— Please don’t talk that way in school.
— It’s a free country; I can say what I want.
Both of these speakers describe the context in which they’re speaking in order to support their goals or values. Even if they’re in the same place, both could be making valid points, because we can operate within several contexts at once. For instance, a classroom can be located within the United States.
These speakers are not completely free to describe their contexts as they wish. Unless the first speaker is actually located inside a school in which certain norms are commonly observed, that statement is odd–perhaps a joke or an idiosyncratic remark rather than an effective intervention. The first statement assumes a real, bricks-and-mortar building that has prevalent norms.
However, these statements are not completely determined by their objective context. They reflect choices: speakers can select which contexts to highlight and can identify preferred features of the contexts.
If many speakers make the same choices, they can influence the context. For instance, if teachers consistently say, “You can’t curse here,” the school may become a place where public cursing is rare. Teachers could decide to begin or to stop describing the school’s norms in that way. They are more influential than their students; as in most cases, power in unequally distributed. However, we only get the speech-context we want to the extent that the norms we advocate are actually observed. If teachers say, “We don’t talk that way here,” but everyone does anyway, they will begin to look foolish. In that sense, everyone influences the context, albeit to unequal degrees.
We can sometimes even use speech to create the context for speech, as in performative utterances like these:
— I call the meeting to order.
— Let us bow our heads in prayer.
(The second statement might change a secular gathering into a spiritual one for a time.)
I’ve recently learned that John J. Gumperz (1922-2013), a founder of interactional sociolinguistics, pioneered the idea that language has a dynamic, two-way interaction with social contexts. I look forward to learning more, especially about the political implications.
After all politics requires good conversation. The definition of good political talk is itself a matter of debate. Who must be included in each discussion? Must the discourse be civil? Must it be public-spirited? Must it aim at consensus? Must it be secular? What counts as appropriate evidence for empirical claims? Which emotions are valuable and when?
Contexts influence what forms of speech actually occur and prove effective. Political speech uttered in a church during a faith-based social movement will inevitably be different from political speech uttered in a faculty meeting, a union hall, or a courtroom. I am skeptical that we need just one type of speech. Pluralism is good.
Speech contexts are shaped by:
- The implicit norms reflected in typical speech within each context. For example, if it is common to criticize other participants by name, then that is the norm.
- Explicit characterizations of the context. “You really shouldn’t keep citing scripture here–most of us are not Christian” would be such a move. It describes the local norm as secular, and if people accept this description, it may affect their speech.
- Other aspects of the institution: Who is permitted and/or recruited to participate? What behavior is rewarded? Who makes key decisions? Even literal architecture may matter. For instance, a bricks-and-mortar school probably consists of many rooms that are designed to hold one adult with 15-30 children or youth. Discourse would be different in a stadium, a prison, or along a forest trail.
We should envision speakers as operating in contexts that they may or may not endorse. At one level, they make ordinary points about what they believe or advocate. How they talk either conforms to the norms of the speech-context or violates them to some degree. Widespread violation can change the norms.
At another level, individuals may seek to change the speech-context, either by moving to another context (exit) or by seeking to alter its norms (voice). They can use their voice to advocate directly for different speech-norms, as in statements like, “Everyone is being too politically correct here–we must tolerate uncomfortable opinions.” Or they may use their voice to support changes in the institution that would likely change the norms. For instance, changing the demographic composition of a school or the balance of power between teachers and students might change the frequency of various forms of discourse in the school.
Discourse ethics is then not exhausted by the question: What kind of arguments should individuals make about policies and issues? It also encompasses questions about how to design, create, choose, and influence the contexts of speech, both directly and indirectly.
This is a mild critique of the idea that one kind of speech is desirable in a liberal democracy and that institutions should enact rights, rules, and procedures that encourage such speech. Instead, I am suggesting that people are embedded in diverse speech-contexts, which they also influence; such pluralism is desirable as well as inevitable; and people need ethical forms of voice and exit that they can use to affect their various speech-contexts.
See also: what sustains free speech?; a civic approach to free speech; this is what deliberative democracy looks like; modus vivendi theory; and judgment in a world of power and institutions: outline of a view.