SOPhiA 2021

Salzburgiense Concilium Omnibus Philosophis Analyticis

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Programme - Talk

Covert Authority: On Power and Oppressive Speech
(Philosophy of Language, )

In Just Words: On Speech and Hidden Harm, Mary Kate McGowan employs a particular type of Austinian speech act -- the exercitive -- to identify two mechanisms by which speech can oppress. While these mechanisms differ in several respects, the most prominent difference is that the first -- the standard exercitive -- is an authoritative speech act, whereas the second -- the covert exercitive -- is not. By showing that speech can oppress even in the absence of speaker authority, McGowan takes herself to have uncovered an important yet overlooked mechanism by which the everyday utterances of ordinary people can oppress.

In this paper, I argue (pace McGowan) that portraying covert exercitives as non-authoritative speech acts obscures the important role that power plays in oppressive speech, even when the speaker appears to lack authority, and even when the audience does not recognize the speaker's authority. Unlike standard exercitives, covert exercitives do not wear their authority on their sleeves, but this can make covert exercitives all the more effectual, because power may be at work in sneaky ways that neither the speaker nor the audience are likely to realize. This ``sneaky power,'' we will see, can make it exceedingly difficult for us to recognize oppressive utterances for what they are.

I proceed in two steps. First, I amend McGowan's exercitive taxonomy by introducing a new distinction in the covert exercitive class, between covert exercitives that are authoritative and covert exercitives that are not. The former -- what I will call covertly authoritative exercitives -- are the subject of this paper. Like standard exercitives, covertly authoritative exercitives involve an exercise of speaker authority, but unlike standard exercitives, that authority does not stem from the speaker's formal authority over the domain in which the oppressive utterance occurs. Rather, it is granted to the speaker by the norms governing the oppressive system to which the speaker's utterance contributes. I will call this type of authority covert authority.

Second, I motivate my proposed amendment to McGowan's exercitive taxonomy by demonstrating the explanatory power that is gained by the addition of the covertly authoritative exercitive. Beginning with the simple and plausible observation that who says what in a conversation matters, I employ the covertly authoritative exercitive to explain why some utterances are especially hard to block, and why some speakers are especially easy to silence. Covert authority, we will see, taps into the antecedent, norm-prescribed distribution of social power, and thereby determines what sorts of contributions a speaker can make, how they are received by the audience, and how they can influence the subsequent progression of social activities. These causal effects, I argue, are due to the presence or absence of covert authority, which is what warrants the proposed partition between authoritative and non-authoritative covert exercitives. Fleshing out these distinctive causal effects allows us to make explicit the role of ``sneaky power'' in oppressive speech, thereby enhancing McGowan's account of oppressive speech.


Chair: Nursan Celik
Time: 16:00-16:30, 09 September 2021 (Thursday)
Location: SR 1.007
Remark: (Online Talk)

Monika Greco 
(University of Pennsylvania, United States)

I'm a first-year Ph.D. student in philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania. I work primarily in moral and political philosophy, and I plan to specialize in the philosophy of education. I'm particularly interested in the philosophical and legal foundations of freedom of speech and academic freedom.

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