Excitable Speech: Jerrie Ann Sullivan and Joking About Rape

Give me your name and address and I'll rape you. [All laugh] - Unidentified Garda Sergeant

We are still talking about what the Irish Times has dubbed the 'garda rape comments controversy', first discussed on the Human Rights in Ireland blog by Vicky here. It might be useful, in examining this incident, to think about Judith Butler's Excitable Speech, published in 1997. [This piece by Máiréad Enright has been cross-posted from the Human Rights in Ireland blog.]

Butler writes about the force and agency of language: speaking is a kind of act and it has consequences. This is true because we are constituted by others' speech; "a kind of surviving takes place in language". The very terms of my social existence are set out by what I am called or not called. I am "put in my place" when others address me. Moreover, I am dependent on others for that place. I am never quite in control of myself. Jerrie Ann Sullivanthe 'blondy one' of the transcript – has described the experience of listening to the gardai joke on tape about raping her companion as disturbing, horrifying, distressing: part of the violence of the garda's unexpected address is that it puts the women who are re-named in an unwanted place.

However, I want – with Butler's help – to be very precise in saying that the injury done here is not solely attributable to the words used. Butler recognises that certain words, and perhaps 'rape' is one, have a particular power to injure; they 'carry their [socially produced] contexts with them.' But no word has to harm: the context of the individual utterance of the word is also crucial to its effect. What matters so much about the garda tapes is that the words were not spoken by 'fraping' teenagers but by on-duty gardai about women they had arrested in the context of a controversial ongoing policing operation. In that context, the violence of the words is not contained by the notion of rape itself. I would argue that what the gardai were saying was less about rape than about the legitimacy of the women's political protest. Remember that the rape victim, in our social imaginary is the antithesis of the powerful citizen. The effect of the jokes was to say, "You are not a legitimate protestor. You are only a woman who hasn't been raped yet. The lads and I are in charge here."

Paying attention to the context of the utterance can help us do more than explain how words come to wound. By weighting the context of the utterance, we make it possible for threats to fail. For example, we allow for the possibility that, often unexpectedly, injurious words can be revalued, parodied, returned to powerful speakers in new and critical forms (that's why Sarah Silverman's, Wanda Sykes' and George Carlin's rape jokes work and why Susan MacKay misses the point when she says that joking about rape is never funny).

But a novel or creative re-appropriation of a taboo word is not necessary. What matters is that we can envisage the possibility that the person wrongfully named will contest and refuse that naming – to say "you can't call me that. I am not that thing. You have no right". We ascribe agency to those spoken about as well as to those who speak. In other words, we insist that the speaker – however powerful – is never sovereign over what he says. He can never guarantee that his intentions for his speech will be fulfilled. He is vulnerable to his addressee's response. The gardai certainly know this now. I am not, of course, suggesting that it is easy to 'talk back' in the face of injurious speech. Butler recognises that the prospects for opposition are often limited and require courage and risk-taking. But on Wednesday last, at the Shell to Sea press conference, Jerrie Ann Sullivan gave better than she got. She refused to be reduced to a potential victim. She insisted on reclaiming her status as a political activist and demanded attention for communities who have been victimised by the police: "This is not about us. This is about women's safety and about the ongoing intimidation of the communities living close to Shell's inland refinery in Mayo." Of course, she is not master of her own speech. We wait to see whether her point is taken, or is silenced amid the apparently more pressing debate about whether 'PC really has gone mad' . More power to her, and to Shell to Sea.