Performativity, Butler and hate speech

In this blog post I want to elaborate on some of the points that I feel are relevant to the discussion of performativity in relation to hate speech.  Butler suggests that a subject is constituted through the repetition of speech acts and she points to the context as the conditions of the violence caused by hate speech rather than the content of particular words.  She rejects censorship or alternative legal remedies as strategies to combat the effect of hate speech and instead sees that hateful words be reclaimed and revalued to ’emancipate’ the individual. Her rejection of the law seems to be based on a distrust of those with legal power to recognise the immediate problem: judges must first decide what hate speech is before it can be regulated which is a political question with the guise of objectivity.  Whilst one recognises this problem, it seems the real issue is not which body of people to trust with this decision but the fact that one relies on people at all.  As Scarry notes, ‘whatever pain achieves, it achieves in part through its unshareability’. The violence of hate speech is that it is a singular experience, inexpressable in language and invisible to others. This is true whether one seeks recourse through law or through society: there is an obvious conflict between the individual pain of hate speech and the remedy that requires others to understand the same.

In my opinion, Butler fails to capture the fact that some words can become so hurtful that they can never be spoken (or indeed written) and so can never be reclaimed by the individual. That every time one goes to speak them one suffers the physical effects of panic and ridicule that coincide with the recollection of those words being used to injure: those words not one off instances but everyday occurrences targeting several aspects of one’s identity. In addition, one is acutely aware of the fact that this experience is counter to the popular narrative that dominates members of my generation – that those things don’t happen anymore or society no longer thinks like that. One feels almost apologetic or embarrassed to fall outside of that narrative.  Indeed, sometimes one feels the force of that narrative so much that one questions those subjective experiences as if they couldn’t have really happened or it wasn’t that bad.  Further, it seems as though by recalling those experiences one is constructing a story in which she is the ‘victim’. Yet, as undeniably formative as that exposure to hate has been, it is only one part of a larger experience in which one has felt as much love and support. Indeed, my impression of Butler is that her explanation of performativity as ritualistic, repetitive and reinforced fails to adequately account for the fact that the subject is constituted by numerous speech acts.  One is neither victimised nor emancipated but always somewhere in between, always conflicted, often ‘unnarratable’.

This could be a topic of its own but to finalise my account of hate speech I want to briefly touch on the concept of coming out.  After reading Butler I realise that coming out is perhaps the most archetypal example of performativity.  It is an act which can’t really be done without words and it is a speech that acts: it affects relationships, forms an identity and exposes one’s vulnerability.  It is of course not a single act like Austin may imagine speech acts but must be repeated and reiterated to new people and in new spaces. At times it may be like stepping out of metaphorical closet but more often when one shares a space with others it is like tumbling out of that collective and into a (temporarily) unknown place in which one stands out as different (though this is probably mere perception). What this means in a larger context I am not yet sure but for me it certainly points to the uncertainty, conflict and constancy of the constituted subject.

I am aware that I have ‘gone on a bit’! But I felt it important to bring to the surface the above elements of hate speech, speaking only for myself, that I felt were missing.

I should also apologise for my extensive use of ‘one’ but it seems it is just as difficult to write ‘I’ as it is to speak certain words.


One thought on “Performativity, Butler and hate speech

  1. hl288 says:

    I think this is a really clever critique if butler’s work, it does fail to look at the individual pain and suggests that there is an answer in finding a collective condemnation of that speech. I think this is probably more because butler chooses to focus on this way of showing language as a possibility for agency in restating the performance of hate speech.
    Butler does also draw attention to the fact that the perlocutionary aspect of speech in particular is always in some way out of our control, and jess I think your point demonstrates that this is not just in terms of those doing the speaking but also those receiving it, the reaction is not always in our control.
    One of the best things I think this discussion raises is a clear dissatisfaction with the idea that there could be a ‘one rule fits all’ approach to hate speech; Butler clearly rejects this I the form of censorship and blanket ban of words, and jess you raise interesting criticisms of the one rule fits all approach to the reception of hate speech.
    The great benefit of this is in being able to reject the ideas that offensive words and hate speech is entirely contextual, because it does not give effect to the power those words can exercise (after all, the effects are under no time limit… Perlocutionary effect does not stop the moment the words have been uttered). It further questions the notion that some hate speech is always offensive, regardless of context (here butler cleverly mocks the law itself for needing to use such speech to explain why it is wrong…). And jess your idea that there must be an understanding that the feeling of judgement coming from hate speech is both unrelatable and also unnarratable. All of these critique the way law formally and informally approaches hate speech and discrimination, producing a valuable dialogue as to the impact which language of this kind really has.

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