Watch What You Say; Those Who Read and Hear Are Alive

You might be wondering from where this idea comes that it doesn’t matter what you intend with your words only what the listener hears—you know, this authoritarian and illiberal notion that you have to shut up because somebody might be offended by what you say or write. Words become violence. Words erase identities. Etcetera.

There is a complicated history here, but here’s a piece of it that I bet most of you don’t know—and that some of you will criticize as a leap: the French intellectual Roland Barthes, who was a major voice at the beginning of postmodernist thought. In the late 1960s, Barthes published an essay titled “The Death of the Author,” wherein he argued that a given text has multiple meanings that elude the author. According to Barthes, you are not the source of the meaning in the ideas expressed in your writing or speech. 

Roland Barthes at home in Paris

Indeed, since the author is (metaphorically) dead as the source of intended meaning of a text, we now have instead, according to Barthes, the “birth of the reader,” by which Barthes means that the source of meaning in the text is determined by the reader, and since there are many readers (or listeners), there are many readings, and all are equally valid. In fact, after injecting power and intersectionality into everything (thanks Foucault), some readings are more valid that others. If the author is white and male and heterosexual and other terrible things, then his intention isn’t really valid at all—as he is the super-oppressor. What do the oppressed hear?

With this idea, a core tenet in postmodernist thought (who cares whether he intended this), Barthes has stamped external interpretations of what you say with equal or superior validity such that a stupid person who cannot grasp the intended meaning of your words or the dishonest person who imposes upon your words his own agenda, if they lies at the intersection of oppressed identities, can twist your words to harm your reputation and make you fearful of speaking or writing—if you’re the wrong person or hold the wrong view, of course.

For example, you may have for some purpose used the word “nigger” in your writing (or in a joke you told or song you sang or poem you wrote), but if a person hears the word and is offended, then you are responsible not for your intended meaning (I was pushing the envelop at the Comedy Store) but for the listener’s imposed meaning (I have to go on The David Letterman Show and cop to something I didn’t do and tell the audience I will seek therapy because I don’t know why I say words like that). In this way, responsibility for utterances is turned on its head, with the utterer is punished for the listener’s intentions (supposing he has any).

This is why we find ourselves with a blanket ban on the word “nigger” (at least by those who are not black) rather than making any effort at all as to determine in what way and in what context the utterance was made (or walk away if we are too lazy to make the effort). And so we find woke progressives removing from the bookshelves of our nation’s public schools To Kill a Mocking Bird and Huckleberry Finn and a number of other books that contain the word “nigger.” And Dr. Seuss has to go, too, because he drew a Chinese man. And I have to watch Blazing Saddles on network television with a few minutes of dialogue festooned with beeping—a movie that was, at the time, an enlightened smackdown of bigotry. Never mind what Mel Brooks intended. The beeping is intolerable so I change channels.

Brilliant. Let art, language, and literature by some be suppressed by those who don’t get satire or who want to get even with the often imagined deeds of corpses or oppressors by suppressing the freedom of others.

You may be thinking, Andy, is this really that big of a deal? I don’t know, but it seems to me that one of the chief markers of nascent totalitarianism—maybe the chief marker—is conditioned fear to use certain words. When you know which words you can’t use, then you know which words will get you in trouble, and if words get you in trouble, then you have to learn to think differently. They called this “mind-control” when I was growing up. I still do.

In Nineteen Eight-Four, George Orwell called speaking and thinking in a disallowed way “thoughtcrime.” Orwell coined another term in Nineteen Eight-Four: “crimestop.” Crimestop is the mental discipline people develop in order to avoid the punishment meted out by the social controllers. Crimestop is the mark of an obedient person—the self-disciplined person, to put in virtuous terms. Obedient to whom? Disciplined for what ends? It doesn’t sound like freedom to me. So, yeah, it’s that big of a deal. 

As for Barthes, is he alone responsible for word policing? No. There are many others. His arguments is an intellectual spin on robbing words of their intended meaning and that’s why I making this connection. I don’t want to diminish the significance of his work. His impact is felt across the Western world and many disciplines. He is taught in college classrooms everywhere. Perhaps he didn’t intend for his work to be taken this way. But if we hold him to his own theory, then he’s dead and readers can interpret his words any way they wish.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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