Friday, July 8, 2022

Review of "Banning Words: Problems With A Movement" by Amardo Rodriguez (Public Square Press, 2022)

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A new book by Amardo Rodriguez, professor of communication and rhetorical studies at Syracuse University, is well worth reading for the outside-the-ideological-boxes, communication-based argument that it makes against campus speech codes that ban the use of certain words, such as the N-word (his prime example). 

In the history of American education, conservatives have traditionally been the most vociferous advocates for banning things -- books, ideas, words, or people -- that they regarded as indecent, immoral, unpatriotic, subversive, or otherwise dangerous to society. The tradition continues with current efforts to ban teaching that promotes what is misleadingly called "Critical Race Theory" or that normalizes nontraditional sexual and gender identities. (A law recently enacted in Florida was dubbed "Don't Say Gay" by critics.)

However, the impulse to ban things has never been a monopoly of the political right. Ideological censorship, surveillance, and purges of "class enemies" and dissidents have been staple policies of left-authoritarian regimes in other countries, and conservatives have lately complained that something similar has been going on in American universities that are dominated by left-leaning faculty and students. The specific target of these complaints is often campus speech codes that ban "hate speech" or language regarded as racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist, or otherwise injurious to traditionally oppressed and underrepresented groups. 

Conservatives ironically find themselves opposing campus speech codes with the same "freedom of speech" arguments that liberals traditionally used against conservative bans. Now it is political progressives who defend restrictions on the freedom to speak in socially harmful ways. 

Conservative polemics on the subject bristle with horror stories about speakers being shouted down on campuses and professors being investigated, "cancelled" or disciplined for using banned language in the classroom. In one case, a professor was fired when he insisted on quoting the N-word as it appeared in appellate court opinions covered in a law class that he taught. He clearly was not using the N-word either casually or hostilely as a racial epithet. He was reading it from legal opinions in which it was used factually by judges ruling on legal cases about the word's use. Nevertheless, students in the professor's class were outraged and demanded action against him for racist speech. Campus administrators sided with the students, and he was ultimately fired. 

Rodriguez cites this and similar examples in his book, "Banning Words: Problems With A Movement," but his argument against banning words on campus escapes the polarized ideological dynamics of conservative versus progressive. Instead, he uses communication theory to argue that banning words relies on false assumptions about language and communication that can only serve to stunt our development as human beings. 

"At the foundation of this new trend of banning words on college campuses," he argues, "is the assumption that words and symbols form the foundation of communication" (p. 97), that words have certain definite meanings regardless of context or intent, and that "because words can allegedly inflict harm, just like how a weapon can harm, restrictions are necessary" (p. 13). In contrast to this "transmission model of communication," Rodriguez explains,

Communication theory has long rejected the notion that human beings are empty receptacles who can be filled up with messages. It now uses a model that stresses transaction rather than transmission... that human beings are always filtering and processing everything. Consequently, how one person perceives, experiences, and makes sense of something can be very different from how another person does. Communication is about recognizing, navigating, and transacting our different meanings of things. (p. 73)

Speech bans are intended to support campus "diversity" policies, but "for advocates of hate speech laws and codes, diversity resides in boxes and groupings" (p. 93). For Rodriguez, these policies actually deny and repress diversity, rather than support it:    

No doubt, human diversity is about race, ethnicity, religion, gender, disability, and sexual orientation. But human diversity is also about our different temperaments, backgrounds, circumstances, sentiments, ambitions, resources, prejudices, values, beliefs, fears, ethics, politics, and tribulations. It is also about our different rationalities, sensibilities, spiritualities, modalities, pedagogies, ideologies, and epistemologies. (p. 87)

And human diversity in this fuller sense is essentially related to dialogical forms of communication:

Diversity makes communication possible and valuable. Communication has meaning only to the extent that speaker and listener have different thoughts. Communication is about recognizing and engaging another perspective. In other words, in limiting and diminishing communication, these new bans limit and diminish diversity. The flourishing of diversity is bound with the flourishing of communication. Only through communication can our full diversity appear in all its fecundity and possibility. Rules and regulations will always diminish diversity. Both do so by strangling communication. For with rules and regulations, nothing is open for negotiation and deliberation. There is only submission. Finally, that diversity is bound up with communication means that communication demands vulnerability—owning the limits of what we can understand. That we are physically incapable of understanding most things completely and absolutely means that we must always allow for the possibility of a view or position that is different to our own. These new bans end this possibility. We are to assume that there is only one correct course of action when dealing with certain words. Communication is unnecessary. In this way, these bans make for less diversity by making for less communication. (p. 93)

Rodriguez acknowledges the essential place of power in communication, which is important because the rationale for campus speech codes relies on the idea that they are needed to counteract the power to dominate and demean others that has traditionally accrued to whiteness, maleness, and other socially privileged identities. But instead of empowering members of traditionally oppressed groups, he argues, speech bans actually disempower them by casting them as helpless victims who are unable to control and negotiate the meaning of their own experience, and who therefore require institutional protection from harmful speech. 

Indeed, he argues, speech bans only serve to strengthen the institutional power of "the neoliberal 'all-administrative university'" (p. 80), which is inherently hostile to diversity despite official pronouncements to the contrary. "The reality," he writes, "is that no institution can genuinely promote diversity and remain an institution" (p. 129). What institutions require is not diversity but conformity to rules. As an exercise of institutional power, speech bans ultimately depend on violence to enforce conformity:

Hate speech laws and codes represent an order that impedes human development. By imposing this order under the threat of sanction, communication becomes impossible. We must submit and conform, or else face the consequences. (p. 82)

Here Rodriguez emphasizes how institutional power stifles communication, but elsewhere he is clear that communication always has a political dimension:

Then I discuss how language is political. We are always fighting over language, as in who can use what language, what language is appropriate in what context, what language belongs to whom, what language should govern the public square, what language best describes a situation, and so forth. Because language is always political, it is always about power—as in, who decides whether to call a person a terrorist or a freedom fighter? (p. 134)

In this light, speech bans are more than an expression of institutional power. They express the rising power of historically oppressed groups to control language via institutional rules:
[The N-word] is about power. It is about Black folks, after 350 years of slavery, Black Codes, and Jim Crow, finally having any power to impact how White folks use language. For this reason, many Black folks have no intention of giving up this newfound power. (p. 134)
I think the author's point is that this power comes at a cost because it produces mere outward conformity in speech that fails to express what people actually think and feel. Thus it prevents "the kind of honest and difficult communication" (p. 67), the genuine dialogue about race, that is arguably needed to produce social change. 

The power that Rodriguez refers to is real and reflects clearly recognizable norms of language use. As a notable example, Rodriquez, a Black man, uses the N-word in his book freely and without apology, whereas I, a white man, have avoided it in this review, substituting the euphemistic "N-word" even when quoting his book. You could say this is merely performative on my part, or you could say it follows a rule of etiquette, and, as such, counts as an expression of respect. I have no problem with following a formal rule that requires me to show respect for people who have always deserved it but have long been denied it. 

The communication theory of genuine dialogue teaches that the "honest and difficult communication" that is the gold standard of human relationship, if we achieve it at all, is only possible in brief moments and cannot be expected all the time. For the most part we have no choice but to rely on routine communication practices, including formal etiquette, to get along. But social routines are always about power, as Rodriguez points out, and the struggle for social change plays out in ongoing fights about what is appropriate. 

Institutional rules, such as bans on words, are not the same as social norms, but they are justified in terms of social norms, they influence social norms, and in some ways they are easier to fight about than social norms, just because they are clearly explicit and enforceable. In that regard, they may have the potential to serve as instruments of social change, even granting the strong, thought-provoking case that Rodriguez makes against them. 

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