Tuesday, September 07, 2004

The Crooked Timber Thesis, or How to Gloss Over Everything Important

Johnathan Derbyshire demonstrates, with uncanny skill, how to intimidate a blog audience, in the following post:

There's a view, call it the "Crooked Timber thesis", according to which the truth of statements about a group or a set of beliefs ought to be weighed against the perlocutionary effect of uttering such statements on the group or the holders of the beliefs in question. In one recurrent variant of this view, true statements about what, for shorthand purposes, I'll call "political Islamism" ought to be circumscribed, if not actually withheld, for fear of inciting "Islamophobia". Now, I've conceded in the comments section of an earlier post the persuasiveness of the point about perlocutionary effect, though I did wonder whether one of its proponents hadn't unhelpfully mixed it up with a much less congenial argument about meaning. And it seems to me obvious that the point applies in contexts different to the one in which it's usually applied over at Crooked Timber.

I've read enough Austin to get this, but I wonder how many in the blogosphere are familiar with the word "perlocutionary." Furthermore, I wonder if the word "effect" might have been enough here.

Derbyshire's bombast aside, he raises some interesting issues with this post1. Quite often, true statements can have negative (perlocutionary) effects. In many cases, this is a good thing, for practical purposes. Telling a child that if he runs out into the street, she may be hit by a car is likely to have the effect of scaring the child, and perhaps even making her afraid to cross the street by herself. The latter is a good thing. However, in many cases, the negative consequences of the (perlocutionary) effect of an utterance outweigh the positive (if there are any). Classic examples relate to racism, and some of the true facts that, when used in certain contexts, do little more than reaffirm racist beliefs. For instance, noting that relative to white Americans, there is a disproportionate number of African Americans in prison can, and often does serve to reaffirm the belief that black people are criminals.

As the racism case indicates, one type of situation in which the (perlocutionary) effects of true utterances can be particularly pernicious involves statements about a minority within a larger group, when that larger group is already the subject of discrimination. This is, of course, the idea behind much of the "PC revolution," which tends to take it a little too far. However, there is a lesson to be learned. When making statements that may be inflammatory, even if they are true, we should be careful. We must be keenly aware of the context, especially our audience, to avoid affirming attitudes, and causing behaviors, that are unwarranted.

Since Derbyshire focuses on what he calls "political Islam," the next question is, if and when might statements about "political Islam" cause unwanted, or unjustified (perlocutionary) effects? Some answers are obvious. Since the status of the utterer is often important in determining the (perlocutionary) effect of an utterance, there are certain statements that certain people should not make publicly. If our president -- particularly our current president, since he has the ears of the individuals who are most likely to misuse certain true statements -- uttered harsh and general criticisms of Islam (or "political Islam"), the effects could be disastrous. Fortunately, he has made an asserted effort to be clear about with whom we are "at war," instead of making blanket statements like, "Islam breeds many terrorists."

Other contexts are less obvious. Blogs are a case in point. Bloggers are rarely considered authorities by most, and their audiences are composed of fluid admixtures of discerning individuals and irrational fools. Furthermore, not only are bloggers unable to control who does and does not read their writing, but more often that not, they aren't even aware who most of their readers are. This makes the situation particularly tricky when it comes to potentially inflammatory remarks. On the one hand, blogs are valuable in large part because of the freedom of expression that they provide. On the other hand, they are often read by impressionable individuals who are looking for any independent evidence that their (often irrational) beliefs are correct. Statements like, "Islam breeds many terrorists" might be just the evidence that some individuals, who already believe (incorrectly) that Islam is an inherently, and historically violent religion, particularly in contrast with their own (likely Christianity). In short, while it is true that Islam breeds many terrorists, but the epistemic context in which the reader of such a statement exists may allow him or her to produce all sorts of unwarranted inferences from this.

Traditional journalists provide another important example. As with blogs, many read journalists, particularly those who display an ideological bent similar to their own, for facts, and interpret true statements in the context of the opinions the journalist expresses, as well as those they themselves hold. It is for this reason that journalists should also be aware of the potential (perlocutionary) effects of their utterances.

None of this implies that we should withhold the truth. In fact, we should be sure to express the truth. Islam does breed many terrorists, but so do Christianity (ask the Irish, or the Palestinians in Lebanon), Hinduism (there are more terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka than anywhere else in the world), and virtually every other major religion. Simply stating that "Islam breeds many terrorists," when many in one's audience may hold irrational beliefs about Islam, is likely to cause unintended (perlocutionary) effects. The lesson, then, is not that one should withhold the truth, but that one should be careful about how one expresses the truth, and when negative (perlocutionary) effects are probable, one should make sure to express the truth with sufficient supplementary information to avoid them.

Derbyshire's post raises all of these issues, but touches on none of them. In fact, by making an overgeneral point, complete with bombast and a little hyperbole, he manages to demonstrate my point quite well. It is true that we should not withhold the truth for fear of causing unwanted perlocutionary effects. It is not true, however, that perlocutionary effects should not be taken into consideration when formulating one's utterances. Perhaps Derbyshire agrees with this last point, but one would never know from his poorly thought-out comments on the issue.

1At Crooked Timber, the fact that Derbyshire's comments have little to do with anything anyone there has said is discussed, so I won't say anything else about that.

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