We’re all familiar with the ways in which speech can cause harm. For example, speech can incite wrongful acts. And I suppose we’re also familiar with contexts in which a person who occupies a position of authority can harm others simply by speaking – as when a boss announced and thereby institutes a discriminatory office policy. In such cases, the announcement is itself a harm in addition to the harm of the instituted policy – the boss’s announcement constitutes a harm and does not only cause harm. Once we’ve see the ways in which authoritative speech can constitute harm, we might look for mechanisms other than speaker authority by means of which speech can be constitutively harmful.
In her new book, Just Words: On Speech and Hidden Harm
(Oxford University Press, 2019), Mary Kate McGowan identifies a previously overlooked mechanism by which speech can be harm. On her analysis, one needn’t be positioned in an authoritative role to speak in ways that constitute harm. Rather, everyday communicative acts can constitute – and not simply cause – harm.
Mary Kate is the Margaret Capp Distinguished Alumna Professor of Philosophy at Wellesley College. She works primarily in metaphysics, philosophy of language, feminist philosophy, and philosophy of law.