Un-Ringing the Bell: McGowan on Oppressive Speech and The Asymmetric Pliability of Conversations

Australasian Journal of Philosophy 91 (3):555-575 (2013)
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In recent work Mary Kate McGowan presents an account of oppressive speech inspired by David Lewis's analysis of conversational kinematics. Speech can effect identity-based oppression, she argues, by altering 'the conversational score', which is to say, roughly, that it can introduce presuppositions and expectations into a conversation, and thus determine what sort of subsequent conversational 'moves' are apt, correct, felicitous, etc., in a manner that oppresses members of a certain group (e.g. because the suppositions and expectations derogate or demean members of that group). In keeping with the Lewisian picture, McGowan stresses the asymmetric pliability of conversational scores. She argues that it is easier to introduce (for example) sexist presuppositions and expectations into a conversation than it is to remove them. Responding to a sexist remark, she thus suggests, is like trying to "unring a bell". I begin by situating McGowan's work in the wider literature on speech and social hierarchy, and explaining how her account of oppressive speech improves upon the work of others in its explication of the relationship between individuals' verbal conduct and structurally oppressive social arrangements. I then propose an explanation and supportive elaboration of McGowan's claims about the asymmetric pliability of conversations involving identity-oppressive speech. Rather than regarding such asymmetry as a sui generis phenomenon, I show how we can understand it as a consequence of a more general asymmetry between making things salient and un-salient in speech, and I show how this asymmetry also operates in various cases that interested Lewis.

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Robert Mark Simpson
University College London


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