The Fury of Words

Noemi Biasetton
Aug 13 · 10 min read
© Noemi Biasetton, 2019

The massacre occurred in El Paso recently added to the intolerable list of violences perpetuated by white suprematists and far-right supporters spreading across the Western World, and apparently destined to become a stigma of our time. In a televised speech on August 5th, President Trump listed possible clues about what happened. Firstly, he stated that “mental illness and hatred pulls the trigger, not the gun” suggesting involuntary confinement for “mentally disturbed individuals.” Secondly, he argued that “we must stop the glorification of violence in our society” including “the gruesome and grizzly video games that are now commonplace.” Lastly, he warned of “the perils of the internet and social media,” which act as “dangerous avenues to radicalized, disturbed minds.”

It should be pointed out, however, that two out of the three clues Trump suggested in order to explain this national nightmare have been proven wrong. So far, research shows mental-health issues are not predictive of violent outbursts, and even less evidence is provided when looking for a connection between mental illness and mass shootings in the US. Also, there’s no causal evidence that playing violent video games lead to aggression in the real world, a statement demonstrated scientifically and confirmed through a sentence ruled by the Supreme Court in 2011. The third point however seems less questionable, as studies start showing offensive language on social media might contribute to shaping hatred and could trigger hate crimes. But on this matter the President offered no recognition of his own use of such platforms, which he often employs to promote his brand of divisive politics through aggressive, hateful and hostile language.

Now, the fact that Trump purposely makes use of specific language patterns and schemes on social media in order to achieve certain political goals is something one can speculate about but unfortunately not draw conclusions from. What one could do instead is acknowledging that citizen and institutions don’t worry about language and its consequences as much as they should. The causal link between political speech and mass shootings might not be immediate and may not sound reasonable at first, but research shows the opposite. Throughout years language philosophy and psycholinguistic proved that language is a powerful tool for manipulation and can have empirical consequences, yet we neither fear it nor know exactly what it may lead to. Why is it so? And how does language cognitively act on us?

Logical positivism vs Ordinary Language philosophy

Firstly, many people often assume that language is only used to describe the world. This conceptual model, well ingrained in the Western mindset, is a direct derivative of logical positivism. According to the logical positivist school of thought, the only meaningful statements are those that are verifiable, which is why they theorized linguist principles aimed at separating intelligible from nonsensical discourse. These theories though, which attempt to posit a relationship between thoughts or statements on one hand and things or facts on the other, might not allow us to perceive the subtleties of language, often able to disguise one’s real intentions.

A man able to critically filter through logical positivism and develop a new view on language was British philosopher John Langshaw Austin (1911–1960), best known for his analysis of human thought derived from detailed study of ordinary language. After reading logical positivist Ayer’s 1936 polemic Language, Truth and Logic, Austin considered his claims to be unempirical, a priori and, most importantly, at odds with everyday experience of language use. While for logical positivists the fact that a statement could be expressed in everyday language was no guarantee that it was meaningful, Austin contrarily committed to the close and careful study of the uses of the expressions of language, especially the philosophically problematic ones.

Austin was later recognized as a strong proponent of the Ordinary Language philosophy (also referred to as ‘Oxford’ philosophy) and founding voices of a real revolution in the world of philosophy. Austin’s starting point is the observation that philosophy had marked only one of the things that people do with words—that is, asserting propositions—and consequently had paid all of its attention to truth conditions. But people also query, Austin says, and warn, and order, and intimidate, and promise, and certify, and rule, and generally perform a wide variety of actions when they talk, actions in which truth conditions are either secondary or entirely irrelevant. Indeed, as the meaning of the sentences of our language is not necessarily connected with truth, it is almost exclusively connected with certain actions we perform in issuing these sentences.

The perlocutionary effect

The latter definition represents the core of the contemporary speech act theory developed by Austin, which he introduced in his William James lectures at Harvard in 1955, later collected in the renowned masterpiece How to Do Things with Words (1975). Austin’s great intuition is that a linguistic act is really a practical action, and the theory emphasizes that utterances have a different or specific meaning to its user and listener other than its meaning according what we hear or read. The theory further identifies two kinds of utterances, called constative and performative utterances. Whilst constative utterances describe states of affairs which are either true or false, Austin (1976:5) believes performatives

“do not ‘describe’ or ‘report’ or constate anything at all, are not ‘true or false’; and the uttering of the sentence is, or is a part of, the doing of an action, which again would not normally be described as, or as ‘just’, saying something”.

The linguistic act process is divided into three different categories, and could roughly be summed up like this:

  1. the speaker says something and produces an utterance (locutionary act);
  2. the utterance produces an effect on the hearer (illocutionary act);
  3. the hearer acts consequentially, intentionally or unintentionally (perlocutionary act);

Point three, the perlocutionary act, represents the set of consequential effects of language that apply in the form of thoughts, feelings, emotions or actions on the audience. It is essential to understand that this stage of the speech act theory is what makes “[…] persuading, angering, inciting, etc. cause physiological changes in the audience, either in their states or behavior.” (A. P. Martinich in Communication and Reference) In his book Key Terms in Pragmatics, Nicholas Allott gives this clear example of a perlocutionary act:

“Consider a negotiation with a hostage-taker under siege. The police negotiator says: ‘If you release the children, we’ll allow the press to publish your demands.’ In making that utterance she has offered a deal (illocutionary act). Suppose the hostage-taker accepts the deal and as a consequence releases the children. In that case, we can say that by making the utterance, the negotiator brought about the release of the children, or in more technical terms, that this was a perlocutionary effect of the utterance.”

If we resume Allott’s case, we can see the police negotiator is making use of a commissive speech act (‘If you…’) therefore expressing a commitment, specifically a promise. If the hostage-taker accepts the deal, it will mean the illocutionary force of the utterance, hence the speaker’s intention externalized through certain tones, attitudes, feelings, or emotions together with the right circumstantial conditions (technically called felicity conditions) were compelling enough for the hearer to execute the action.

Illocutionary forces are what help the hearer infer what the speaker mean to then take the message as a basis of inference for how to act, and the commissive speech act is just one the the possible ones brought into play in the speech act theory. According to Bach & Harnish, there are six categories of illocutionary forces that designate how the hearer should process the utterance, which can express the speakers’s belief of intention (constantives), explicit the speaker’s attitude toward some prospective action by the hearer (directives), ask or obligate the hearer to do something—perhaps under certain conditions (commisives), declare feelings regarding the hearer (acknowledgements), effect changes in institutional states of affairs (effectives) or pass judgement on something or someone (verdictives).

Illocutionary forces defined by Bach & Harnish in Linguistic Communication and Speech Acts (1979)

Masquerades

As mentioned before, linking political speech to the cruel acts of mass shootings is a fraught exercise. But the speech act theory should exemplify how leaders can shape an environment not only with deeds but with their words as well, intentionally or not. And as David Smith states, “Inflammatory words matter in a country that has more guns than people.”

Data reports there has been a huge increase in right-wing hate crimes since Donald Trump’s governance. According to a research carried out by the Washington Post, “counties that had hosted a 2016 Trump campaign rally saw a 226 percent increase in reported hate crimes over comparable counties that did not host such a rally.” And even if the outcome does not always result in explicit violence, “recent research also shows that reading or hearing Trump’s statements of bias against particular groups makes people more likely to write offensive things about the groups he targets.”

In the 2,300-word manifesto penned by the suspect in the El Paso shooting, Patrick Crusius, he said he was “simply defending my country from cultural and ethnic replacement brought on by an invasion.” Now, the word ‘invasion’ has been famously adopted by Trump’s Facebook ads throughout his campaign since 2015. But it is not the word alone that generates the problem; instead, is what the word coexists with that causes the subsequent actions. The utterance ‘STOP THE INVASION’ is clearly a performative, and specifically falls into the category of directives. Therefore, this utterance is an attempt by the speaker to get the hearer to do something through ordering. Of course this utterance does not call for violence directly, but it does call for an action. And maybe, making a donation in order to stop an ‘invasion’ sounds less impactful than responding considering a military action. From time to time, social media prove to be a fertile soil for feelings that eventually collide into the real world. But if the quandary is so outspoken, why don’t social media CEOs do something about it?

In response to a question about whether Twitter allows Trump to be immune whatever he says, the platform’s lead for legal, policy, trust and safety Vijaya Gadde said the company wants to find a way to keep tweets up for their newsworthiness, while also noting if a tweet violates their rules. “One of the things we’re working really closely on with our product and engineering folks is, ‘How can we label that?’” she said during an interview in San Francisco hosted by the Post, without naming the US president. “An example would be a direct violent threat against an individual that we wouldn’t leave on the platform because of the danger it poses to that individual,” she continued.

The struggle underlined by Gadde in labeling tweets according to definite categories is precisely due to the “descriptive fallacy” performative utterances succumb to. Because these sentences intrinsically cannot be true or false, they shun any verifiability principle, fact/value gap or cognitive meaningfulness preached by logical positivists. On the contrary, their meaningfulness becomes elusive as much as highly effective both in the way it acts semantically and on the subsequent effects it generates in the hearer’s mind.
Understanding how the speech act theory works could illustrate why social media companies struggle with efficient speech regulation on their platforms, but also why it is hard for users to seize the power political utterances may conceal.

The consequences of language

The turning point in Austin’s theory is that language reaches beyond interpersonal communication, touching upon many aspects of the political discourse and generating actions, the consequences of which can manifest on a much larger scale than we imagine.

On one hand, by recognizing its importance, the speech act theory framework should add to the list of tool utilized to investigate political speech. Not only in order to gain a more precise examination of political discourse, but also to unravel political intentions in useful time and act consequentially.
On the other, if this concept of language being crucial for good politics becomes manifest, citizen could lean towards a better, non-divisive and clearer communication. And for this to happen, political parties and actors should improve political speech and focus on how speech affects relationships not only in terms of electoral consensus.

Eventually, political actors should reflect upon the fact that their communication is much more than “just words”, but rather a mean able to initiate powerful actions into the world that affect relationships between individuals and move social dynamics at a national scale, for better or worse. Policymakers and politicians therefore should carefully employ their own speech acts as well as properly interpret others’ speech acts (i.e. ascribe the correct illocutionary intent to others). The more consciously we employ our own speech acts, the more likely we will achieve our desired results in communication. Democracy is also accomplished through language: by making our best illocutionary intents transfer into felicitous perlocutions.

Noemi Biasetton

Written by

Idiosyncratic millennial, radical pragmatist, structuralist amateur. Researching and writing about communication and media.

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