Sticks and Stones: The Philosophy of Insults

By Jerome Neu | Go to book overview

SIX
INSULT IN THE LAW
FIGHTING WORDS, OBSCENITY, AND HATE SPEECH

WORDS CAN ALSO BE DEEDS. SPEECH CAN ALSO BE CONDUCT. SO THE schoolyard wisdom that asserts “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” has its limits. The chant cannot serve as a magical incantation to ward off harm. The categories are, perhaps inextricably, mixed. It is not just that speech can have later effects in the world (saying “Hello” may be the start of a conversation, even of a life-long friendship), but sometimes the effects are peculiarly direct, the mere saying (under the appropriate conditions) can make something so. “I now pronounce you man and wife,” said under the appropriate conditions by the appropriate person, may be all that it takes to make a marriage. “You shall be hung by the neck till dead,” said under the appropriate conditions by the appropriate person, is not simply a prediction, but a judicial sentence of death. Such constitutive speech acts, called by J. L. Austin “performative utterances” (and described by him, in his later terminology, as having “illocutionary force”), depend on conventions and are essentially complete on utterance (1970b, 1962). This is in addition to the already mentioned power of words (what Austin refers to as their “perlocutionary force”) to produce changes causally, over time. The law recognizes the various powers of speech-acts when it attaches legal liability, whether civil or criminal, to the uttering of certain words. This becomes troubling, however, in the context of our commitment to freedom of thought and freedom of expression. Not that this should be thought of as a simple clash. It is, after all,

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Sticks and Stones: The Philosophy of Insults
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Acknowledgments vii
  • Contents xi
  • One - On Feeling Insulted 3
  • Two - Honor: Slaps and Swords 33
  • Three - Insult in Play and Ritual 57
  • Four - Assault from the Rear 83
  • Five - The Language of Abuse 113
  • Six - Insult in the Law 137
  • Seven Insult in the Law - Libel and Slander 171
  • Eight Insult in the Law - Blasphemy 193
  • Nine - Insult Humor 215
  • Ten - To Understand All Is to Forgive All—Or Is It? 243
  • References 271
  • Index 281
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