By Cary Campbell
Our campus is blessed with many language experts and speakers of a diversity beyond the French, Spanish and Japanese we offer for study. But unless I’m mistaken, I may be the only one here with a BA and MA in linguistics. Linguistics is different from the study of individual languages because it attempts to understand the meaning-making coding systems—sonic, phonetic, logical, cognitive, and social—underlying the miraculous human phenomenon of speech rather than merely attempting to gain skill in using any given one of them.
One of the most useful principles I discovered in my first linguistics classes was the distinction between prescription and description. As budding linguists, we learned that although there was value to the wonderful English Department experts who loved to prescribe “rules” for good writing and good speaking, we needed a more scientific approach. To avoid introducing our own biases which would color our analysis, we had to take language samples as evidence and extrapolate “rules” based on describing what people actually do, rather than how we think they should. We found that when we temporarily suspended our judgment for the time that we wanted to study something, we could more accurately understand its nature. Now whether or not something makes sense or has a consistent internal logic from an insider perspective, a broader English-speaking community in which we’re all agents still can’t accept every new development as “grammatical”, or “good grammar”, or “safe for work”, etc. So after this period of study is complete, re-engaging that faculty of judgment has its rightful place—we can accept or reject things based on our own sense of what is good and right, but after the study time our standing to do so increased because we could now do it in full understanding of the phenomena, having done the work of objectively ascertaining the truth first.
I also learned that any linguistic communication requires a minimum of two interlocutors, one who performs the work of fleshing out a message in a mutually understood code, and the second who interprets. This implies something fundamental: that the control of the speaker/writer who intends to mean something ends as soon as this intention-to-mean is fleshed out in code and enters the medium of transmission. Interpreting a message is an active faculty of the receiver over which the sender has no control whatsoever. This principle has consequences. Although message senders are responsible for their word choices, we can now no longer think of the words in a simple way. They are no longer transparent and direct, but partial, inadequate to our full meaning, and most importantly, shared. Receivers are therefore are not passive recipients, but co-constructors of meaning in a negotiation and have vast capacity to either clarify or distort by the kinds of assumptions and experiences they bring to this double-variable equation. The implication of this consequence is that receivers of messages should never assume they have captured the messages as intended until they check.
It is with the understanding of these twin principles (description before prescription and meaning-making as a tango that it takes two for), that I’d like to offer what I hope can be a useful reflection. It occurs to me that some of the debates we engage in as the active world-changing leaders we’re attempting to become, (as students and faculty alike), sometimes tip over into the violation of these two principles of objectivity and shared responsibility for message communication. I’m particularly concerned about the use of the label “hate speech”, when it is applied as a value-judgment prior to demonstrating an objective and neutral understanding of the speech. This label does more than flout the objectivity principle. It also sets up a dichotomy in which the message-maker is an aggressor and the message-interpreter is a victim before the objective analysis of relative position is complete. This can be particularly pernicious because it sets up relative positions between two interlocutors in such a way that even an innocent and appropriate question about the responsibility—which is shared in any communication, remember—addressed to the interpretative side of this communication equation can’t avoid looking like “victim blaming”.
Now, human beings in general and Antiochians especially do have value-judgments and should operate according to their consciences and according to the honor code. But to apply these before demonstrating understanding is potentially damaging both to the individual interlocutors and to the community because it tends to maintain biases and prevent dialog on the substance of the message in question.
Let me be clear: it IS an unethical bullying tactic to blame victims for their own victimization. I’m not suggesting we just let that kind of bullying logic slide. Quite the opposite in fact, I strongly condemn it. But it’s also true that if we meet bullying speech with prescriptive speech and with a shutting down of one side of the communicative equation, we’ve behaved like speech bullies ourselves. And not only that, but applying the label “hate speech” also prevents full and accurate exposure of ideas, and some ideas that are truly hateful deserve to be exposed as such. Our potential allies may need to clearly see the fully exposed evil behind some ideas in order to truly and fully join us in condemnation of them. In other words, unless we can choose to respect speech as speech, and concentrate our condemnation and activism on unethical actions rather than on unethical speech, we may actually be shooting our own cause in the proverbial foot.
When ideas are free to compete because the speech that communicates them is fully free, we, as moral agents who are also free to believe as we choose, are more likely to be persuaded by the best ideas and intrinsically motived to uphold and disseminate them. We make more effective advocates and leaders this way because our cause-mates and followers magnify the cause’s power and add to solidarity because they believe in the ideas or our cause themselves, rather than merely supporting our own personal power because they believe in us, or in the solidarity of the movement.
As a person who truly believes in all of our great nation’s First Amendment as the best and only way to prevent groups of people (whether they be mobs, tyrants, or even legitimate governments) from exercising control over thoughts and consciences that properly belongs to free individuals, I think it’s vital that we commit to seeking clarity before agreement—even if it clearly offends us—and that we choose to truly listen harder when we disagree. I think that as we do so, we’ll find our agreements deeper, and our disagreements more fruitful to work through.