Monday, July 24, 2023

Exercitives and Covert Exercitives

 Kukla and Lance have recently published a peculiar paper, Telling Gender: The Pragmatics and Ethics of Gender Ascription. I find the argument being made completely baffling. They say, early on:

...Jenkins (2021), Dembroff and Wodak (2018), and Àsta (2018) have all suggested that gender ascriptions function as exercitives. That is, they institute social norms for how people should be treated. Here, we take up this suggestion in detail. We look at how this instituting function works, and how this function differs depending on who utters a gender ascription, about whom, and to what audience. We examine the consequences of taking seriously the idea that the primary function of gender ascriptions is not to make declarative truth claims.

While 'gender ascriptions', like anything else, can function in an exercitive speech act, the notion that gender ascriptions in general are exercitive is immensely implausible, and in direct contradiction to our actual evidence. Exercitives are authoritative enactments. If a parent says to a child, "You will not get a tattoo", this is often an exercitative: the parent, acting in authoritative manner as parent, is enacting a policy of no tattoos. Thus for any exercitive, the two major questions are always, "What authority is being exercised here?" and "What policy, rule, or state is being enacted through the exercise of that authority?" It's important to grasp that merely causing a norm is not sufficient for an exercitive; if someone gives advice and, because of the respect other people have, the advice is treated by others as a norm or standard, this doesn't make the advice exercitive. Something has to be imposed by and through authority for it to be an exercitive in a proper sense. 

It seems very clear that gender ascriptions are not generally exercitives in a proper sense. If someone comes in and says, "There is a boy at the door and he is asking about a dog", there appears to be no normative authority being exercised and no policy, rule, or norm being enacted. The claim is clearly declarative; even if one held that it was not aptly declarative, it is clearly intended as a declarative; and it quite clearly admits of being true or false in virtue of facts outside the speech act itself, and could be proven wrong by the discovery (for instance) that the boy is actually not a boy. All of this points to the original claim being an ordinary truth claim. Likewise, if one were to say, "The victim's assailant was a man," we are not authoritatively enacting man-norms; we are just trying to describe the assailant.

There is a concept that one occasionally finds of a 'covert exercitive'. For instance, a building manager putting up a 'No Smoking' sign and thereby instituting a no-smoking policy is engaging in an excercitive act in the proper sense; but if someone comes in smoking and I, as a nobody, point to the sign and say, "No Smoking", my action would be an example of a 'covert exercitive'. It is immensely unclear whether covert exercitives are even exercitives at all, or are best understood as exercitives even in an extended sense of the term. (A speech act that is exercitive in the proper sense could also be covert exercitive, but it's extremely doubtful that being a covert exercitive makes something exercitive.) The primary reason for thinking that covert exercitives have a relation to standard exercitives is the argument that while the building manager is enacting a policy on his own authority, I am in some sense re-enacting the rule on the business manager's authority; it gets called 'covert' because the obvious sense is that I am pointing out a policy already in existence, but one would could say that in some sense of the term I am enacting (by trying to make effective here and now) the policy on authority (albeit the business manager's and not my own). But this has a huge price; on this particular conception, it becomes difficult to find anything that is clearly not a covert exercitive. Indeed, the philosopher who has most explored the notion of the covert exercitive, Mary Kate McGowan, holds that a very large portion of our ordinary conversation involves covert exercitives. (My own view, which I will not argue or explain here, is that covert exercitives are not exercitives, and it doesn't make sense to think of them as exercitives even in the extended sense, because what is being called 'exercitive' here is perlocutionary, not illocutionary. I think also that the topic gets confused because some things that are called covert exercitives are actually defective attempts to engage in a deliberate exercitive speech act.)

It seems that Kukla and Lance take 'exercitive' to include 'cover exercitive', since they go on later to appeal to Katherine Jenkins's argument that gender classifications are covert exercitives. But a covert -exercitive account seems to run into the problem that, contrary to what Kukla and Lance imply, something's being a covert exercitive doesn't seem exclude its being a declarative truth claim. If a teacher protests behavior by saying, "This is a classroom", this seems to be a covert exercitive (the teacher is not the authority who authorizes whether something is a classroom or not, but the teacher is in practice imposing a set of norms by the act that get authority from that classroom-authorization); but it would obviously be absurd to deny that it is a declarative truth claim. We can actually check whether it is really a classroom, and can make perfect sense of the teacher being misinformed about school policy or the law, and therefore saying something false. What's more, the covert exercitive seems to get its bite precisely from the fact that it states something apparently true.

But the notion that gender ascriptions themselves are usually covert exercitives is also extremely implausible. If someone says, "My niece is a brilliant girl", what rule or norm or policy is being imposed, and through what authority? One might take the phrase as a cue for what normative system of referring you use when talking about the person's niece, but again, just as something is not an exercitive merely because it happens to cause rule-following, neither is something a covert exercitive merely because it happens to lead to people following norms of some relevant kind. Probably people who say, "My niece is a brilliant girl", are just bragging about their sibling's child, and bragging involves making truth claims. If we go back to, "There is a boy at the door and he is asking about a dog", it's not being said to the boy but to another person, and it seems most likely that the intent is to indicate that there is a person at the door, whom the speaker takes to be a boy, who is asking about a dog. If a victim of assault is asked to describe the assailant and says among other things, "He was a man", it seems very much that they were, in fact, describing the assailant. It could be, of course, that they are incorrect and mistakenly thought that someone who was not a man was a man, but they are quite clearly intending to make a declarative truth claim in order to facilitate accurate identification, not impose a policy or rule or norm about how the assailant is to be treated. And so on and so forth. Covert exercitives are only covert 'exercitives' (whether or not they are proper exercitives or exercitives in an extended sense) because they seem to have a structure at least suggestive of an exercitive. Most of the time when people are engaging in what Kukla and Lance call 'gender ascription', that structure is nowhere in sight.

Now, none of this implies that gender ascriptions are never used exercitively; as far as I know there is no ascription of any kind that could not in principle be used exercitively under the right conditions. And certainly in engaging in an exercitive one may use gender ascriptions; this is not quite the same as the gender ascription itself being exercitive, but perhaps it would be close enough to count. And the same is true of covert exercitives. But there is just no reason to think that these occasional cases are the usual case.

Kukla and Lance in any case seem to have a weird notion of how 'gender ascriptions as exercitives' seems to work. They make a strange analogy to friendship throughout the paper:

But there are other things that can be ascribed that are normatively inflected all the way down; to ascribe them to someone is to insert them into a location in social normative space. To call me a friend is not in the first instance to call attention to empirical facts about me and then to make normative inferences from those facts, but to impose expectations for what I should do, what my obligations are, how it is appropriate for me to behave, what counts as social success for me.

I'm very sure that this is not an accurate claim about friendship ascriptions in general. I suppose I have come across people who might think of friendship ascription in something like this way; but they are literally psychopaths and thus not typical. Most people take it that calling someone a friend in most situations is classifying them by historical connection in life, which is, in the relevant sense, a set of 'empirical facts' that are taken to license various normative inferences. There are situations in which this would not be the case, of course; but most people don't say, "You are my friend", in an attempt to "impose expectations" but to acknowledge what they regard as a fact. I don't have any problem with saying that "You are my friend" is "to insert [a person] into a location in social normative space", but "That person is on the side of the road" also inserts the person into a location in social normative space. Very many of the things we do insert people or things into social normative space, because we are social normative beings and therefore our ordinary life is lived in social normative space. But this doesn't make something even a covert exercitive, and it doesn't exclude the possibility that they are in the first instance concerned with facts.