Communication as Imposition: The Satanics of so-called Free Speech

The purpose of this post is to stake out some particularly Satanic religious ground in the problematic struggle over so-called “free speech” in a liberal democracy. I will argue that communication—understood to minimally comprise the two acts of signaling intent to communicate, followed by relaying a message—is a form of imposition on the sovereign attention, focus, and thought of another. As British philosopher of language H. Paul Grice outlined in the mid-twentieth century, an implicit cooperative principle undergirding much of human linguistic interaction somewhat mitigates this imposition under normal circumstances. We assume people are trying to communicate with us because the message they have to convey is important and worth our attention. Experts in the Pragmatic subspecialty of Relevance Theory call this “the presumption of optimal relevance.” In more adversarial communicative interactions, however, neither cooperation nor optimal relevance is assumed; in fact, quite the opposite. When words are wielded as weapons to belittle, besmirch, and abuse, they already fail to satisfy informativity and relevance alike. Logically prior to this consideration, however, is that fact that the very idea of communication as imposition means that each of us who values their own sovereignty of will and autonomy of body should endeavor to take special care in communicating with, and imposing on, others.    

I draw a parallel in this discussion to the best practices of the BDSM community, suggesting a radical reorientation in thinking about the locus of responsibility in speech. Whereas many who advocate for free speech seem most preoccupied with what kinds and how much speech individuals can impose on each other, I begin from the healthier presumption that sovereign individuals do not wish to be imposed upon from the get-go, and that the terms of the unspoken cooperative contract according to which communication proceeds are dictated, as in a BDSM relationship, by those in a position to be most harmed should imposition turn to abuse. Again, in communicating and imposing on others, we bear special responsibility for having good reason to disturb the sovereignty of another. Thus, while many would argue that more speech is the answer to hate speech, with victims speaking out against their victimizers, this recommendation places the brunt of the burden on the wrong party to the interaction. The problem lies with those in a position of power burdening those who have less power with the violent imposition of their abusive speech. The solution to this problem cannot involve additional imposition on the less powerful. 

I wish to thank my colleague Piper, who read an earlier draft of this essay and offered detailed and penetrating feedback that helped save the final product from numerous faults of perspective and tone deafness. I owe her a great debt of gratitude. Responsibility for all remaining deficiencies lies, of course, entirely with me as author.      

The Sex-Speech Connection

Many who argue most stridently on behalf of the principle of free speech in a healthy democracy like to contend that the answer to racist hate speech is more speech, specifically in the form of the victimized and oppressed talking back to their victimizers and oppressors. It strikes me that this line of argumentation differs but little from the presumptive duty many would place on the shoulders of potential victims of sexual assault, concentrating not on the failure of assailants to obtain and abide by enthusiastic consent, but rather on alleging that victims have a positive duty to say no loudly and often. I will argue that concentrating in free speech debates on the sole perspective of what parties want to say and how they can overcome others’ resistance to their saying it, without stopping for a moment to consider the perspective of those on whom speech is imposed, perpetuates victimization in a way similar to policing whether victims of sexual violence offer the right resistance. 

By way of premising my argument, I observe that words and bodies are more inextricably linked than many would like to admit and that there’s therefore good reason to draw parallels between sex and speech, verbal aggression and sexual aggression. Not only is it that case that people issue warnings like “your mouth is writing checks your butt can’t cash” and refer to some kinds of insults as “fighting words” because they implicitly understand that “[t]he deadly violence that accompanies the persistent verbal degradation of those subordinated…explodes the notion that there are clear lines between words and deeds.” Even in a much more quotidian sense, communication affects the body in a physical way. Speech imposes on the body as a physical medium and an emotional stressor. When it comes to thinking about the limits of imposition through words, it’s instructive to consider a parallel to the limits of imposition in sexual encounters. And when it comes to consideration of exploring boundaries and the limits of imposition in sex, a natural place to start is with BDSM.     

What BDSM has to teach

The real-world BDSM community can teach us all a valuable lesson when trying to think through the problems of free speech. In the world of bondage, “it is always the submissive who is in control.” Subs—and what they crave and condone—dictate the terms of each engagement; at their word, everything stops or starts, crashes or continues, because they’re the ones receiving the play and giving none. Ethical doms won’t engage in “the scene” without explicit boundaries worked out at the sub’s behest because they know they themselves bear special responsibility in acting on the sub to abide by the terms of prior agreement, as well as to check in frequently and renew consent on an on-going basis.   

As in the world of BDSM, I propose to effect a radical reconfiguration of the locus of responsibility when thinking about issues of free speech. In particular, I want to reconsider assumptions about silence and power. When I read calls from so-called “Free Speech Absolutists” for more speech from the victimized, I can’t help but think of a famous Latin dictum: Qui tacet consentire videtur, ‘He who is silent is understood to consent.’ The saying pops up in the beginning of a favorite movie of mine: the 1991 drama Regarding Henry. You hear it when the titular lawyer, played by Harrison Ford, offers the shittiest possible apology to his young daughter for having blown up at her for spilling grape juice on his piano. He then redirects the “conversation” entirely to himself and his recent legal victory. After this non-apology, father asks daughter: “All better now?” And when she continues to glare at him sullenly, Henry drops the asshole Latin. Of course it wasn’t “all better.” The father here never really cared about the feelings of his daughter, nor about what her silence actually meant, and that’s precisely the problem. In his power and privilege, he assumes the meaning behind her lack of speech and proceeds blithely on to talk over and ultimately ignore her true feelings. Rather than focusing on misguided assumptions regarding speech and silence from those in power, I want to concentrate instead on the position of the daughter.  

All communication begins as imposition, and independent human beings are in fact quite sensitive to this imposing nature—Henry excepted apparently. As Satanists, we should be doubly, triply sensitive to it, and even more so, letting this principle guide our thinking on and reaction to hate speech a fortiori. 

Communication as Imposition

First off, in order for communication to proceed at all, the communicator must demonstrate what Relevance Theorists call “communicative intention” by gaining the attention and focus of those with whom she would communicate and signaling to them her intent to relay a message, her “informative intention.” This requires that would-be hearers break off their attention from other matters and shift instead to focus on the communicator. Attending to the communicative intent of the communicator means disruption in the flow of their own daily activity, a clear imposition on their time and attention. To help you picture this concretely, consider a child who wants to tell a parent something, but the parent is already engaged in conversation with another. The child approaches, waits beside her parent, perhaps pats his leg, pulls on the hem of his shirt, maybe even begins jumping up and down, and so forth more elaborately and disruptively every time. Or consider how, in the field of marketing, one of the most sought-after qualities in a good advertisement is its ability to “disrupt” attention and prevailing narratives: to command your focus and relay a message you simply cannot ignore. As we’ll see later, advertising is particularly useful for thinking about communication as imposition.

Next, when someone speaks and a competent hearer attends to the message, no part of the linguistic processing of that message proceeds with conscious awareness. Decades of psycholinguistic experimentation have clearly shown that human speech production and comprehension proceed at an unbelievably fast pace. During a normal conversation, we produce words at a rate of around two to three per second. It takes about six hundred milliseconds or 0.6 seconds on average for a person to name a clear picture of an object. People can make spoken judgments of the grammatical acceptability of a string of words in about seven hundred milliseconds. Slips of the tongue, tip of the tongue states, situations where you aim for one word but come out with another that sounds like it or means something related, or when you get the front of one word and the back of another, and so forth—these errors all arise from the rapidity and unconsciousness of language production. In processing other people’s written communication, our brains show evidence of grammaticality judgments in the form of changes in electrical potential across the surface of the scalp within as little as five hundred milliseconds or half a second after reading a stretch of language. Electrical potentials have been shown to shift to negative in processing irregularities in syntax as early as between one and three hundred milliseconds of hearing connected speech. This means that one tenth of a second after someone’s ungrammatical words enter your ear, your brain has already begun flagging their faulty grammar.  

At these speeds, it should be clear: there is almost no part of language processing and comprehension that is subject to conscious control in a normally functioning human mind. You no more choose to hear, understand, and emotionally react to incoming language than you do to shallow your breathing, dilate your pupils, or increase your heart rate during the fight-or-flight response. What’s more, words and speech can—and have long been known to—elicit fight-or-flight and related responses of physiological arousal in people. My favorite scene in the 1990 movie adaptation of Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac provides a vivid illustration of just such affect inspired by language. In the first scene of third act, love interest Roxanne reads Cyrano’s letter and the lines:

Croyez que devers vous mon cœur ne fait qu’un cri,
Et que si les baisers s’envoyaient par écrit,
Madame, vous liriez ma lettre avec les lèvres! 

Believe that, in your presence, my heart can only scream,
And that, if kisses could be sent in writing,
Madame, you would read my letter with your lips.

She flushes, her breathing shallows and becomes more rapid, and, finally, she faints. Words and speech can exert a profound effect on the body.

Speech becomes physical, just as physical acts can be—and often are under First Amendment law—considered speech. In the Hebrew Bible, one finds prophetic “sign acts”—theatrical stunts staged by prophets in order to communicate a message to the people of Israel—serving a similar purpose. The ancient Cynic philosophers of Greece were said to enter public amphitheaters as paying audiences left at the conclusion of a show and sit in silence in the empty complex, only to exit when a paying audience returned for the commencement of another play—all in an effort to convey their contempt for ordinary society. 

And of course the medium for conveying speech—compression waves of air driven out from pulmonic and non-pulmonic sources and shaped by the vocal tract—is itself intensely physical. When these waves crash against the delicate machinery of the inner ear, our bodies translate them into electrical impulses—again physical matter—that the auditory nerve can pick up. Mutatis mutandis for gestures and sign language, where light waves bounce off moving body parts and slip into the eye through the open cornea. Not to put too fine a point on it, but if we’re drawing analogies with sex and sex play, then communication, however it proceeds, entails penetration.    

Communication is itself both a mental and physical imposition on the hearer. When Alexander the Great famously one day approached the Cynic philosopher Diogenes of Sinope while the latter was lying in the street sunbathing, conquering king stood over philosopher with the sun at his back, casting Diogenes in shade. “What is it you desire,” he asked the man stretched out supine. The Cynic replied: “Stand out of my sun.” Alexander was said to have greatly admired the haughtiness and self-assurance of Diogenes for this remark. I admire him for his assertion of freedom from imposition. We should all be aware, however, of just how fortunate the philosopher was that the grand king took the attitude he did. Not all who talk back to power are so fortunate, nor so remembered and honored by history. 

Communication as Imposition Illustrated: Instagram Models

Two accounts I follow on Instagram feature women posing nude or in revealing clothing as “art and lingerie models.” In the past week, both performers and account owners, Lillias_right and Lilliluxe, have used their platforms to complain about unsolicited communication from men via both comments and direct messages, propositioning them for sex, describing sex acts the men would like to perform on and with the models, requesting pornography (which both accounts specifically reject), and even sharing dick pics. The owner and performer behind the Lilliluxe account, Lilli, even went on self-imposed social media hiatus as a result of the messages she had been receiving. By way of explaining the move, she wrote: “It’s gotten to the point where reading DMs and comments is just such a degrading and dehumanizing experience. I gotta take some time to build up strength again.” Take special note of the last sentence: you need not take her plea for time to build back her “strength” as a conceptual metaphor drawn on analogy with demanding physical exertion. Much research has demonstrated that the stressful effects of being on the receiving end of victimizing speech take a physical toll on experiencers. Again, speech and the effects of speech are embodied. 

When these models read, process, and comprehend the messages they’re sent, they literally have no choice in the images that come flooding to mind. One message posted to Lilli’s account reads: “Estas [sic!] buenísima mami quisiera comerme ese culote divino seguramente aguantas un intenso caliente profundo durisimo y doloroso anal hasta llenarte de mi leche amor después de taladrar tu ano con mi verga” (‘You’re sexy, gorgeous, I would like to eat that divine big ass; you surely await an intense, hot, deep, very hard, and painful anal reaming until I fill you up with my milk love after drilling your anus with my cock (punctuation added for clarity).’ This missive was left by an account named “rivendel_lorien7,” among whose 24 posts are images and video seemingly glorifying sex with underage girls and even, unfortunately, one pic with Satanic imagery. The lewd scenarios of penetration and degradation of the models’ own bodies depicted in such messages, along with the women’s mental representations of them, are, quite literally, inflicted on them in a way that provokes disgust, revulsion, stress, and anxiety. 

Of course, the models can and do block people from their pages. However, for starters, the monster of verbal male sexual aggression is more many-headed than a hydra, and, for seconds, after the models have read, choked on, and vomited over the content of the messages they receive, the damage is already done. Stress spikes, faith in humanity falters, and the model is driven off her own space and business platform. 

As irony would have it, the “rivendel_lorien7” account also features an image of a religious zealot burning supposed witches at the stake. The text above the image reads, in Spanish: 

“Today I learned that the word heretic comes from the Greek hairetikós and that it means ‘he who is free to choose.’ It’s incredible how the church has transformed that into almost an insult, as though freedom to choose an idea apart from dogma were something monstrous. My most intimate moment of silence for all those ‘heretics’ who died for their free thought.” 

Someone so concerned with freedom of thought and choice would do well to consider how his words deprive others of their own similar freedoms. 

The Instagram account of another model I’ve seen has a post that reads, in Portuguese: “So many people with shame for their own body because of people without shame for their own tongue,” a quote attributed to Brazilian poet Saulo Pessato. I doubt Lilliluxe feels much in the way of shame over her body, but the idea that another’s shameless tongue-wagging could make her feel dirty and degraded sure rings true.

Freedom from the Imposition of Communication

Interacting is imposing—especially speech, visual displays, signaling communicative intent. Even in the contemplation and understanding of what others say and gesticulate, images come to mind unbidden, ideas unasked for. There’s incredible responsibility, then, on all of our shoulders every time we open our mouths or gesture to gain another’s attention and impose on their solitude, their personhood, their independence and autonomy. The only speech or gesture free of this burden is that which is both entirely self-directed and devoid of any human audience. The only such freedom must belong to the Robinson Crusoes of the world, those stranded entirely alone or self-exiled from anything that could be called social. Only when you prove yourself willing to release your own hold on human community can you attain the kind of libertarian freedom to say or signal whatever you will. If you wish to remain in and a part of human society, however, that very fact alone imposes limits on at least some of your expression…or at least it should. And not because of any dictatorial order operating top-down to restrict individuals’ freedom of expression, but because all parties to this debate already place a premium on individual sovereignty and autonomy, and acting towards others in order to signal your communicative and informative intention imposes on that very sovereignty and autonomy.    

There are many signs in modern life that we already intuitively understand and agree with this idea that communication constitutes a form of imposition, signs that are particularly noticeable when it comes to advertising. You don’t have to look hard online to find individuals complaining about ad trackers and personalized ads driven by browsing histories. The same goes for pop-up advertising, mandatory ads on free blogging platforms, robocalls on our landlines and cell phones, and solicitations delivered in person at our home addresses. Many families in the neighborhood where I live have posted signs beside their front door that prohibit solicitation and handbills. The last time you came back to your parked vehicle outside some sports or entertainment venue to find a flyer wedged in the driver’s door or beneath the windshield wipers, did you let out an impatient or exasperated sigh? Maybe just a little one?

When we post prohibitions on advertisers coming to our home and use technology to block robocalls and telemarketers on our cell phones and pop-ups while we browse, do we, even for an instant, consider that, perhaps, we’re clamping down on or otherwise short-circuiting the free speech rights of advertisers? In all probability the only thing that comes to mind when considering these forms of targeted and invasive commercial speech is the hassle of it all, how pervasive it is, how thoroughly it penetrates and saturates our lives. If you’re a female or a person of color, you might have felt—and still very much feel—the same way about the never-ending barrage of male sexual signaling and racist communication, not to mention constant verbal sanctions for not performing gender or race “correctly” according to the standards of the dominant. 

Not All Impositions are Created Equal

As far as speech goes, we’ve concentrated thus far primarily on the the declarative mood: on statements, sentences that end with a period. But what about the other two marks of sentence-final punctuation and the linguistic moods they signal: interrogative (question mark) and imperative (exclamation mark)? If communication is imposition on another’s solitude and sovereign personhood, don’t we impose all the time with these two marks of punctuation in particular? Isn’t it an imposition to ask a question of someone, even a small one? And don’t even get me started about issuing commands: that’s just pure imposition, not to mention rudeness, if only momentary. There’s good reason why the almost universal signal of imperative mood in human languages is a stripping of verbs down to their bare stems, sheering off almost all grammatical marking of tense, person, or number in an effort to evoke pure action. You haven’t got time to be polite.   

As mentioned earlier, Grice’s principle of cooperation goes a long way toward mitigating the everyday impositions. Cooperative social enterprises, like working for the same company, usually come with the presumption that a certain amount and degree of imposition is acceptable to all parties in advance. Indeed, we accept pay from employers in exchange precisely for their ability to impose on us, within reasonable bounds, of course. Our choice to appear in public spaces shared with other humans usually also carries a presumption that we’re available for limited imposition via interaction. But notice how, even in these arenas, we are acutely aware of impositions committed while communicating. Again, it’s no coincidence that forms of “politeness” in languages all over the globe universally rely on indirection and circumlocution: indirect commands and requests instead of  more direct ones, elaborate forms of address marking what social capital each individual brings to the interaction instead of simple forms of direct address by pronouns or first names. We’re conscious of communicating with independent, autonomous actors in their own right, who have the free will and inclination to do otherwise with their time than attend to us. When you stop someone in the street to ask the time or request directions, don’t you first beg their pardon and apologize for burdening their time and attention before proceeding with your query? Excuse me, ma’am. I’m sorry to bother, but would you happen to know…? At any rate, I’m inclined to believe that, as Satanists with the mythos of Lucifer deeply engrained in our religion, we regard the quest for sharing knowledge as an acceptable justification for imposing on others’ solitude, at least for a brief moment. 

Outside of more formalized interactions, though, where cooperation can be assumed from social roles and principles, we do still impose in communicating with others. In the original discussion of his cooperative principle, Grice made allowance for how we seem sometimes—quite often, actually—to push the envelope of acceptable imposition in communication by self-consciously acting contrary to the maxims of cooperative communication, maxims like how you should always provide the right amount of information, keep your remarks relevant to the present context, endeavor to phrase things simply and clearly, and so on. We flout cooperative principles usually as a means of indirection again, to avoid saying or committing to too much or being too direct and therefore rude. This is part of artful, elegant, and sophisticated conversation. 

Do you want to go to the movies with me tonight? Oh, I have to do laundry. NOT I don’t like you and would never accompany you to a darkened theater under cover of night. 

—We’re almost out of gas. —Oh, there’s a station a mile or so ahead, I think. NOT I know of a gas station ahead and assure you it is both open and has ample gas for our needs.

We expect people we communicate with to pick up on our flouting like this and derive extra meaning from it. When the professional literary critic writes in her review: “For people who like books like this, this is a good book,” you can bet there’s ample reason behind her choice of such a tortuous tautology. I fucking hated this drivel, and only troglodytes with no taste or discernment could think otherwise probably wouldn’t pass editorial muster on multiple grounds. 

Similarly, in witty repartee and elevated conversation of all sorts, we impose on hearers, offering stories they didn’t ask for, observations they don’t expect, opinions they may not share, clever uses of language or allusion they have to catch and parse. Yet here, too, the analogy of BDSM proves apropos: limited imposition is not only acceptable, it’s even pleasurable, so long as it proceeds ultimately according to cooperative aims and is done with art, skill, passion, finesse—all those elements of zest that command and keep interest. 

Thus, for example, we avoid embedding impositions, nesting one inside another as when stopping someone on the street and begging their pardon to ask a question, only to turn around and make that question a rhetorical one. This happened to me one day while waiting for a bus. A person who turned out to be an evangelist hawking a half-digested version of the old eighteenth-century watchmaker analogy from William Paley imposed on me to ask the time and, when I began answering truthfully, stopped me again to say: “I know the time. I was wondering if you knew. Have you ever considered your watch there on your wrist and how it had to have a maker?” How that conversation all shook out is a topic for a future blog post. 

Suffice it to say at present that, if you’re already asking for one indulgence for imposition, don’t endeavor to slip another in hopefully under the radar. Again to go back to the analogy between word play and sex play, that’s a sexual predator’s move: using the shock of one imposition to soften the blow of another and another, eventually hoping to wear down or even outright ignore resistance, rather than honoring it and backing off out of mutual respect for sovereignty and autonomy. 

Caveat and Conclusion

So no: if I can anticipate the opposition for a moment, I’m not arguing against all human communication or communicative interaction. I’m not saying modern society should be an artificially hushed or silent space where atomic individuals recoil in terror from one another, deathly afraid of the mere semblance or accusation of imposition. This is the fear conservatives and hardline libertarians usually mean to evoke in decrying “political correctness.” Of course, taken too far, these ideas might result in some such horrific, dystopian scenario, but that’s clearly not my aim here. 

Rather, my message is a simple one. To paraphrase Matthew 6:28-29: Consider the silent sovereigns, how they live autonomous; they neither reel nor spin from another’s imposing word or thought. Yet I tell you: even you in all your powerlessness have power enough to mar that serenity by reaching out with but a single hurtful, inartful, unbidden word. And when you do make “merry war” and “a skirmish of wit” with others, let it be as that between Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing: intent on bending dominance back on the dominant, until they recognize and respect the moral reality of other lives and wills, wild and flourishing without another’s by-your-leave.    

5 thoughts on “Communication as Imposition: The Satanics of so-called Free Speech

  1. Deep stuff, man.

    Although I wouldn’t have ever known about the science behind it all, you did a perfect job describing what was probably the biggest motivation I had for giving up social media: it’s just too exhausting dealing with all the bullshit. I pare it back and back until almost nothing remains, but somehow, somewhere, somebody will say, do, or otherwise communicate something that makes me regret even leaving room for them to stand on the digital equivalent of my front porch.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Reminds me of the Steve Hoffstetter bit about how Facebook needs a “cross the street” button for to you to press rather than engage crazy online. In the real world, you see someone on the street-corner yelling “Repent Now! Jesus is Coming!” and you cross the street. Online, however, you set to work arguing with and/or responding to their nonsense. I reckon the Cross the Street button is really just getting the fuck off social media.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. And I’m just a cisgender mostly-hetero white guy living with all the privilege that brings. As you pointed out, as exhausting and frustrating as online interactions can be for me (and how they eventually encouraged me to just quit with social media all together), how much worse is it for people for whom what seems like every online space is at best carelessly ignorant of their presence, or at worst outright hostile to their participation?

        I’ve heard it said that freedom of speech only applies to speech intended to actually say something, and not slurs, insults, fighting words, racist diatribes, sexist bigotry, and other verbal diarrhea. I can see the logic in such an opinion, but I would be frightened to ever be the person charged with deciding what’s what. I’m pretty sure my own personal biases would twist my good intentions into terrible outcomes.

        Liked by 1 person

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