A Short Writing Sample: Maitra on Licensing Authority for Subordinating Speech

I am currently taking a seminar in which we were assigned to read Maitra’s “Subordinating Speech” in Speech and Harm: Controversies Over Free Speech (2012) and then write up an 800 to 1,000-word response. (We were given lots of freedom in how we wanted to respond, but were given the general guidelines of it likening to part of a paper rather than a whole paper, and targeting a specific aspect of the work rather than the whole.) The aim of these assignments, and this seminar as a whole, is not to help us learn any particular topic in philosophy, but instead to make us better academic philosophers by honing our reading, writing, and engagement skills.

I thought it might be helpful, both to my future self and to those reading this (especially undergraduate students looking to improve their writing skills in philosophy), to share my writing response and the comments I received. Overall I felt pretty good about this paper. It’s not the best piece of philosophical work I’ve ever produced, but it’s exactly what it needs to be: a good sample of academic philosophical writing.

So, a few preliminary notes:

  • As I mentioned, this is written in direct response to Maitra’s piece on subordinating speech. Given the short nature of the assignment, I do not provide a summary of the arguments I am responding to thoroughly enough for my paper to be fully appreciated without first reading Maitra. The PhilPapers link to her work is here.
  • I will add numbers throughout the paper to mark where my professor has added her comments. In text, each number will be bolded and underlined to distinguish it from other numbers that may appear in my paper. The note attached to each number will consist of nothing but her commentary, verbatim, and will be compiled at the end of my paper.
    • I can’t fucking figure out how to add regular footnotes in a WordPress blog post???
  • This paper was not formatted according to any particular style (APA, MLA, etc.). I’m beginning to think no one cares until the papers become ~*official*~, because I legit made up a style for all the final term papers I submitted last semester and no one docked me for nor commented on it.
  • Below the line is a direct copy & paste of the essay I turned in. The formatting has changed slightly in the process of C&P-ing as plain text to WordPress, though all the emphasis is found in the original paper.

Against Maitra’s Account of Licensing Authority

Maitra’s main project in her piece Subordinating Speech is to broaden our conception of authority. The idea is that subordination, which includes “[ranking] their targets as inferior, [depriving] them of rights and powers, and [legitimating] discriminatory behavior towards them,” (95) 1 requires authority, and thus some have argued that ordinary instances of racist hate speech cannot constitute subordination. By expanding what it means to possess authority in the relevant sense, Maitra aims to refute this position. 2

I want to focus on one way in which Maitra claims the authority to subordinate can be granted: licensing. Roughly speaking, licensing is “a kind of granting of authority” which “depends on (relevant) others refraining from challenging the speech.” (107) In the example given, an Arab woman is verbally harassed by a white man in a subway car. Maitra claims that because none of the other passengers challenged him, we can consider this a licensing of the man’s authority and thus a case of subordination of the Arab woman. (115) Hers is an argument from analogy: 3 She compares this to a clear case of a man being licensed by his friend group to delegate tasks to them in preparation for a hike, despite no one putting him in charge of planning. Because none of his friends objected to his ‘taking over’, so to speak, he is granted authority in the relevant sense. (106-107) The reasoning employed by Maitra in this section of her chapter strikes me as reaching. In what follows I want to express my concerns, particularly in what I take to be two significant disanalogies between the subway and hiking cases.

First, Maitra claims that in both the subway case and the hiking case, a person is granted authority, or licensed, because of a failure on part of the involved parties to express disagreement to their speech acts. But this is not the only reason that the man comes to have authority in the hiking case: not only do none of the man’s friends object, but furthermore they carry out the tasks assigned to them. (106) 4 Had this man’s friends stayed silent during his delegation of tasks yet also refrained from acting on his directions, it is doubtful that we would be correct in still considering this a case of licensing. Thus, it is not merely a lack of action that needs to take place (if such a thing can be said to ‘take place’ at all), but rather a lack of dissent coupled with some positive sense of action on the basis of the speech act. In the subway case, no such action (i.e., action in the positive sense as opposed to merely a withholding of it) is present. Neither the Arab woman nor any of the other passengers do anything except remain silent. Thus it is not clear that Maitra is justified in concluding that the subway case is an instance of licensing in virtue of its supposed similarity to the hiking case. 5

And second, the hiking and subway cases are also disanalogous in virtue of the different ‘groups’ involved: In the hiking case, there are two distinct groups: the friend delegating, and the friends being delegated. 6 In the subway case, however, there are three distinct groups: the Arab woman, the white man, and the rest of the passengers. (I will not attempt here to justify these divisions to the reader, but I expect them to make intuitive sense.) 7 In order to make these cases truly analogous, Maitra needs to either a) alter the hiking case such that one friend is being delegated all of the tasks or b) treat the Arab woman as part of the group doing the licensing. As I will show, Maitra faces a dilemma in that either option results in objectionable consequences for her.

If Maitra chooses option (a), to alter the hiking case such that one friend is being delegated all of the tasks, then it seems much more likely in such a scenario for someone to object. A thought experiment in which friends are planning a hike and it is suggested, and then accepted, that one person shoulder all the burdens of preparation seems highly implausible. 8 And thus she would not be able to use it as an intuition pump for why we also ought to consider the subway case an instance of licensing.

If, on the other hand, Maitra chooses option (b), to treat the Arab woman as part of the group doing the licensing, then this would lead to the unpalatable result that she contributed to her own subordination by not defending herself. All the Arab woman needed to do was speak up and the white man’s authority would be nonexistent. But we obviously do not want to blame victims of racist acts for their situation and perceived status in society. Since this is precisely what we would be forced to do in this case on Maitra’s view, we should reject this option.

Since there are disanalogies between the hiking and subway cases in the actions taken (or lack thereof) as well as in the division of groups, I do not feel Maitra is justified in claiming that the white man was granted authority in the subway case on the basis of it being similar to the delegating friend being granted authority in the hiking case.

One interesting implication of my objections, which unfortunately I will not be able to delve into in this paper, is what this means for our moral obligation to intervene when we witness ordinary instances of racist hate speech. Putting my objections aside for a moment, Maitra’s theory accounts for this obligation quite nicely: “in staying silent, the other passengers are…complicit in what the hate speaker does.” (116) But if I am correct and the subway case does not display an instance of licensing, then a new explanation is needed to explain the (intuitively correct) sentiment that we ought to step in when we witness ordinary racist hate speech.

  1. I’m glad you included these criteria of subordination – it refines the subject matter.
  2. This intro paragraph is good: it manages to introduce Maitra’s project well without a lot of superfluous stuff.
  3. I’m not sure it IS an argument from analogy, so much as the camping example is meant to show that a certain thing is *possible*.
  4. OK, good. That seems relevant.
  5. Good.
  6. delegated to.
  7. They do.
  8. What if there’s one task that no-one wants and the bossy organiser assigns it to the lowest status person?

* Please do not use or quote this paper without express permission. The link to my WordPress contact page is here.

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