In a famous series of lectures delivered at Harvard in 1955, the philosopher James Langshaw Austin told us something everyone already knew: Language doesn’t just say things, it can also do things. In publication, the book based on these lectures took this point and ran with it.
How to Do Things With Words was not only Austin’s most influential work, it is simply one of the most effective performances by a philosopher since Rene Descartes hung out in Ulm, meditating in his poêle.
Austin’s work has lately been most honored in the breach, notably by Judith Butler, whose own sense of performance has been more nuanced, and often more inspiring, than even that of the Oxford don. Just yesterday, however, here in Geneva, Hillary Clinton gave a human rights speech at the UN’s Palais des Nations. Somewhat counterintuitively, given her subject, it was Austin, not Butler, whose spirit animated this address.
In her “Remarks in Recognition of International Human Rights Day,” Clinton made a historic choice: “to talk about the work we have left to do to protect one group of people whose human rights are still denied in too many parts of the world today,” namely “gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people.” Just hours earlier, the White House released a presidential memorandum on the “global challenge” to “end discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons” in which President Obama directs “Agencies involved with foreign aid, assistance, and development” to “enhance their ongoing efforts […] “to build respect for the human rights of LGBT persons.”
Austin was very clear about this: in order for speech to act, certain conditions need to be met. Specific words need to be said (“I christen,” “I bequeath,” “I pronounce”), and one’s standing also matters. Not just anyone can say these words and expect them to take effect. Finally, where matters equally with what and who: an official ceremony, a legal will, a church or courtroom may well be necessary.
My point here is that, when the U.S. Secretary of State speaks in Geneva at the United Nations, or when the White House issues a memo, such language cannot be dismissed as mere words, as empty rhetoric. These words matter.
A key moment came when Clinton argued that “our commitments to protect the freedom of religion and to defend the dignity of LGBT people emanate from a common source.” She went on to note that, “For many of us, religious belief and practice is a vital source of meaning and identity, and fundamental to who we are as people. And likewise, for most of us, the bonds of love and family that we forge are also vital sources of meaning and identity.” Amen to that.
Afterwards, a particularly sharp student commented to me that one word Hillary did not use, even once, was “marriage.” True enough. The December 6th foreign policy initiative, in both speech and memo, focuses solely on criminal violence against the LGBT community, and does not aim for more affirmative action. Still, what are these “bonds of love and family that we forge”? A marriage that dare not pronounce its name.
When Hillary Clinton came into the hall, the audience of roughly one thousand greeted her warmly. On one side of the room – first from the front, then slowly those farther back – people stood up to welcome her. After her speech, in contrast, there was neither hesitation nor division in the crowd’s response to the American Secretary of State. A standing ovation, a real one. And this time, I was standing too.