Hate speech

Landscape of Itapoan, 1953. José Pancetti, Oil on canvas, cid 55,00 cm x 38,00 cm


Introduction to the newly released book

About linguistic vulnerability

“Failure […] is an evil to which all acts that have the character of a rite or ceremony are subject: therefore, all conventional acts.” (Derrida, margins of philosophy).
“There are more ways to abuse language than mere contradiction.” (JL Austin).

When we claim to have been hurt by language, what kind of claim do we make? We attribute an agency to language, the power to hurt, and position ourselves as objects of its injurious trajectory. We assert that language acts, and acts against us, and this assertion is, in turn, a new instance of language, which seeks to block the force of the previous instance. In this way, we exercise the power of language even when we seek to contain its strength, trapped in a plot that no act of censorship is able to untangle.

Could language hurt us if we were not, in some way, linguistic beings, beings who need language to exist? Is our vulnerability to language a consequence of being constituted in its terms? If we are formed in language, then this constitutive power precedes and conditions whatever decision we come to make about it, insulting us from the start, as it were, by its prior power.

The insult, however, assumes its specific proportion in time. One of the first forms of linguistic insult you learn is to be called something. But not all the names by which we are called are insulting. Being called a name is also one of the conditions by which a subject is constituted in language; in fact, this is one of the examples that Louis Althusser uses to explain “interpellation”. Does the power that language has to hurt derive from its interpellative power? And how does linguistic agency emerge, if at all, from this scene that allows for vulnerability?

The problem of injurious speech raises the question of which words hurt, which representations offend, suggesting that we focus on those parts of language that are enunciated, enunciable and explicit. Even so, the linguistic insult seems to result not only from the words used to address someone, but also from the way of addressing itself, a way – a disposition or a conventional positioning – that challenges and constitutes the subject.

A person is not simply restricted by the name by which he is called. By being called something injurious, she is belittled and humiliated. But the name offers another possibility: by being insulted, the person also acquires, paradoxically, a certain possibility of social existence and is initiated into the temporal life of language, which exceeds the previous purposes that animated that name. Therefore, the injurious call can seem to restrict or paralyze the one to whom it is directed, but it can also produce an unexpected response that offers possibilities. If to be called is to be questioned, the offensive denomination runs the risk of introducing into the discourse a subject who will use language to refute the offensive denomination. When the call is injurious, it exerts its force on the one it wounds. But what is this strength, and how can we understand its flaws?

JL Austin proposed that, in order to know what makes an utterance effective, what establishes its performative character, one must first locate it in the “total speech situation”. However, it is not easy to decide the best way to delimit this totality. An analysis of Austin's conception provides at least one reason for this difficulty. He distinguishes between “illocutionary” and “perlocutionary” speech acts: the former are speech acts which, when saying something, do what they say and when they say it; the second are speech acts that produce certain effects as a consequence; when something is said, a certain effect is produced. The illocutionary speech act is itself the deed that derives from it; the perlocutionary only leads to certain effects which are not the same thing as the speech act itself.

In illocutionary cases, any delimitation of the total speech act would no doubt include an understanding of how certain conventions are invoked at the time of utterance: whether the person invoking them is authorized to do so, whether the circumstances of invocation are correct. But how to delimit the type of “convention” that illocutionary utterances presume? Such utterances, which do what they say the moment they say it, are not just conventional but, in Austin's words, "ritual or ceremonial." As utterances, they function to the extent that they are presented as a ritual, that is, repeated over time, and, consequently, to the extent that their sphere of action is not restricted to the moment of the utterance itself. The illocutionary speech act performs its deed at the moment utterance and, once the moment is ritualized, it is never simply a single moment. The “moment” in the ritual is a condensed historicity: it exceeds itself towards the past and the future, it is an effect of previous and future invocations that simultaneously constitute the instance of the utterance and escape it.

Austin's assertion that it is only possible to know the force of the illocution once the "total situation" of the speech act can be identified is threatened by a constitutive difficulty. If the temporality of the linguistic convention, considered as ritual, exceeds the instance of its utterance, and if this excess is not fully apprehensible or identifiable (the past and future of the utterance cannot be narrated with certainty), then it seems that what constitutes the “total speech situation” is the impossibility of reaching a totalized form in any of the instances.

In this sense, finding the appropriate context for the speech act in question is not enough to accurately assess its effects. The speech situation is therefore not a simple kind of context, something that can be easily defined by spatial and temporal limits. To be hurt by the speech is to suffer a loss of context, that is, it is not knowing where one is. Indeed, it is possible that the injury of an injurious speech act is constituted by the character unpredictable of this type of act, the fact of letting its recipient out of control. The ability to circumscribe the situation of the speech act is compromised at the time of the injurious call. To be insultingly called is not just to open oneself to an unknown future, but to be unaware of the time and place of the insult, to become disoriented in relation to one's own situation as an effect of this speech. What is revealed at the moment of such rupture is exactly the instability of our “place” in the community of speakers; we can be “put in our place” by this discourse, but that place can be nowhere.

“Linguistic survival” assumes that a certain kind of survival takes place in language. In fact, studies of hate speech constantly refer to it. To claim that language hurts or, to quote the formulation used by Richard Delgado and Mari Matsuda, that “words hurt” is to combine linguistic and physical vocabularies. The use of a term like “hurt” suggests that language can have effects similar to those of physical pain or injury. Charles R. Lawrence III considers racist speech a “verbal attack” and points out that the effect of racial slurs is “like being slapped in the face. The wound is instantaneous”. Certain forms of racial slurs also “produce physical symptoms that temporarily incapacitate the victim…”.

These formulations suggest that linguistic injury acts similarly to physical injury, but the use of the simile suggests that this is, after all, a comparison between different things. Let us consider, however, that this approximation may well imply that the two terms are only metaphorically comparable. Indeed, it seems that there is no specific language for the domain of linguistic injury, which is, so to speak, forced to extract its vocabulary from physical injuries. In this sense, it seems that the metaphorical connection between physical and linguistic vulnerability is essential for the description of linguistic vulnerability itself. On the one hand, the fact that there seems to be no “adequate” description of linguistic injury makes it even more difficult to identify the specificity of linguistic vulnerability in relation to and in opposition to physical vulnerability. On the other hand, the fact that physical metaphors are used on almost all occasions to describe linguistic injury suggests that this somatic dimension may be important for understanding linguistic pain. Certain words or certain forms of calling not only threaten physical well-being; the body is alternately preserved and threatened by different modes of addressing.

Language sustains the body not by literally bringing it into existence or nourishing it; on the contrary, it is because it is questioned in terms of language that a certain social existence of the body becomes possible. In order to understand this, we need to imagine an impossible scene, that of a body that has not yet received a social definition, a body that, strictly speaking, is not accessible to us, but becomes accessible on the occasion of a call, an interpellation that does not " discovers” this body, but which, fundamentally, constitutes it. We might think that, in order to be called, we first need to be recognized, but here Hegel's Althusserian inversion seems appropriate: the calling constitutes a being inside the possible circuit of recognition and, consequently, outside it, in abjection.

We might think that the situation is more banal: certain subjects already bodily constituted come to be called this or that. But why do the names by which the subject is called seem to instill fear of death and uncertainty about the possibility of surviving? Why should a merely linguistic call produce fear in response? Is it not, in part, because the current call evokes and puts into action the formatives that gave and continue to give existence? In this way, to be called is not merely to be recognized for what one already is, but rather to have the concession of the very term by which the recognition of existence becomes possible. We begin to “exist” by virtue of this fundamental dependence on the call of the Other. We “exist” not only because we are recognized, but, beforehand, because we are recognizable. The terms that facilitate recognition are themselves conventional; they are the effects and instruments of a social ritual that decides, often through exclusion and violence, the linguistic conditions of subjects able to survive.

If language can sustain the body, it can also threaten its existence. Thus, the question surrounding the specific ways in which language threatens violence seems to be linked to the original dependence that every speaking being has on the Other's interpellative or constitutive call. In The Body in Pain [The body in pain], Elaine Scarry states that the threat of violence is a threat to language, to its possibility of constituting a world and producing meaning. Her formulation tends to oppose violence and language, as if one were the inverse of the other. What if language has in itself possibilities of violence and destruction of the world? For Scarry, the body is not just prior to language; she convincingly asserts that the pain of the body is inexpressible in language, that pain destroys language, and that language can combat pain even when it fails to capture it. Scarry shows that the morally imperative effort to represent the body in pain is confounded (but not precluded) by the unrepresentability of the pain it tries to represent. In her opinion, one of the harmful consequences of torture is that the tortured person loses the ability to document the event of torture through language; therefore, one of the effects of torture is the elimination of his own testimony. Scarry also shows how certain discursive forms, such as interrogation, aid and reinforce the torture process. In this case, however, language aids violence, but does not seem to exercise your own violence. This poses the following question: if certain forms of violence invalidate language, how do we explain the specific kind of wounding that language itself can perform?

Toni Morrison specifically refers to the “violence of representation” in her 1993 Nobel Prize for Literature lecture. “Oppressive language,” she wrote, “does more than represent violence; she is violence.” Morrison offers us a parable in which language itself is represented as a “living thing”, an image that is neither false nor unreal, indicating something true about language. In this parable, some children play a cruel game by asking a blind woman to guess whether the bird they are holding is dead or alive. The blind woman refuses to answer and shifts the question: "I don't know...

What I do know is that it's in your hands. It's in your hands."

Morrison then chooses to interpret the woman in the parable as an experienced writer and the bird as the language; she makes conjectures about how

this seasoned writer thinks of language: “she thinks of language partly as a system, partly as a living thing over which we have control, but above all as agency – an act that has consequences. Thus, the question asked by children, 'Are you alive or dead?', is not unrealistic, because they think of language as something susceptible to death, to erasure”.

Morrison uses conjecture to write about what the experienced writer conjectures, a reflection at the same time on and about language and its conjectural possibilities. Within a figurative frame, Morrison announces the "reality" of the frame in the frame's own terms. The woman in the parable thinks of language as something alive: Morrison presents us with the performance of this act of substitution, the simile by which language is represented as life. The "life" of language is thus exemplified by this very enactment of the simile. But what kind of staging is this?

Language is thought of “mainly as agency – an act that has consequences”; a prolonged doing, a performance with effects. That's almost a definition. Language is, after all, “thought”, that is, postulated or constituted as “agency”. However, it is as agency that it is thought of; a replacement figurative makes possible the thought of the agency of language. As this same formulation is produced na language, the “agency” of language is not just the object of formulation, but its very action. Both the postulate and the figuration seem to exemplify the agency in question.

We might be tempted to think that it is incorrect to attribute agency to language, that only subjects can do things with language, and that agency has its origins in the subject. But is the agency of language the same thing as the agency of the subject? Is there a way to distinguish the two? Morrison not only presents agency as a representation of language, but language as a representation of agency and with an incontestable “reality”. Morrison writes, “We die. That maybe is the meaning of life. But we We do the language. This is perhaps the measure of our life.” Morrison does not claim "language is agency", for that kind of claim would deprive language of the agency it intends to convey.

By refusing to answer the children's cruel question, the blind woman, according to Morrison, "distracts attention from claims about power to the instrument by which that power is exercised." Likewise, Morrison refuses to make dogmatic claims about the nature of language, as this would obscure the way in which the 'instrument' of that claim participates in the very existence of language; the irreducibility of any statement to its instrument is precisely what establishes the internal division of language. The failure of language to rid itself of its own instrumentality or, indeed, its rhetorical nature, constitutes precisely its inability to nullify itself when telling a story, when referring to what exists or in the fleeting scenes of interlocution.

Significantly, for Toni Morrison, “agency” is not the same as “control” nor is it a function of the systematicity of language. It seems that it is not possible first to apprehend human agency and then to specify the kind of agency that human beings have in language. "Us We do the language. This is perhaps the measure of our life.”

We do things with language, we produce effects with language and we do things to language, but language is also what we do. Language is a name for what we do: both “what” we do (the name of the action we characteristically perform) and what we have as an effect, the act and its consequences.

In Morrison's parable, the blind woman is compared to an experienced writer, which suggests that writing is, in a sense, blind, not knowing into whose hands it will fall, how it will be read and used, or from what sources it derives. The parable scene is an interlocution in which the children take advantage of the woman's blindness to force her to make a choice she cannot make, and the strength of this call resides in what the woman interprets as exercising an agency that the call intended. deny him. She does not make any decision, but draws attention to “the instrument by which power is exercised”, indicating that the choice is in the hands of her interlocutors, those she cannot see. She cannot know, according to Morrison's interpretation, whether language will survive or die at the hands of those who use speech with the force of cruelty.

Both in the parable and in Toni Morrison's interpretation, the question of responsibility is central, represented by the “hands” of children or, indeed, those who inherit responsibility for the life or death of language. The writer is blind; she ignores the future of the language in which she writes. In this way, language is thought of, on the one hand, “mainly as an agency”, distinct from forms of domination or control, and, on the other hand, by the closure of the system.

The analogy used by Toni Morrison suggests that language lives or dies just as a living thing can live or die, and that the question of survival is central to the question of how language is used. Morrison claims that “the oppressive language […] é violence”, and not a mere representation of violence. Oppressive language is not a substitute for experiencing violence. She puts her own form of violence into action. Language remains alive when it refuses to “contain” or “capture” the events and lives it describes. But when it seeks to effect this capture, language not only loses its vitality, it also acquires its own violent force, a force that Morrison associates, throughout the entire lecture, with the language of the state and censorship.

*Judith Butler is a professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. She authored, among other books by Precarious life: the powers of mourning and violence (Authentic).


Judith Butler. Hate speech: a politics of the performative. Translation: Roberta Fabbri Viscardi.
São Paulo, Unesp, 2021, 284 pages.


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