January 25, 2008

Political Correctness and the Use/Mention Distinction

Professor Donald Hindley was recently found guilty of racial harassment by Brandeis University for statements that he made in his Fall 2007 Latin American Studies course. The case is discussed in this report by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and in a number of blog posts, including this one by Margaret Soltan and this one by Eugene Volokh. Criticism of Brandeis is based in part on what appears to have been an egregiously unfair process, and in part on the nature of the charges against him.

Brandeis has apparently refused to disclose publicly exactly what Hindley said that it considers "racial harassment"¹, but according to FIRE, which in my experience has a record of accuracy in such matters, the complaint is that he said:

Mexican migrants in the United States are sometimes referred to pejoratively as 'wetbacks'.

His offense is described as having used the word 'wetback'. This is false. He did not use the word 'wetback'; he mentioned it. That is, he did not choose the word 'wetback' for his own communicative purposes. Rather, he referred to its use by others. This is not a mere distinction of terminology: there is a vast difference between the two. When someone uses a word, he or she is responsible for what it conveys, but when one mentions a word, one assumes no such responsibility.

If someone says "The only good Indian is a dead Indian", he or she has asserted a proposition with which other people are entitled to take issue, and one can validly infer that the speaker does not like Indians. If, however, someone says "General Sheridan said: 'The only good Indian is a dead Indian'", the only proposition asserted is that General Sheridan said a certain thing. Nothing is asserted about Indians, and in the absence of additional information, no valid inference can be drawn regarding the speaker's attitude toward Indians. There is no way to tell whether the speaker agrees with General Sheridan or disagrees with him.

Speaking generally:

In the absence of other information, one is not entitled to draw any inference as to the speaker's attitudes and beliefs from mentions.

The use-mention distinction is not some recent and esoteric discovery known only to linguists - it is an old idea, well known to philosophers, one that should be familiar to anyone to whom it falls to interpret language. Nonetheless, failure to recognize it is distressingly common. A prominent incident in which a speaker was improperly condemned for a mention was the speech that the Pope gave at Regensburg, in which he quoted a statement by the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II about Islam. You can read the full text of his speech, in the original German, on the Vatican web site here. The Vatican has an English version here.

The Pope's speech is a subtle and academic discussion of the relationship between faith and reason. At one point, he discusses a series of conversations that took place circa 1391 between the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus and "an educated Persian". He then draws attention to a portion of one conversation. I will quote him at length so as to provide the full context.

The emperor must have known that surah 2, 256 reads: "There is no compulsion in religion". According to the experts, this is one of the suras of the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under threat. But naturally the emperor also knew the instructions, developed later and recorded in the Qur'an, concerning holy war. Without descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the "Book" and the "infidels", he addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general, saying: "Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached". The emperor, after having expressed himself so forcefully, goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. "God", he says, "is not pleased by blood - and not acting reasonably - is contrary to God's nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats... To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death...".
The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God's nature. The editor, Theodore Khoury, observes: For the emperor, as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-evident. But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality. Here Khoury quotes a work of the noted French Islamist R. Arnaldez, who points out that Ibn Hazn went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God's will, we would even have to practise idolatry.
At this point, as far as understanding of God and thus the concrete practice of religion is concerned, we are faced with an unavoidable dilemma. Is the conviction that acting unreasonably contradicts God's nature merely a Greek idea, or is it always and intrinsically true? I believe that here we can see the profound harmony between what is Greek in the best sense of the word and the biblical understanding of faith in God.

If you read carefully, the Pope nowhere endorses the Emperor's characterization of Islam. The closest he comes is to mention briefly what the Emperor must have known. Moreover, he describes the Emperor as addressing his interlocuter "with startling brusqueness", which suggests that he has no intention of baiting Muslims himself. What he picks up on is the theme of the Emperor's critique of what he (that is, the Emperor) took to be the Muslim view, namely that faith is bound up with reason. The Pope briefly contrasts Catholic and Muslim views of the role of reason, and then carries on with a more general discussion of the relationship between faith and reason that has nothing in particular to do with Islam.

In sum, whatever the correct view of the Muslim stance (or stances) on forcible conversion and jihad may be, the Pope actually took no position on the question. He merely used an argument made by the Emperor Manuel II against what he took the Muslim position to be as the basis for his own discussion of faith and reason. Having made no assertion about forcible conversion in Islam, the Pope is immune to criticism on these grounds and owes no one an apology.

This is not to say that there are no circumstances in which a mention may be improper. In some circumstances, bringing up a certain topic will be hurtful to someone, regardless of what one has to say about it. Similarly, some people may in some circumstances be hurt or offended by certain words. Some people, for example are upset even by seeing the word "fuck" in a context such as this, where it is not used to communicate anything at all. It may be, therefore, that there are situations in which we should condemn mentions as well as uses.

It is nonetheless important to distinguish between offensive uses and offensive mentions, for two reasons. First, while there are arguably no circumstances in which some offensive uses are acceptable, there are many socially valuable situations in which offensive things must be mentioned. Surely it is not wrong to explain to a foreigner who has learned the word from a book or a child who has overheard it that "nigger" is not an acceptable way to refer to black people, yet this may be difficult or impossible without mentioning the offending word. Teachers must be able to assign and discuss texts containing offensive expressions. Scholars must be able to discuss historical usage and the way it has changed, or why a term is offensive.

Second, while it is generally straightforward to determine that a use is intentionally offensive, it is much harder to determine whether a mention is intentionally offensive. When someone asserts that the only good Indian is a dead Indian, it is clear that he or she hates Indians and fair to condemn the statement. When someone merely quotes such a statement, a process of inference is required to determine his or her intention. Occasionally, the inference may be certain, as when the speaker adds "and I agree", but more often the inference will be uncertain or even impossible. If mentions are conflated with uses, there is a serious risk of condemning innocent people.

In sum, failure to distinguish between uses and mentions poses a danger to freedom of speech and rational enquiry as well as the danger of falsely accusing and condemning innocent people.

¹ The idea that "people who enter the United States illegally by crossing the Rio Grande" constitute a race is of course absurd. Indeed, negative attitudes toward 'wetbacks' are not necessarily even ethnically-based. Such attitudes may be class-based, since it is mostly poor people who enter illegally, or they may be based on disapproval of illegal immigration.

Posted by Bill Poser at January 25, 2008 10:31 PM