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On Toxic Speech: Lynne Tirrell’s Night of Philosophy

Lynne Tirrell was part of the Night of Philosophy and Ideas held at the Brooklyn Public Library in January.  I spoke with Lynne about her lecture on toxic speech and public philosophy.

Lynne, it was great to see you at the recent Night of Philosophy and in Brooklyn! You presented at 2.30am on “Toxic Speech”. Can you give a synopsis of your talk? 

Yes! What a great night! It was fun to see familiar faces, and also to meet new people and see so many—over 7200!—turn out to hear short philosophy talks all night long.

My  talk introduced concepts we need  for thinking about speech that’s toxic to individual, social, and political health. Toxins are poisons, substances with the capacity to inflict damage to an organism, so I was addressing how something we say can be toxic.  How do we cash out that metaphor? I also wonder if it is really best construed metaphorically or if we should think quite literally.

Toxins don’t all function the same way. Some act acutely, like polonium, and kill with a single dose. Others are sub-acute, taking time to do their deadly damage. And still others are chronic, not killing but impairing the well being of the one targeted.  Chronic toxicity is the easiest one to see as having a speech-parallel. Racist and sexist speech are modes of delivery of racism and sexism. They’re like arsenic.

Sometimes racism and sexism are delivered in acute assaults, but often they’re chronic. We adapt to them.  Such accommodation impairs our full exercise of our autonomy and our full functioning in social and political contexts. The hurled epithets of hate speech can be either acute or chronic, but third person uses (“you know Jane, the so-and-so”) tend to inflict chronic damage on all parties to different degrees.

Just as public health is assessed by looking at morbidity and mortality rates, I think we can do something similar with our discursive practices. We saw people doing this on social media all through the 2016 presidential campaign season, with parents talking about what Donald Trump’s “grab ‘em” video (for example) was saying to their children, and women posting their own histories of abuse to stand in solidarity. People across the political spectrum were upset by the vulgarity of Trump’s discourse. I want to take that seriously. Physicians also track toxicity by looking at variations of material (like polonium or arsenic), dosage and concentration, method of delivery, and the patient’s susceptibility to harm. The tools of philosophy of language can parallel each of these in interesting ways. I’ve always wondered why speech that is clearly designed to harm can just roll off some targeted people and do real damage to others. This medical analogy might give us some ways to track harms, and also might help us discover ways to stop or lessen the harms.

What makes speech toxic? 

Toxicity is the degree to which a substance can damage or harm a human or animal. And not all harms arise from toxins. I recently fell while playing tennis, landing really hard on my wrist. The damage was severe, but the cause was mechanical not chemical. Toxicity captures an internally absorbed kind of harmful substance, and won’t account for all damaging events. Answering your question requires an idea of health. Health is a normative concept, even in medicine, so that needs some careful analysis.  Right now, I am thinking of it in terms of a conception of the requirements for decent functioning, outlined by Claudia Card in her work on survival. The main elements of health I draw from Card’s account include a measure of autonomy, the capacity for building relationships, freedom from severe and unremitting pain, freedom from ongoing and unjust humiliation, a secure sense of self-worth, and the capacity to hope.

One interesting dimension of this, which I couldn’t get into for the short talk, is that health in this context is going to be relative to a conception of the good. For example, the cultural context that supports the health of American Liberalism does not support the health of an individual who commits to the values of the KKK. The neo-Nazi will find Liberal speech toxic, insofar as he or she absorbs it, and the Liberal will find the neo-Nazi’s racist speech toxic. A fuller treatment of this topic requires digging into the ways that we become capable of hearing the diatribes of the other conception of the good without becoming damaged by it. It will be interesting to see how this functions.

Why is it important to recognize toxic speech?

It is all about avoiding damage, to enhance and maintain personal freedom and autonomy. The devastating power of acutely toxic speech makes it obvious that it must be recognized and avoided. Sub-acute and chronic toxicity also need to be recognized and avoided, and we are lucky that there’s more time to combat those effects.

How should we combat toxic speech? 

The classic answer, from John Stuart Mill, is to combat it with more speech, but the idea that such give-and-take could always or generally work is somewhat undercut by the toxicity analogy. Mill is surely right about using “more speech” where we have the give and take of reasoned responses. But toxic speech requires different approaches—antidotes, vaccines, that sort of thing. There is actually research in social psychology, pioneered by William McGuire (Yale) in 1964, that looks at inoculation strategies for blocking harmful ideas. Looking into this literature is my next step.

Did attendees approach you to discuss your ideas?

Yes, many people stayed after to share stories, ask questions, ask where they could read more.  I made my business cards available, so people felt welcome to get in touch. A few have.

What do you hope that people took away from your presentation?

I hope they will think about what they say and what they hear around them with an eye to mental health and overall well-being. Maybe they’ll think about which assaults on their dignity are toxic and which are mere slights, and find the resources to strengthen their immunity to the toxic assaults.

Why did you participate in the Night of Philosophy and Ideas?

Well, first off, it seemed like fun. Second, I’m chair of the APA Committee on Public Philosophy, and this was a major public philosophy event. I was keen to see how it unfolded.

How did you find the experience of presenting in that forum? One of the purposes of this sort of event is to highlight academic philosophy, but in what ways did you present differently to how you would present at an academic conference? 

It was a delight. In 20 minutes you can really only introduce or sketch a topic. I gave a short updated version of a talk I had given at Cornell in November. Usually at an academic talk where there is more time to develop the account, I explain the background theory I’m working with, drawing on Wittgenstein’s concept of language games, bringing in work from Sellers and Brandom, and showing how the internal moves we make within our language games can have powerful action-engendering force in the rest of life. Here, I just mentioned the value of tracking entrance moves, moves within the game, and exit moves that sanction actions. I waved my hands in the direction of my research into the role of language in the genocide in Rwanda, but couldn’t say much.

It was lovely to meet your son too! As a millennial with a philosophy major, what was his impression of the evening?

I know Matt (Sperry) enjoyed it very much, so I sent him your question.  His overall view was that it was “a great event, very relevant topics, good selection of speakers—would love to help with one in Boston!” In more detail, he writes:

The event model is great for spreading the content. Including booze AND coffee basically guarantees casual interest transforming into attendance, and possibly engagement; so that was very smart. The modern dilemma rooms on the first floor were a brilliant addition; relevant topics, good questions, though I was definitely cautious to go in there— they looked full to the brim!

It was nice to see so many people out and engaging with philosophical material. I’m not sure what sort of returns the organizers are looking for, but I think that there could be more social media around the event. Recaps, brief 15-30 second Facebook or Instagram interviews with the speakers and attendees. I don’t really know where to look for that. Is there a social media account where content is posted/collected? Were there handouts for any of the talks? That would have been awesome.

Were you able to see any of the other performances or presentations?

Yes, a few, but some were so full that I couldn’t get in. I didn’t mind, because I see the event as for the public, so a professional like me should stay in the back anyway. I stayed until about 5 am, then crashed.

How did you find the experience of being there?

It was inspiring! The talks I heard were terrific, and I really liked the music and art performances. They added a lot to the night. I hope this is replicated in cities around the country.

What was your overall impression of the night?

They had a great team of volunteers and the night ran really smoothly. I love that it was at the Brooklyn Public Library, not at a university, because it sends a message about access. Libraries are open to all, with potential to promote lifelong learning. Universities try to do this, but libraries are where it’s at in our cities and towns.

Why do you think so many people were interested?

First, kudos to the team that organized and publicized the evening. They did a great job of getting the word out. Why did people come? I think people have a desire to think about challenging topics, to get into rich discussions, and to think carefully about deep issues. It can be hard to find that in daily life with work and other responsibilities. This was a night full of entertainment, but so much more. People want to THINK and to be talked with as thinkers, not just as cogs in some big social machine. We are hungry for ideas.

What do you see as the most important benefit of such an event?

This was a fine evening of public philosophy. It included philosophers at all levels of experience gathering together, plus people just curious about what philosophy might have to offer them. It was a showcase, but also highly interactive. I think the audiences learned a lot, but the philosophers who spoke also were challenged to show the public relevance of their work, which is always a worthwhile task. I thoroughly enjoyed the conversations I had all through the night. I bet others did too.

Lynne Tirrell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Her research interests include issues in philosophy of language, particularly in the politics of discourse and the ways that linguistic practices influence or shape social justice or facilitate injustice. She tweets @LynneTirrell.  

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5 thoughts on “On Toxic Speech: Lynne Tirrell’s Night of Philosophy

  1. Question: Is it really speech that’s toxic? or the hate behind it?

    Comment: Because by my experience, I get a physical, visceral reaction from the static charge thrown off by people who carry hate inside themselves, even if they don’t say anything.

    But I think it’s possible to make basically any statement, however sexist, racist, etc, it might be considered, and if the statement is made without hate, it’s simply a neutral statement, subject to debate. If it’s a stupid statement, people will say so, and know it, and that will defeat the speaker, more than calling them racist or sexist or whatever.

    On the other hand, there are many people who, without speaking out loud or making stupid remarks, can cause me physical, visceral pain, that I feel in my guts, by how much they hate me, without making the slightest offensive comment. And they do it all the time, and get away with it…

    And that’s why I think it’s wrong to criminalize speech, and not the hatred and violence behind it, which doesn’t have to spoken, to hurt.

    But maybe you disagree?

  2. Thanks for these thoughts. You’re right that there are many ways to communicate beyond speech. We can and must work to change attitudes. My work is about speech acts and speech practices, though. So it is only part of the story.

    I don’t think we should limit concerns about toxic speech to hate speech. I’ve written about hate speech for a long time, and even there, hate isn’t always the key. Power is what’s at issue. Derogatory terms, like racist and sexist epithets, are ways of exerting social power over the person and group targeted.

    This new project I’m working on moves beyond derogations and epithets to examine the ways our many kinds of speech acts inflict harm more broadly, damaging or attempting to damage the target. And, sometimes speech can be toxic without any intent to harm. Think of the teacher who thinks he or she is being kindly and says to the young girl, “It’s okay if you can’t figure it out, girls aren’t good at math.” It’s obviously sexist, and false, but maybe the teacher actually believes it and doesn’t see the sexism of it. That would count as contributing to chronic toxicity on my view. A little dose of damage, which can do long term damage, especially if repeatedly dosed.

    Finally, I’m not about banning speech. I am concerned that we be more thoughtful about what’s going on, and make sure we know what we’re doing when we talk about each other.

  3. Lynne,

    What would you say to a person who claimed that other people’s uses of the word “racist” and “sexist” — as when a person who opposes affirmative action is called “racist” — can be equally toxic as racism itself? I feel like, when we give a free pass to “enlightened” toxic speech, we create an environment where people with non-racist but non-liberal views become more marginalized, and then become more extreme in their views. Hence Trump and the like.

    • Good concern, Arthur. The notion of toxicity is the flip side of health, so it is normative through and through. Marginalization is something to worry about — Iris Marion Young cited it as one of her “Five Faces of Oppression”, for example, and people who seek full democratic participation in society try to fight marginalization. I haven’t worked out all the details of the toxicity analogy yet, but it strikes me that we all have systems that can handle and dispel some toxins. Alcohol is a toxin, for example, and most people can handle small amounts of it. (Some can’t at all, for instance if they’re allergic.) What struck me in your comment and query was the equality claim. Not all toxins are created equal, and not all ways of being pushed to margins are equal either.

      Maybe this helps: I would say that the speech acts of Steve Bannon are toxic to me, not just because of the content of what he says but also because of the powerful position he has attained, which turns those speech acts into threats against values I hold dear about our country. And, on the flip side, it might be toxic for him to have to study the material of a Feminism and Philosophy course, because that material contains concepts and arguments that would threaten his dearly held values.

  4. You mentioned the idea of antidotes and vaccines to toxic speech. It is a great metaphor! What do you envision as vaccines to toxic speech?

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