Coming across an interview with Susan Notess on the excellent Generous Questions philosophy podcast, I was intrigued by her perspective, as an ethicist, on the dangers of language – and delighted that she used the work of conversation analysts Liz Stokoe and Nick Enfield, among others, to illustrate her argument. She very kindly agreed to write a guest blog, introducing us to a wider horizon of scholarship about the human conversational contract.
There’s something about language which resembles conductivity. Through it we connect with each other and transmit not just stories, but also fears; not just kindness, but also power. To be able to speak and say what one means is a kind of power, and to be robbed of this power is a kind of injustice.
Conversation is so much more than just ‘transmission’; it is the medium in which so much of our humanity happens, and as such conversation can be a risky venture. The mechanisms by which conversational function is sustained and maintained, therefore, also serve as mechanisms by which intersubjectivity is sustained and maintained. If language is a primary conduit for intersubjectivity, then the repair mechanisms which are essential to communication have a vital role in caring for our intersubjective relations.
The moral norms of conversation
It is for this reason that Conversation Analysis has turned out to be a rich resource for my work investigating the moral norms of communication. The rules of conversation (and the ways we play with them) are the same material which gets deployed when we use language to hurt and to heal, to attack and to resolve disputes. The ethics of intersubjective interaction needs Conversation Analysis.
How do we move from the descriptive realm of CA to the ought-riddled ground of moral philosophy? This question worried me for some time. The ‘rules’ of conversation are the constitutive rules of a language game. This does not mean that they license us to deploy them as a basis for moral judgements of praise and blame.
Capture-the-Flag, like any game, has rules. To be playing Capture-the-Flag, one must play by the rules. If I guard the flag from within its ten-foot radius, I am in violation of the rules of the game, and my fellow players are justified in rebuking me. They are entitled to hold me accountable to the rules of our joint activity, and I am obligated to abide by the same. Infractions can be addressed; if we depart too far from the established rules then we cease to be playing this particular game, and the specific obligations and entitlements do not obtain. The question is: how could morality show up in Capture-the-Flag?
When players are ‘playing dirty’, we begin to see a new layer of normativity emerge. It is not part of the game of Capture-the-Flag for players to throw dirt in the eyes of the opposing team in order to claim the flag. It is not part of the game for players to throw rocks at the heads of players with whom they have a personal feud. Infractions such as these change the tone from a children’s game to something rather more harmful—more ‘high voltage’.
The way language is used to harm people—through silencing tactics, through hate speech, through threats and the spread of radicalisation and hostility—requires us to examine a different layer of normativity. The harm here is not a muddling of conversation rules, but moral damage. The means by which the harm occurs is conversational, but the harm is intersubjective.
Lynne Tirrell, writing about the role hate speech played in paving the way for the 1994 Rwandan genocide, notes that: ‘Studying the role of speech acts and linguistic practices in laying the groundwork of the genocide illuminates how patterns of speech acts become linguistic practices that constitute permissibility conditions for non-linguistic behaviors. Understanding this action-engendering force can make sense of thinking that words can destroy a people and a nation.’
Conversation can be a risky venture. Not all linguistic practices are of as high a voltage as the genocidal language games that were at work in Rwanda; nevertheless, we need to know how to manage the conductivity of language if we hope to cultivate non-damaging, non-violent norms of discourse. Once we understand the rules of conversation, the obligations and entitlements it generates, we can get much clearer about what is going on when people are playing dirty. We can get clearer about which violations are meaningful breaches, and which violations are enacting a different kind of intersubjective harm, causing moral damage.
The reverse is also true: when we understand the rules of conversation, we can then get much clearer about how the obligations and entitlements generated by the game can be used to accomplish various forms of intersubjective recognition and moral shoring up. Imagine if we could master the art of listening in such a way that we bring healing to the moral damage caused by the conversational abuses of others! My goal, as an ethicist, is to figure out how we can harness the conductivity of language in order to share power with the disempowered, to boost the voices of the silenced.
And for this, we need Conversation Analysis.
 N. J. Enfield, How We Talk: The Inner Workings of Conversation, First edition (New York: Basic Books, 2017), 143.
 Lynne Tirrell, “Genocidal Language Games1,” in Speech and Harm, ed. Ishani Maitra and Mary Kate McGowan (Oxford University Press, 2012), 174–221, https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199236282.003.0008.