Ignorant speech, which spreads falsehoods about people and policies, is pervasive in public discourse. A popular response to this problem recommends countering ignorant speech with more speech, rather than legal regulations. However, Mary Kate McGowan has influentially argued that this ‘counterspeech’ response is flawed, as it overlooks the asymmetric pliability of conversational norms: the phenomenon whereby some conversational norms are easier to enact than subsequently to reverse.
After demonstrating that this conversational ‘stickiness’ is an even broader concern for counterspeech than McGowan suggests—it applies not just to oppressive or hateful speech, but also to ordinary policy-related misinformation—I argue that a more sophisticated account of counterspeech can nevertheless overcome it.
First, the stickiness objection overlooks the distinction between ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ counterspeech. Instead of directly negating a distorted proposition, positive counterspeech affirms a correct proposition that is inconsistent with the falsehoods at hand. This, I contend, allows it to counter ignorant speech without triggering the properties that render it sticky.
Second, the stickiness objection presupposes an unrefined conception of counterspeech’s temporality. Counterspeech should be understood as a diachronic process, which not only follows, but also pre-empts, ignorant utterances. Drawing on speech-act theories of silencing, I argue that pre-emptive counterspeech can condition the conversational context so as to prevent subsequent ignorant utterances from enacting sticky conversational norms.
Thus, this theoretically-refined conception of counterspeech helps appreciate how verbal responses might overcome the stickiness of conversational norms; and, in doing so, it reveals that this stickiness need not provide reasons to prefer legal remedies to counterspeech.
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