INTERVIEW: Paul-Mikhail Catapang Podosky on 'Agency, Power, and Injustice in Metalinguistic Disagreement'
Interviewed by Joey Pollock
1. In your work, you argue for the importance of recognising the impact of power imbalances in so-called ‘metalinguistic negotiations’. What is a metalinguistic negotiation? How does it differ from our everyday notion of disagreement?
Perhaps the best way to get a grip on metalinguistic negotiation, and how it stands out relative to our ordinary thinking about disagreement, is by comparing two types of conversation. Consider first the following exchange:
It’s pretty clear what this disagreement is about. It concerns Bongbong Marcos’ numerical position in the list of Filipino Presidents. But while it’s important to note what the speakers are disagreeing about, it is just as important to note what they agree on. A and B agree on all of the relevant concepts at play within conversation. They both mean the same thing by the term ‘Philippines,’ they do not have obscure or strange ideas about what constitutes a ‘President,’ and they accept that 16 comes before 17. We might call this a first-order disagreement. It is ‘first-order’ to the extent that the disagreement strictly concerns facts about the world and the disputing parties agree about which concepts to use in representing these facts.
You might wonder: how else could a disagreement take shape? Consider another exchange:
Again, it’s obvious what this disagreement is about: C and D disagree as to whether kissing someone outside of their relationship counts as ‘cheating.’ But there’s something distinctive about this exchange compared to first-order disagreements. Where A and B agree on the relevant concepts but disagree about the facts, C and D agree on the facts but disagree about the relevant concepts. To put it differently, C and D have different concepts of cheating, and they are arguing over which is the best concept to apply to the act of kissing outside of their relationship.
This latter kind of disagreement is known as metalinguistic negotiation. It contrasts with our usual understanding of disagreement insofar as it involves different attitudes at the level of concepts, rather than first-order facts. Despite its departure from ordinary thinking, metalinguistic negotiation is a part of our everyday lives.
2. You point out that existing research has been overly focused on metalinguistic negotiations that take place under ideal conditions. What does this mean? What do we see when we turn our attention to the non-ideal cases?
Think about a formal debate. Two sides speak in turn, for or against a contention. The context is structured such that each side gets a certain amount of time to put forward their position, and where interjections are prohibited or mostly unallowed. There aren’t really limitations on what speakers can say, perhaps apart from the use of curse words, and all contributions are given equal consideration.
These are extremely ideal conditions for disagreement. The rules allow speakers to make uninterrupted arguments for their point of view, which is heard and taken seriously by opponents (and judges). For the most part, I imagine, formal debates don’t tend to be about which concepts speakers ought to use. Nevertheless, metalinguistic negotiation can be ‘ideal’ in a similar way. I have argued that in ideal metalinguistic negotiations, speakers are conversational peers insofar as they can contribute equally to the processes involved in determining which concept will be used in a particular context. Take the disagreement between C and D above. For this disagreement to be ideal, both C and D must be able to defend, with equal consideration, their preferred concept of cheating as being apt or appropriate for the situation – they must be able to make equal contributions to settling the question of whether kissing outside of their relationship counts as cheating. That is, both must be able to make a similar impact on conversation by taking time to listen to one another and weighing up the reasons that would likely lead to one concept being jointly accepted.
This is how I have interpreted much of the philosophical literature on metalinguistic negotiation. There seems to be a sense in which philosophers have projected idealised versions of themselves onto the public. The representation of metalinguistic negotiation in this literature appears to assume that speakers are able to contribute equally to conceptual disagreement, or that the relative contributions and impact of speakers are roughly the same.
Formal debates do a particularly good job, though imperfectly, of abstracting themselves from real-world power structures. As a matter of fact, however, disagreements in the wild tend not to take this shape. As typical socially situated subjects, we are not abstracted from power-relations. We exist within them. And they affect the dynamics of disagreement, even at the level of concepts. In other words, metalinguistic negotiation in the wild is rarely ideal. Most metalinguistic negotiations are non-ideal. Speakers are not usually able to contribute equally to conceptual disagreement, where one speaker tends to have more control over which concept is chosen as apt or appropriate for the situation.
When we attend to this fact, we begin to see just how worrying metalinguistic negotiation can be: it is often infected by the unjust power that is responsible for the oppression of particular social groups.
3. You write that some non-ideal metalinguistic negotiations are benign, whereas others are deeply worrying. What is it that makes some of these interactions morally problematic and not others?
Many cases of metalinguistic negotiation are reasonably unproblematic. In their oft-cited example, David Plunkett and Tim Sundell (2013) discuss a situation in which speakers disagree over which concept should be expressed by the word ‘spicy’ in a particular context. Provided that the situation is innocuous, where speakers are simply exchanging their respective thoughts about the spiciness of a dish, then it doesn’t really matter whether one person has greater control to determine which concept of spicy should be used. In fact, sometimes unequal control is warranted. We might imagine that one of the speakers is a notable chef that has better insight into what counts as spicy in, say, the Australian context. It seems right that given the chef’s expertise, they ought to have more of a say as to which concept of spicy is appropriate – especially when deciding whether to add more spice.
But other non-ideal metalinguistic negotiations are seriously troubling. These are situations in which settling on a particular concept is practically important, but where the process of determining which concept to use is skewed in favour of someone with greater power owing to their dominant social identity. To see this, consider the following exchange where a woman makes claims of sexual harassment against her male boss:
What makes this case especially worrying is that our society is patriarchal, misogynistic, and sexist, with a history of systematically under-ascribing credibility to women, especially when it comes to sexual harassment allegations, on the grounds of being ‘hysterical’, ‘over-sensitive’, and ‘paranoid.’ Moreover, our society tends to over-ascribe credibility to men, with operative stereotypes of men as objective, rational, and level-headed.
In the conversation between the woman and her male boss, these existing norms and stereotypes become apparent in the context given the nature of the topic. This infects its dynamics with unjust power relations. Because men are considered objective and women are seen as hysterical, the boss acquires greater control over the processes that determine which concept of sexual harassment will be used. There is unequal power in metalinguistic negotiation that tracks social identity. In this case it’s gender.
The practical upshots of this are significant. If the man gets his way, and his preferred concept becomes operative in the context, then the woman’s claim will be dismissed. The act won’t be considered sexual harassment. This frustrates the woman’s ability to pick out a particular wrong-doing, and to have it recognised by her wrong-doer. And it prevents the woman from being able to seek redress, either personally or institutionally.
4. You argue that these morally problematic cases involve a particular kind of injustice. What is it that is different or distinctive about the injustice these cases exhibit?
I have argued that problematic forms of non-ideal metalinguistic negotiation involve distinctive types of injustice. There are different ways of understanding what (in)justice is. What I am interested in is epistemic and linguistic injustice. Broadly, epistemic injustice occurs when one is wronged as an epistemic subject – as someone who knows, or believes, or understands, or inquires. And linguistic injustice, a less familiar form, occurs when one is wronged as a linguistic subject – as someone who communicates, or describes, or expresses. Given that both epistemic and linguistic capacities are distinctive human capacities, then when one is undermined as an epistemic or linguistic subject, they are undermined as human beings. And when one is not treated as fully human, then one is objectified.
Epistemic and linguistic injustice occurs within non-ideal metalinguistic negotiations. To see this, we can simply reflect on how the woman’s epistemic and linguistic capacities become seriously limited in the conversation with her boss. When the boss denies the allegation and puts forward an alternative concept of sexual harassment that would get him off the hook, the power dynamics that kick-in make the situation one in which the woman can no longer contribute equally to conceptual disagreement owing to being a woman. That is, in virtue of her gender identity, the woman loses important epistemic and linguistic capacities that constitute her humanness. She cannot make a significant contribution to epistemic conditions, such as settling on a concept that will be used to make sense of what happened to her; and she cannot make a significant contribution to linguistic conditions, such as determining what ‘sexual harassment’ will mean in the context. The woman is constrained in her ability to enact aspects of her humanity owing to prevailing prejudicial stereotypes relating to her identity. I have called this metalinguistic injustice.
Other cited works: