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What Wittgenstein Can Teach Us about Microaggressions

At Seattle Pacific University, hundreds of students, faculty, alumni, and parents have signed a petition demanding that the administration implement an anonymous reporting system that would free campus of “inappropriate speech and behavior”—in other words, of microaggressions.

While this petition may intend to protect students from “implicit oppression,” it’s actually harmful. Establishing such punitive restrictions on language transfers the power of giving meaning irrevocably to the receiver, violating the reality that words have meaning as spoken, not only as heard.

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein made famous the idea that we find meaning in the speaker’s use of language, not the listener’s. For example, I might use the noun “lie,” to mean deception, not falsehood, because you could deceive someone without saying anything false (withholding the truth). “Sam” might use the term “lie” to mean falsehood. The word “lie” alone can signify a variety of concepts, depending on the meaning the user wishes to communicate. The point is that the listener doesn’t dictate the meaning of our words; we, the speakers, do. 

Many of the students and faculty at SPU believe that we must eliminate microaggressions (generally defined as subtle yet offensive comments or actions and usually directed toward minorities) from everyday conversation to eliminate discrimination from campus. Apparently comments such as, “You speak English so well” or, my personal favorite, “You are so pretty for an Asian” are manifestations of such “oppression”. But systems that suppress such “inappropriate speech or behavior” prohibit Wittgenstein’s proper understanding of language and meaning because they rely exclusively on what the receiver hears (or wants to hear) rather than what the user intends. Banning microaggressions forces all users of words (i.e. anybody who merely wants to communicate) to submit to the language game of every individual who could receive the words and misinterpret their meaning.

This is problematic. Language is supposed to help us communicate: to inform, to relate, to transmit, to connect. We can’t have conversations without knowing what to expect when interacting with others and assuming that others play by the same rules. If our listeners know our meaning better than we do, if we go into every conversation with the fear of inflicting microaggression, then we can no longer communicate. We can no longer connect. We can no longer build relationships.  

So, instead of relying on the language game of the receiver, we must have conversations. We must keep in mind that others in the conversation may have different intentions and meanings—both when speaking and when listening. We cannot protect everyone from being offended, implicitly or explicitly, but we can still protect conversations and relationships by assuming the good intent of both speaker and listener. 

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