Volume 20

Beyond Speech Acts: On Hate Speech and the Ubiquity of Norm Enactment

by Mary Kate McGowan

This paper argues against two frameworks for thinking about how language functions. The first such framework treats language use as primarily in the business of communicating content. On this content expression view, when we say things, we are only making claims about the world and/or offering considerations for or against such claims. It is shown here that this popular and even intuitive view of language use is problematically impoverished. The second framework we shall consider is considerably richer; it acknowledges Austin’s insight that we can do things with words, that speech can perform actions, enact facts, exercise power, and causally impact the world around us in a myriad of powerful ways. Although these insights are necessary to properly understand the complexity of language use, a speech act framework is nevertheless ultimately insufficient. In order to fully understand how our utterances impact the social world around us, we need to go beyond the intentional and conscious world of communicated speech acts; we need to recognize the unintended and barely conscious normative impact of our words. And, doing that requires a new framework beyond speech acts.

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