Would you show an ISIS video, depicting a brutal killing of hostages, to the survivor of their murders? Of if you prefer a linguistic medium: would you read Breivik’s Manifesto to a survivor of his massacre? – Asking these questions, I’m assuming that none of you would be inclined to endorse these items. That’s not the point. The question is why you would not present such items to a survivor or perhaps indeed to anyone. My hunch is that you would not want to hurt or harm your audience. Am I right? Well, if this is even remotely correct, why do so many people insist on continuing to present racist, sexist or other dehumanising expressions, such as the n-word, to others? And why do we decry the take-down of past authors as racists and sexists? Under the label of free speech, of all things? I shall suggest that this kind of insistence relies on what I call the quotation illusion and hope to show that this distinction doesn’t really work for this purpose.
Many people assume that there is a clear distinction between use and mention. When saying, “stop” has four letters, I’m not using the expression (to stop or alert you). Rather, I am merely mentioning the word to talk about it. Similarly, embedding a video or passages from a text into a context in which I talk about these items is not a straightforward use of them. I’m not endorsing what these things supposedly intend to express or achieve. Rather, I am embedding them in a context in which I might, for instance, talk about the effects of propaganda. It is often assumed that this kind of “going meta” or mentioning is categorically different from using expressions or endorsing statements. As I noted in an earlier post, if I use an insult or sincerely threaten people by verbal means, I act and cause harm. But if I consider a counterfactual possibility or quote someone’s words, my expressions are clearly detached from action. However, the relation to possible action is what contributes to making language meaningful in the first place. Even if I merely quote an insult, you still understand that quotation in virtue of understanding real insults. In other words, understanding such embeddings or mentions rides piggy-back on understanding straightforward uses.
If this is correct, then the difference between use and mention is not a categorical one but one of degrees. Thus, the idea that quotations are completely detached from what they express strikes me as illusory. Of course, we can and should study all kinds of expressions, also expressions of violence. But their mention or embedding should never be casual or justified by mere convention or tradition. If you considered showing that ISIS video, you would probably preface your act with a warning. – No? You’re against trigger warnings? So would you explain to your audience that you were just quoting or ask them to stop shunning our history? And would you perhaps preface your admonitions with a defense of free speech? – As I see it, embedded mentions of dehumanising expressions do carry some of the demeaning attitudes. So exposing others to them merely to make a point about free speech strikes me as verbal bullying. However, this doesn’t mean that we should stop quoting or mentioning problematic texts (or videos). It just means that prefacing such quotations with pertinent warnings is an act of basic courtesy, not coddling.
The upshot is that we cannot simply rely on a clear distinction between quotation and endorsement, or mention and use. But if this correct, then what about reading racist or sexist classics? As I have noted earlier, the point would not be to simply shun Aristotle or others for their bigotry. Rather, we should note their moral shortcomings as much as we should look into ours. For since we live in some continuity with our canon, we are to some degree complicit in their racism and sexism.
Yet instead of acknowledging our own involvement in our history, the treatment of problematic authors is often justified by claiming that we are able to detach ourselves from their involvement, usually by helping ourselves to the use-mention distinction. A recent and intriguing response to this challenge comes from Agnes Callard, who claims that we can treat someone like Aristotle as if he were an “alien”. We can detach ourselves, she claims, by interpreting his language “literally”, i.e. as a vehicle “purely for the contents of his belief” and as opposed to “messaging”, “situated within some kind of power struggle”. Taken this way, we can grasp his beliefs “without hostility”, and the benefits of reading come “without costs”. This isn’t exactly the use-mention distinction. Rather, it is the idea that we can entertain or consider ideas without involvement, force or attitude. In this sense, it is a variant of the quotation illusion: Even if I believe that your claims are false or unintelligible, I can quote you – without adding my own view. I can say that you said “it’s raining” without believing it. Of course I can also use an indirect quote or a paraphrase, a translation and so on. Based on this convenient feature of language, historians of philosophy (often including myself) fall prey to the illusion that they can present past ideas without imparting judgment. Does this work?
Personally, I doubt that the literal reading Callard suggests really works. Let me be clear: I don’t doubt that Callard is an enormously good scholar. Quite the contrary. But I’m not convinced that she does justice to the study that she and others are involved in when specifying it as a literal reading. Firstly, we don’t really hear Aristotle literally but mediated through various traditions, including quite modern ones, that partly even use his works to justify their bigoted views. Secondly, even if we could switch off Aristotle’s political attitudes and grasp his pure thoughts, without his hostility, I doubt that we could shun our own attitudes. Again, could you read Breivik’s Manifesto, ignoring Breivik’s actions, and merely grasp his thoughts? Of course, Aristotle is not Breivik. But if literal reading is possible for one, then why not for the other?
The upshot is: once I understand that a way of speaking is racist or sexist, I cannot unlearn this. If I know that ways of speaking hurt or harm others, I should refrain from speaking this way. If I have scholarly or other good reasons to quote such speech, I shouldn’t do so without a pertinent comment. But I agree with Callard’s conclusion: We shouldn’t simply “cancel” such speech or indeed their authors. Rather, we should engage with it, try and contextualise it properly. And also try and see the extent of our own involvement and complicity. The world is a messy place. So are language and history.