Monday, February 20, 2017

Speech as action

A piece by David Solway entitled "Free Speech vs. 'Hate Speech'" makes the following assertion:

Of course, speech itself can be an act, as philosopher J.L. Austin has shown in How to Do Things with Words: in his most famous example, when the minister states “I now pronounce you husband and wife,” an act has been performed since it changes the status of the participants.

This is wrong. The words themselves are innocuous absent other considerations. If a second grader speaks the quoted words to two other second graders,the latter are not thereby married. More importantly, if a minister says the words to two people who do not wish to be married, or in fact merely disagree with those words, their status does not change. In the former case, the words are powerless because of the status of the speaker. She has no authority to change the status of her classmates, regardless of the words used. The latter case is more fundamental, because it is an example of a larger principle: the effect of words in the absence of external force is dependent on the acceptance of the hearer. Certainly, when a judge pronounces a sentence, the words used wold be of little significance apart from a mechanism to enforce them. The same result holds if the judge has no authority to pass such a sentence, as for example if  jury had acquitted the accused.

The effect of words in such case would depend on the subjective acceptance of their object. To put the matter more succinctly, no one is obligated to be offended by speech, and no one is required to perceive injuries in mere opinions. 

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