The old motto “actions speak louder than words” has always contained a grave misunderstanding: it assumes that words and actions are fundamentally different modes of communication. This assumption, I shall argue, is ill-founded. One result of abandoning such a clear-cut distinction between speech and action is, as we shall see, a harmony between the modern culture of political correctness and our First Amendment rights.
The concept of "free speech" has, since its inception, been a symbol of American exceptionalism and pride amidst the foreign threats of Communist and totalitarian regimes. Its value lies, perhaps, in its recognition that speech is a fundamental aspect of the human condition: we are, in addition to the features of our self-consciousness, unique as speaking beings. This is why censorship of speech, in the American context, evokes nightmares of an Orwellian nature, a deprivation of our individuality, an abuse of institutional power onto the masses — the premises of dystopia.
On the other hand, we are quick to understand that there are no such things as freedom of action. It is obvious that actions must abide by certain rules of conduct and that as soon as actions rub against the freedom of another, that action is no longer free.
In recent debates, America's constitutional interest in free speech has come in direct opposition to its reservations toward "hate speech." In a country with diverse religious, ethnic, and economic groups, some choice words can undermine our ideal of an accepting society. How, then, can we reconcile this fundamental right as granted by our Founding Fathers with the increasingly pertinent need to question our choice of words? How can we simultaneously recognize the harmful effects of speech onto a certain group of people while upholding the seemingly intrinsic value of speaking truthfully and sincerely, regardless of its unintended consequences?
The modern discourse of political correctness has exposed a fundamental ambiguity in the language of our founding fathers, an ambiguity that philosophy has been attuned to since the Middle Ages — such as in St. Augustine's "On Lying" — and formalized by J.L. Austin in his seminal work "How To Do Things With Words." The ambiguity concerns the dualistic dimensions of speech: as a mode of expression and as a mode of action. While modern discourses surrounding the First Amendment equate freedom of speech with freedom of expression — assuming that speech is primarily used as a mode of expressing one's ideas — expression is but one function of speech. And in the context of harming others with language, it has overshadowed another equally important nature of language: the speech act.
Austin defines the speech act as speech that performs some sort of action in lieu of, or in addition to, its conventional meaning. For example, the utterance "I promise" not only refers to the act of promising but is, itself, the very condition by which that action is achieved — I make a promise by merely uttering the words "I promise." As soon as one becomes attuned to what Austin defines as the performative nature of speech, it can be found in a number of language's everyday uses: "I bet," "I pray for you," "screw you" are such examples. In each case, meaning is partially conveyed through the action that the utterance achieves.
Speech, therefore, is not only a mode of communication, but also one of action. And in the context of discriminatory language, these acts can be particularly invidious. The constitutional right to free speech, one that is generally understood as the right to articulate one’s opinions and ideas, then, does not and should not encompass harmful speech acts. Since these types of speech primarily serve as actions, they should be evaluated as such, rather than under the First Amendment, which protects against freedom of speech as expression.
To see this, we might compare the use of the word “gay” and “faggot” in terms of the actions that they contain. Both words are used to refer to the same type of individual and hence could easily feature in the expression of one’s opinions. However, while the former does not seem to do anything apart from its denotative function, the latter does much more than the conventional use of language as expression — it has a distinct act: the act of demonizing, abnormalizing, or stigmatizing that particular identity. Hence, to use the latter term to describe gays today is to perform an act of condemnation more so than it is to communicate meaning. We shudder at such politically incorrect language, not because of its intended meaning, but because of its unintentional act — one that attaches a stigmatized meaning to a particular group and intends to deprive them membership into society.
Political correctness is not, as formerly understood, a blind censorship of opinion, but a suppression of harmful speech acts. It is disingenuous to suggest otherwise; doing so would be to equate the derogatory words of our language with words used primary to communicate — in other words, to refuse the relationship between speech and action.
Today, we live in a society in which shoplifting is a punishable crime, but characterizing Mexicans as "rapists" can be rubbed off as an exercise of free speech. In this case, we seem to have severely misunderstood the nature of speech acts. It is quite possible to celebrate our freedom of expression protected under the First Amendment while simultaneously condemning the violent nature of hate speech, which should be evaluated as harmful actions more so than words of communication. But only by recognizing this distinction can we see through the false dichotomy between curtailing harmful speech acts (political correctness) and our right to free speech. It’s time we abandon the assumption that actions speak louder than words because, more often than not, words do more than actions.
Chang Che is a comparative literature major from Ann Arbor, Mich. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.