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The Moral and Linguistic Contours of Insults

image of blue and red fingers pointing at each other

Thanks to Rep. Jasmine Crockett (D-TX), we can update a philosophical joke used to illustrate the use-mention distinction. For those unfamiliar, the use-mention distinction is a way to distinguish when a term appears in a sentence and refers to some object, typically its meaning, versus when the term that appears in the sentence refers to its appearance. As Cappelen et. al. point out there is a difference in the way the term shared in the following sentences function:

D1. Jim went to Paris.

D2. “Jim” has three letters.

In D1., “Jim” is being used and refers to a person, possibly even me. That reference helps establish the truth-value we assign to the statement. So, if “Jim” refers to me, then the sentence is false; if it refers to some other person named Jim, who just returned from France, then then the sentence is true. In D2., “Jim” is being mentioned and in doing so the reference of “Jim” just is the term “Jim,” not any object external to the sentence.

So, what is the joke that can now be updated?

One time at a golf tournament, a famous golfer hit a ball into the deep rough. Hoping to be allowed to pick up the ball and drop it into a more favorable spot, the golfer calls an official over and asks for a ruling. The official denies the golfer the opportunity to pick up and drop the ball without penalty, clearly frustrating the golfer who replies as follows: “Just to be clear, if I were now to say ‘You’re a feculent analphabet,’ I would get an additional penalty stroke, right? The judge, having taken a philosophy of language class, reluctantly agrees with the golfer without issuing a penalty.

Okay, not the funniest joke, and the way I narrated it is even less funny, but it is really meant as an illustration. Since the golfer merely mentioned the sentence “You’re a feculent analphabet” and did not use the sentence to level an insult, the golfer did not violate the rule against insulting officials.

What does this have to do with Rep. Crockett? During a meeting of the House Oversight Committee two weeks ago, the following exchange occurred between her and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA):

Rep. Crockett: Do you know what we are here for?

Rep. Greene: I don’t think you know what you are here for … I think your fake eyelashes are messing up what you’re reading.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), in accordance with §961 of the Rules of the House of Representatives,  motioned for the committee Chair Rep. James Comer (R-KY), to have Rep. Greene’s words taken down (i.e., stricken from the record) because they were an attack on another member of the House and thus an example of unparliamentary debate. According to Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, Rep. Greene’s words violated Rule XVII 1 (b) which states that “Remarks in debate (which may include references to the Senate or its Members) shall be confined to the question under debate, avoiding personality.” As clarified in §361, “Personalities in debate forbidden,” House members may not refer “to a particular Member of the House in a derogatory fashion.” Rep. Greene, by insulting the appearance of Rep. Crockett, seems to have clearly violated this rule. However, Rep. Comer ruled that Greene’s comment “lacked decorum but did not violate rules against attacking other members.” Wanting to ensure that she understood the ruling, Rep. Crockett asked “I’m just curious, just to better understand your ruling: If someone on this committee then starts talking about somebody’s ‘bleach-blonde, bad-built, butch body,’ that would not be engaging in personalities, correct?”

As with the aforementioned golf judge, Rep. Comer would have to agree, twice over, that Rep. Crockett did not personally attack Rep. Greene. First, both representatives used sentences that involved insults about the appearance of another member of the House, and thus by his own ruling do not constitute a violation of Rule XVII 1 (b); second, unlike Rep. Greene, Rep. Crockett only mentioned and did not actually use the relevant sentence, thereby not actually attacking anyone.

But can the use-mention distinction really carve out Rep. Crockett’s words as not subject to the rules?  Here is one way to try to express the use-mention distinction:

But this expression of the distinction defines mentioning by noting that you have to use the relevant expression (“Jim” in our analytic example, “feculent analphabet” in the joke, and “bleach-blonde, bad-built, butch body” in Rep. Crockett’s example) in order to mention it. The use may be self-referential, but it is still a use. So, to mention an expression, you have to use it, suggesting that the distinction collapses.

If that is the case, then in some sense, both Rep. Greene and Rep. Crockett used the relevant insults. In fact, given the overall context of the events, it is pretty clear that Rep. Crockett’s expression was an insult, indirectly aimed at Rep. Greene, mediated through a direct question to Rep. Comer. Complicated, yes; an insult aimed at a target, nevertheless. Still, if neither Rep. Greene nor Rep. Crockett engaged in personal attacks, then an insult about the appearance of one person is not a personal attack, regardless of the analytical issues regarding the use-mention distinction.

Now to the evaluative questions: “How is an insult about an appearance of another person NOT a personal attack?” In other words, did Rep. Comer make an error in his ruling?

Consider the best thing that we might say for Rep. Comer’s position, namely, that an insult is a species of criticism. Criticism is a judgment about the value — moral, political, practical, aesthetic, etc. — of some object. Criticism, in this most basic definition, is a core activity of a deliberative assembly such as the U. S. House of Representatives and its enumerated powers as granted by the Constitution of the United States.  Whether it is proposing, debating, and voting on legislation (Article 1, Sect. 1), considering whether to punish and even expel a member for disorderly behavior (Article 1, sect. 5, clause 2), or whether or not to declare war (Article 1, Sect. 8, clause 11), a properly functioning deliberative assembly will involve members of the House expressing their judgments about the value of exercising these Constitutional powers. So, the problem is not that Rep. Greene and Rep. Crockett engaged in criticism per se; the problem must lie elsewhere.

The problem with insults is that they are a species of aggression toward another, i.e., an attack. Given the nature of these comments, we might identify the verbal sparring as an exchange of microaggressions. According to Derald Wing Sue and Lisa Beth Spanierman, microaggressions are “verbal and nonverbal interpersonal exchanges in which a perpetrator causes harm to a target, whether intended or unintended.” The key element is that the criticism has a harmful impact. A microinsult, as a species of microaggression, causes harm by conveying “stereotypes, rudeness, and insensitivity … that demean a person’s racial, gender, sexual orientation, heritage or identity.” The choice of words by each representative attacking the appearance of the other demeans the heritage or identity of the other. Furthermore, as Jerome Neu points out, “[t]o insult is to assert or assume dominance, either intentionally claiming superiority or unintentionally revealing a lack of regard. To be insulted is to suffer a shock, a disruption of one’s sense of self and one’s place in the world.” In short, the result, if not the intent, of a microinsult, is to lower the value and regard owed to a person, to treat the other as less than equal. As such, this is a moral problem in that insults lower the worth and esteem of the target that is not warranted. When the characteristics identified by insults are tied to physical appearance, this is clearly out of bounds because one’s appearance has little to no moral relevance because our physical characteristics have little to no connection to moral worth. This is especially true if those characteristics are not of our own choosing, such as body shape. But they are also irrelevant if the identified characteristics are choices that conform aesthetic cultural standards such as hair color or the use of lash extensions.

In the end, we have an answer to the question regarding Rep. Comer’s decision that Rep. Greene and Rep. Crockett were not engaged in personal attacks: He’s wrong.

Insulting another’s appearance, whether directly in the case of Rep. Greene or indirectly in the case of Rep. Crockett, is a personal attack in violation of Rule XVII 1 (b). It is time for Comer and the rest of the elected officials to act in accordance with their own rules in the House.  In fact, these rules should probably be observed by all those seeking elected positions this coming November: they should not be “speaking reviling, nipping, or unmannerly words against” anyone.

The Ethics of “Let’s Go, Brandon”

photograph of Biden on phone in Oval Office

On Christmas Eve, Joe and Jill Biden were taking holiday phone calls as a part of an annual tradition of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) to celebrate Christmas by “tracking” Santa Claus on his trip around the globe; at the end of one conversation, the Bidens were wished “Merry Christmas and ‘Let’s Go, Brandon’” by Jared Schmeck, a father calling with his children from Oregon. In recent months, after a crowd at a NASCAR event chanting “F**k Joe Biden” was described by a reporter as saying “Let’s Go, Brandon” (seemingly referring to the winner of the race), the sanitized slogan has been wholeheartedly adopted by people seeking to (among other things) express dissatisfaction with the current president. Plenty of others have offered explanations about the linguistic mechanics of the coded phrase (for what it’s worth, I think it’s an interesting example of a conventional implicature), but this article seeks to consider a different question: did Schmeck do something unethical when he uttered the phrase directly to Joe Biden?

There’s at least two factors here that we need to keep distinct:

  1. Did Schmeck do something unethical by uttering the phrase “Let’s Go, Brandon”?
  2. Did Schmeck do something unethical by uttering “Let’s Go, Brandon” directly to Joe Biden?

The first point is an interesting question for philosophers of so-called “bad” language, often categorized as profanity, obscenity, vulgarity, or other kinds of “swear” words. It’s worth considering why such pejoratives are treated as taboo or offensive in various contexts (but, depending on various factors, not all contexts) and scores of philosophers have weighed in on such debates. But, arguably, even if you think that there is something unethical about using the word ‘f**k,’ the utterance “Let’s Go, Brandon” side-steps many relevant concerns: regardless of what Schmeck meant by his utterance, he technically didn’t say a word that would, for example, get him fined by the FCC. After all, there’s nothing innately offensive about the terms ‘let’s,’ ‘go,’ or ‘Brandon.’ In much the same way that a child who mutters “gosh darn it,” “what the snot,” or “oh my heck” might expect to dodge a punishment for inappropriate speech, saying “Let’s Go, Brandon” might be a tricky way to blatantly communicate something often considered to be offensive (the dreaded “f-word”) while technically abiding by the social prohibition of the term’s utterance.

This move — of replacing some offensive term with a vaguely similar-sounding counterpart — is sometimes referred to as “denaturing” profanity with a euphemism (including even with emoji): for example, the phrases “what the frick?” and “what the f**k?” are not clearly substantively semantically different, but only the latter will typically be censored. However, over time, this kind of “minced oath” often ends up taking on the conventional meaning of the original, offensive term (in a process that it is itself sometimes described as a “euphemism treadmill”): that is to say, at some point, society might well decide to bleep “frick” just as much as its counterpart (although, actually, social trends largely seem to be moving in the opposite direction). Nevertheless, although “Let’s Go, Brandon” is only a few months old, its notoriety might be enough to already suggest that it’s taken on some of the same offensive qualities of the phrase that it’s meant to call to mind. If you think that there’s something unethical about uttering the phrase “F**k Joe Biden,” then you might also have a reason to think that “Let’s Go, Brandon” is likewise problematic.

Notably, the widespread use of “Let’s Go, Brandon” in many places typically opposed to profanity — such as churches, airplanes, and the floor of the House of Representatives — suggests that people are not treating the phrase as being directly vulgar, despite its clear connection to the generally-offensive ‘f**k.’

Which brings us to the second point: was Schmeck wrong to utter “Let’s Go, Brandon” directly to Biden on Christmas Eve?

Again, it seems like there are at least two factors to consider here: firstly, we might wonder whether or not Schmeck was being (something like) rude to Biden by speaking the anti-Biden slogan in that context. If you think that profanity use is simply offensive and that “Let’s Go, Brandon” is a denatured form of profanity, then you might have a reason to chastise Schmeck (because he almost said a “bad word” in an inappropriate context). If Schmeck had instead directly uttered “Merry Christmas and ‘F**k Joe Biden,’” then we might at least criticize the self-described Christian father (whose small children were with him on the call) as being impolite. But if, as described above, the meaning of “Let’s Go, Brandon” is less important than the technical words appearing in the spoken sentence, then you might think that Schmeck’s actual utterance is more complicated. Initially, Schmeck suggested that he simply intended to make a harmless, spur-of-the-moment joke (a claim that is admittedly less-credible by Schmeck recording the conversation for his YouTube page and in light of Schmeck’s later comments on Steve Bannon’s podcast) — without additional context, interpreting the ethical status of the initial utterance might be difficult.

But, secondly, we would do well to remember that Joe Biden is the President of the United States and some might suppose that uttering offensive speech (whether overtly or covertly) insufficiently shows the office of the POTUS the respect that it deserves. Conversely, we might easily deny that the office “deserves” respect simpliciter at all: the fact that Biden is an elected politician, and that the United States boasts a long tradition of openly and freely criticizing our political leaders — including in notable, public displays — absolves Schmeck from ethical criticism in this case. You might still think that it is a silly, disingenuous, or overly-complicated way to make an anti-Biden jab, but these are aesthetic (not ethical) critiques of Schmeck’s utterance.

In a way, Schmeck seems to have evoked something like this last point after he started receiving criticisms for his Christmas Eve call, arguing that he was well within his First Amendment rights to freely speak to Biden as he did. Indeed, this claim (unlike his initial characterization of the comment as having “meant no disrespect”) seems correct — even as it also fails to touch our earlier question of whether or not Schmeck’s actions were still impolite (and therefore subject to social reactions). It is fully possible to think that Schmeck did nothing illegal by spiking the NORAD Santa Tracker with a political pseudo-slur, even while also thinking that he did something that, all things considered, he probably shouldn’t have done (at least not in the way that he did it). It bears repeating: the First Amendment protects one’s ability to say what they generally want to say; it does not prevent potential social backlash from those who disagree (and also enjoy similar free-speech protections).

All things considered, though he’s reportedly considering running for office, Jared Schmeck’s fifteen minutes of fame have likely passed. Still, his Santa-based stunt offers an interesting look at a developing piece of applied philosophy of language: regardless of the ethical questions related to “Let’s Go, Brandon,” the phrase is certainly not going anywhere anytime soon.

Meaning-as-Use and the Punisher’s New Logo

photograph of man in dark parking garage with Punisher jacket

Recently, Marvel Comics announced plans to publish a new limited-series story about Frank “The Punisher” Castle, the infamous anti-villain who regularly guns down “bad guys” in his ultra-violent vigilante war on crime; set to premiere in March 2022, early looks at the comic’s first issue have revealed that the story will see Castle adopt a new logo, trading in the iconic (and controversial) skull that he’s sported since his introduction in the mid-70s. While some Marvel properties (like Spider-Man or the X-Men) could fill a catalog with their periodic redesigns, the Punisher’s look has remained roughly unchanged for almost fifty years.

From a business perspective, rebranding is always a risky move: while savvy designers can capture the benefits of adopting a trendy new symbol or replacing an out-of-date slogan, such opportunities must be balanced against the potential loss of a product’s identifiability in the marketplace. Sometimes this is intentional, as in so-called “rehabilitative” rebrands that seek to wash negative publicity from a company’s image: possible examples might include Facebook’s recent adoption of the name “Meta” and Google’s shift to “Alphabet, Inc.” But consider how when The Gap changed its simple blue logo after twenty years the company faced such a powerful backlash that it ditched the attempted rebrand after just one week; when Tropicana traded pictures of oranges (the fruit) for simple orange patches (of the color) on its orange juice boxes, it saw a 20% drop in sales within just one month. Similar stories abound from a wide variety of industries: British Airways removing the Union flag, Pizza Hut removing the word ‘pizza,’ and Radio Shack removing the word ‘radio’ from their logos were all expensive, failed attempts to re-present these companies to consumers in new ways. (As an intentional contrast, IHOP’s temporary over-the-top rebrand to “the International House of Burgers” was a clever, and effective, marketing gimmick.)

So, why is Marvel changing the Punisher’s iconic skull logo (one of its most well-known character emblems)?

Although it looks like the new series will offer an in-universe explanation for Castle’s rebrand, the wider answer has more to do with how the Punisher’s logo has been adopted in our non-fictional universe. For years, like the character himself, the Punisher’s skull emblem has been sported by numerous groups also associated with the violent use of firearms: most notably, police officers and military servicemembers (notably, Chris Kyle, the Navy SEAL whose biography was adapted into the Oscar-winning film American Sniper, was a Punisher fan who frequently wore the logo). Recent years have seen a variety of alt-right groups deploy variations of the skull symbol in their messaging and iconography, including sometimes in specific opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement, and multiple protests and riots (including the attempted insurrection in Washington D.C. last January) saw participants wearing Frank Castle’s emblem. In short, the simple long-toothed skull has taken on new meaning in the 21st century — a meaning that Marvel Comics might understandably want to separate from their character.

Plenty of philosophers of logic and language have explored the ways in which symbols mean things in different contexts, and the field of semiotics is specifically devoted to exploring the mechanics of signification — a field that can, at times, grow dizzyingly complex as theorists attempt to capture the many different ways that symbols and signs arise in daily life. But the case of the Punisher’s skull shows at least one crucial element of symbolization: the meaning of some sign is inextricably bound up in how that symbol is used. Famously codified by the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (in §43 of his Philosophical Investigations), the meaning-as-use theory grounds the proper interpretation of a symbol firmly within the “form of life” in which it appears. So, while the skull logo might have initially been intended by its creator to symbolize the fictional vigilante Frank Castle, it now identifies violent militia groups and other real-world political ideologies far more frequently and publicly — its use has changed and so, too, has its meaning. Marvel has attempted to bring legal action against producers of unauthorized merchandise using the skull symbol, and Gerry Conway, the Punisher’s creator, has explicitly attempted to wrest the symbol’s meaning back from control of the alt-right, but the social nature of a symbol’s meaning has all but prevented such attempts at re-re-definition. Consequently, Marvel might have little choice but to give Frank Castle a new logo.

For another example of how symbols change over time, consider the relatively recent shift in meaning for the hand gesture made by touching the pointer finger and thumb of one hand together while stretching out the other three fingers simultaneously: whereas, for many years, the movement has been a handy way to mean the word “okay,” white supremacists have recently been using the same gesture to symbolize the racist idea of “white power.” To the degree that the racist usage has become more common, the meaning of the symbol has become far more ambiguous — leaving many people reluctant to flash the hand gesture, lest they unintentionally communicate some white supremacist idea. The point here is that the individual person’s intentions are not the only thing that matters for understanding a symbol: the cultural context (or, to Wittgenstein, “form of life”) of the sign is at least as, if not more, important.

So, amid calls to stop selling Punisher-related merchandise (and with speculation abounding that the character might be re-introduced to the wildly lucrative Marvel Cinematic Universe), it makes sense that Marvel would want to avoid further political controversy and simply give the Punisher a fresh look. But what a vaguely-Wittgensteinian look at the skull logo suggests is that it’s been years since it was simply “the Punisher’s look” at all.

The Ethical Risks of Ad-Hoc Bilingualism

photorgaph of Air Canda plane in air

A rather strange episode in Canadian language relations occurred at the beginning of November when the CEO of Canada’s flagship airline Air Canada had to apologize for not being able to speak French, despite living in Montreal for 14 years. Quebec politicians and journalists quickly labelled the remarks as “insulting,” prompting a wave of criticism in his direction, including from the Deputy Prime Minister herself, who wrote a letter to the airline telling the CEO that improvement to his language ability “should be incorporated as one of his key performance goals.” The affair has prompted yet another debate about bilingualism in Canada, but this particular instance highlights a growing ethical problem regarding the way that bilingual policies are understood in practice.

The affair began on November 3rd when Michael Rousseau, the CEO of Air Canada, made his first major speech after taking on the role in February to the Montreal Chamber of Commerce. Rousseau spoke limited French during his speech, and when asked afterwards by a journalist how he could live in Montreal for so long without speaking French, he replied, “I’ve been able to live in Montreal without speaking French, and I think that’s a testament to the city of Montreal.” These remarks were labelled as contemptuous of Quebec and its culture, “appalling and disrespectful,” “insensitive,” and indicative of a “lack of respect for francophones” by various officials at the federal level and from the Quebec government. In response, Rousseau has pledged to take French lessons.

This affair has prompted a counter response that this is simply Quebec “fragility” with each charge against Rousseau being more absurd than the last. But, putting aside the culture war for a second, its worth considering what bilingualism is supposed to mean to a contemporary Canadian society. The role of the French language has been a hot issue in Quebec since the government recently introduced new legislation to strengthen the French language in Quebec and crack down on English use in public. Initially, the policy of official bilingualism in Canada began with the Official Languages Act of 1969, passed by Pierre Trudeau’s government. The intention behind it was to ensure French and English would be given equal status and that French or English Canadians would be able to access services from the federal government in their own language. In addition, Canada’s constitution guarantees equal language rights and education rights. But these inclusive policies seem merely meant to guide government services, not encourage all members of Canadian society to be bilingual.

The dispute playing out stems from an ambiguity. One conception of bilingualism would hold that any Canadian should be able to work in their language of choice. Another conception of bilingualism may specifically promote the idea of speaking both French and English, and as a social policy Canada should become more bilingual in this way. These are very different goals and would require very different resources, carrying with them very different ethical concerns.

For starters, science tells us that learning a new language once we reach adulthood is very difficult because our neural connections have stabilized by that point. This means that a number of social factors will likely determine success in picking up a new language. The science of languages suggests that learning a second language really requires one “to be immersed in it,” “to be around native speakers as much as possible.” Yet, the 2016 Census found that 86% of bilingual Canadians live in Quebec, Ontario, and New Brunswick, meaning that if you live in a difficult geographic region, your ability to learn a second language is far more difficult. In addition, civil servants have argued that current bilingual policies are racist because they effectively exclude immigrants and new Canadians who in many cases must learn not one, but two new languages if they wish to work at the federal level.

There are also concerns that the policy of official bilingualism is exclusionary for aboriginals as well. Former MP Roméo Saganash opposed forcing Supreme Court judges to be bilingual, for example, because it would effectively prevent aboriginals from reaching it. Even recently, there was a controversy over the fact that Canada’s newest and first Aboriginal Governor General, Mary Simon, a bilingual person speaking English and Inuktitut and born in Quebec, was unable to speak French. This raised hundreds of complaints from francophones despite Simon noting how as a child she was denied the chance to learn French.

Finally, even once one has attained bilingual status, ethical concerns remain. The federal government’s own website notes how tension and insecurities between second language speakers and native speakers can lead to exclusion. These insecurities have made it difficult to have a bilingual civil service, so why would we expect these factors not to be a problem if bilingualism were promoted more broadly?

This brings us back to the case of Michael Rousseau. Critics argue that since Air Canada, a former crown corporation, is the only national airline legally subject to the Official Languages Act and required to be headquartered in Montreal, it follows that the CEO should speak French. But while this is a reason for Air Canada to offer bilingual services, it is not an argument that everyone in the company should speak multiple langauges. As Sabrina Maddeaux recently noted,

If no one at Air Canada headquarters spoke French, that’d be a problem to discuss, but that’s certainly not the case. In fact, the airline has a multi-million dollar internal official languages program and employees dedicated to any complaints related to the Official Languages Act. Functionally, this is a non-issue. Rather, it’s a PR problem and optics issue the government has no business sticking its nose in.

Instead, most of the arguments against Rousseau seem to dwell on the symbolism involved. Some argue that Rousseau didn’t show enough “humility,” while other argue that Air Canada is “not just any company” because of its status in Canadian culture. They insist that that CEOs should set an example and that “Official languages obligations should be seen as a duty owed to the nation”: “If the CEO is not bilingual, why should a flight attendant?” Of course, the obvious answer is that a flight attendant directly offers the services mandated to be bilingual while the CEO does not.

But even if it can’t be legally required for a CEO to speak French, should we regard the expectation as more of a social requirement? Should everyone in the company be bilingual? What about other national corporations and institution? If the argument is that either for symbolic reasons or because we actively wish to promote a bilingual society, you must be bilingual if you want to operate at the national level, then we cannot ignore the larger moral issues and potential inequities.

Moving from a model of mandating service in both languages to a model of bilingualism that promotes it as a social policy carries important ethical concerns. Determining who should be bilingual and what national roles should be bilingual is not something that should be handled by a mob of journalists and politicians based on ad-hoc reasoning about which roles rise to the level sufficient importance. This isn’t an issue that affects only a single CEO who could easily afford French lessons. It could conceivably apply to any job field within federal jurisdiction. Such moves in official language policy have the potential to exclude many sections of Canadian society. Policies which could potentially ruin whole careers or exacerbate social inequalities should be rigorously debated and voted on. Given the moral challenges of bilingualism, it is morally irresponsible for a government to proceed in such an ad-hoc or arbitrary way.

The Texas Heartbeat Act and Linguistic Clarity

black-and-white photograph of Texas State Capitol Building

On September 1st, S.B. 8, otherwise known as the Texas Heartbeat Act, came into force. This Act bars abortions once fetal cardiac activity is detectable by ultrasound. While the specific point at which this activity can be identified is challenging to pin down, it most often occurs around the six-week mark. Past this point, the Act allows private citizens to sue those who offer abortions or ‘aids and abets’ a procedure – this includes everyone from abortion providers to taxi drivers taking people to clinics. If the suit is successful, not only can the claimant recover their legal fees, but they also receive $10,000 – all paid by the defendant.

The introduction of this law raises numerous concerns. These include (but are certainly not limited to) whether private citizens should be rewarded for enforcing state law, the fairness of the six-week mark given that most people won’t know they’re pregnant at this point, the lack of an exception for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest, and whether the law is even constitutional. However, in this piece, I want to draw attention to the Act’s language. Specifically, I want to look at two key terms: ‘fetal heartbeat’ and ‘fetus.’

Fetal Heartbeat

At multiple points within the Act, reference is made to the fetal heartbeat requiring detection. This concept is so central to the Act that not only does heartbeat feature in its title, but it is also the very first definition provided – “(1) ‘Fetal heartbeat’ means cardiac activity or the steady and repetitive rhythmic contraction of the fetal heart within the gestational sac.” You would think that such terminology is correct and accurate. After all, accuracy is essential for all pieces of legislation, let alone one that has such crucial and intimate ramifications. Indeed, the Act itself indicates that the term is appropriate as, in the Legislative Findings section, it states, “(1) fetal heartbeat has become a key medical predictor that an unborn child will reach live birth.

However, there exists here a problem. For something to have a heartbeat, it must first have the valves whose opening and closing results in the tell-tale ‘thump-thump’; no valves, no heartbeat. While this may seem obvious (indeed, I think it is), it appears to be something the Act’s creators have… overlooked.

At six weeks, the point at which cardiac activity is typically detectable and abortions become prohibited, a fetus doesn’t have these valves. While a rudimentary structure will be present, typically developing into a heart, this structure doesn’t create a heartbeat. So, if you put a stethoscope on a pregnant person’s stomach at this point, you wouldn’t hear the beating of a heart. Indeed, when someone goes in for an ultrasound, and they listen to something sounding like a heartbeat, this is created by the ultrasound machine based upon the cardiac activity it detects. As such, the Heartbeat Act concerns itself with something that is entirely incapable of producing a heartbeat.

For some, this may seem like a semantic issue. After all, the Act clarifies what it considers a fetal heartbeat when it conflates it with cardiac activity. You may think that I’m being overly picky and that the two amount to roughly the same thing at the end of the day. You might argue that while this activity may not result in the same noise you would hear in a fully developed person, it still indicates a comparable biological function. However, the term heartbeat is emotively loaded in a way that cardiac activity isn’t, and this loading is essential to the discussion at hand.

For centuries, a heartbeat (alongside breath) was the defining quality that signified life. Thus, someone was dead when their heart irrevocably stopped beating. However, with developments in medical technologies, most notably transplantation, this cardiopulmonary definition of death became less valuable. After all, undergoing a heart transplant means, at some point, you’ll lack a heartbeat. Yet, saying that person is dead would seem counterintuitive as the procedure aims to, and typically does, save the organ’s recipient. As a result, definitions of death started to focus more on the brain.

By saying that cardiac activity is synonymous with a heartbeat, the creators of the Act seek to draw upon this historical idea of the heartbeat as essential for life. By appealing to the emotive idea that a heartbeat is detectable at six weeks, an attempt is made to draw the Act’s ethical legitimacy not from scientific accuracy but an emotional force. Doing so anthropomorphizes something which is not a person. The phrase fetal heartbeat seeks to utilize our familiarity with the coupling of personhood and that tell-tale ‘thump-thump.’ But it is important to remember that the entity in question here does not have a heartbeat. Heck, cardiac activity, which is at its core electrical activity, doesn’t even indicate a functional cardiovascular system or a functional heart.


So far in this piece, I have used the same terminology as the Act to describe the entity in question, that being the word ‘fetus.’ However, much like the use of ‘fetal heartbeat,’ the Act’s use of the phrase is inaccurate and smuggles deceptive emotive rhetoric. Unlike ‘fetal heartbeat,’ however, ‘fetus’ is at least a scientific term.

There are, roughly speaking, three stages of prenatal development: (i) germinal, where the entity is nothing more than a clump of cells (0 – 2 weeks); (ii) embryonic, where the cell clump starts to take on a human form (3 – 8 weeks); and (iii) fetal, where the further refinement and development occurs (9 weeks – birth).

I’m sure you can already spot the issue here. If cardiac activity occurs typically around the six-week mark, at which point the Act prohibits abortions, then this would place this boundary squarely in the embryonic, not the fetal, stage. Thus, using the term ‘fetus’ throughout the Act is scientifically inaccurate at best, and dangerously misleading at worst. Once again, you might wonder why this matters and think I’m making a bigger deal of this than it needs to be. After all, it’s only a couple of weeks out of step with the scientific consensus. However, as is with the case of ‘fetal heartbeat’ (a term that is now doubly inaccurate as it refers to neither a fetus nor a heartbeat), the term ‘fetus’ comes packaged with emotional baggage.

Describing the developing entity as a fetus evokes images of a human-like being, one that resembles how we are after birth and makes it easier to ascribe it some degree of comparable moral worth. But, this is not the case. An embryo, around the six-week point, may possess some human-like features. However, it is far from visually comparable to a fully formed person, and it is this point that the Act’s language obfuscates. Describing the embryo as a fetus is to try and draw upon the imagery the latter evokes. To make you think of a baby-like being developing in a womb and to push the belief that abortion is a form of murder.

Wrapping it up

It would seem a reasonable claim to make that accuracy is essential in our philosophical reasoning and our legal proceedings. We want to understand the world as it is and create systems that are best suited for the challenges thrown at them. Key to this is the use of appropriate language. Whether deliberative or not, inaccurate terminology makes it harder to act morally as inappropriate assumptions often lead to inappropriate results.

The moral status of the embryo and fetus is a topic that has been debated for centuries, and I would not expect it to be unanimously resolved anytime soon. However, using incorrect language as a means of eliciting a response built solely on the passions is undoubtedly not going to help. Laws need to describe the things they are concerned with accurately, and the Texas Heartbeat Act fails in this task.

On the Weaponization of Forgiveness

black and white photograph of pray hands

WARNING: The following article contains discussions of sexual assault and other violent crimes, including the sexual abuse of minors.

On April 23rd, former reality television stars Josh and Anna Duggar posted a gender reveal for their seventh child on Instagram, happily announcing Anna’s pregnancy; six days later, Josh Duggar was arrested and charged with downloading and possessing child pornography. At Duggar’s detention hearing, federal authorities testified that they found hundreds of images of sexually abused children, including toddlers, on one of Duggar’s office computers in a case file described by one agent as being in the “top five of the worst of the worst that I’ve ever had to examine.” Although software was installed on this computer to track Duggar’s activity (and regularly inform his wife of his internet searches), additional software had been installed to circumvent these measures. Josh Duggar pleaded “not guilty” to the charges and has been released on bond to the custody of family friends pending his trial in July.

This is not the first time that Josh Duggar — son to former Arkansas state representative Jim Bob Duggar — has made national headlines. In 2015, In Touch magazine published copies of a 2006 police report indicating that Duggar had repeatedly sexually molested five minors when he was fourteen years old; the ensuing scandal, worsened by the fact that Duggar’s father had leveraged his political capital to protect his son from consequences (despite several of Duggar’s sisters being among his victims), led to Duggar resigning his position as the executive director of the Family Research Council (a Christian lobbying organization). Additionally, in the wake of the controversy, TLC chose to cancel 19 Kids and Counting, the popular reality show portraying the lifestyle of Jim Bob Duggar’s large family. Several months later, hackers exposed user data from AshleyMadison.com, a dating site that markets itself towards “cheating spouses” seeking extramarital affairs; Josh Duggar was one of several celebrities revealed to have paid for multiple accounts with the service.

In his response to these previous scandals, Duggar apologized in 2015 for his “wrongdoing” as a teenager and said that he had “sought forgiveness from those I had wronged and asked Christ to forgive me and come into my life.” Regarding his infidelity, Duggar said he had been “the biggest hypocrite ever” and explained that he had developed a “secret addiction” to pornography that led him to become “unfaithful to [his] wife.” As his confession continues, he says: “I am so ashamed of the double life that I have been living and am grieved for the hurt, pain and disgrace my sin has caused my wife and family, and most of all Jesus and all those who profess faith in Him.” Duggar’s 2015 statement finishes with the following: “I humbly ask for your forgiveness. Please pray for my precious wife Anna and our family during this time.”

At this point, apart from his court plea, Duggar has been silent about his 2021 arrest, but his parents released a short statement asking for prayer and reaffirming their commitment to their family.

Although it might seem like a surprising topic to consider, philosophers have had multiple things to say about the phenomenon of forgiveness that Duggar’s past statements repeatedly invoke. Some have analyzed the emotional elements of forgiveness to, among other things, define the necessary and sufficient conditions for actions that qualify as actually bestowing “forgiveness” on transgressors. (If I say the words “I forgive you” while still harboring resentment, have I truly forgiven you?) Other academics have focused on questions of standing for acts of forgiveness: for example, if Calvin pulls Susie’s hair, it seems like only Susie could rightfully forgive Calvin (should she choose to do so) — no matter how much Rosalyn might insist that she forgives Calvin for pulling Susie’s hair, it seems like Rosalyn lacks the proper standing to forgive the offense. However, this scenario raises another question: what about acts of religious forgiveness, in particular those connected with receiving forgiveness from God? (Could God forgive Calvin on Susie’s behalf? Or has Calvin somehow wronged both Susie and God such that God has standing to forgive Calvin in this case? Or is something else going on here?) And what about obligations to forgive — are there ever duties to do so? Additionally, should forgiveness itself be seen as a virtue?

Indeed, the philosophy of forgiveness can be a rich field to plow.

I think that the Duggar case demonstrates another interesting feature of forgiveness and how it functions as a sociopolitical kind of speech act: namely, one that triggers certain social expectations (and, perhaps, even duties) to view the speaker in a certain valenced perspective (in a manner similar to what J.L. Austin describes as a “behabitive” speech act). When Josh Duggar references his past sins and explains how he has already sought “Christ’s forgiveness,” he is not explicitly obligating people to likewise forgive him for his actions — however, for a certain subset of Duggar’s audience, he is implicitly indicating that they should forgive him on their own. According to Duggar’s religion, Christ’s forgiveness is freely given to all who ask for it: for anyone who might treat Jesus as a moral exemplar (and ask “What would Jesus do?”), Duggar’s invocation of his having already sought divine absolution is an implicit appeal to the Christians hearing his confession that they should do likewise.

In this way, Duggar’s deployment of Christian terminology (like asking Jesus to “come into my life”) functions as what philosopher Jennifer Saul has called a “dogwhistle” because it has multiple layers of meaning, but only certain people in a given audience will be able to fully decode the deeper message. On its face, hearing that someone asked Jesus to “come into their life” might be easily understood as a metaphorical way to recognize Jesus’ influence on the speaker; for Christians — particularly fundamentalist Protestants like Duggar — this phrase carries significant theological meaning with considerable baggage automatically communicated implicitly to anyone who understands the code. And even if audience members don’t calculate the full implicatum of Duggar’s words (“Jesus has forgiven me for X, therefore you should not hold X against me”), they might nevertheless recognize Duggar as a member of their own social group in a manner that often results in the triggering of various in-group biases.

My point is not that Josh Duggar (or anyone else who speaks in similar fashions) is necessarily intentionally trying to manipulate their audience by evoking Christian (or otherwise partisan) terminology; importantly, dog whistles (and other sorts of covert speech acts) can easily be used without speakers realizing that they are doing so. Nevertheless, when such words function to effectively manipulate the emotions and perceptions of audience members, we would do well to pay more attention to their operation.

Consider what happened in 2015: various other celebrity Christians, including former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, rushed to Duggar’s defense, insisting that, although Duggar’s actions were indeed terrible, his “mistakes” had been addressed and the families involved should be protected from the “blood-thirsty media” looking for a scandal. Pundit Matt Walsh argued that “progressives” were the real hypocrites in this case (because they were allegedly only looking to discredit a prominent Christian family). Whether or not such charges carry water is beside the present point: if Duggar’s statement functioned as I’ve suggested (and indeed triggered certain members of his audience, like Huckabee and Walsh, to implicitly recognize a duty to support their fellow Christian) then these partisan responses are unsurprising.

In short, I’m suggesting that public statements mentioning God and forgiveness (which have been made by everyone from former President Bill Clinton to Kanye West) can work to identify the speaker as an ally or member of a particular subculture or sect. In much the same way that my saying “Live long and prosper” or “May the Force be with you” entitles my audience to make certain assumptions about my background or social position (insofar as they might think I’m a member of certain sci-fi fandoms), deploying specific language — like Duggar’s “Christianese” discussing his sins — works similarly. When such associations might alter interpretations or feelings about violent or otherwise unjust events, said language should be analyzed more carefully.

To date, with the exception of his lawyers and family members, no one has publicly jumped to Josh Duggar’s defense. However, he has been released from jail to await his July trial in the custody of Lacount Reber who was described in court as a “close friend” of the Duggars. Mr. Reber is a pastor in northwest Arkansas.

How Should One Call It like It Is?

photograph of threatening protestor group with gas masks

This week in response to the Capitol attack many have urged that we “call the event what it is.” Given the events which took place in Washington this week, perhaps the most prominent moral question facing everyone is how should one describe something? Initially this was even the case before the 6th when the details of Trump’s call to the Georgia Secretary of State became public and it became known that he wanted to “find” votes. Is that an attempt to intimidate a public official to overturn an election or is it merely the innocent efforts of a person to rectify a perceived slight? Following the 6th, this type of question gained new importance. How should we describe such an event? Was it an attempted coup? Was it a protest? An insurrection? Domestic terrorism? How do we describe the day? Did the president have a rally with heated rhetoric that got a crowd out of control or did he unleash a mob on Congress with the intention of preventing them from following the Constitution? Answering a question like “how should we describe such events?” reveals just how complicated of a moral problem language can be.

In his account of inquiry, philosopher John Dewey argued that the nature of any judgment is to be able to link some selected content (a subject) to some selected quality of characterization (a predicate). His central point is that determining how to characterize the predicate and how to characterize the subject is the work of inquiry; neither is simply given to us in advance and our own inquiries require us to appraise how we should characterize a subject and predicate in relationship to each other. Moral inquiry is no different, and thus whether we characterize the people who invaded the Capitol as protestors or insurrectionists depends on what appraisals we make about what information is relevant in the course of moral inquiry. Of course, one of the means that society has at its disposal to do this work is the legal system.

The question about what legally took place is complicated. For example, does the storming of the Capitol constitute domestic terrorism? Despite some, including President-elect Biden, calling the act sedition, in reality many of those who participated may only be legally guilty of trespassing (though there may be a stronger case against some particular individuals who may be charged with seditious conspiracy and assaulting police). Even for the president, and many in Congress who spread lies about the election and stoked the crowd before the riot, it isn’t abundantly clear they can be held legally responsible. Legally speaking, was the president and his supporters in Congress only practicing their First Amendment right to free speech or were they participating in an attempted coup? Again, legally it is complicated with many precedents setting a high bar to prove such charges in court.

But a legal determination is only one way of evaluating the situation. For example, in addressing whether the attack constitutes domestic terrorism, a recent Vox article points out, “It’s useful to think about terrorism as three different things: a tactic, a legal term, and a political label.” In each case the application of the term requires paying attention to different contexts and points of interest. Morally speaking, we will each have to determine how we believe the events of this week should be characterized. But, as a moral declaration how do we make such determinations? Outside of mere political rhetoric, when does it become appropriate to label someone a “fascist”? At what point does a protest become a “coup attempt”? Should we call the people who stormed the Capitol “terrorists,” “insurrectionists,” “protestors,” or as others have called them, “patriots”? Were Trump and his supporters merely expressing grievances over an election that many of them genuinely believe was fraudulent?

One way of trying to come to a justified determination is to compare the situation to similar examples from the past. Case-based reasoning, or casuistry, may be helpful in such situations because it allows us to compare this case to other cases to discover commonality. But what cases should one choose to compare it with? For example, is what happened on the 6th similar to Napoleon storming the French legislature? Napoleon arranged a special session and used bribery, propaganda, and intimidation to get the legislature to put him in charge and then cleared them out by force when they refused to step aside. Or is this case more similar to the crisis in Bolivia? International scholars have been divided over whether that was a coup or a popular uprising following assertions of a rigged election.

Unfortunately, such reasoning is problematic because it all depends on which elements we choose to emphasize and which similarities and differences we think most relevant. Do we focus on the fact that many of these people were armed? Do we focus on the political rhetoric compared to other coups? Does it matter whether the crowd had a coherent plan? It’s worth pointing out that Republican supporters and Trump supporters won’t necessarily make the same connections. 68% of Republicans do not believe the storming of the Capitol was a threat to democracy. 45% of Republicans even approve storming the Capitol. As YouGov points out, “the partisan difference in support could be down to differing perceptions of the nature of the protests.” Thus, comparing this case to others is problematic because cases like this do not come with a label, thus making it easy to make comparisons that are politically motivated and logically circular rather than being morally justified. As G.E. Moore noted “casuistry is the goal of ethical investigation. It cannot be safely attempted at the beginning of our studies, but only at the end.”

What alternative is there to comparing cases? One could assert a principle stating necessary and sufficient conditions. For example, if X acts in a way that encourages or causes the government from being unable to fulfill its functions, X is engaging in a coup. The problem with these principles, just like casuistry, is the temptation to engage in circular reasoning. One must describe the situation in just such a way for the principle to apply. Perhaps the answer is not to focus on what happened, but on the threat that still may exist and take an inductive risk strategy. Even if the benefit of historical hindsight may one day lead us to say otherwise, we may be justified in asserting that the attack was an attempted coup because of the extremely high risks of getting it wrong. This requires us to be forward-looking to future dangers rather than focusing on past cases.

In other words, given the possible grave threat it may be morally justified to potentially overreact to a possibly false belief in order to prevent something bad from happening. By the same token, a Trump supporter who believes that the election was rigged (but is ultimately committed to democracy despite their mistaken beliefs) would be in a worse position for underreacting to an attempted coup if they are wrong about the election and about Trump’s intentions. Such judgments require a careful appraisal of available evidence compared to future possible risks of action or inaction. However, given that the population overall does not see this situation in the same light, the need for having clear reasons, standards, and justifications which can be understood and appreciated by all sides becomes all the more important.

Under Discussion: Dog Whistles, Implicatures, and “Law and Order”

image of someone whispering in an ear

This piece completes our Under Discussion series. To read more about this week’s topic and see more pieces from this series visit Under Discussion: Law and Order.

For the last several days, The Prindle Post has explored the concept of “law and order” from multiple philosophical and historical angles; I now want to think about the phrase itself — that is, I want to think about what is meant when the words ‘law and order’ appear in a speech or conversation.

On its face, ‘law and order’ is a term that simply denotes whether or not a particular set of laws are, in general, being obeyed. In this way, politicians or police officers who reference ‘law and order’ are simply trying to talk about a relatively calm public state of affairs where the official operating procedures of society are functioning smoothly. Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean that ‘law and order’ is always a good thing: by definition, acts of civil disobedience against unjust laws violate ‘law and order,’ but such acts can indeed be morally justified nonetheless (for more, see Rachel Robison-Greene’s recent discussion here of “substantive” justice). However, on the whole, it can be easy to think that public appeals to ‘law and order’ are simply invoking a desirable state of peace.

But the funny thing about our terminology is how often we say one thing, but mean something else.

Consider the previous sentence: I said the word ‘funny,’ but do I mean that our terminology is designed to provoke laughter (or is humorous in other ways)? Certainly not! In this case, I’m speaking ironically to sarcastically imply not only that our linguistic situation is more complicated than simple appearances, but that the complexity of language is actually no secret.

The says/means distinction is, more or less, the difference between semantics (what is said by a speaker) and pragmatics (what that speaker actually means). Often, straightforward speech acts mean precisely what a speaker says: if I ask you where to find my keys and you say “your keys are the table,” what you have said and what you mean are roughly the same thing (namely, that my keys are on the table). However, if you instead say “your keys are right where you left them,” you are responding with information about my keys (such as that they are on the table), but you also probably mean to communicate something additional like “…and you should already know where they are, dummy!”

When a speaker uses language to implicitly mean something that they don’t explicitly say, this is what the philosopher H.P. Grice called an implicature. Sarcasm and ironic statements are a few paradigmatic examples, but many other kinds of figures of speech (such as hyperbole, understatement, metaphor, and more) function along the same lines. But, regardless, all implicatures function by communicating what they actually mean in a way that requires (at least a little) more analysis than simply reading how they appear on their face.

In recent years, law professors like Ian Haney López and philosophers like Jennifer Saul have identified another kind of implicature that explicitly says something innocuous, but that implicitly means something different to a subset of the general audience. Called “dog whistles” (after the high-pitched tools that can’t be heard by the human ear), these linguistic artifacts operate almost like code words that are heard by everyone, but are only fully understood by people who understand the code. I say “almost” like code words because one important thing about a dog whistle is that, on its face, its meaning is perfectly plain in a way that doesn’t arouse suspicion of anything tricky happening; that is, everyone — whether or not they actually know the “code” — believes that they fully understand what the speaker means. However, to the speaker’s intended clique, the dog whistle also communicates a secondary message surreptitiously, smuggling an implicated meaning underneath the sentence’s basic semantics. This also means that dog whistles are frustratingly difficult to counter: if one speaker uses a dog whistle that communicates something sneaky and another speaker draws attention to the implicated meaning, the first speaker can easily deny the implicature by simply referencing the explicit content of the original utterance as what they really meant.

Use of dog whistles to implicitly communicate racist motivations in government policy (without explicitly uttering any slurs) was, infamously, a political tactic deployed as a part of the Republican “Southern strategy” in the late 20th century (for more on this, see Evan Butts’ recent article). As Republican strategist (and member of the Reagan administration) Lee Atwater explained in a 1981 interview:

“You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘[n-word], [n-word], [n-word].’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘[n-word]’—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.…”

Of course, terms like ‘forced busing’ and ‘states’ rights’ are, on their faces, concepts that are not necessarily associated with race, but because they refer to things that just so happen, in reality, to have clearly racist byproducts or outcomes —  and because Atwater’s intended audience (Republican voters) knew this to be so — the terms are dog whistles for the same kind of racism indicated by the n-word. When a politician defended ‘forced busing’ or when a Confederate apologist references ‘states’ rights,’ they might be saying something about education policy or the Civil War, but they mean to communicate something much more nefarious.

Exactly what a dog whistle secretly communicates is still up for debate. In many cases, it seems like dog whistles are used to indicate a speaker’s allegiance to (or at least familiarity with) a particular social group (as when politicians signal to prospective voters and interest groups). But other dog whistles seem to signal a speaker’s commitment (either politically or sincerely) to an ideology or worldview and thereby frame a speaker’s comments as a whole from within the perspective of that ideology. Also, ideological dog whistles can trigger emotional and other affective responses in an audience who shares that ideology: this seems to be the motivation, for example, of Atwater’s racist dog whistles (as well as more contemporary examples like ‘welfare,’ ‘inner city,’ ‘suburban housewife,’ and ‘cosmopolitan elites’). Perhaps most surprisingly, ideological dog whistles might even work to communicate or trigger ideological responses without the audience (and, more controversially, perhaps even without the speaker) being conscious of their operation: a racist might dog whistle to other racists without any of them explicitly noticing that their racist ideology is being communicated.

This is all to say that the phrase ‘law and order’ seems to qualify as a dog whistle for racist ideology. While, on its face, the semantic meaning of ‘law and order’ is fairly straightforward, the phrase also has a demonstrable track record of association with racist policies and byproducts, from stop-and-frisk to the Wars on Drugs and Crime to resistance against the Civil Rights Movement and more. Particularly in a year marked by massive demonstrations of civil disobedience against racist police brutality, politicians invoking ‘law and order’ will inevitably trigger audience responses relative to their opinions about things like the Black Lives Matter protests and other recent examples of civil unrest (particularly when, as Meredith McFadden explains, the phrase is directly used to criticize the protests themselves). And, crucially, all of this can happen unconsciously in a conversation (via what Saul has called “covert unintentional dog whistles”) given the role of our ideological perspectives in shaping how we understand and discuss the world.

So, in short, the ways we do things with words are not only interesting and complex, but can work to maintain demonstrably unethical perspectives in both others and ourselves. Not only should we work to explicitly counteract the implicated claims and perspectives of harmful dog whistles in our public discourse, but we should consider our own words carefully to make sure that we always mean precisely what we think we do.

Retweets, Endorsements, and Indirect Speech Acts

image of retweet icon

Over the weekend, President Trump engaged in a rare retraction, deleting a retweet of a video of pro-Trump protesters at a Florida retirement village. Midway through this video, a man in a golf cart sporting ‘Trump 2020’ and ‘America First’ placards, raises his fist and clearly shouts ‘white power’ at a group of anti-Trump protesters. The retweet stayed up for around three hours on Saturday morning, before it was taken down after uproar. In subsequent statements, the White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany has tried to maintain both that the 45th president of the United States watched the video before retweeting, and that he nonetheless didn’t hear the slogan shouted in the middle of the video. We might find this is a little difficult to believe, given his record of sharing white supremacist slogans and iconography.

Setting to one side the question of whether the president actually watched the video before sharing it, this example opens up a more general question: when should one be held responsible for one’s retweets? Is it possible to hide behind the defense that a retweet involves someone else speaking (and in this case making a white supremacist hand gesture), or does retweeting involve repeating what someone else has said, meaning that a retweeter can be held just as responsible as the original poster?

One way to make sense of our responsibilities for sharing other peoples’ words is to deny that there is an important distinction between tweeting and retweeting. On this view, when we share other people’s words, we make them our own, meaning that we put our credibility behind them, express belief in them, and take responsibility for them.

This view faces a number of problems.

The Oxford philosopher G.E. Moore observed that it is absurd to make a claim while denying that one believes that claim. The sentence ‘I went to the park yesterday, but I don’t believe that I did’ is perfectly grammatical, but it is a very strange thing to say. Explanation of so-called Moorean sentences differ, but almost everyone agrees that uttering a Moorean sentence is a strange thing to do. By contrast, it is perfectly possible to retweet an article with the comment that you don’t believe its headline claim. Here’s an example:

(To be clear, I don’t have any strong views about the number of bikes sold, and cycling weekly is a reputable source: this is just an example.) Relatedly, there is a whole genre of tweets in which a fact checker retweets an article or picture, along with a claim that the article is false.


If retweeting were equivalent to tweeting, this genre of debunking tweet would involve making a claim and denying it. This wouldn’t be just absurd: it is a flat out contradiction.

Retweets that involve promises, requests, or questions similarly don’t behave like tweets. If you tweet a promise to your partner to clean your house every day in August, and I retweet it, I haven’t thereby promised to clean your flat too!

These differences suggest that we ought to draw a pretty clear distinction between tweeting and retweeting.

A natural strategy in thinking about kinds of online communication is to look for features of offline communication that have similar features. There are two offline devices of communication that are good candidates for making sense of retweets: quotation and pointing.

In a recent paper Neri Marsili explores the view that retweets function like quotation. This view take the original format of retweets — a sentence prefaced by ‘RT’ — seriously and claims that retweeting is like putting quotation marks round a sentence and saying so-and-so said: […]. This view can deal with retweeting with a comment by treating it as a quotation embedded into a longer sentence. It is perfectly reasonable for you to say “Josh said that he went to the park yesterday, but I don’t believe that he did,” or “Josh said that he went to the park yesterday, but he didn’t.”

The problem with this view comes from the diversity of retweets. Besides retweets of sentences, we also find retweets of pictures, gifs, polls, and videos. Unlike sentences, gifs and the like aren’t the kinds of things that one can put in quotation marks, so this view can’t be correct.

An alternative view, suggested by Jessica Pepp, Eliot Michaelson, and Rachel Sterken (and ultimately endorsed by Marsili) treats retweeting as akin to pointing. Pointing is an extremely common and flexible referential device associated with words like ‘this’ and ‘that’. By itself, it can function as a device for directing attention. If we were on a walk together, I might stop and point to draw your attention to an interesting bird. We can also use it to make claims about the world (“that [points] is a very ugly chair”), to answer questions (“which student cheated on the test?”), and even to make commands (“give me that [points]!”). One piece of evidence for this view is the fact that is extremely natural to use ‘this’ and ‘that’ with retweets; in fact some tweets are simply labelled with an imperious ‘THIS’.

The proposal is that retweets function like pointing, with the comments functioning like the sentence that refers to the object pointed towards. On this view, disbelieving and debunking retweets work a bit like the sentences “I don’t believe this [points]” and “this [points] is false” which are clearly reasonable sentences.

So far, we’ve got a bit clearer on how to think about what kind of communicative action retweeting is, but we haven’t yet addressed the issue of responsibility for retweeting. On the view under consideration, a plain retweet is purely referential; it’s like pointing to a bird whilst on a walk to draw others’ attention to it. Retweets with comments may clarify whether the speaker means to endorse the retweeted comment, but merely retweeting doesn’t clarify whether one has endorsed the claim.

Here we can bring in another piece of philosophical technology: indirect speech acts. Indirect speech acts involve performing one direct communicative acts as a means to performing another indirect act. For example, directly asking the question “do we have any beer in the fridge?” might involve indirectly making a request for you to get me a beer. Indirect speech acts are highly conventionalized and context-sensitive. If I’m clearly drawing up a shopping list, asking “do we have any beer in the fridge?” will probably function as a straight question (unless I have a habit of drinking a beer while writing lists).

The suggestion is that retweeting can involve two distinct speech acts: a direct referential act and an indirect act of endorsement. We might think about retweeting an article in order to endorse it as being a little bit like opening a newspaper on an interesting article and leaving it in the spot where your partner goes to have their morning coffee.

Frustratingly, this means that there is no easy answer to the question of what responsibility we bear for retweets. As we’ve just seen, indirect speech acts are highly context-dependent. There may be some internet communities where the conventions around retweeting involve strong endorsement. If I share an article about a new treatment for COVID-19 into a Facebook group for medical professionals, I might be endorsing both the headline claim of the article, and the supplementary claims it makes. By contrast, if I share an article about the performance benefits of a new Nike running shoe into a running group that habitually shares different studies, and where it is common knowledge that these studies are based on shaky science, I might merely be drawing attention to a new piece of information.

What happens when a communicative situation lacks clear norms about the significance of retweeting? Well, things get messy. One person might retweet a controversial article meaning to call attention to its argument, and be interpreted as endorsing it wholesale. Another person might share a picture of a protest meaning to endorse the cause of the protesters, and be interpreted as mocking or belittling them. In this kind of situation, context collapse is rife, and it becomes difficult to rely on shared presuppositions and conventions about communication.

In this defective speech situation, it is extremely difficult to make sense of which indirect speech acts we are performing. When we hold one another responsible for indirect speech acts associated with retweets, we are not implementing established norms for indirect communication, we are trying to create conventions for indirect communication based on sharing content online.

What kinds of conventions do we want to have? Regina Rini suggests that we ought to have a convention whereby retweeting conveys endorsement of the central claims in a retweeted article, accompanied by robust practices of holding users accountable for what they share. An alternative convention would be that retweeting doesn’t convey endorsement of any of the claims in an article (perhaps it merely conveys that something is interesting), in which case we could hold one another to much lower standards. A third possibility is to have a bundle of different conventions for different situations. Maybe the context of political speech involves endorsement of all claims and robust accountability, and contexts of private speech are much more relaxed. This conclusion is unsatisfying, but it does help clarify what is at stake in debates about retweets: we aren’t trying to describe independent and general conventions, but to create linguistic communities that can meet our intellectual needs.

How Words Translate to Action: The Ramifications of Trump’s Rhetoric

photograph of packed arena at Trump rally

“[The coronavirus] has more names than any disease in history,” President Donald Trump said at a campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma on Saturday. “I can name kung flu. I can name 19 different versions of names.”

Saturday’s rally was not the first time Trump used racist rhetoric to divert criticisms toward his administration for its mishandling of the coronavirus crisis. Since March, the president has cast China as the “invisible enemy” and bragged about his early ban on Chinese travelers in almost every public appearance. In addition, he repeatedly used the phrase “the Chinese virus” despite concerns from public health experts, and again referred to the coronavirus as “the China virus” in a self-congratulatory tweet in May.

Critics of Trump have argued that his words have contributed to the rise of hate crimes against Asian Americans. From March to April, the New York Police Department documented 25 hate crimes against Asian Americans, marking a stark increase from a total of 3 incidents in 2019. Meanwhile, STOP AAPI HATE — a database that San Francisco State University and Asian advocacy groups created in late March — has recorded more than 1,700 incidents ranging from verbal assaults to stabbing. Still, the president has defended that his words have been anything but racist: “It’s from China. That’s why. It comes from China. I want to be accurate,” he said at a press briefing. How could have his words have translated into real hateful and discriminatory actions?

Although the president argues that he only intended to convey his disapproval of China’s pandemic response, literature on the philosophy of language elucidates the connection between Trump’s words and hateful actions. With the benefit of hindsight, we can study such language — and the phrase “the Chinese virus” in particular — and learn how to respond to similar rhetorical moves as the president escalates his attacks on China and on other minorities.

When Trump justified the phrase “the Chinese virus” in March, he took advantage of the vagueness of language. Compound nouns — like “spa water,” “arm pillow” and the “Chinese virus” — are ambiguous, because the relationship between the two nouns, like “spa” and “water,” is unclear. Although Trump claimed he meant that the disease originates from China, “the Chinese virus” could also signify ‘a virus carried by Chinese people’ or ‘a virus of Chinese people.’ The president acted as if the intention of the speaker — which he promised was not racist — controls how words are understood.

Contrary to Trump’s defense, however, many philosophers of language argue that the meaning and effect of words are also governed by how they are used in society. Of course, in regular conversations, words communicate a speaker’s transparent intent. However, should Trump’s press conferences and tweets — or any politician’s speech for that effect — considered to be in context of a typical conversation? Often in political discourse, words affirm belief systems and the communal practices in which they are embedded.

Specifically, when one uses words that have been shaped by social practices, one legitimizes the connotations and value systems attached to them. One can insist that they only meant the inside of a city when using the phrase “inner city,” but the racist ideology associated with that term persists nevertheless. “There are tools like a hammer or a screwdriver which can be used by one person; and there are tools like a steamship which require the cooperative activity of a number of persons to use,” philosopher Hilary Putnam writes in his paper the Meaning of “Meaning.” “Words have been thought too much on the model of the first sort of tool.”

Philosopher Lynne Tirrell offers a relevant example in her 2012 paper Genocidal Language Games. According to Tirrell, for years preceding the Rwandan genocide, the Hutu majority called their Tutsi counterparts “cockroaches (inyenzi)” and “snakes (inkoza).” These were mindless slurs at first, Tirrell explains, intended to insult an individual rather than to convey the ethnic inferiority of the Tutsis. But these words were said in the context of a culture where snakes are public health dangers and cutting the heads of snakes is considered a rite of passage into manhood. When the conflict between the two groups intensified, these slurs helped connect murdering the Tutsis to a celebrated act of killing snakes. In retrospect, a Hutu calling his Tutsi neighbor a “snake” or “cockroach” was participating a linguistic practice embedded in ethnic discrimination and legitimizing hatred toward the Tutsis. “What we do with our speech acts often outstrips our own mastery, and in cases in which the social functions of speech have been co-opted, we can see that participants might not see the full scope of the games that they are playing,” Tirrell explains.

Tirrell’s account of the Rwandan genocide is instructive not because Asian Americans are at the risk of getting massacred, but because it illuminates how words can activate longstanding discriminatory sentiments and help authorize actions. Like the insults hurled against the Tutsis, Trump’s attacks on China are embedded in the context of oppression against minorities. His administration’s nativist agenda has rekindled centuries of discrimination against Asian Americans, dating from the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

In addition, the phrase “the Chinese virus” draws on a history of nativist attempts to scapegoat immigrants about public health. During a smallpox outbreak in 1900, the government exclusively imposed a quarantine on San Francisco’s Chinatown and called it a “laboratory of infection.” In English, metaphors are often used to compare a nation to a body — such as “head of state,” “body politic” and “arm of the government” — and Trump has frequently equated immigrants to an illness penetrating it. They bring “tremendous infectious disease,” “communicable disease” and a “tremendous medical problem coming into a country,” Trump has said.

“Like the ordinary farmer in Rwanda who did not think that calling his Tutsi neighbors ‘snakes’ and ‘cockroaches’ would help authorize the killing of his neighbors, people who repeat the phrase ‘the Chinese virus’ may not realize its pernicious impact,” Tirrell explains. “I don’t think we should assume that there is a war planned against the Chinese in America but I do think that it sows the seeds of discrimination by connecting Chinese people with the virus.”

By rebaptizing the coronavirus as “the Chinese virus” with the authority of a president and insisting on the phrase, Trump has affirmed the racist and anti-immigrant narratives behind it. Calling coronavirus “the Chinese virus” had the effect of connecting practices one would take against the spreaders of a deadly virus — such as shunning them, kicking them out and even attacking them — to those who appear Chinese. One might argue that this rhetoric convinced people to rationalize discriminatory and hateful actions against Asians as fighting the virus.

The power of words can seem mysterious and insignificant, particularly in light of a rapidly spreading disease that has taken more than a hundred thousand lives. However, literature on the philosophy of language shows that words do make things happen. Though Trump’s coronavirus rhetoric cannot — and most definitely should not — be censored, we must acknowledge and discuss the damages inflicted by his anti-Chinese narrative.

Figleaves, Bothsidesing, and the Ethics of Implication

cartoon image of group of confused people

This is an article about the Plandemic video that made waves online at the beginning of May, but, before I can say what I mean to say about it (and how people have interacted with it online), we need to talk about a little philosophy of language.

Imagine that we’re walking down the street one evening when we pass by a panhandler asking for change. After another few minutes, I say, “Did you see that fellow on the corner back there? Do you think anyone would notice if he went…missing?” Hopefully, you’d be both surprised and troubled to discover that such thoughts were on my mind. Moreover, those concerns would not be dispelled if I continued by saying, “What? I’m not saying that we should kill anyone! I was only asking questions! What’s the big deal with that?”

When thinking about how people communicate their ideas to each other, philosophers of language often make a principled distinction between the semantics and the pragmatics of a sentence. The former (which is sometimes called the sentence’s “propositional content”) is simply a matter of how the words in a sentence are defined and what they mean when combined together, while the latter is determined by how a speaker in a given context intends that sentence to be understood by an audience. Put differently, the semantic content of a sentence is “what is said” by a speaker, while the sentence’s pragmatics are a matter of “what is meant” by the speaker.

Often, a sentence’s semantic and pragmatic meanings are the same thing: when I tell  you “Many apples are red,” I mean to communicate simply that many of the pieces of fruit we both know to be apples are colored red. So, of course, the more interesting cases are when these two things come apart: let’s say that you ask me whether or not I’m planning to attend a party that our mutual friend is hosting and I reply with the sentence “I have to work that night.” Technically, the semantics of my reply only mean “I am expected to work a shift at my job on that night,” but, in context, I am still clearly answering your question—even though I didn’t say “No, I can’t go to the party,” that is what I meant, nevertheless.

In his essay “Logic and Conversation,” H.P. Grice used the term ‘implicature’ to describe this curious (and common) feature of how we communicate. In unpacking several different kinds of implicatures, Grice pointed out that they can take many forms. Imagine that you’re hiring someone for a job and receive a reference letter that simply says “Mr. X’s command of English is excellent, and his attendance at tutorials has been regular. Yours, etc.” Even though this letter says only positive things about the applicant, it still clearly means that the letter-writer does not think that Mr. X should get the job (or else the reference letter would be far more substantial and informative). We can even mean things without actually saying anything at all, as when a regular patron in a shop wordlessly places their usual amount of money on the counter and waits for the familiar shopkeeper to hand them their usual purchase.

And implicatures can certainly take the form of questions, too. Imagine I’m walking towards the kitchen and you ask me “Do we have beer in the fridge?” If I simply answer “Yes,” I will have responded fairly to the semantics of your question, even while likely ignoring the pragmatic reasons that you had for asking it (namely: you would like me to bring you a bottle). Or think about someone asking you “Are you really planning on wearing that outfit tonight?”—although the question alone might seem to seek a yes/no answer, it also implicates that the questioner already has a strong opinion about your outfit.

So, a question like “Do you think anyone would notice if that person went missing?” might, on the semantic level, be relatively boring—it’s just a question about the number of people who might notice if the panhandler was no longer around. But, depending on what I mean by asking it (that is, what my pragmatic intentions are), this question could cover a wide range of other interpretations, many of which could be terrible. Notably, my saying “I’m just asking questions!” does nothing to negate the operation of this sort of implicature – what I’m saying is just a question, but what I mean by the question is what really matters.

It’s true that Gricean implicatures are “cancellable,” by which Grice meant that we can clarify what we mean by what we say in a way that explicitly clarifies what we’re trying to communicate. Consider if my initial question about the panhandler instead went like this: “This might sound odd, but do you think anyone would notice if that panhandler went missing? I’m not saying that they should go missing! I’m just wondering if people would care.” Such a construction doesn’t seem problematic at all – the potentially concerning implicature (which could suggest that I was thinking of myself causing him to go missing) was cancelled by me making my meaning explicit.

Simply saying “it’s just a question,” however, is insufficient to actually cancel the implicature; instead, such a phrase functions like what Jennifer Saul has called a “figleaf” by merely “providing a bit of cover for something that is unacceptable to display in public.” Figleaves are like a conversational distraction that purport to shield a speaker from responsibility for what they say: Saul offers the example of someone saying “I’m not racist, but…” before going on to express something racist—the “I’m not racist” figleaf might make it seem (to some) like the speaker has done nothing blameworthy without actually excusing or addressing the problem of the subsequent racist expression. In a similar way, saying “It’s just a question” might make it seem like a question’s implicature is being cancelled without genuinely clarifying or correcting what the speaker really means.

And the ethics of this kind of speech can be important to consider. At their core, manipulative conversational moves like gaslighting and sealioning can both be fueled by seemingly-innocent questions that mask exploitative (or otherwise immoral) implicatures. Imagine an abusive boyfriend trying to twist his girlfriend’s emotions by perpetually questioning her memories and perceptions: not only is this boyfriend doing something wrong, but it is likewise wrong to pretend like he is innocent simply because he’s “just asking questions.” Furthermore, reckless usage of this kind of figleaf can easily contribute to manifestations of the Dunning-Kruger effect (where someone incorrectly believes themselves to be more knowledgeable about a topic than they actually are): if experts agree that a certain course of action is best, my self-confidence to criticize their consensus by asking probing questions suggests that I consider myself equally informed on the matter. So, even in conversations where the main victim is the truth of the matter, we have reasons to be suspicious that a figleaf like “I’m just asking questions” sufficiently covers one’s epistemic obligations to be clear.

In the case of the Plandemic video, the creators repeatedly question numerous elements of the nature, origin, and significance of the coronavirus pandemic, as well as the motivations of figures like Anthony Fauci and Bill Gates. Repeatedly throughout the 26-minute production, both the host and the interviewee cast doubt on the general consensus that the pandemic is both real and significant, often by asking questions that suggest nefarious (though unstated) answers. For example: towards the beginning of the video, the interviewer asks “How can a man [Fauci] who’s giving—any person who’s giving global advice for health own a patent in the solution of the vaccine?” While this certainly suggests that Fauci’s expert opinion has been corrupted by his financial interests, it does not explicitly say this, nor does the interviewer’s response (which simply names it a “conflict of interest”) fully capture the immorality implicated of Fauci by the question. Similarly to how the fallacy of the loaded (or “complex”) question can rhetorically force an interlocutor into a hopelessly bad-looking conversational position, Plandemic repeatedly deploys such tricks to suggest that competing sources of information are not to be trusted. Despite its idiosyncratic posture, Plandemic paints itself as though it is on an epistemic par with (or even superior to) the public position, simply by self-confidently presuming it has the evidential authority to ask the questions that it asks.

And when it comes to the online response to Plandemic, the same problem recurs. When someone defends their choice to share a link to the video on their social media feed by saying “I’m just asking questions,” this sort of figleaf hides their assumed belief that they have the background knowledge necessary to ensure that the questions being asked are relevant and fair. (Obviously, everyone has the political right to ask questions, but that is different from the epistemic right to do so, which requires an informed understanding of the matter up for debate.) Brute “bothsideism” is unhelpful enough for creating a respectful, functioning political system; it is even worse for people trying to understand what others actually mean to say.

Military Operations and Questions of Collective Responsibility

photograph of soldiers in uniform saluting

On January 3, while at a ceremony for Evangelical Christians in Miami, Donald Trump announced the execution of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, saying “…he was planning a very major attack and we got him.”

Two days later, multiple news outlets reported that the United States will be deploying roughly 3000 soldiers to the Middle East in response to escalating tensions, with possibly several thousand more to follow.

On Tuesday, several hours before Iran attacked an Iraqi military base housing US troops, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper told CNN that “We are not looking to start a war with Iran, but we are prepared to finish one.”

Although Trump and Esper are clearly referring to groups of people when they say “we” have done (or will do) such things, it is far from clear exactly who they understand to comprise those groups. Is “[the military] prepared to finish a war with Iran” or does Esper mean “[the American people]”?

Similarly, attributing responsibility to collective nouns like “the United States” is vague – what portion of US citizens, for example, made the decision to deploy troops overseas? Clearly, since citizens do not directly vote on either federal or military operations, such a question is confused in several ways. So, perhaps, “the US” should be understood as an abstract concept along the lines of “a nation-state that is different than the sum of its parts” with some individual or sub-group (like “the government”) responsible for making practical decisions.

This is a small example of what philosophers call “The Problem of Collective Responsibility.” Many considerations of the nature of blameworthiness are interested in questions of individual culpability – “what do I deserve as a consequence of my own actions?” However, some philosophers have suggested that collections of agents can be viewed as culpable (or innocent), such as hate groups or terrorist organizations – however, this raises a host of questions. Transferring between group-based blame and individual culpability is tricky (if one soldier commits a war crime, should his entire unit be held responsible for them?). Internal disagreement within a group seems problematic as well (is it right to hold a full group responsible for something if 62% of the less-powerful individuals in the group disagreed with the decision? What if only 43% protested?)

Nevertheless, collective-responsibility models are not without precedent. For centuries, the just war tradition has relied on distinctions between “combatants” and “non-combatants” to codify its rules for jus in bello; consider the statement released on Sunday by Hezbollah threatening all US military agents that also explicitly stated how US civilians should not be targeted.

So, consider the soundbite “We got him” – who is the “we” actually responsible for killing Soleimani? Multiple interpretations of Trump’s term “we” seem possible:

  1. The individual pilots of the drone that killed Soleimani,
  2. The military unit engaged in the attack,
  3. The military unit and its line of commanding officers (up to and including the Commander-in-Chief),
  4. The US military as a whole,
  5. The US military and the US government as wholes,
  6. The collective citizenry of the US,
  7. The nation-state of the US (as an abstract concept),
  8. The particular group of people in Miami where Trump was delivering his speech.

And this list could go on.

By saying “we” (as opposed to “they”), Trump includes himself in the responsible group, ruling out options 1 and 2. It seems like option 8 could also easily be rejected, but it also seems reasonable to think that Trump was attempting to include his audience in his celebration, at least in part, thereby ruling out options 3, 4, and 5.

If Trump means “[the United States as a collection of citizens] got him” (that is, if he means option 6), then he’s attributing responsibility for Soleimani’s death to millions of people (including children) who have never heard of Soleimani, have never voted, and – in many cases – would explicitly reject such an operation if they had the option to do so. Each of these outcomes seems, at best, odd.

So, at this point, option 7 – the “US as an abstract concept” choice – appears to be the least problematic. Admittedly, this is the sort of tactic we take in other contexts to explain how group identities remain constant over time, even as group membership fluctuates (the 1997 Colorado Rockies and the 2019 Colorado Rockies are, in some sense, the same baseball team, despite no player from the 90s remaining on the roster). But abstract constructs cannot be held morally responsible – only individuals can! If every member of the 1997 Rockies were found to have been using steroids throughout their season, it would be unjust to punish the 2019 Rockies because the individuals are different. If people cannot be blamed in this way, then it seems like they also cannot be praised in this way, leaving Trump’s “we” to be puzzling once more.

Collective responsibility problems are messy and far from intuitively obvious. This point is always useful to remember when listening to representatives of organizations or governments, but it is especially important when war drums are starting to beat.

Is This an Emergency?: Why Language Matters

image of emergency road sign

Last September, the UN Secretary General António Guterres delivered an address on climate change, calling it a ‘climate emergency’ echoing the terminology employed by the prominent climate scientist Prof Hans Joachim Schellnhuber.

The language we use matters a great deal; and itself has ethical implications.

Given the severity of the situation: warnings coming from a raft of recent reports from agencies such as the IPCC and the UN, have scientists sounding the alarm that human society is in jeopardy from the heating atmosphere, the accelerating decline of the Earth’s natural life-support systems, and other forms of ecological destruction, it is manifestly necessary to speak about the situation with an appropriate level of alarm and urgency.

There is a concern that the media have, for decades, failed to adequately report the dangers of greenhouse emissions and the scale of their increase. In fact it seems clear that some of the mainstream media – primarily right-wing and conservative presses – have been chronically under-reporting on the dangers of climate change while deliberately subverting the problem with skeptical reporting.

Many governments have been treating the issue with the same mixture of obfuscation and ignorance. In the past several years some have become much worse, notably America under Trump and the Australian government now under Scott Morrison. Morrison, recently responded to the impassioned speech given to the UN Climate Conference by Greta Thunberg by saying that “the climate change debate is subjecting Australian children to “needless anxiety.”

The first ethical implication of language choice is about truth. If we have any hope of addressing this issue, then the truth must be widely, openly, and adequately acknowledged.

It is the responsibility of government, in its role as sovereign state, to inform its citizens. Democratic governments have this responsibility in virtue of the fact that the people are needed in order to grant authority legitimacy. To function in this role, citizens must have the relevant knowledge to choose the right candidates and correctly instruct them in how to serve the community. (A free press has a democratic responsibility in this regard as well. A free press is only free when its agenda is not set by special interests.)

Recently, The Guardian made a decision about changing some of the language it uses to report on the climate and ecological emergency, introducing: “terms that more accurately describe the environmental crises facing the world.” Instead of “climate change” the new terms are “climate emergency, crisis or breakdown” and “global heating” is favored over “global warming.”

We’ve used the term ‘climate change’ for several decades in reference to what is also often called ‘global warming,’ or sometimes ‘the greenhouse effect.’ But, to many, this terminology makes the problem sounds like a gradual, natural, and passive event. But in reality we are now using it to denote something that has been caused and is rapidly being accelerated by human actions – so is neither gradual, nor natural.

António Guterres told the gathering of leaders in September 2018: “We face a direct existential threat,” adding that we have until 2020 to change our behavior or “we risk missing the point where we can avoid runaway climate change, with disastrous consequences for people and all the natural systems that sustain us.” Given that this is the case, the language of crisis and emergency is not alarmist – it is warranted and necessary.

Professor Richard Betts, of Britain’s meteorological monitoring organization, has called for a change from ‘global warming’, which many have also noted sounds rather too benign, to ‘global heating’ which more accurately reflects the reality of what is happening.

Future life on Earth and future and present human society is now in serious jeopardy. With so little time left to turn the situation around, we are going to have to start acting like it is an emergency, but complacency is still rife, and it is now the greatest barrier to urgent change.

Language has been part of the complacency, and changing the language we use is necessary for action. To combat the problem, we first need to understand our situation, and to do so we must be able to name it. We also need to reorient ourselves in the way we talk about our current predicament to reflect the fact that the effects of climate change are happening now.

The outcomes will be so bad that there is no other mode to adopt than emergency-mode if we are to mobilize in time, and our language needs to reflect that. We can talk about ‘climate change’ and then turn back to topics of ordinary life – we can drift away from ‘climate change.’ But we cannot as easily drift away from an emergency. Once you start talking about an emergency, about breakdown and collapse, then it is much harder to turn away. We are in a crucial moment – a window of opportunity, a vanishing window, we can ill afford to turn back to other, everyday subjects.

We need for our language to be unequivocal about the seriousness of the situation; to help reduce cognitive dissonance and allow us to conceptually make the connections we need to make in order to act. That is why the question of what we are calling this is a moral question.

The analogy of the burning house, evoked by Thunberg in her speech, is apt here:

The building is on fire, and all occupants need to move very quickly or face serious injury or death. If in that situation I merely say to the occupants something like: “it’s getting warmer in here” instead of something more like: “the house is on fire, quick, run for your life!” then I have essentially lied to them through omission and am guilty of moral negligence.

I can say I didn’t at first know it was on fire, or did know but didn’t believe the situation to be serious, it will still be surprising that it has taken so long to reach the conclusion that the building is on fire and we must get out. That is, as soon as one comes to the conclusion that we are in very serious trouble, one immediately wonders how we can possibly be in such serious trouble when we could easily have prevented from becoming a serious problem.

On one view, our language ought to change as the changing situation demands; but one wonders where we might be if our way of talking about the situation (our way of comprehending it) reflected its seriousness from the beginning.

Those are very important questions, and the answers we can provide to them might in the long run have a bearing on our continued survival – but not if we don’t get out of the burning building now.

There seems to be a clear moral duty here for governments, the media, and whoever else is participating in the discussion to tell it like it is – to stop softening the truth. That duty is, I believe, connected with any hope we might have of taking urgent action to mitigate the impending crisis. In one sense our language-choices seems immaterial – this is an emergency, whether we say so or not. But our survival probably depends on our saying so and then acting like we mean it.

Finding New Language to Reimagine Disability

Back in 1994, Sarah Dunant published a collection of essays titled The War of Words: The Political Correctness Debate, and it was met with a great deal of media coverage. A large portion of the country had been moved by a sensitivity to language that could offend or contribute to an undesirable power schema, and this sensitivity had been met with scorn or doubt by another large portion of the country, often along party lines.

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Donald Trump as Anti-Establishment Figure: A Failure of Language

Given the vitriolic tenor that has characterized the 2016 Presidential election, few expected it would end with such silence. By the end of Election Day, what few had expected became a national reality – despite losing the popular vote, Trump had secured the White House with a commanding lead in the Electoral College. What was once unthinkable for many had happened, leaving the country struggling to describe what they had witnessed.

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