The backlash over Halloween costume choices is not new fodder for conversations about free speech that come up against accusations of racism, which include discussions about what does or does not cross the line of what is or is not publicly acceptable with regard to ethnic expressions. Consequently, they are not likely to stop being a hot-button topic anytime soon. The annual and now predictable discourse surrounding offensive Halloween attire presents us with an opportunity to examine not only expressions of free speech and the variety of offenses that they often create, but also the consequentialism of speech and an approach to understanding the significance of civil discourse in a democracy. Let me make three points perfectly clear before we delve into this discursive and delicate arena: 1) I support free speech rights and simultaneously agree that not all speech should be legally protected. 2) I do not believe that anyone should knowingly and willingly set out to offend others; yet, I also realize that not everyone agrees with me on that point. 3) 1 and 2 are not mutually exclusive nor are they objectively measured and regulated, which means that we must accept and address the fact that others’ subjective interpretations actually exist. We do not all agree on what is or is not offensive; nor do we all agree on the same course of action when we do find a particular speech act offensive.
Welcome to the world of subjective experience – where we engage, perceive, interpret, and experience the world from a perspective that is uniquely our own. I am not arguing for solipsism; there is in fact a real world that objectively exists outside our subjective interpretations of it. Despite my knowing and accepting that such an objective reality exists, I cannot access nor understand such a reality objectively because my capacity to perceive the world around me is bound by my own experiences, my own perceptions, and my own points of view, indeed my own capacity for interpreting and understanding that which I perceive. Some of you may be raising the science objection. Granted, Science seeks an objective interpretation via the scientific method, which demands rigorous testing and intense scrutiny of data derived from testing. But, the purpose of this rigour is to navigate around our bound existence as subjective beings in order to arrive at as-objective-as-possible information. The fact that scientists had to develop a method by which to overcome our proclivity for subjectivity and that science itself is understood as this method by which subjectivity is taken into account in order to overcome it reveals just how pervasive subjectivity is in the human experience. While I applaud Science for its many successes, attention to detail, concern for ethics, and epistemological humility, we cannot employ this kind of methodological and epistemological rigour in our everyday experiences and interactions – there simply is not enough time in a day to do so. Therefore, we are left to struggle through our subjective experiences and interpretations without a clear and ever-present method at our disposal. This is precisely why interpersonal communication frequently gets messy, offensive, and ineffectual.
For those of us who study linguistics, philosophy, rhetoric, and/or literary theory, we are keenly aware that language is neither thought itself nor a map of reality as it actually exists. Words function metaphorically; they are never the thing itself of which one speaks. Words point toward concepts, which are ideas we have about both real things in the world and ideas thought by people. But, words are neither the things nor the ideas themselves. Every word on this page merely points to a concept you learned over time. Education is useful because it facilitates somewhat shared, reliable, and repeatable concepts that reside behind the words used to invoke them. However, we do not all have identical experiences in school, nor especially in the rest of our lives outside schooling. Consequently, our concepts vary, even if only slightly. For example, anyone who is bilingual knows that translation is actually interpretation and much of what is being interpreted is culture rather than the bare meanings of words. Words merely point to concepts; the concepts themselves vary according to culture, which is why word-for-word translation rarely results in anything intelligible.
As another example, consider the word “book.” The word itself evidently is not a book. Rather, it signifies the concept we have for “book.” Now, consider how varied our experiences with books can be. The word “book” does not bring to any two minds the identical concept of “book,” nor does it invoke for any two minds a single, actual book in the world. We share a concept of “book” that is close enough in our understanding that I know what you mean when you say “book” as opposed to “magazine.” In order to specify beyond the general concept and invoke in a hearer’s mind a particular book, one requires additional words: To Kill a Mockingbird. By specifying a title with a proper reference to it, I now know which book out of many books is being referenced. But, further details may still be needed: “My signed, first edition, hardback copy of To Kill a Mockingbird on my desk in my home office…” specifies one particular book in the world – whereas: “Purchase any edition or copy of To Kill a Mockingbird for class” specifies a lengthy strand of particularly ordered words and sentences that make up the novel To Kill A Mockingbird distinguishable from any other lengthy strand of particularly ordered words and sentences that make up any other novel. We do this kind of asserting, referencing, and interpreting all the time without giving much thought to how we actually do it. Knowing all this, it seems remarkable that we ever communicate anything at all.
There are times, as we are all well aware, that communication does not work so smoothly as the examples provided above. We have all experienced strained moments during communicating when we wrestled to understand another’s articulations or someone else struggled to understand us – when we thought we were so obviously clear. Words as metaphors are challenging enough when they refer to actual objects in the world, given that we do not all share identical concepts of book, snake, tractor, school, government, border, boyfriend, spouse, or tea. Imagine the difficulty, then, when we attempt to abstract in words concepts that are themselves abstractions. We do relatively okay when referring to things in the world that actually exist; communication becomes all the more challenging when we use words to point to ideas. That is, we use words to point to concepts of, you guessed it, concepts. Talking, writing, singing about love, god, justice, truth, fairness, equality, and so on are particularly challenging because we do not understand the concepts in the exact same ways that others do. Enter rhetoric and civil discourse.
Let us return to our Halloween costume dilemma and subsequent civil unrest. As a rhetorician, I advocate for civil discourse whenever possible. There are times that certain speech acts (i.e., any means by which one attempts to communicate an intention to another by either speaking or gesturing in some way such as uttering words, smiling, pointing, and yes, even attire, may at times be considered a speech act). The question we should be asking of Halloween costume wearers is “what are you intending to communicate to others with your choice of costuming?”. I would like to think that this does actually happen on occasion. Typically, we ask this question when we are confused by a costume. However, we should be asking this when we think that we know exactly what the wearer intended to communicate; unfortunately, this is precisely when we don’t ask the question we should be asking. That is not to say that there are not times when the intent seems obvious.
Take for example the recent racist incidents at the University of Missouri. There is no denying that smearing a swastika on a wall in feces is intended to offend. Likewise, proclaiming one’s desire to shoot all black people is unequivocally racist, not to mention being unlawful speech. The question we should ask is: “What to do when we are offended?”. Civil discourse as opposed to screaming, name-calling, and threatening actually opens up possibilities for progress and change. I would have liked to have been present on the Yale campus when a student initiated a civil exchange with a professor but in a snap emotional reaction abandoned her opportunity for civil discourse and resorted instead to an emotional outburst. I would have liked to have had an opportunity to encourage her to collect her emotions and reenter the conversation with an intent to hear what her College Master had to say as well as invite him to hear what she had to say. The moment she heard Professor Nicholas Christakis say that he disagreed with her interpretation of events, she violated the framework of civil discourse by screaming at him. Two factors contributed to her emotional reaction and neither should be dismissed nor devalued: one, she is young; two, she was clearly impassioned. However, if she sought to have her grievances heard, she damaged that opportunity by cursing and screaming at her College Master. This young, Yale student is certainly not alone nor was this incident anomalous. Regardless of age, ethnicity, socio-economic status, nationality, gender, etc., human beings by our very nature are overwhelmingly subject to forgetting that not everyone sees the world, events, or actions in the same way we do.
Both Professor Nicholas Christakis and his student resident were right – in their individual interpretations. Where they were in error was assuming that their individual interpretations reflected the objective reality of the world as it actually is outside their perceptions of it. Let us return to the lesson of words as metaphors that point to concepts rather than objective reality. What was in conflict at that moment on Yale’s campus was not just a student and a professor but two different world views. An older, white, male, Ivy League professor and College Master and a young, black, female, Ivy League student and resident. As outsiders to the incident, we may weigh in with our own interpretations but we have no more access to objective reality than the professor and student did. Civil discourse, then, seeks to assert, explain, and make known our interpretations. But, when we forget that we do not have direct, perfect, accurate, access to objective truth, we often resort to uncivil discourse that solves no problems but instead adds to existing issues and at times leads to violence.
Consequentialism examines the effects of communication. Perhaps if we first considered the potential effects of our speech acts before uttering them, we may be forced to consider not only our intentions but also the possible interpretations of others regarding those intentions. In the end, we may still not agree, but at least perhaps we could have a better understanding as to why we we disagree and avoid misunderstandings and maybe even violence.