Flexner Book Club Blog

2011 Mary Flexner Lecturer: Judith Butler

First Do No Harm

I have said many times in these blog entries that I am fortunate. Of course, being fortunate does not mean you never experience pain. Pain fades, however, and a little hurt you can get over.

Harm, on the other hand, is a hurt that won’t heal. It is ongoing, the result of repetitive hurts—or traumatic ones. Harm is usually over time, and it is often systematic. Harm is a pervasive threat. And harm makes us anxious.

I pondered the connection between hurt, harm and anxiety in reading Butler’s “Burning Acts, Injurious Speech.” The decision of the Supreme Court in R.A.V. v. St Paul constitutes “highly consequential speech” (223) that Butler suggests can itself be seen as harmful. In its decision, Butler tells us, the Court erases both the blackness of the victimized family and the historical connotations of cross burning. It negates the hurt to the family and the harm to society from such actions and, incredibly, places harm with the Minnesota State Supreme Court, whose previous application of a St. Paul city ordinance, Justice Scalia implied, threatened the First Amendment. Butler suggests that the justices’ writing might be seen as “anxious deflections and reversals of the injurious action at hand” (227). And I believe, as she suggests, that anxious responses to harm have the capacity to cause additional harm.

The impact of harm—even the threat of harm—makes us anxious. When the citizens of Los Angeles responded to the harm caused by the LAPD (over time, but graphically in the video of the 1991 beating of Rodney King and indirectly in the jury’s acquittal of the officers inflicting the violence) by burning their own city, their anxiety and anger caused additional harm.

What happens when those in power act on their anxiety? Was the Supreme Court in its 1992 R.A.V. v. St Paul decision “protecting itself against [past and future] riots. . . which appeared to be attacking the system of justice itself,” as Butler theorizes? (227)

The failure to deal appropriately with harm in our society yields more harm. When we ignore or in our anxiety attempt to invert the harm of racism, homophobia, and sexism, we lose. When we substitute the injured for the injurer (229), we harm. Butler urges us to look at the “discursive power” of the Supreme Court (223), claiming rightly that its “speech [sometimes] exercises the power to injure precisely by virtue of being invested with the authority to adjudicate the injurious power of speech” (229).

Our freedom of speech is limited; it is restricted if it causes harm. As Butler observes, it can be difficult to say what speech/which actions are harmful. In “Burning Acts, Injurious Speech,” she points out inconsistencies and incongruities in who or what is protected and who or what is harmed. I appreciate, as always, her intellect and her ability to pick apart language and assumptions. But sometimes, I want to retreat to what I can do—what the average person can do about the issues she raises. Primum non nocere—First, do no harm. The charge should apply to everyone, not just doctors. And then, it should be followed by another rule: Work to right the harm already existing in society.

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