Group 3: Politics of Language Use and Social Metaphysics
Wednesday 9th of December 2020
Nikki Ernst, University of Pittsburgh
‘It's just a meme!' Toxic Speech, Online Environments, and Plausible Deniability’
In this paper, I consider a case of linguistic appropriation – namely: a recent campaign initiated by anonymous users of extremist online forum 4chan to promote the innocuous ‘OK’ hand gesture as a symbol of white supremacy. This example, I argue, presents a challenge for philosophy of language to understand the characteristic mechanisms through which pieces of digital media continuously customized and recontextualized by online communities – that is: internet memes – might be abused to harm members of marginalized groups. To flesh out this point, I approach such harmful linguistic practices through Lynne Tirrell’s framework of ‘toxic speech’, thereby highlighting the ways in which speech acts may license discriminatory inferences with respect to targets of white supremacist ideology. Building on this analysis, I construe internet memes as linguistic tools especially well-suited for ‘insinuation’, meaning a practice of performing certain speech acts covertly, or off the record. This practice affords speakers a form of ‘plausible deniability’ about having intended specific acts of toxic speech, which in turn serves to block attempts to hold toxic speakers accountable for their speech acts. Underlying these dynamics, I will argue, is a dominant conception of internet memes as a discourse that is not to be taken seriously, i.e. not to be taken as an indication of speakers’ sincere beliefs. Hence, building on recent work by Regina Rini, I maintain that the instability of conversational norms on social media discourages internet users from conceiving online speech acts, like the sharing of memes, as genuine sources of testimony.
Essentially, I argue that practices organized around purportedly humorous internet memes like the OK sign create expressively constrained environments. In these environments, the possibility of ‘hate speech’ occurring is up for debate. That is, counter-speakers’ attempts to call out internet trolls as dogwhistlers committing acts of ‘hate speech’ will be inhibited by the common ground of online interaction. According to the conversational norms of such expressively constrained online environments, inferences from someone sharing ‘offensive’ internet memes to them being either a ‘hate speaker’ or a serious speaker at all are neither salient nor socially licensed.
Hence, this paper does not approach harmful linguistic practices within the narrow legalistic framing of ‘hate speech’. Rather, I engage harmful speech as a variety of social practices embedded in diverse environments, practiced by diverse discursive communities, and powered by diverse technologies. In the spirit of a ‘non-ideal philosophy of language’, I argue that modeling accounts of conversational norms on offline environments means idealizing speech in a significant way. That is, insofar as philosophers of language approach conversational settings within the prevalent Gricean framework of cooperative conversational maxims, non-anonymous speakers and non-ambiguous speech, they will be unable to conceptualize linguistic practices on social media. However, since online environments enable characteristic forms of toxic speech, namely ambiguous acts like ‘sharing’ or ‘reposting’ that may abuse a veneer of plausible deniability, I urge non-ideal theorists to engage critically with unstable conversational norms of online environments.
Gillian Gray, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
As Luvell Anderson and Ernie Lepore note in their 2013 paper “Slurring Words,” it is a common assumption that slurs correspond to neutral counterparts which share their extensions. While a slur may pick out the same group of people as its neutral counterpart, it seems to do something additional and distinct. Neutral counterparts (henceforth ‘NCs’) are often meant to be the baseline from which slurs deviate; often, when philosophers think about slurs and what defines them, they are thinking about the additional unique characteristics slurs have which distinguish them from their NCs. But it may be that slurs’ so-called “neutral” counterparts are less neutral than we think. Considering how often NCs are referred to in the literature on slurs (especially pragmatic accounts of slurs), it is surprising how little has been said about them. It is far from clear in what sense and to what extent they are neutral. I argue in this paper that when we consider common views in the metaphysics of race, gender, and other social kinds, we can see that “neutral” counterparts of slurs fail to be neutral in three important ways. First, these NCs do not have meanings or extensions which are obvious, agreed-upon, or uncontroversial; second, they do not pick out morally, socially, or politically neutral facts about the world; third, they are not morally, politically, or socially neutral in function when used.
A more robust understanding of how NCs fail to be fully neutral can help guide further discussion of how slurs function. There is a growing body of literature which attempts to explain just what the difference is between use of a slur and use of its neutral counterpart. Slurs are said to express contempt; to interpellate, derogate, and subordinate their targets; to reflect the speaker’s perspective; to reveal the speaker’s endorsement of a given ideology; and so on. It is true that slurs have a particularly offensive effect. We see this in the strong reactions they garner and the pain they cause their targets. I argue that if we do not fully understand the characteristics of NCs, we will likely also not fully understand slurs and the source of many of their harmful effects. It may be (and, I think, is) that we can learn a significant amount about how and why slurs work the way they do by examining the not-so-neutral features of their NCs. In addition to serving as a starting point for further examination of the relationship between NCs and slurs, my account has several explanatory upshots, including explanations of how slurs differ in force from insults; why some slurs cause significantly more offense than others; and why seemingly neutral terms often develop into slurs over time.
Khang Tôn, University of California, Davis
‘Valuing Disability In Itself: A Constitutive Account
In The Minority Body, Elizabeth Barnes appeals to disability-positive testimonies in support of the thesis that one can value disability in itself, or for its own sake (Barnes 2016: 122). The appeal to these disability-positive testimonies raises two distinct but related questions: (a) Can one really value being disabled in itself? And (b) is being disabled something valuable? Proponents of the welfarist account of disability favor a negative answer to (b), and take this to be a good reason for giving a negative answer to (a). In particular, welfarists maintain that disability is something sub-optimal, intrinsically bad, harmful to one’s well-being, or makes one worse off; and prima facie one cannot value something that makes one worse off. Against the welfarist, I will give a positive answer to question (a). In what follows, I argue that one can value disability, or being disabled, in itself. I begin by discussing a number of considerations that motivate this project before moving on to show why Sam Scheffler’s account of valuing is a useful working model for us to better understand how one can value disability (section I). After that, I will show why, even though Scheffler’s account captures many important facets of what it means to value disability, it is still not sufficiently robust to support the stronger claim that one can value disability in itself, or for its own sake. In attempting to argue for this stronger claim, I will articulate my own account, one that I call ‘Constitutive Valuing’ (section II). Roughly, the guiding idea is that, for some people, being disabled is constitutive of their social and practical identity; and that it makes perfect sense for one to value that in and of itself. Once the notion of constitutive valuing is clarified, this can help illuminate our understanding of how disabled people can and do value disability in itself. Finally, I will explain what I take to be the main strengths and weaknesses of my proposal. First, my account respects and takes seriously the first-personal epistemic authority of people who give disability-positive testimonies. Second, my account is able to offer a plausible interpretation of what a person means when they claim to value being disabled in itself, which is that they value their practical identity insofar as being disabled is what they take to be constitutive of that identity. Third, my account aims to contribute to the current ameliorative project of combating systemic ableism and challenging the kinds of pre-existing prejudices that unjustly devalue disability. I conclude that my account offers a useful model to help us better understand what - or an important part of what - it means to value disability in itself. Next, I will also consider and respond to two criticisms of my account of constitutive valuing (section III). My final conclusion is that, even if my particular proposal ultimately fails, we can nonetheless be optimistic about the prospects of a successful and theoretically illuminating account of what it means to value disability in itself.