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On Community Spotlight today, Pilkington wrote "Hate Speech...Who Decides?" and outlined pretty well the dynamics of the problem, the shape of the argument. I would argue that this problem, what is and is not the insult, the uncivil comment, the fighting words, and the discursively illegal act tantamount to battery have no answer by the preferred methods, and our continued reliance on scientific, metric, and legal proscription lead to our gravest problems.

Harpers magazine had a clipping from the Yale Divinity School newsletter:

To whoever changed the labels on the recycling bins from "Colored Paper" to "Paper of Color," this is in very poor taste. If, however, this was done as a way of highlighting the racism inherent in language, then please meet with us, and we will seek to come up with a better way of labeling the bins."

So: offensive joke or legitimate complaint, but no way could it be a funny joke or useful irony. (Irony opens up indeterminacy that highlights our intentions and makes us confront them.)

The problem we've been having isn't a new problem. Ever since print got to be commonplace and the price of paper fell, the problem of offensive, dangerous, and illegal words has been in front of the public. Jonathan Swift, making fun of his contemporaries in 1696, said, "where I am not understood, it shall be concluded, that something very useful and profound is coucht underneath; And again, that whatever word or Sentence is Printed in a different Character, shall be judged to contain something extraordinary either of Wit or Sublime" (A Tale of a Tub, "Introduction"). In fact, his A Tale of a Tub is about (to the degree that it's about one thing) people reading things and who gets to be in charge of what things mean.

Here is the miniature version of the dilemma:
                                  Medium
Speaker -                                    -        Audience
with "World" pushing in on each of the vortices and along each line.
            Community                       History

Because hate speech is an extremity, lets examine the problem in its quotidian form and see if it scales up. In the case of an "ad hominem" in comments on a web site, we have one person claiming to have been insulted, usually, by another. There is an appeal to a moderator that User:Bozo is mean or User:Kewpie is a troll. Then there is the problem of determining the insult.

Do we put the power of meaning on the audience of the speech or the speaker of the speech? Do we insist that it's in the medium itself? All three of these have been tried, and all three are a disaster.

Meaning lodges with the speaker
The patriarchical world held to this. If he said that he was just complimenting her on her outfit, and she said that he was leering at her breasts, the courts and HR people and boss believed the speaker. If the speaker said, "When I used the word 'jigaboo,' I meant it in fun," the audience gave full credit and credence to the speaker. When Trent Lott said that he meant that Strom Thurmond would have spared us "all these problems" and didn't mean equal rights, the people who put the meaning with the speaker agreed.

It's obvious that we can't trust the speaker. Speakers will always be innocent and, by their account, all insults will be accidental and unreasonable.

The extension of intention resting with the speaker is allowing meaning to stay with the one who acts. This gives the man who slaps, pinches, or fondles a woman the excuse. He says he was paying her a compliment.

Ok, we all agree that we used to give power credence, and we agree that it was a mistake.

Meaning lodges with the audience
When we say that the effect of a speech act is solely what a person may have heard, we open the floor to the most damaged and sensitive ears. While ninety percent of people will not be extreme (being offended by the joke on the recycling bins), there is an inherent power in offense. Regardless of whether it is healthy or not, there is a power to those who are offended.

In religious communities, the most shocked, most scandalized, most scared by the sinfulness of something get to be the holiest (or, as Robert Burns would call them, the "Unco' Guid"). In identity movements, the most offended can borrow credibility as well. The person most scandalized is most committed to the cause.

Even if, though, no one ever succumbs to the temptation of gaining in-group status by seeking out a program to purify language or graphics (e.g. Andrea Dworkin's campaign against billboards that showed men in a 'superior position to women' as being pornography), placing meaning solely on the audience leaves no accounting for attempts at communication. If I think you are insulting me, I should first assume that you are not and then seek to clear it up. If I get to say what you mean, though, then I have no interest in talking to you or clarifying.

Finally, placing meaning for actions solely on the recipient or audience has no metric any more than placing it on the speaker. I agree that what someone hears has an effect, and a young woman hearing 'girl' may be affected in her self-image as immature without anyone intending an insult, but how much? For whom? For grown women as well as maturing women? Is there an in-group pass? Is there a counter-cultural reclamation possible?

The meaning is in the words
What most people do, out of frustration as much as anything else, out of cowardice as much as wisdom, is decide to lay out terms and words that may not be said. "Don't say 'retarded,'" for example. Why? If it's to avoid the insult, then avoiding the placeholder of pejoration will not avoid the harmful intent or effect. "Don't say nigger, unless you meet certain qualifications, or don't even then" is another.

I began teaching my students, female as well as male, to avoid "girl" back in the late 1980's, and suddenly I saw this new, strange word: "Female."  "Fraternity parties are great," one boy wrote, "because they give the females who would otherwise not get a chance to hook up." Another wrote that "females only think of themselves." Another wrote that "females need to consider their weight because they need to look good or males will not like them."

Every bit of venom and misogyny that could have been put into "girl" or "ho," but now it went into a new vessel.  "Retarded" is probably a reaction against the prohibition on calling everything "gay."  The rubrics of naughty words lay out a table of weapons so that people who reach for them can be unambiguous in their intent to insult, but, otherwise, they do nothing to help members of minorities or the perspective of the ignorant.

The solution is out there
Really, it's exactly that.

For some reason, I keep coming back to early enlightenment answers. They thought that the meaning of a statement came from the community. In other words, the answer is not the speaker nor the audience nor the red list, but rather the uncomfortable, undocumentable "social standards" and "community standards."

We have to rely on community standards, and we Americans don't like that. We like binary switches and empiricism, but language resists any of that to start with, and interpretation has so far always resisted empirical analysis.

"Would our society think 'surrender monkey' is a racist reference?" Probably not. They'd probably think of it as a reference to a sneer at the French. "Would our society think, 'They're not Indians but they're all aborigines' is a racist statement?" Yes, yes it would.

The exceptions
There are exceptions to community standards for interpretation. One of them is the legendary legal category of "fighting words." If someone says something so vile that the auditor/reader loses composure and immediately wishes to fight, as if the words were themselves a physical attack, then those are fighting words and a violation of law. In a case like that, it would be unimaginable that it was an accident, because it's not a question of interpretation. It's an act of violence.

The other one, and this one is really important, is battery. There are creeps out here. They're evil, and they're going to pay for what they do. I would take a shovel to any one of them, and I'm a wuss. These people are usually men, but not always, and they like to torture others online, invade privacy, send notes about "You're going to do this, and this and this" and other forms of psychological rape. There is no exoneration there, because it's not a question of interpretation. Following and contacting are fundamentally different from questioning the meaning of a message.

11:56 AM PT: Dang it! I don't mean that lists of prohibited words do nothing for the disenfranchised and displaced. They help immensely. It's just that they do not do anything to stop the phenomenon.

Sun Jun 19, 2011 at 10:09 AM PT: Twice in a row now -- once knowingly and once unknowingly -- I got into current events. For people taking what I say seriously and getting ready to dismiss me or fail me, remember: I could be wrong. I often am. I speak in hopes of improvement and offer my solution after reflection, usually, and I think I'm right, but that doesn't do anything except testify that my process has led me here. I hope I persuade. If I don't, then I don't. Let's not conclude we're bad people for it.

Originally posted to A Frayed Knot on Sat Jun 18, 2011 at 10:56 AM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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