How to do racist things with words

In contemplating the state of political discussion on the right wing of US politics, I found myself thinking about the celebrated work How To Do Things with Words, by the linguistic philosopher J. L. Austin.

I’ve been trying to understand the way Republicans talk about Donald Trump. For months mainstream Republicans have been predicting that Trump would “pivot” toward the general election and adopt a more “presidential” tone.  “Pivot”, a term that usually describes a turn away from the interests of ideological allies in ones own party toward emphasising more centrist positions, but in the special context of this presidential election means ceasing to make racist attacks and boasting about penis size.

Republicans don’t like Trump’s open racism. You might think they would then not support him. Or (and I’m not so naive as to miss their inescapable self-interest in continuing to support him) if they find his racism just embarrassing but not inherently a problem they might publicly condemn it, while privately encouraging him to tone it down, and hope that people will forget. Instead, though, they are publicly encouraging him to stop making racist comments. For example, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said “He needs to quit these gratuitous attacks on other Americans”, and said “Donald Trump has got a lot of good qualities, but he needs to put them forward and suppress some of these other actions.” Senator Bob Corker said Trump has “two or three weeks” to “pivot to a place where he becomes a true general election candidate.”

Now, it would be one thing if Trump just had a penchant for saying a business associate had made a niggardly offer, without recognising that some people think that word sounds like a racial slur, or couldn’t get out of the habit of saying a negotiator had “jewed him down” or “gypped” him or “welshed” on a deal, without ever having really thought about what these terms mean. Trump has been making sustained racist attacks on Mexicans and Muslims, as clearly conceived and formulated as anything he says. His racist statements are not offensive actions, but declarative propositions that presumably reflect his beliefs, to the extent that he has any coherent beliefs. Asking him to “tone it down” is essentially to encourage him to keep his racism under wraps until he is elected.

Or, as Shakespeare’s Henry V put it,

I know no ways to mince it in love, but
directly to say ‘I love you:’ then if you urge me
farther than to say ‘do you in faith?’ I wear out
my suit. Give me your answer; i’ faith, do: and so
clap hands and a bargain: how say you, lady?

2 thoughts on “How to do racist things with words”

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