Editorial Team (Mansi Rathour)

Most of us are rather quick to show our support in favor of free speech or the right to speak freely since it is one of the fundamental rights in most countries around the world. A closer look at it will reveal that however revered free speech may be as a right within a democracy, it is however in an alternate sense silencing the speech of others.

Free Speech does not just entail to the verbally spoken words, but also to the written words or words and meanings conveyed through visuals and other media tools. While this position has been prominently defended by Hornsby, Langton, and others[1] called the Illocutionary silencing model, I focus my attention towards seeing if at how texts (scientific texts) while being free speech on one hand could lead to the silencing of speech of women in particular.

Upon reading scientific texts in reputed journals and medical textbooks, it was rather clear to me that the language used was highly gendered. Take for example the classic case of the description of male and female reproductive organs. The former is described with adjectives such as produces these many sperms’ and ‘fertilizes the egg’ while the latter being associated with waits for the sperm to fertilize’ and ‘the egg sheds away’.[2] Notice how the active words of producing and fertilizing are applicable to the male sperm while the egg is depicted to be dormant without any agency.

But how is it that a gendered language in texts leads to the silencing of women? The paradox of free speech. Science and scientific texts come with a sense of power and authority in our societies. What such texts do is that they affect the capability of women of what they can do with their words. Words are not merely spoken, written, or heard. We also do things with our words and speech like warn somebody, refuse, or apologize to somebody. These then become examples of speech-acts wherein one performs the action by speaking the word itself. In saying I am sorry to my mother; I am doing the act of apologizing to her as well.

The connection of the scientific texts to the silencing of women’s speech is not of direct causation, but an indirect one. A society that trusts and places paramount faith in science and scientists is then influenced by a gendered language in which the female is almost always shown to be dormant, passive, submissive. Now, imagine a situation wherein the women perform the speech-act of refusal. In saying the word ‘no’ the women also intend to refuse or decline something. This has escalated and resulted in many situations of ‘no’ meaning ‘yes’ owed to the years of training under the gendered language. Here then, a woman’s right to the speech-act is declined and makes the right to free speech a complex one. The woman’s refusal, ‘no’ is not taken to be performed since many times the intended meaning is not received by the audience. She is then unable to perform and do what she intended to with the word ‘no’ and fails at her speech-act.

It becomes imperative to have a closer look at the language that we employ in our texts, especially those that enjoy the position of control and authority such as scientific texts. Could we not have the description of reproduction like, when the sperm and the egg come into contact, fertilization takes place that does not necessarily imply gendered activity or passivity. While many may counter saying that well everyone should have a right to speech and from which it follows is that women are also free to say ‘no’ or refuse, the fact remains that its not the mere locution or the verbal speech that is silenced by gendered language rather the speech-act which is curtailed, limited or even silenced completely.

Free speech should be applicable not just to the speaking or the verbal aspect, but also to the realm of what we do with words, i.e. speech-acts. The failure of the speech-act of women is primarily due to the position of women and how their meaning is understood due to a gendered scientific understanding of the world and us. This results in society with the right to free speech for all broadly, but which itself limits the speech of some upon a closer examination. This is the paradox of free speech.

References

Martin, Emily. 1991. “The Egg and the Sperm: How Science Has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society (University of Chicago Press) 16 (3): 485-501.

Hornsby, Jennifer, and Rae Langton. 1998. “Free speech and illocution.” Legal Theory 4 (1): 21-37.


[1] Hornsby and Langton can be credited for using the free speech argument to defend women’s liberty for illocution where while uttering a word, one also performs an action as well. They specifically use free speech as silencing women’s right to illocution.

[2]Emily Martin’s paper on the presence of gendered perceptions in scientific texts in (Martin 1991) brings to light how scientific language denies positive images to women. Here I use that to further build upon how that denies a woman do things with her words.


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