Featured Philosop-her: Rae Langton

I am very pleased to welcome Rae Langton.  She is Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge University, and Fellow of Newnham College. Prior to this, she was Professor of Philosophy at MIT from 2004-12. She works in Ethics, Political Philosophy, History of Philosophy (especially Kant), Metaphysics and Feminist Philosophy.  She is the author of Sexual Solipsism: Philosophical Essays on Pornography and Objectification (Oxford, 2009) and Kantian Humility: Our Ignorance of Things in Themselves (Oxford, 1998). She has published in a variety of journals including Philosophy and Public Affairs, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, and the Philosophical Review. Born and raised in India, she has taught Philosophy in Australia, India, Scotland, England and the USA. Langton was recently inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and will be giving the John Locke Lectures at Oxford next year.


Free speech, media speech, and objectifying speech

Rae Langton

How do free speech principles bear on media speech? This question has received renewed attention following the Leveson Inquiry in the UK, which looked at a range of press abuses, including phone-hacking, invasions of privacy, corruption, and also—my topic here— the objectifying treatment of women. It has been agreed on all sides that any norms guiding the media should respect free speech. (I have in mind norms assumed by self-regulatory or independent regulatory structures such as, in the UK, the Press Complaints Commission, and the Royal Charter on Self-Regulation of the Press (2012).)  But in considering what this means, we need to think about what speech is, and what its point is, especially for the goals of knowledge, political participation and equality that have mattered to liberals and feminists alike. Reflection will show that these goals are not well served by sexually objectifying speech.

Speech and free speech

If we start with the idea that ‘to say something is to do something’ (Austin 1962), then speech is more than ‘only words’, and more than ‘expression’ narrowly construed.  Speakers do many things with words: tell stories, make promises, incite violence, and more. Free speech is freedom to ‘do things with words’, but includes some speech acts and not others. What is included under ‘free speech’ depends on its point. Two linked proposals have been influential: free speech is thought to provide conditions for knowledge, and for democracy. These are linked, because democracy depends, at a minimum, on our deliberating, and voting, about what we know.

J.S. Mill defended ‘freedom of expression of opinion’ in the name of truth, arguing that the collision of adverse opinions provides our best hope for knowledge. This is sometimes understood narrowly, but Mill’s conception was expansive, including a diversity of speakers, and attentive hearers as well: diverse opinions need to be ‘advocated’ and ‘listened to’ (1859). Free speech is also thought to be a condition of democracy itself (Meiklejohn 1948), enabling citizens as both speakers and hearers to engage in the political process, question authority, and ‘speak truth to power’. If knowledge and democracy supply the point of free speech, then what matters most is the communicative speech of ordinary people, and speech that enables their political participation.

Speech, like other action, is constrained by a harm principle. For Mill, the ‘opinion’ that ‘corn dealers are starvers of the poor’ provides content for different speech acts: an ‘unmolested’ argument, ‘when circulated through the press’; or a punishable incitement, ‘to an excited mob’. Mill was over-optimistic in viewing the press as venue for harmless debate, not harmful incitement, given a history where an ‘opinion’ about Jew or Tutsi circulated in the press, or broadcast on airwaves, has incited inequality, hate, and genocide. Even if harmful speech acts should receive more protection than other harmful action, a liberal, Millian perspective might not protect such speech (cf. Mill 1869, Dyzenhaus 1992, Hornsby and Langton 1998, Waldron 2012).

So there may be more, and less, to the ‘speech’ in ‘free speech’ than you might have thought: more than just only words, and less than just any words (MacKinnon 1993). Free speech may encircle more than ‘expression’, achievable in isolation, but less than ‘incitement’ and other harmful speech (Hornsby 1995; Hornsby and Langton, 1998; Langton 1993, 2009; O’Neill 2009, 2012).

Where does a free press come in? I follow Onora O’Neill in taking this to be an institutional freedom, whose value derives from the individual freedom it enables. So those goals of knowledge and political participation will the chief point of a free press too. There may be other goals as well: amusement and entertainment for readers, profit for the publisher. But whatever the value of these, they are not the main epistemic and political goals that give a free press its point.

Sexually objectifying speech

Much speech about women in the media is in the form of pictures and words that include victim-blaming stories of rape, and pornography, as defined by Catharine MacKinnon as ‘the graphic, sexually explicit subordination of women in pictures or words’, that includes ‘women dehumanized as sexual objects, things or commodities’. A range of women’s groups testified about such material to the Leveson Inquiry. Equality Now said, ‘women and girls in the UK are bombarded with stereotyped images through the media on a daily basis’, and that ‘if similar treatment were routinely meted out to a specific group based on religion, race or sexual orientation, it would not be tolerated.’  They said, ‘the widespread objectification and sexualisation of women in the UK press’ normalizes ‘stereotypical and often subordinate roles of women, promoting their second class status in society.’ Object evaluated sexually explicit portrayals of women in the tabloids that objectify women and trivialize harassment and violence. They called for consistency in the application of zoning norms for such material, to conform to expectations in broadcasting and the workplace. (One amusing symptom of the zoning anomaly: images supplied to the Leveson Inquiry by Object, from material visible in any newsagent, were deemed too graphic for the illustrious eyes of the Committee members.) Both submissions cited the UK’s commitment to the UN Convention CEDAW; and the harms to equality incompatible with that commitment, which accompany this stereotyping and objectification.

The claim that such speech objectifies women is defensible. These are speech acts that rank women as sex objects, having merely instrumental value, denying or ignoring women’s qualities as full human beings, qualities such as dignity, intelligence or autonomy (cf. Nussbaum 1995); that legitimate discrimination against women, making harassment and sexual violence more permissible; that silence women, undermining women’s powers to perform certain speech acts of sexual consent, and testimony. A woman’s ‘no’ may sometimes fail as a refusal, her account of rape fail as testimony, for hearers who have taken on board a sexually objectifying vision of women, with its victim-blaming myths about women who ‘ask for it’. (Langton 1993, 2009; Hornsby and Langton 1998; Hornsby 1995; MacKinnon 1993; West 2003, 2004).

This perspective receives support from a surprising quarter. Martin Daubney, longest serving editor of Loaded magazine, described his dawning realization that his magazine’s use of women was not ‘harmless fun, dictated by market forces’, but ‘objectification’, a ‘crass sexualization of women’ which paved the way for a younger generation to accept a false vision, a debasing view of women as one-dimensional fakes: fake boobs, fake hair, fake nails, fake orgasms and fake hope. […] Porn objectifies women, demeans and cheapens them, because it sells a fantasy where men are always in control and get what they want. But real life isn’t like that. In porn, women cry, ‘yes, yes, yes!’ but in real life, they often say, ‘no’. Not all men have the intelligence or moral fortitude to understand they cannot take what they want.

Such speech does not pretend to be ‘news’ that contributes to wider goals of knowledge or democracy. Any trade-off is not between women and the values central to free speech, but between women and money. Daubney’s comments on his magazine have wider application:

Loaded won eight industry awards for journalistic excellence, but its massive success…was always down to pictures of scantily-clad women [and] acres of flesh.

The upshot seems to be this, then, for norms guiding the media. If speech is governed by a harm principle, there will be a question about speech acts that harm women’s civil standing and women’s speech. If the point of free speech is knowledge and political participation, there will be a question about speech acts that damage, rather than promote those goals. To think otherwise would be to give up on what gives free speech its point in the first place.

[Note: this post draws on my submission to the Leveson Inquiry 2012]


Austin, J. L. How to Do Things with Words (London:  Oxford University Press, 1962).

Daubney, Martin. (2012) ‘The lad’s mag I edited turned a generation on to porn—and now I’m a father I bitterly regret it http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2156593/; related misgivings range from Scott Christian, GQ http://www.gq.com/blogs/the-feed/2013/11/10-reasons-why-you-should-quit-watching-porn.html to Rhiannon Lucy Coslett, Guardian http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jan/27/porn-influence-real-sex-education-online-fantasies

Dyzenhaus, David. (1992) ‘John Stuart Mill and the Harm of Pornography’, Ethics 102, 534-551.

Fricker, Miranda. (2007) Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Hornsby, Jennifer. (1995) ‘Disempowered Speech’, in Philosophical Topics 23 ed. Sally Haslanger, pp. 127-147.

_____ and Rae Langton. ‘Free Speech and Illocution’, Legal Theory 4 (1998), pp. 21-37.

Langton, Rae. ‘Speech Acts and Unspeakable Acts’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 22 (1993), 305-330.

_____ Sexual Solipsism: Philosophical Essays on Pornography and Objectification (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

_____ (2012) Evidence to Leveson Inquiry http://www.levesoninquiry.org.uk/evidence/

Lord Justice Leveson.  Leveson Inquiry into the Culture, Practice and Ethics of the Press, 2012. http://www.levesoninquiry.org.uk/

MacKinnon, Catharine. (1987) Feminism Unmodified (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press).

_____ Only Words (1993) (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).

Meiklejohn, Alexander. (1948) Free Speech and its Relation to Self-Government (New York: Harper). http://digital.library.wisc.edu/1711.dl/UW.MeikFreeSp

Maitra, Ishani, and Mary Kate McGowan, eds. (2012). Speech and Harm (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Mill, J.S., On Liberty (1859). http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/34901

_____ The Subjection of Women (1869) http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/27083

Nussbaum, Martha. (1995) ‘Objectification’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 24 249-291.

Object (2012), Testimony at http://www.levesoninquiry.org.uk/evidence/

O’Neill, Onora. (2009) ‘Ethics for Communication?’ European Journal of Philosophy 17:2

_____ (2012) ‘Media Freedoms and Media Standards’, Centre for Ethics and Law Annual Lecture, University College London.

Equality Now. (2012) Testimony at http://www.levesoninquiry.org.uk/evidence/

UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, 1979 (CEDAW) http://www.hrcr.org/docs/CEDAW/cedaw.html

Waldron, Jeremy (2012). The Harm in Hate Speech (Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press)

West, Caroline. ‘The Free Speech Argument against Pornography’, Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 33 (2003), 391-422.

____ ‘Pornography and Censorship’ (2004), Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/pornography-censorship/

2 responses

  1. Pingback: Rae Langton. . . | Feminist Philosophers

  2. The question is what free speech must be removed? The free speech to publish pictures of “scantily clad’ women? If so then these pictures can be found elsewhere not just in lads mags.

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