Tag Archives: Language

J. L. Austin versus Sarah Palin

I think that, in light of last weekend’s shooting, Sarah Palin and other organizations using the language of homicide, assassination, and war bear a significant responsibility, not because they are responsible for the shooting itself, but because much of what they have said implies or in fact directly states that they feel that the shooter is justified in acting as he did and that others should do as he did.

J. L. Austin is well-known for having elaborated the idea of the performative utterance. Acts of speaking and writing are utterances, as are many forms of non-verbal communication. Austin points out that many of our acts of communication are intended to do more than convey information: certain utterances count as actions. Take marriage, for example. When someone says “I do” in response to “Do you take so-and-so to be your lawfully wedded…?”, the consequence is that that person has now entered into a relationship that bears with it certain rights and responsibilities. People who have taken a significant other to whom he or she is not married to an emergency room or clinic will have had experience with this. Promising is another case in which a linguistic exchange of a certain┬ákind implies that each party has a right to have certain expectations.

Campaign posters, rallies, web pages, images, and speeches supposedly expressing a political organization’s point of view are performatives in the sense that they are intended to inform the actions of those who count themselves members of the movement or supporters of a particular person or organization. If someone wants to align him or herself with the movement, he or she must take on certain beliefs, and be committed to taking certain kinds of actions. This includes taking on certain attitudes toward those who disagree.

Now that someone has in fact acted as Palin and other suggested that people ought to, the question can reasonably be posed, did Palin and those others who used the language of war and homicide really mean what they said? Do they believe that literally targeting people who do not share their political views is the correct way of addressing those people? That the best way, and the right way, to create the best government, the best society, is to shoot and kill those who do not share their views about what that society should look like? Palin and others did in fact make statements and other representations that might reasonably interpreted as meaning that they really do think that killing others who disagree is the best and right way to create political change.

I think it’s interesting that this way of looking at things shows clearly that whether the shooter is mentally ill is irrelevant, and so is the issue of whether the posters and other representations of gun violence caused the behavior of the shooter or might cause the behavior of other people. The issue is that certain things were said or otherwise represented, and that these things, if they are taken seriously and literally as expressing the desire that people take certain forms of action, exhibit a disturbing disregard for the kind of free political process that I think we in the United States value so highly. If Palin and others really do mean that people ought to act as they say they should, then the former needs to come out and say yes, we do take responsibility for what we said, as a call to action; and if Palin and others do not think this, they need to take responsibility by saying, no, we made a mistake by expressing the view that we want people to kill those who oppose us, that we were not careful enough in choosing the way in which we want to express how upset we are with health care reform, and whatever else it is that they are upset about.

Palin’s statements after the shooting are confusing. She reverses the sense of “blood libel” by accusing the press of using the term against her. “Blood libel” is an anti-Semetic term. So Palin identifies herself with the persecuted outsider. What it looks like, however, is that she was the one who, before the fact, accused other people, Giffords, for instance, of betraying the nation—a kind of blood libel.

This exhibits what one might call a performative contradiction. She accuses the press of stirring up controversy and sowing dissent. But in doing so, she herself stirs up controversy and dissent. By making the statements she’s making, she shows that she doesn’t really believe them.

I get the sense that some people think that they can say whatever outrageous thing they want to, but then “take it back” or deny that what they said does not in fact mean what it does. This is similar to the “march of progress” diagram used to represent evolution. It’s clearly racist, and also scientifically incorrect, yet its use persists, even among people that ought to know better.