Reformed Margins is honored to share this article from guest contributor Timothy Isaiah Cho. Timothy is the Associate Editor for Faithfully Magazine. He received a Master of Divinity from Westminster Seminary California and a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from U.C. Berkeley.
The current President of the United States has continued to refer to the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus.” While people have accused the President of racism and xenophobia for this terminology, others have pushed back and stated that there’s nothing wrong with calling the virus by the name of its origin. If you take the words simply at face value, they argue, the President is just stating facts of origin.
As readers of the Word of God, Christians have intuitively been trained to recognize that language is much more complicated than taking words at face value. At the very basic, we recognize that God’s Word is not just a transfer of information but is “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12). God’s Word not only says something; it also does something. The Word of God never returns void but always accomplishes that which He has purposed it to do (Isaiah 55:11).
What Is Speech Act Theory?
This performative element of language is something that’s been recognized broadly in the field of linguistics and philosophy of language in what is called “speech act theory.” Brought to the forefront of the field by 20th century British philosopher of language, J. L. Austin, speech act theory is the idea that an individual not only presents information with their words (a “speech act”) but also performs an action with that speech act.
In his book How to Do Things With Words, Austin breaks down three elements that can exist within a given speech act:
1. Locutionary act: the actual utterance and its face value meaning.
2. Illocutionary act: the result from or meaning under the surface of the locutionary act.
3. Perlocutionary act: the actual effect of the locutionary and illocutionary acts.
At first, this all may sound extremely theoretical and abstract, but at second glance, it’s fairly down to earth. For example, we can use speech act theory to break down when someone shouts, “Fire!” in a building:
1. Locutionary act: “There is a fire!”
2. Illocutionary act: “Therefore, get out of the building!”
3. Perlocutionary act: People leaving the building.
We intuitively realize that when someone shouts, “Fire!” in a building, he or she is not merely trying to express an observation of data. There is an intention and an ultimate goal that is expressed through the words.
Speech act theory is also helpful to understand aspects of the use of language in the Bible. When the Gospel of John tells us that through the Eternal Word “all things were made” (1:3), we see this more clearly seeing the creation account in the light of speech act theory. When God says, “Let there be light” at creation:
1. Locutionary act: “Let there be light.”
2. Illocutionary act: “I will create light.”
3. Perlocutionary act: And there was light.
Applying Speech Act Theory to Political Discourse
Speech act theory is helpful for showing us that language is not just the downloading and uploading of information from person to person. In the act of communication, things are implied, connoted, and hinted at – recipients of terrible dad jokes can overwhelmingly attest to this fact! On a more sober level, when we communicate, there are intended effects as well as unintended consequences to our words. This requires us to consider language holistically.
I believe that speech act theory is a helpful tool to help us analyze political discourse because we are able to see language being used multifacetedly. Therefore, when the President of the United States uses the phrase “Chinese virus,” we can’t simply just look at the face value meaning of words. We must consider other important questions to get to the illocutionary and perlocutionary aspects of his words such as:
1. Why did he choose a phrase that takes more characters to type than “coronavirus” or “COVID-19”?
2. Does using the purported origins of the virus as a moniker promote national unity or can it create the perlocutionary act of anger, distrust of, and violence against Asians and Asian Americans in our country?
3. What is the illocutionary act in his speech act? What is the intention or meaning behind using the term “Chinese virus”? Who does it stir up and provoke to action?
4. Choice of language isn’t arbitrary; it actually reveals something. When someone chooses to refer to the Civil War as the “War of Northern Aggression,” that reveals a lot about their understanding of American history and slavery, for example.
5. Even if other sources have used the term “Chinese virus” before the President, that doesn’t make the term any more acceptable. Again, you have to break down those speech acts for the other individuals who used that phrase.
Especially in this time of hyper-polarization and hyper-partisanship, we all need to do a better job at language —both in communicating and understanding. There is more going on than the exchange of bare words —there are the underlying intentions and effects of each word spoken. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” couldn’t be further from the truth. Words have the power to heal or to harm, bind up or to destroy, unify or divide. Perhaps this is why Jesus gave a warning to His disciples that people will give an account for every idle word they have spoken (Matthew 12:36).