impossible” is very permissive, in which case I lose grip on the argument that the political case is silencing).

    In the refusal cases, I can more or less see an explanation for why the relevantly similar impossibility claims are plausible. (So, e.g., “Lizzie Bennett knows it’s impossible for Mr. Collins to understand her refusal.” I can see an explanation for that, given that Mr. Collins will interpret any refusal from Lizzie as demure-female code for “I’m being polite, but of course I want to marry you”. Lizzie knows this, and gives up because she knows there’s nothing she can say which Mr. Collins will interpret as refusal – the way he interprets her makes it impossible for her to refuse.) I can’t see an analogous explanation working in the political case — but maybe this is where I’m getting confused. Maybe you want to say that when Obama says “I was born in America” he’s interpreted as meaning, I don’t know, “Death to America!” rather than interpreted as meaning “I was born in America” and then not believed.

    Anyway, absent some explanation like the above, it’s difficult for me to see why the impossibility claims in the political case are true. (Why isn’t it just *really unlikely* that Obama will be believed?) And so I was wondering whether you had a specific reading of the modals involved that made these impossibility claims sound plausible.

    Speaking for myself, as I’m thinking through it I can’t come up with a reading of “impossible” that makes the impossibility claims in the political case sound plausible without over-generalizing. Suppose that Mystic believes she’s seen a miracle, and reports this miracle to a room full of Humeans. On more permissive readings of “impossible”, it looks true to say “Mystic knows it’s impossible that she be believed” (that claim, at least, looks just as good as “Obama knows its impossible that he be believed”). But Humean skepticism about miracles isn’t silencing. It’s just skepticism. Right?

    So on the stricter readings of “impossible”, I can’t see why we should think the impossibility claims are true. But the more permissive readings of “impossible” which make those impossibility claims plausible also look like they vindicate impossibility claims in cases that don’t look like silencing. So I guess what I’m wondering is whether you have a specific reading of the modals in mind which both makes the political case’s impossibility claims seem plausible and still makes it seem like the truth of the impossibility claims gives us warrant for a diagnosis of silencing.

  52. I think I had a hard time getting my head around your version, Jason, since it’s really important to Langton’s story that the woman *intends* to refuse. She does discuss cases where a woman knows she couldn’t possibly succeed in e.g. protesting, and so decides not to try– but treats those as locutionary silencing since no speech act is attempted.

    The Grice-on-meaning story you’re using now allows a lot of different moves. But again, when it’s been used in the feminist literature the idea has been that the woman does mean *no*, she just isn’t understood.

    I guess the refusal analogue to your political possibility would be a nightmare world in which sexual refusal by women is impossible and women know it– and it might indeed work the way you suggest.

  53. Jenny – I guess I was imagining a continuum of cases ranging from the actual situation – where politicians or newspapers do intend to assert, but are not taken as asserting (this may be the analogue to the refusal case discussed by Langton) to the nightmare world, where sincere assertion is no longer possible. I didn’t mean to suggest that in the political case we are now in the nightmare world. The nightmare world is supposed to be North Korea or something like that. So the idea is that right now we are in a situation in which media outlets are not taken at their word, despite their sincere attempts to report, and the danger is that in the future there will be no possibility of being taken at one’s word.

Comments are closed.