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Illocutionary Silencing and Southern Baptist Abuse

black and white photograph of child with hands over mouth, eyes, and ears

Content Warning: this story contains discussions of sexual, institutional, and religious abuse.

On May 22nd, external investigators released an extensive report detailing patterns of corruption and abuse from the leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the largest denomination of Protestant Christianity in the United States. According to the report, Southern Baptist leaders spent decades silencing victims of sexual abuse while ignoring and covering up accusations against hundreds of Southern Baptist ministers, many of whom were allowed to continue in their roles as pastors and preachers at churches around the country. In general, the Executive Committee of the SBC prioritized shielding itself and the denomination from legal liability, rather than care for the scores of people abused at the hands of SBC clergy. But, after years of public condemnations of the Committee’s behavior, church representatives overwhelmingly voted in June to investigate the Executive Committee itself.

To anyone who has not been listening to years worth of testimony from SBC abuse victims, there is much in the SBC report to shock and appall.

But in this article, I want to consider one important reason why so many (beyond just the members of the SBC Executive Committee) ignored that mountain of testimony, even despite prominent awareness campaigns about sexual abuse in religious spaces after the USA gymnastics abuse trial and the #MeToo movement (like #ChurchToo): in short, in addition to the abuse itself, many of the people who chose to come forward and speak about their experiences suffered the additional injustice of what philosophers of language call illocutionary silencing.

In brief, philosophers (in the “speech act theory” tradition) often identify three distinct elements of a given utterance: the literal words spoken (locution), the function of those words as a communicative act (illocution), and the effects that those words have after they are spoken (perlocution). So, to use the cliché example, if I shout “FIRE!” in a crowded theater, we can distinguish between the following components of my speech:

    • Locution: A word referring to the process of (often dangerous) fuel combustion that produces light and heat.
    • Illocution: A warning that the audience of the utterance could be in danger from an   uncontrolled fire.
    • Perlocution: People exit the theater to escape the fire.

In general, interpreting a speech act involves understanding each of these distinct parts of an utterance.

But this means that silencing someone — or “preventing a person from speaking” — can happen in three different ways. Silencing someone overtly, perhaps by forcibly covering their mouth or shouting them down so as to fully prevent them from uttering words, is an example of locutionary silencing, given that it fully stops a speaker from voicing words at all. On the other side, perlocutionary silencing happens when someone is allowed to speak, but other factors beyond the speaker’s control convene to prevent the expected consequences of that speech from occurring: consider, for example, how you can argue in defense of a position without convincing your audience or how you might invite friends to a party which they do not attend.

Illocutionary silencing, then, lies in between these cases and occurs when a speaker successfully utters words, but those words (because of other factors beyond the speaker’s control) fail to perform the function that the speaker intended: as a common phrase from speech act theory puts it,

illocutionary silencing prevents people from doing things with their words.

Consider a case where a severe storm has damaged local roadways and Susie is trying to warn Calvin about a bridge being closed ahead; even if Susie is unhindered in speaking, if Calvin believes that she isn’t being serious (and interprets her utterance as a joke rather than a warning) then Susie will not have warned Calvin, despite her best attempts to do so.

So, consider the pattern of behavior from the SBC towards the hundreds of people who came forward to report their experiences of assault, grooming, and other forms of abuse: according to the recent investigation, decades of attempted reports were met with “resistance, stonewalling, and even outright hostility” from SBC leadership who, in many cases, chose to slander the victims themselves as “‘opportunistic,’ having a ‘hidden agenda of lawsuits,’ wanting to ‘burn things to the ground,’ and acting as a ‘professional victim.’” Sometimes, the insults towards victims were cast as spiritualized warnings, such as when August Boto (a longtime influential member of the SBC’s legal team) labeled abuse reports as “a satanic scheme to completely distract us from evangelism. It is not the gospel. It is not even a part of the gospel. It is a misdirection play…This is the devil being temporarily successful.” To warp the illocutionary force of an abuse report into a demonic temptation is an unusually offensive form of illocutionary silencing that heaps additional coals onto the heads of people already suffering grave injustices.

And, importantly, this kind of silencing shapes discursive environments beyond just the email inboxes of the SBC Executive Committee: a 2018 report from the Public Religion Research Institute found, for example, that only one group of Americans considered “false accusations made about sexual harrassment or assault” to be a bigger social problem than the actual experience of sexual assault itself — White Evangelical Baptists.

In the New Testament, Jesus warns about the dangers of hypocrisy, saying “Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered and nothing secret that will not become known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops” (Luke 12:2-3, NRSVUE). It may well be that, finally, the proclamations by and about the victims of and within the Southern Baptist Convention can be silenced no longer.

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.

Inclusion, Artistic Expression, and the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show

Photograph of two women in dresses and a man on a stage with a Victoria's Secret pink background

On December 3rd, 2018, Victoria’s Secret put on their annual fashion show. Every year the event attracts millions of viewers. The runway-style presentation features popular entertainers and extravagant props, sets, and costumes. Despite the high profile status of the participants, ratings for the event have declined over the years. In 2018, the event produced the lowest ratings in its more than twenty year history.

The 2018 show faced criticism for its lack of commitment to diversity and inclusion and for comments made by the company’s CEO Ed Razek. When asked about potential inclusion of trangender and plus-size models, Razek said:

“If you’re asking if we’ve considered putting a transgender model in the show or looked at putting a plus-size model in the show, we have …It’s like, why doesn’t your show do this? Shouldn’t you have transsexuals in the show? No. No, I don’t think we should. Well, why not? Because the show is a fantasy. It’s a 42-minute entertainment special. That’s what it is. It is the only one of its kind in the world, and any other fashion brand in the world would take it in a minute, including the competitors that are carping at us. And they carp at us because we’re the leader.”

Many viewed these comments as highly insensitive.  

A number of fairly high profile people have responded to this conception of “fantasy” in noteworthy ways. In 2015, androgynous model Rain Dove took to social media to make a point about beauty standards. Dove’s physical appearance does not conform to societal expectations—they have been hired to walk on runways for both male and female fashion lines. Dove took pictures of themself in Victoria’s Secret lingerie, some with pictures of Victoria’s Secret models taped on their face and some without to make the point that beauty, and fashion as art, does not have to comport with a binary understanding of gender.

Since 2016, supermodel Ashley Graham, well known for her activism for the cause of diversity in the fashion industry, has taken to social media to express her view that the Victoria Secret fashion show should be more inclusive. This year, she posted photos from her Ashley Graham for Addition Elle lingerie runway show, which featured models of all shapes and sizes. She included the hashtag, seemingly directed at Victoria’s Secret, #BeautyBeyondSize.

To many, it just seems like good common sense for brands to be more inclusive. Most people don’t look like Victoria Secret models. Human beings come in a range of shapes and sizes and express their identities in different ways. It sure seems as if there is good money to be made by appealing to a broader range of people.

If the issue is considered from the perspective of what would be best for society at large, it seems fairly clear that the public good would be advanced by inclusion. Too many people look in the mirror and hate what they see. Our relationship to our bodies is an existential matter. When that relationship is unhealthy, it can feel that we are trapped in a foreign and uncomfortable space. The hope is that this aspect of people’s lives could be transformed for the better if society stops sending the message that people can love themselves only if the body they occupy is shaped in a particular way.

What’s more, it would just be more convenient if the fashion industry were more inclusive. People would be happier if they knew they could reliably walk into a store and purchase attractive clothing that they would be comfortable wearing. As it is, people from a range of diverse groups must shop online or find specialty stores to meet their needs. This strikes many as discriminatory and unnecessary.

That said, even if we acknowledge all of these points, even if we think that change needs to happen, we still need to figure out how the change should happen, and the case isn’t as morally simple as it may appear. Fashion is a form of art. As we’ve seen, some people object to the way it gets made and to the form that it tends to take. If society objects to a form of art, does the obligation fall on the artist to stop making art of that type? Art can be a form of speech. Presumably, that’s part of the issue with the Victoria’s Secret fashion show—it sends the message that these and only these are the kinds of female bodies that are attractive. In his controversial comments, Razek essentially admitted as much—the fashion show is a fantasy and “Angel” bodies are the bodies worth fantasizing about. We might find that message ugly, but does it follow, then, that Razek should change his message or even quit speaking entirely? We rightly value free speech and freedom of artistic expression. What’s more, the ugly part of the message surely isn’t the only part of the message. Even if fashion shows aren’t your cup of tea, even if you find them objectifying, it’s difficult to deny that beauty of a certain type is being celebrated there. Is it wrong to celebrate that beauty because doing so fails to celebrate other forms of beauty?

There are several options open to consumers who would like to see the fashion industry change. First, people interested in fashion can create their own art—art that is geared toward a more diverse clientele or that is committed to celebrating the beauty of a diverse range of bodies. This suggestion is intuitively appealing, but it’s also important to recognize the incredible difficulty a startup fashion line would have competing with a fashion giant like Victoria’s Secret. Industries and institutions engage in gatekeeping. Those with the power have little interest in sharing it when it doesn’t satisfy their interests to do so. Humans are not unlike other animals in the sense that we engage in sexual competition for mates. We use fashion, in part, to fabricate peacock feathers as a sexual display to potential mates. The fashion industry has tremendous power as the puppeteers guiding the motions of important human interactions. The power players are unlikely to hand over the strings to new people with subversive ideas about how or even why the puppets should move. That said, no artist or set of artists could advance an alternative message if no one tried.

Another, more accessible approach is for consumers to speak with their wallets. Some existing and successful companies are tuning into the fact that there is a not small customer base that would like to see fashion change dramatically. Consumers of all shapes, sizes, and presentations can buy fashion from companies that share their values.

Manslaughter by Text Message

In 2014, Conrad Roy III, an eighteen-year-old resident of Fairhaven, Massachusetts, committed suicide. Roy placed a generator inside the cab of his pickup truck to facilitate the production and inhalation of a lethal amount of carbon monoxide.

In recent months, Roy had expressed to friends and family that he was in a low place mentally.  He shared details about his psychological state with his girlfriend, Michelle Carter.  In a series of text messages and Facebook correspondence over the course of a few weeks, Carter encouraged Roy to end his own life. “I thought you wanted to do this,” she told him, “The time is right and you’re ready, you just need to do it! You can’t keep living this way. You just need to do it like you did last time and not think about it and just do it babe. You can’t keep doing this every day.” When he expressed reservations about going through with it, Carter insisted, “You’re just making it harder on yourself by pushing it off, you just have to do it.”  

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Social Media, Blasphemy, and Protecting People from Speech

The norms of communication on social media are evolving quickly. In the first death penalty case involving social media, a court in Pakistan has sentenced a man to death for blasphemy. Though Taimoor Raza still has appeals remaining that he can avail himself of, this verdict has come days after a college professor was refused bail on charges of blasphemy; the attitude of the state towards such online offenses seems clear.

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