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Discrimination in philosophy

On Silencing, Authority, and the Act of Refusal

Laura Caponetto
p. 35-52

Abstract

The notion of ‘illocutionary silencing’ has been given a key role in defining the harms of pornography by several feminist philosophers. Though the literature on silencing focuses almost exclusively on the speech act of sexual refusal, oddly enough, it lacks a thorough analysis of that very act. My first aim is to fill this theoretical gap. I claim that refusals are “second-turn illocutions”: they cannot be accomplished in absence of a previous interrogative (or open) call by the hearer. Furthermore, I maintain that refusals constitute authoritative illocutions only when preceded by requests for permission. The secondary goal of my paper is to assess Mary Kate McGowan’s (2009) account of silencing as authority denial. Despite its virtues, I argue that ultimately it should be rejected on two grounds: (i) it entails an objectification of female sexuality; (ii) if sexual advances are requests for permission (as McGowan implies), a man who asks a woman for sex cannot fail to ratify her authority over her own body. I conclude by sketching an alternative explanation for the failure of women’s refusals, according to which women may be unable to refuse sex for their interlocutors’ advances are intended as imperative (or closed) calls.

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Testo integrale

1. Pornography and discrimination

  • 1 MacKinnon (1987: 176) takes pornography to be the «graphic sexually explicit subordination of women (...)
  • 2 One can accept the premises of Dworkin and MacKinnon’s argument (pornography harms women), and stil (...)

1Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon have controversially defined pornography as a systematic practice of discrimination on the basis of sex (Dworkin and MacKinnon 1988). In their view, pornography is not escapist storytelling or innocuous entertainment, nor its badness lies in offending public decency. While moral conservatives take a stand against pornography on the grounds of its obscenity and its power to corrupt traditional values, Dworkin and MacKinnon object to pornography by reconceptualising the question in terms of gender injustice1. Pornography, they claim, harms women in different ways – and this is why its production and distribution should be legally restricted2. One of the harms pornography is alleged to bring about is that of silencing women’s voices in a way that violates their civil right to free speech (MacKinnon 1987, 1993). This claim seems prima facie blatantly false, since pornography does not literally prevent women from uttering words. However, there may be other ways of making sense of the silencing argument. Relying on the notion of ‘illocution’ introduced by Austin (1962), Jennifer Hornsby and Rae Langton (Hornsby 1993; Langton 1993; Hornsby and Langton 1998) have suggested that pornography may silence women by preventing them from successfully performing certain illocutions (e.g., from refusing sexual advances). Roughly put: pornography may create (or help create) a hostile communicative climate that interferes with men’s capacity to recognize the illocutionary force of certain acts women try to perform, thereby causing them to misfire. Silencing, in this frame, is a form of uptake failure. Besides Hornsby and Langton’s proposal (which is the most widely discussed in the debate on the phenomenon), other views on illocutionary silencing have recently been suggested (Wieland 2007; Maitra 2009; Sbisà 2009; McGowan 2009, 2014). I will be concerned here with the account put forward by Mary Kate McGowan (2009). According to McGowan, silencing occurs not only when there is a failure of uptake, but also when the hearer fails to recognize that the speaker is in a position to perform the intended illocution. For the sake of brevity, call this alternative kind of silencing “authority silencing”. In sexual contexts, McGowan claims, women can be disabled in the sense of authority silencing too. Indeed, a woman’s refusal may fail for the addressee mistakenly believes that she (qua woman) has no authority over her own body and hence is not entitled to refuse sexual overtures. Notice that, though almost the whole literature on silencing revolves around women’s sexual refusals, very little attention has been paid to the act of refusal itself (what illocutionary class does it belong to? what are its success conditions? is its performance always dependent on the speaker’s authority?). My main goal is to fill this theoretical gap, while evaluating McGowan’s proposal. Clarifying what it means to refuse is of great importance to cast new light on the dynamics through which pornography may deprive women of illocutionary potential.

  • 3 A “call” is a speech act that calls «upon “you” to give uptake to specific normative statuses by ac (...)

2The paper proceeds along these lines. After presenting McGowan’s account of silencing (Section 2), I will delve into a speech act analysis of refusals (Section 3). It will emerge that refusals are “second-turn illocutions”, or to reword it, that they figure as second parts in adjacency pairs whose first parts can be simple requests as well as requests for permission, proposals, offers, or other types of “open calls”3 (Section 3.1). I shall argue that the Authority Requirement is in force only when the pair’s first part is a request for permission (e.g., “Can I use your laptop, please?”). Otherwise, it is replaced by a mere Relevance Criterion, according to which a speaker is entitled to refuse whenever she is the one called (or whenever she has been licensed to by the relevant addressee) (Section 3.2). In Section 4, I will first raise and partially address some objections against regarding, as McGowan does, sexual advances as requests for permission (Section 4.1). Subsequently, I will sketch an alternative explanation for the failure of women’s sexual refusals, according to which they may go wrong for their interlocutors’ “calls” were meant to be orders (rather than requests or proposals) – that is, they were intended as acts that do not leave the hearer the option of refusing (Section 4.2).

2. Silencing as authority denial

  • 4 Numerous publications have appeared since the mid-1990s dealing with the notion of “illocutionary s (...)
  • 5 The distinction between purely communicative and communication-plus acts resembles that between com (...)
  • 6 Since the nature of these additional conditions is not further specified, McGowan’s distinction app (...)

3Speech is not only a matter of saying things, but also (and foremost) of doing things with words (Austin 1962). Conceiving of speech as a sort of action offers a non-canonical way to construe the notion of ‘silencing’. Indeed, if speech is action, then silencing appears to involve the failure to articulate sounds as well as the failure to do what one intends to do in uttering certain expressions. Thus, by drawing on Austin’s theoretical framework, silencing may be seen as a form of illocutionary disablement (Langton 1993: 315)4. In this paper, I focus on the account put forth by McGowan (2009). To understand her proposal properly, some preliminary remarks are needed. Following Ishani Maitra (2009), McGowan distinguishes between two subclasses of illocutionary acts – purely communicative acts and communication-plus acts5. Acts such as telling, stating, or reporting are purely communicative: for their performance being felicitous it is necessary and sufficient that the speaker achieves her audience’s uptake. As soon as the hearer grasps the speaker’s intention to tell her that p, she (the speaker) has succeeded. Communication-plus acts (such as marrying, sentencing, or commanding) do not work this way. Suppose that a private tries to command a general to put down her gun. Even though the general acknowledges the illocutionary force of the private’s putative act (i.e., she acknowledges his intention to command), the private fails to illocute for he lacks the requisite authority. Hence, communication-plus acts can be unsuccessful even if uptake is secured, and this is because they require the fulfilment of further conditions6 (typically, they presuppose that the speaker has authority in some specific domain). Although at first glance refusing sex is simply a matter of communicating a certain proposition, McGowan maintains that sexual refusals are not purely communicative acts. She explains this point by the following example. Imagine that Sally felicitously communicates to Carl that Cindy is unwilling to have sex with him. Even supposing that Sally’s words convince Carl not to go ahead with sexual overtures, her utterance undoubtedly does not constitute a refusal. By contrast, if Cindy says “No” in response to Carl’s advances and he recognizes what she is trying to do, her “No” counts as an act of refusal. According to McGowan (2009: 489), this asymmetry results from the fact that sexual refusals are communication-plus acts – specifically, authoritative illocutions. Cindy can refuse Carl’s advances because she has authority over her own body; Sally cannot refuse the advances Carl addresses to Cindy because she clearly lacks authority over Cindy’s body.

4Understanding sexual refusals as communication-plus acts suggests a new perspective on the mechanisms through which pornography silences. If sexual refusals are authoritative illocutions, then pornography may prevent women from performing them by undermining their (practical) authority. Since pornography depicts women as mere tools to meet male desire, some of its consumers may come to deny them jurisdiction over their own bodies. They may come to regard women’s bodies as being there for men to use them.

Suppose […] that a woman says “No” in response to sexual advances intending to refuse; the man recognizes her intention to refuse, but he falsely believes that she does not have the authority to do so. When this happens, she is silenced in my alternative sense (McGowan 2009: 492).

5On this way of thinking, silencing is a speech act failure brought about by the hearer’s missed recognition of the speaker’s authority in a relevant domain. In spite of grasping the woman’s illocutionary intention, the man falsely believes that she is not in a position to refuse – and thus systematically dismisses her utterances as inappropriate (see also Sbisà 2009).

6In what follows, I will provide a theoretically grounded analysis of refusals. It will turn out that, due to their peculiar status as “second-turn illocutions”, refusals acquire different features – and authority is amongst them – depending on the first-turn acts they respond to. Consequently, to assess whether sexual refusals actually count as authoritative acts (as McGowan suggests), it should be first clarified what kind of speech acts are men performing when they approach women for sex.

3. On refusals

  • 7 The Searlian class of commissives is very close to Austin’s (1962: 156). This is no surprise, as co (...)

7Refusals are clear instances of illocutionary acts, as shown by various factors (e.g., in saying “I refuse” the speaker is hereby refusing; refusals can fully succeed even if the causal effects they typically trigger do not obtain; and so on). Nonetheless, the act of refusal does not figure among the illocutionary acts listed by Austin and hardly anything is said in Austin’s work about refusing. Something more can be found in Searle and Vanderveken (1985: 195): «A refusal is the illocutionary denegation of an acceptance […]. One can only accept or refuse a speech act that allows for the option of acceptance or refusal». We derive two important insights from this. First, refusals are the negative counterparts of acceptances, and, like acceptances, they have both a directive and a commissive sense. To recall briefly the distinction between the two classes, Searlian directives are constituted by those acts (such as requesting, ordering, or begging) aimed to direct or influence the audience’s conduct, whereas the category of commissives gathers those illocutions (such as promising, vowing, or bidding) whose internal purpose is to commit the speaker to some future course of action7. Going back to the case of acceptances, when I accept that you do something, I seek to engender certain changes in your behaviour and hence perform a directive. On the contrary, when I say “Yes” to your request that I do something, I commit myself to do it, thereby performing a commissive. As a general rule, interrogative commissives (such as offers) invite the hearer to perform a directive, while interrogative directives (such as requests) are replied to with commissives. To illustrate the rule, consider the examples below.

(1) A: I can help you with those boxes, if you let me (commissive)
B: Yes, thanks (directive).

(2) A: Can you help me with these boxes, please? (directive)
B: Yes, sure (commissive).

8However, things are not that simple for certain requests are somewhat sui generis. Suppose that I ask you if I can use your car and that you answer positively. In such a case, both my request and your response count as directives; indeed, I am attempting to get you to make a concession, while you are granting me permission to use your car (and, thus, clearly influencing my future conduct). I will develop such considerations in Section 3.2. The second suggestion we can draw from Searle & Vanderveken, strictly related to what we have said thus far, is that refusals cannot be accomplished in isolation: for an act to be a refusal, it must occur in response to a previous illocution put forth by the hearer. More formally stated, refusals are second parts to what conversation analysts call “adjacency pairs” – i.e., sequences of two adjacent illocutions, which are produced by two different speakers and are related in such a way that «given a first part of a pair, a second part is immediately relevant and expectable» (Levinson 1983: 306; cf. also Schegloff and Sacks 1973). The paradigmatic pair is question-answer; other examples are greeting-greeting, congratulations-thanks, offer-acceptance, and so on. Notice that we can accept or refuse several types of illocutionary things – not only offers, but also invitations, proposals, requests. It ensues that, if we want to outline a full picture of what it means to refuse, it behoves us to go through an analysis of those illocutions (or “calls”) which are properly followed by refusals (or acceptances).

3.1. Second-person calls

9Speakers address their interlocutors in different ways. All are appropriate in certain contexts and less appropriate (or inappropriate) in others. Furthermore, some of them leave room for the one addressed to refuse, whereas some others do not. Here is a quite interesting case.

Max: Untie him [Jimmy].
Joe: I don’t take orders from you.
Noodles: We’re not
asking you to take orders, Joe. We’re telling you. Now go ahead, untie him (Once Upon a Time in America, 1984).

  • 8 The act of telling is both assertive and directive; indeed, I can tell you that the flight has been (...)

10As Noodles is well aware of, asking and telling have diverse pragmatic structures. To ask somebody to do something is to direct her in a manner which allows for the possibility of refusal. On the other hand, to tell somebody to do something is to leave her no choice: the one to whom an act of telling is directed is obliged to do what the speaker demands8. In uttering the words “Untie him”, Max is not asking or requesting; rather, he is telling or demanding that Joe does what he wants him to. Max’s speech act is designed to impute a duty on Joe (specifically, to untie Jimmy O’Donnell). The quote is a good example of what Mark Lance and Rebecca Kukla (2013) refer to as “calls” – that is, second-person illocutions that call for a specific response on the addressee’s part. Calls create reasons for action and, therefore, reshape the normative context they occur in. When you are (successfully) ordered to do such and such, you forthwith get a duty to do so which was absent from the context until a moment before; and once I propose you to marry me, accepting the proposal becomes something you can do – for my speech act recasts action possibilities within the conversational context. At the same time, calls are enabled (or precluded) by the pre-existing normative relationship between the participants. Think to the issuance of an order: it requires that the speaker occupy a recognizable position of power or authority. By saying “I don’t take orders from you”, Chicken Joe is putting Max’s and Noodles’ authority into question – he is trying to delegitimize their (alleged) social superiority. And Noodles’ utterance (“We’re not asking you to take orders, Joe. We’re telling you”) is a shrewd move meant to reaffirm his power.

  • 9 An interrogative call «does not just open up a neutral space of choice» (Lance & Kukla 2013: 461). (...)
  • 10 The category of interrogative calls includes also acts such as begging, supplicating, beseeching, i (...)
  • 11 In certain circumstances, obeying can be a perlocutionary act. Suppose that an armed burglar orders (...)

11Simplifying a little, we can divide second-person calls into two categories – namely, imperative (or closed) calls and interrogative (or open) calls. Both generally aim to make the hearer do something (i.e., they are directive speech acts); however, their normative upshot is profoundly different. A successful imperative call results in an obligation on the part of the hearer; a felicitous interrogative call gives the one called a reason to do what was requested, but such a reason does not take the form of an obligation. Lance and Kukla give the name “petitionary reasons” to the peculiar kind of reasons created by interrogative calls. «Petitionary reasons are not just weak obligations […]; they are a different variety of reason altogether» (Lance and Kukla 2013: 462). The normative function of an interrogative is to petition the recipient to do φ while leaving the decision to accept or refuse it up to her; that is to say, due to their distinctive nature, interrogative calls present the one called with a choice9. Imperative calls are made up of authoritative speech acts such as orders or commands; prototypical interrogative calls are requests, offers, proposals, invitations10. It is worth pointing out that open calls invite responses by the hearer which are inherently illocutionary, whereas closed calls do not. Accepting and refusing are indeed particular types of illocutions, while obeying and disobeying are not at all speech acts11. The central insight here, in the parlance of conversation analysts, is the following: open calls are first parts to adjacency pairs; closed calls are not. Given a certain order or command, no illocutionary response is expected. Since our concern here is with a clearer understanding of refusals, for the remainder of the third section I will concentrate on open calls. I shall return on imperatives in Section 4.

3.2. Requests for permission and other “open calls”

  • 12 Due to his occupying a higher power role, the master’s intentions may be misinterpreted by the serv (...)

12Typically, when an open call is performed no particular kind of entitlement is needed for the hearer to reply as she sees fit. If you ask me out to the movies, I am ipso facto entitled to accept or refuse your proposal without there being any extra requirement but you were addressing me. And if my roommate requests that I wash the big pile of dishes in the sink, I can refuse (while politely stating some excuses or reasons) simply in virtue of being the addressee of her call. Note that the same applies when the relationship between the participants is not symmetric. Suppose that a charitable master asks his old and tired servant, in the gentlest possible terms, to go out and buy a bottle of red wine for dinner. If the master is genuinely requesting (rather than indirectly ordering), then the servant is free to refuse in spite of lacking any sort of authority over his interlocutor12. Taking the cue from these examples, it may be argued that, in order to perform a felicitous acceptance or refusal, a speaker must satisfy what I propose to call a Relevance Criterion:

  • 13 In Searlian terms, the Relevance Criterion can be expressed as the conjunction of two preparatory c (...)

Relevance Criterion: A speaker is entitled to accept or refuse an open call whenever she is the one called (or whenever she has been licensed to by the relevant addressee)13.

  • 14 Unlike McGowan (2009: 488), I do not think that licensing somebody to accept or refuse an invitatio (...)

13The bracketed disjunct accounts for the possibility that one accepts or refuses on behalf of someone else. If I have been licensed to, I can refuse a cocktail party invitation on my husband’s behalf, for, in a sense, I am now the addressee of the call14.

14We have said that every authentic request opens up space for a negative reply, regardless of the speaker’s position; yet, this is not entirely true, in that, to respond to certain sui generis requests, speakers must have some kind of authority. Consider the utterances that follow.

(3) Would you wash the dishes?,

(4) Can I use your laptop, please?

15In uttering (3), Philip (the speaker) is asking Lily (the hearer) to do something, whereas, in uttering (4), Philip is seeking to obtain a concession to act in a particular way. While a positive reply to (3) would commit Lily to doing something (i.e., to washing the dishes), an affirmative answer to (4) would give Philip the possibility to behave in certain ways (in our case, to use Lily’s laptop). The first utterance is a simple request; the second is a request for permission. As Monica Cowart (2004: 512) underlines, when a speaker asks for permission, the activity in question is something that both parties view as being in the hearer’s sole jurisdiction. In the case of (4), Lily has jurisdiction over the laptop because it is her property and not Philip’s. Since the laptop is viewed by both parties as belonging to Lily, the nature of the involved activity entails asking Lily for permission. It ensues that one cannot accept or refuse a request for permission if she has no jurisdiction to do so. Suppose that Philip believes that the laptop belongs to Lily when it is actually Kate’s property. Under such circumstances, Lily would not be entitled to respond to Philip’s call for she would lack the requisite authority. Generalizing from this, we can state that, when it comes to replying to requests for permission, the Relevance Criterion is replaced by an Authority Requirement:

Authority Requirement: A speaker is entitled to accept or refuse a request for permission whenever she has authority over the activity in question (or whenever she has been authorized to by the entitled individual).

  • 15 However, no formal procedure has to be involved. A may authorize B to respond to a request for perm (...)

16Once again, the bracketed disjunct accounts for the possibility that one accepts or refuses for someone else. Yet, in this case, one must have been authorized and not simply licensed to. Since the speaker’s authority is a key requisite to respond to a request for permission, delegating somebody to reply on one’s own behalf involves a proper “transfer of authority”15.

  • 16 Against this, it may be objected that illocutionary forces are nothing but sets of success conditio (...)

17Let us take stock. For an act of refusal to occur, the utterer must respond to a certain “open call” previously spoken by the interlocutor. If the call is constituted by a simple request (or similar acts, such as proposals, offers, or invitations), then, for the refusal being successful, it is enough that the speaker is the addressee of the call. If the call is instead a request for permission, then the refusal is felicitous iff the speaker has jurisdiction over the involved activity. Thus, depending on the nature of the interrogative illocutions they respond to, refusals exhibit different properties and comply with different success conditions. In particular, a refusal is an authoritative act only if accompanied by a request for permission16.

4. Challenges to McGowan’s proposal

18In light of the above considerations on refusals, let us return to McGowan’s conception of silencing. As explained in Section 2, McGowan understands silencing as a form of illocutionary disablement produced by the hearer’s failure to ratify the speaker’s authority in a specific domain. The paradigmatic case is that of women’s vain attempts to refuse male sexual overtures. Recall that, on McGowan’s view, sexual refusals are authoritative speech acts: for someone to successfully refuse sex, she must have, and be exercising, authority over her own body. To prove this claim, McGowan presents the hypothetical scenario in which Sally does not manage to sexually refuse on Cindy’s behalf.

When Cindy says ‘No’ in response to Carl’s sexual advances, Cindy sexually refuses exactly because she thereby denies Carl permission to proceed. Having authority over who has sexual access to her body, Cindy is here exercising that authority […]. Sally cannot refuse on Cindy’s behalf exactly because Sally lacks the requisite authority (McGowan 2009: 489; emphasis added).

19In this passage, McGowan implies that, at least in standard cases, men’s advances constitute requests for permission – expressly, requests to have access to their potential partners’ bodies. This is in line with the discussion in the previous section; indeed, if my analysis is correct, saying “No” counts as an authoritative illocution only when the first part of the pair it occurs in is a request for permission – otherwise, it does not appear to be an authority issue. To reiterate, McGowan argues that, albeit each woman by default has authority over her own body, some men may fail to recognize it – for certain widespread practices (such as pornography) foster the (detestable) idea that women are nothing but sexual tools, that they are adequate candidates for possession. As a result, when a woman seeks to refuse sex, her “No” may be taken by the man as misplaced – i.e., as an attempt to perform an authoritative act by a speaker lacking the requisite authority.

20Despite the clarity and appeal of McGowan’s view, I argue that, ultimately, it should be rejected on two grounds. First, conceiving sexual advances as requests for permission entails a sexist view on sexual encounters – and this should make us hesitate in endorsing such a conception. Second, in asking somebody for permission, the speaker is already recognizing her addressee’s authority over the involved activity. This means that men who ask women for permission in the first place cannot subsequently fail to regard women’s refusals as appropriate responses – though they can (and, sadly, do) fail to comply with them. I conclude by sketching an alternative explanation for the ineffectiveness of women’s refusals, according to which (some) women may be unable to refuse sex for their interlocutors’ advances are intended as imperative calls.

4.1. Sex and property

  • 17 For a detailed analysis of the speech act of proposing, see Walton 2006.

21Common requests for permission involve use of or access to A’s property (or property A is somewhat responsible for), as in (4): Philip has no right to use the laptop without Lily’s permission, while Lily can accept or refuse to let Philip use it precisely because the laptop is her property. These remarks at first blush fit in perfectly with the case of sexual overtures: a man who approaches a woman for sex is not entitled to proceed until she grants him permission to do so – and she can let him have access to her body precisely because her body is under her sole and autonomous control. However, the analogy between the two cases is not as strong as it appears. In the laptop case, Philip is asking Lily permission to do something which does not engage Lily directly: once Lily answers affirmatively, Philip will use the laptop on his own. By contrast, when a man approaches a woman for sex, he is asking her to do something together – once the woman accepts, they will be engaged in a joint activity. Regarding sexual overtures as requests for permission is problematic for it entails a “property model of sex” – a view on sexual encounters in terms of male usage of an object (i.e., the woman’s body), owned by the female party as any other piece of property. In this perspective, sex is a one-sided activity (“a man having sex with a woman”), while women are implicitly pictured as passive and bereft of any sexual agency (see Du Toit 2009: 35 ff.). To resist this view, one should back away from describing sexual advances as requests for permission and reconceptualise them as different types of open calls. A promising candidate is the speech act of proposing: while a requester tries to make the hearer do something, a proposer seeks to get her to take part in some shared activity. Proposals constitute attempts to enlist the hearer in mutually bringing about some future course of action17.

  • 18 If Searle (1969: 60) is right in regarding illocutionary acts as intrinsically intentional, no spea (...)

22As pointed out in Section 3.2, no authority requirement has to be met to successfully refuse a proposal; it follows that, if men’s advances count as proposals, then women’s “No” are non-authoritative refusals. That being so, McGowan’s account (i.e., pornography may prevent women from refusing sex by undermining their authority) would be proven incorrect: Sally does not manage to sexually refuse on Cindy’s behalf not so much because she lacks authority over Cindy’s body, but because she is not the addressee of Carl’s call18.

4.2. Sexual advances as imperative calls

  • 19 Since the man here recognizes both her illocutionary intention and her practical authority, the wom (...)

23Suppose that we now put aside our concerns, and assume that there is a strong analogy between the laptop case and sexual advances. We said above that Philip is obliged to consult Lily before using the laptop, because she is its rightful owner. Note that Philip’s question (“Can I use your laptop, please?”) is stated in such a way as to reveal that he is aware of the obligation; in asking Lily for permission, Philip is acknowledging that she has a specific authority over the laptop which he does not share. Requests for permission, as the laptop case suggests, imply that the requester recognizes the activity in question as being under the addressee’s jurisdiction. If so, and if there is a strong analogy between the earlier cases, a man who asks a woman for sex is eo ipso ratifying her authority over her own body. This is inconsistent with McGowan’s claim that women’s sexual refusals misfire because men do not recognize women’s authority: a man who genuinely makes a request for permission cannot fail to grasp his interlocutor’s authority over the involved activity. Of course, this does not mean that the requester cannot disrespect the requestee’s decision. Let’s say that Lily denies Philip’s request: though he ought not to take the laptop (for her “No” imputes a duty on him not to take it), Philip may nonetheless act against Lily’s will and use it. Analogously, the woman’s sexual refusal may be seen by the man as perfectly appropriate – and, yet, ignored19.

24At this point, it is worth noting that each open call – be it a request, a proposal, or a different interrogative act – can be used to indirectly perform a closed call. To clarify this aspect, imagine that a police commissioner utters

(5) Would you be so kind as to turn in your gun?,

while addressing a cop who is under investigation for wrongdoing. Given the context of utterance and the relationship between the participants, (5) constitutes an order carried out by way of performing a (simple) request. To put it differently: (5) has as its primary illocutionary force that of an order and the force of a request, which it appears to have in virtue of its linguistic form, is only its secondary force (cf. Searle 1975a: 62). For this reason, the cop’s reply can but be affirmative: since the commissioner’s call is a closed one, the cop is given no possibility to refuse. Clearly, the cop can answer

(6) No, sir. That’s not gonna happen,

  • 20 Stricto sensu, the cop cannot even accept the commissioner’s call, for an order does not invite any(...)

thereby refusing to obey the order. But a refusal to obey is not an illocutionary act of refusal; rather, it is an announcement of disobedience. The main function of a refusal is to avoid compliance; yet, when an individual is ordered to do something, the normative context adjusts in such a way as to include an obligation for her to do it which cannot be cancelled by simply saying “No”. This explains why, in uttering (6), the cop is not refusing but letting the commissioner know that he does not intend to turn in his gun – which means that he is performing an expressive (of the form ‘I have no intention to do φ’)20.

25Since imperative calls can be (indirectly) performed by means of interrogative ones, there is room for the possibility that, by means of sexual advances, some men intend to indirectly order (or perform other kinds of imperatives). If habitual consumers of (certain types of) pornography come to believe that women are mere tools for sexual use – as McGowan rightly points out – then such consumers may also come to believe that it is right for them to order women to do such and such, rather than requesting or proposing. Notice that this way of conceiving of silencing is different from McGowan’s: on her account, women’s refusals fail for men do not recognize women’s authority; in my view, by contrast, women’s refusals fail for men ascribe to themselves the authority to order, thereby leaving women no chance to reply. By depicting men in a position of superiority, pornography implicitly grants them the authority to tell women what to do (at least in sexual contexts), and conversely, denies women the possibility to decide for themselves. This account is closely related to McGowan’s, for it is clear that not only does pornography grant men the authority to turn sexual advances into orders, but it also divests women of authority over their own bodies (as well as of autonomy over their own lives). Men’s dominance is defined together with women’s subordination: the one could not exist without the other. Yet, in my view, the failure of women’s “No” has to do with the peculiar status of refusals as second-turn illocutions – and not as authoritative acts. In absence of an appropriate call by the man, a woman can in no way refuse, since it is essential to the notion of ‘refusal’ that it is performed in response to an open call by the interlocutor.

26Before concluding, it must be stressed that it is not at all obvious that pornography succeeds in granting men the authority to order. If (certain) men’s presumption to dispose of women’s lives is recognized to be wrong by other social agents (women, other men, law codes), then gender prejudice cannot have the final say. The fact that the persuasive effects of pornographic discourse are not enough for men actually acquiring the requisite authority to order does not jeopardize my view, though. Indeed, it is sufficient for women’s “No” being infelicitous that men intend to order (and believe they are entitled to): if men’s calls are meant to be imperatives, women’s “No” would, at most, be understood as an announcement of disobedience or an expression of resistance – in other words, it would not receive the right uptake (which is necessary for its illocutionary success).

5. Concluding remarks

27The notion of ‘illocutionary silencing’ has been given a key role in defining the harms of pornography by several feminist philosophers. As mentioned at the outset, the literature on pornography and silencing focuses almost exclusively on the speech act of sexual refusal; oddly though, it lacks a thorough analysis of that very act. In this paper, I have set out to fill this gap. My central claim has been that refusals are “second-turn illocutions”: they cannot be accomplished in absence of a previous interrogative (or open) call by the hearer. Furthermore, I have maintained that refusals are authoritative acts only when preceded by requests for permission. When accompanied by other types of calls (such as proposals, offers, invitations, or simple requests), the authority requirement (“a speaker is entitled to accept/refuse whenever she has authority in the relevant domain”) is replaced by a mere relevance criterion (“a speaker is entitled to accept/refuse whenever she is the one called”). The secondary aim of my paper has been to evaluate McGowan’s (2009) twofold proposal: (i) in order to refuse sex, women must have (and be recognized as having) authority over their own bodies; (ii) pornography silences women’s speech by interfering with men’s recognition of women’s authority.

28McGowan’s account has the virtue of shedding light on an important mechanism (i.e., the denial of authority) through which speakers – because of their membership to a disadvantaged group – can be disenfranchised of their ability to perform acts (specifically, authoritative acts) that they are entitled to perform. Though McGowan is concerned with sexual settings, her proposal generalizes to other contexts as well. Suppose that, during a philosophy colloquium, a female philosopher tries to challenge some assertions made by a male speaker, and that the audience, due to some pernicious stereotypes, fails to acknowledge her epistemic authority. In such a case, albeit the cogency of her argument, the philosopher’s contribution would not count as an authentic challenge, but (at most) as expressing her confusion about the topic.

29Despite the virtues of McGowan’s account, I have claimed that it cannot explain women’s inability to refuse sex for two main reasons. First, if my analysis of refusals is correct, for McGowan’s proposal being coherent, men’s advances must constitute requests for permission – otherwise, the felicity of women’s refusals would not be an authority issue. Although at first glance sexual overtures appear to be proper requests for permission, there are motives for rejecting such a view; in particular, it implicitly equates sex to ‘a man using a woman’s body’ – and this turns on a dangerous (and untenable) objectification of female sexuality. The second reason for rejecting McGowan’s account is that, in asking for permission, a speaker is already acknowledging the requestee’s authority over the activity in question. It follows that, if sexual advances are requests for permission (as McGowan implies), a man who asks a woman for sex cannot fail to ratify her authority over her own body. In conclusion, I have suggested that, in making sexual advances, some men may not be genuinely requesting (or proposing), but attempting to order. If so, women would be stripped of the very possibility to refuse, for refusals can in no way be performed in response to imperative (or closed) calls.

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Note

1 MacKinnon (1987: 176) takes pornography to be the «graphic sexually explicit subordination of women» that involves depictions of women dehumanized as sexual objects and shown as enjoying pain, humiliation or rape. The category of ‘pornography’, so construed, does not include the sexually explicit material that does not subordinate women, which will count as erotica. The argument below applies to the “pornographic” subset of sexually explicit material – and not to the “erotic” one, which anti-pornography feminists have no quarrel with.

2 One can accept the premises of Dworkin and MacKinnon’s argument (pornography harms women), and still reject its conclusion (pornography should be censored). It is by no means obvious that censorship is the best way to fight pornography back. It may be that other forms of action have a lower overall cost or better chance to win. «Perhaps pornographic speech could be fought with more speech» (Langton 1993: 314) – e.g., with the “speech of competition”, where women themselves become authors of works as explicit and arousing as pornography but harmless to women. (An excellent example of this is offered by Erika Lust’s “good porn” movies).

3 A “call” is a speech act that calls «upon “you” to give uptake to specific normative statuses by acting in some range of ways» (Lance and Kukla 2013: 457). For example, if I (successfully) order you to do φ, I call upon you to obey the order by imputing an obligation on you to do φ. An “open call”, in my view, is an act that leaves the one called the option of refusing. Requests or proposals are open calls, whereas orders or commands are not. I will return on calls in Section 3.

4 Numerous publications have appeared since the mid-1990s dealing with the notion of “illocutionary silencing”. In addition to the works already mentioned, see Hornsby 1995, 2011; Jacobson 1995; Butler 1997; Green, L. 1998; Langton 1998, 2009; Langton and West 1999; Bird 2002; Saul 2006; Bianchi 2008; Mikkola 2011.

5 The distinction between purely communicative and communication-plus acts resembles that between communicative and conventional acts made by Bach and Harnish (1979). However, McGowan’s distinction focuses on the sufficiency (rather than on the necessity) of uptake (i.e., the audience’s comprehension of the speaker’s illocutionary intention) – and this results in a very large class of communication-plus illocutions, which includes also acts (such as commanding) whose nature is not strictly conventional. See also n. 5.

6 Since the nature of these additional conditions is not further specified, McGowan’s distinction appears not wholly convincing. Almost all illocutions require the fulfilment of conditions other than uptake; strictly speaking, even assertives – which do nothing more than communicating propositions – involve further success conditions (e.g., I can inform you that p only if you do not already know what I am informing you of).

7 The Searlian class of commissives is very close to Austin’s (1962: 156). This is no surprise, as commissives are the only Austinian category characterized in terms of the act’s “illocutionary point” (or “purpose”). Directives, on the contrary, constitute a whole new type, which includes Austin’s non-ritual exercitives along with some Austinian behabitives (such as daring, defying, and challenging). Cf. Searle 1975b.

8 The act of telling is both assertive and directive; indeed, I can tell you that the flight has been cancelled (assertive) or to get lost (directive). Cf. Searle and Vanderveken 1985: 200.

9 An interrogative call «does not just open up a neutral space of choice» (Lance & Kukla 2013: 461). In proposing, for example, I try to impute a reason for you to accept the proposal. The call institutes a normative space of appropriate responses, but not all of them are on a par: there is at least one preferred and one dispreferred class of responses. The preferred class gathers those responses which satisfy the call’s constitutive goal. See also Levinson 1983: 307.

10 The category of interrogative calls includes also acts such as begging, supplicating, beseeching, imploring. These are directives which express a greater degree of desire and are usually performed in a humbler manner than asking or requesting. Cf. Searle and Vanderveken 1985: 204.

11 In certain circumstances, obeying can be a perlocutionary act. Suppose that an armed burglar orders the householder to spit out her combination to the safe and that the householder, in a trembling voice, reveals it to him. The householder’s utterance constitutes an assertive illocutionary act which happens to perlocutionarily count as an act of obedience. However, what matters for our discussion is that obedience can in no way constitute an illocutionary act, as shown by the fact that saying “I obey” is not enough to actually obey, whereas uttering “I accept” (or “I refuse”) is all that it takes to accept (or refuse).

12 Due to his occupying a higher power role, the master’s intentions may be misinterpreted by the servant and his utterance taken as an order – no matter how much he repeats that he is simply requesting, that there will be no repercussions if the servant is too tired to go out, and so forth. The master’s words may be given undue weight or, in M. Green’s (2016) terms, they may unavoidably sound as “illocutionarily amplified”. Unlike silencing, illocutionary amplification does not track any systematic disadvantage; actually, the reverse seems true, for an amplified utterance is far more likely to achieve its inherent purpose (e.g., the fact that the master’s request is taken as an order raises its chances to make the servant buy the wine). See Kukla (2014: 455) for discussion.

13 In Searlian terms, the Relevance Criterion can be expressed as the conjunction of two preparatory conditions: (i) the hearer has previously performed an open call, and (ii) the speaker is the addressee of that call.

14 Unlike McGowan (2009: 488), I do not think that licensing somebody to accept or refuse an invitation on one’s own behalf involves some transfer of authority, since, in my view, no authority issue is at stake here. Rather, when A licenses B to reply to an invitation on her behalf, A is acting out a “transfer of relevance” (i.e., the license makes B the new relevant addressee).

15 However, no formal procedure has to be involved. A may authorize B to respond to a request for permission on her behalf by simply letting B do it. Imagine again that I ask you if I can use your car and that your wife answers for you. If you let her do that, you implicitly “transfer” to her the authority to provisionally dispose of your car.

16 Against this, it may be objected that illocutionary forces are nothing but sets of success conditions (Searle and Vanderveken 1985: 46); it follows that a change in those conditions would turn one force into another. I am willing to acknowledge that what I have generically named “refusals” may be different acts belonging to the same “speech act family”; yet, as two non-synonymous illocutionary verbs do not necessarily mark two different acts (think to ‘assert’ and ‘state’, which name the same assertive force while being non-synonymous), it is possible, at least in principle, for a single verb to mark various illocutions. (A candidate verb for non-authoritative refusals is ‘reject’, which, however, is usually used by speech act theorists themselves as synonymic to ‘refuse’; cf. Searle and Vanderveken 1985: 195).

17 For a detailed analysis of the speech act of proposing, see Walton 2006.

18 If Searle (1969: 60) is right in regarding illocutionary acts as intrinsically intentional, no speaker can perform a certain illocution unless she makes an attempt to perform it. As a result, what a man is doing in approaching a woman for sex cannot be settled once and for all, since it largely rests on his actual intentions. Do some men sexually approach women intending to ask for permission? Maybe. Even so, my modest claim is that such a case should in no way be generalized, for it implies framing women as sexually passive and submissive – which is not only unfair, but also untrue.

19 Since the man here recognizes both her illocutionary intention and her practical authority, the woman’s refusal is illocutionarily felicitous. Still, it perlocutionarily fails (its perlocutionary object – that is, to deter the man from going ahead – is not achieved).

20 Stricto sensu, the cop cannot even accept the commissioner’s call, for an order does not invite any reply on the addressee’s part. Suppose that the cop replies to (5) with “Yes, sir”. Such an utterance, just as (6), would constitute an announcement of obedience (rather than an acceptance).

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Per citare questo articolo

Notizia bibliografica

Laura Caponetto, « On Silencing, Authority, and the Act of Refusal », Rivista di estetica, 64 | 2017, 35-52.

Notizia bibliografica digitale

Laura Caponetto, « On Silencing, Authority, and the Act of Refusal », Rivista di estetica [Online], 64 | 2017, online dal 01 aprile 2017, consultato il 23 ottobre 2017. URL : http://estetica.revues.org/2061 ; DOI : 10.4000/estetica.2061

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