November 14, 2005
As a linguist, an African-American, and a former student and current teacher at Saint Ignatius, I feel obliged to dispute Rev. Sanders’ portrayal of the hate speech display in our school’s Atrium as “cold, insensitive, [and] racist” in his Letter to the Editor published on November 14.
As a student of linguistics, I see the value of teaching the power of words. Words not only have meaning (semantics), but a context and usage (pragmatics). Language comes so naturally to its speakers that they are often unaware of the complex processes involved. Most are aware of the locutionary aspect of language or the ability to make reports, such as “He went to the store.” But most are unaware of the other two aspects of language. Some speech acts transcend merely reporting and become actions in and of themselves, such as “I promise,” “I request” or “I insist.” These are called illocutionary acts. There are special conditions that must be true for these acts to be valid and they can often be marked in English with the adverb “hereby.” “I hereby promise” is a perfectly acceptable sentence, but “He hereby went to the store” sounds strange. The third type of speech acts, and the most relevant to hate speech, are known as perlocutionary acts. These acts are entirely hearer-dependant, not speaker-dependant. In order for the act to be true, the hearer must allow it to be true. For example, “I amuse you,” “I impress you,” or “I bore you” can only be true if the listener is indeed amused, impressed, or bored. No matter how funny a speaker may think a joke may be, if the audience doesn’t find it funny, it’s not funny. Conversely, a speaker may believe his discourse is deadly serious, but if the audience laughs, it’s not serious and it is indeed funny. The speaker’s intent is not the critical factor; it’s the listener’s reaction.
This is relevant to the Atrium display because, as I showed my students, insults are perlocutionary acts. If someone uses a word that insults the audience, it is insulting even if the speaker did not intend it to be and this fact must be dealt with. The speaker’s intent is largely irrelevant. In fact, the speaker’s insistence that he or she did not intend to offend can make matters worse and further infuriate the audience.
My experience as a 1981 graduate of Saint Ignatius and eighteen years as the school’s first (and, unfortunately, still the sole) full-time African-American teacher has been that there is a great desire to ignore the problem of prejudice by simply wishing it away. This willful blindness can have disastrous results. As a teacher of French, I cannot help but see frightening parallels between the recent violence in France’s minority populated “banlieues” and the US desire for “colorblindness” that have resulted from decades of refusing to acknowledge that prejudice and discrimination exist.
I also disagree with Rev. Sanders’ description of our school’s display as a “malicious attack on the small, defenseless minority.” If anything, it was an “attack” on the majority. The few minority students who were offended by the display at first came to understand its purpose over the course of two weeks of activities and discussion. What I found most troubling and saddening was the far more widespread reaction by those who believed that the display had no place at Saint Ignatius because, in their eyes, there is no racism here. The display served a wake up call to, at the very least, come to grips with the fact that racism and prejudice do exist in the world, in our country, in our city, and yes even on our campus. This ugly fact is often uncomfortable to discuss, but if we are to have any chance of combating prejudice, then discuss it we must.
Milton Alan Turner, NBCT