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Political theorist Matt Shafer discussed the relationship between speech and violence at the “Silence is Violence, and So is Speech: Language and Power Since the Reagan Years" event over Zoom.

Credit: Diego Cárdenas Uribe

Political theorist Matt Shafer discussed the relationship between speech and violence in recent years at a virtual event on Tuesday.

The event, titled “Silence is Violence, and So is Speech: Language and Power Since the Reagan Years,” was hosted by the Andrea Mitchell Center for the Study of Democracy, where Shafer is a postdoctoral fellow. Shafer discussed political theoretical frameworks for understanding the politics of language, and how debates about free speech have been impacted by social media. The event was the last installment in the year-long faculty workshop series titled "Free Speech Battles."

Shafer said at the event that violence was once commonly defined as disorderly action against the state. During the post-World War II period, however, as activists and oppressors developed new forms of peaceful protest and coercion, they challenged this physical and anti-establishment definition of violence.

“The rise of non-violence made the old understanding of violence itself less compelling,” Shafer said.

This definitional shift helped close the gap between speech and violence. At the same time, British philosopher J.L. Austin developed his speech act theory, which posits that language is not purely descriptive, but also constitutes its own form of action. Shafer said that these intellectual breakthroughs make it possible for certain speech to be violent.

Subsequently, two frameworks for understanding violence in speech surfaced. The “discourse and power” framework analyzes speech on the systemic level, asking how broad patterns in a language can perpetuate a group’s social domination.

“[Discourse and power approaches] expressed how the terms of analysis themselves can make certain forms of power more difficult to contest,” Shafer said, adding that systematic science can allow oppression to run free.

The second framework, “speech and harm,” analyzes speech on the individual level. It focuses on how an individual’s behavior influences their habits of speech, which in turn have tangible consequences on others.

Shafer believes that the two frameworks representing both systemic and individual critiques of language are difficult for people to combine, as it is easier to examine speech and violence from one framework at a time. As a result, Shafer said free speech debates are unstable because they shift uneasily from one perspective to the other.

“Debates about hate speech, for example, often move uneasily between a structural critique of white supremacy and a behavioral analysis of prejudiced interaction,” Shafer said. “Accounts of silencing shift back and forth between systemic theories of marginalization and situated accounts of interpersonal disrespect.”

The Internet Age has further complicated the relationship between the two frameworks. Shafer said that, prior to the rise of social media, the two main modes of communication were speech and text, but modern forms of communication do not fit neatly into either mode. 

For example, a tweet has the spontaneity of speech and the permanence of text. It is also easier to take tweets out of context, Shafer added. In addition, the fact that social media channels are privately owned makes debates about speech and oppression more challenging.

Shafer concluded that “discourse and power” and “speech and harm” may be inadequate for explaining speech in the Information Age. This requires activists and scholars to modernize the way people study the politics of speech, he said.

“What’s the new framework that can make sense of our contemporary conditions as those older frameworks made sense of the dilemmas of their time?” Shafer asked. “That’s the problem, I think, that confronts us today.” 

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