Flexner Book Club Blog

2011 Mary Flexner Lecturer: Judith Butler

Who’s Responsible When?

Who or what should be held accountable, if at all, for injurious speech? In Judith Butler’s “Burning Acts, Injurious Speech,” she explains that while we think that we are subjects who are responsible for everything we say, in actuality, “a community and history of . . . speakers . . . [is] magically invoked at the moment in which the utterance is spoken” (219). In other words, we are not the “origin” (219) of our thoughts, feelings, and utterances—every time we think we speak our own words, the framework and lineage that actually produced those words is hidden. Thus, when it comes to injurious utterances, Butler is concerned with the following: “if the utterance is to be prosecuted, where and when would that prosecution begin, and where and when would it end?” (219).

Can we prosecute history? Institutions? Where do we draw a line, if at all, between personal responsibility and inherited structures of feeling and citations? How can we prosecute individuals when dominant orders (e. g. the Supreme Court) systematically sanction certain kinds of injurious speech and behavior? Butler thinks that “there are probably occasions when [subjects] should” (220) be prosecuted for their injurious words, but she wonders if “understanding from where speech derives its powers to wound [could] alter our conception of what it might mean to counter that wounding power” (220).

While reading this, I couldn’t get the recent tragedy of Jamey Rodemeyer out of my mind. Jamey, a 14-year-old boy, committed suicide after being bullied for years because of his sexual orientation. Much of this bullying occurred on the Web, particularly on sites like Formspring—forums that allow you to publicly but anonymously pose questions and comments to account owners. Jamey’s story is sadly one that we are hearing too often.

More and more, reports of suicide in young persons are linked to bullying of that person’s confirmed or suspected sexual orientation and/or gender identity. Cyberbullying (especially in forums like Formspring or on social network sites where it’s easy to create fake accounts for the purpose of harassment) is also on the rise, perhaps because these sites almost guarantee that the one doing the bullying won’t be held responsible because of anonymity and privacy policies. In Jamey’s case, authorities are currently considering pressing charges against at least three classmates for whom they do have evidence of bullying, which include utterances such as “JAMIE IS STUPID, GAY, FAT ANND [sic] UGLY. HE MUST DIE!” and “I wouldn’t care if you died. No one would. So just do it : ) It would make everyone WAY more happier!”

While prosecution is difficult in cases like this, the students who bullied 15-year-old Phoebe Prince, who committed suicide in March 2010, all received some sort of sentencing, and the roommate of Tyler Clementi, the college student who committed suicide after his roommate released a recorded video of Tyler in a sexual encounter, was recently indicted. None of their charges were actually called bullying, but rather the acts that have been deemed as playing a role in the person’s suicide. As more of these reports make it into the mainstream media, the more discussion about anti-bullying legislation has entered the conversations.

With these cases in mind, it’s difficult to wrap my mind around the ideas put forth by Butler. Yes, the dominant order systemically enforces homophobia, racism, classism, transphobia, fatphobia, and a multitude of other —isms and —phobias of all those bodies who fall outside of or threaten the norm. Yes, we are interpellated, yes we have structures of feeling that conceal the dominant order’s oppressive aims. So yes, bullying might be a symptom of larger issues. But how can we not hold individuals accountable for statements like the ones mentioned above to Jamey?

What might Butler say about injurious speech’s ability to contribute to these tragic ends? Who else could be even held responsible for such blatant speech consciously being put forth with the intent of hurting another? If all subjects are subject to the dominant order’s oppressive aims, why aren’t all normative subjects bullying or uttering injurious speech? In regard to legislation, Butler might argue that it would be difficult to create some kind of law when the very system creating the law helps perpetuate that which it would supposedly be preventing. With that in mind, should anti-bullying legislation focus on the individuals who bully, or should the context(s) of the individual (Family? Neighborhood? Communities?) be taken into account? When can and should the subject be responsible? How might we intervene at levels beside the individual, and how might these interventions occur in a way that doesn’t serve the hegemonic order?

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