My overarching research project is focused on the intersections of language, gender, and social power. This focus is the through-line unifying all my work. I’m fascinated by how each one of these topics intersects with the others to shape the normative terrain of our social world. I’m particularly interested in how we use language to change the normative positions of individuals based on aspects of their identity, and conversely, how aspects of identity impact what individuals can successfully do with language. My work draws together feminist philosophy, philosophy of language, and social and political philosophy, especially that concerning social identity, oppression, and injustice to make sense of issues in daily life. My work tends to be extremely practically engaged: my projects address topics such as the effects of slurs as they’re used in mundane interactions, the pragmatics of online speech and interactions, and the concrete effects of sexual violations within a community. My work, in both published and draft form, has been assigned in multiple philosophy graduate courses across North America.
Each of my individual projects fits into my overarching research agenda by focusing on different dimensions of how language, gender, and/or social power interconnect. Within this, my work to date can be roughly broken down into three loose groupings by topic – though several of my projects extend across more than one of these groupings: (1) socially potent terms, (2) the pragmatics of particular speech acts, and (3) sexual agency & sexual violations.
I'm currently working on a project in which I explore the pragmatics of online misogyny. While at this point it's nearly a cliché that the experience of being a woman on the internet can be (to put it lightly) unpleasant, most of the research has focused on overt gender-based aggression or harassment: women online being subjected to derogatory or insulting terms, mobbing, doxxing, rape threats, death threats, and untold numbers of unsolicited and nonconsensual sexual images. These forms of online aggression are significant and play a profound role in structuring our online social spaces. However, these explicit expressions of misogyny don't happen in a vacuum nor are they the only significant form of online misogyny.
In this project I'm interested in online misogyny that is enacted via the pragmatics of the interaction, rather than at the level of the words being said. I work to understand forms of harassment that have already been identified (though they have received little direct scholarship) such as sea lioning and couching, as well as forms of online harassment that have yet to be named or discussed. I explore how these implicit forms of online misogyny function and the particular harm that each one inflicts on its target.
Published & forthcoming work
Kukla, Quill, Cassie Herbert, and Ari Watson (forthcoming). ‘Sexual Violation and the Language of Moral Repair.’ Philosophy of #MeToo, edited by Yolanda Wilson.
This chapter is forthcoming in a volume edited by Yolanda Wilson on the philosophy of #MeToo which will be published by Routledge. In it we explore various ways in which speech acts can play a role in ecological repair work in the wake of sexual violations. First, we introduce a new category of performative speech acts, ‘reparatives,’ which have a distinctive shared pragmatic structure and force. These speech acts open space for repair work, including enabling the possibility of speech acts that directly repair. Second, we turn to speech acts that can have repairing effects as part of their pragmatic force. Third and finally, we consider a category of truth-telling and evidence establishing speech acts which, we argue, turn out to lay the groundwork for the possibility of reparatives. Before reparatives can open up possibilities for repair, a shared and accurate understanding of the wrongs and harms that occurred has to be established. We explore #MeToo declarations as especially powerful and important speech acts that play this role. Along the way, we also consider degenerate approaches to repair, which block repairing language.
Kukla, Quill and Cassie Herbert (2018). ‘Moral Ecologies and the Harms of Sexual Violation.’ Philosophical Topics 46.2, 247-268.
In this article we propose a substantial conceptual overhaul of how to frame the harm that sexual violations inflict and the kind of moral repair they may call for. Traditional moral explorations of sexual violation are dyadic: they focus on the relationship between the perpetrator and the victim, considered in relative isolation. We argue that the moral texture of sexual violation and its fallout only shows up once we see acts of sexual violation as acts that occur within an ecosystem. An ecosystem is made up of dwellers and an environment embedded in a broad, thick, interdependent, and relatively stable web of norms, practices, environments, material and institutional structures. We argue that many of the important and interesting harms wrought by sexual violation can only be understood as ecological harms. To illustrate this, we focus on sexual violations that occur within a specific type of ecosystem, namely an academic department with a graduate program. We examine the possible damaging effects of sexual violation on the ecology of a department. We also consider what makes an ecosystem resilient and relatively able to self-repair, and how sexual violation within an ecosystem may weaken its self-repairing resources. We show that looking at sexual violation through this ecological lens lets us identify harms that are otherwise obscured or difficult to locate.
Note: though this text was first published in 2020, the official publication date is listed as 2018.
Herbert, Cassie (2019). ‘The Speech Acts of #MeToo.’ APA Newsletter on Feminism and Philosophy. 19.1 (Fall), 16-20.
In this short and accessible piece I give an introductory account of the pragmatic structure of accusations and of reports. This distinction, I argue, is an essential one for properly understanding the various speech acts issued by survivors of sexual violations. I hold that the #MeToo movement is best understood as a movement comprised of reports. Understanding it this way changes how we ought to view the goals and successes of the movement. This better enables us to understand what survivors were doing when they participated in the #MeToo movement and gives us much needed tools for rebutting some of the common forms of dismissal and denigration directed at survivors' speech.
Herbert, Cassie and Rebecca Kukla (2016). ‘Ingrouping, Outgrouping, and the Pragmatics of Peripheral Speech.’ Journal of the American Philosophical Association. 2.4, 576-596.
In this article we explore the ways that speech helps to create our social identities view ingrouping and outgrouping and establishing and clarifying community boundaries and norms of membership. We define a pragmatic category of community-specific speech that is used by and directed at community insiders. We focus on a species of community-specific speech that has flown under the philosophical radar, a type of speech we term peripheral speech: Peripheral speech is informal, typically playful, insider speech that includes inside jokes, riffs, gossip, insider references; it is loosely constrained, and only those who have skills and normative competence characteristic of a community can play along successfully. Peripheral speech is shared by a community, but also used to bring people into it and cast people out of it. We argue that entitlement to peripheral speech requires a type of speaker authority that is not granted by way of established rules and conventions, but rather settled locally and in situ.
Herbert, Cassie (2015). ‘Precarious projects: The performative structure of reclamation’. Language Sciences. 52 (Special Issue on Slurs), 131-138.
Here I examine the pragmatic structure and hazards of projects seeking to reclaim derogatory terms. Whereas more familiar forms of protest may fail to bring about their intended result, attempts to re-appropriate slurs can fail to be understood as transgressive acts at all. When attempts at reclamation fail, their force is distorted; context and convention lead the hearer to give uptake to the speech act as a traditional deployment of the slur. The force of this traditional use is to validate and re-entrench the very norms the act was intended to subvert. This is the precarious structure of reclamation projects: when successful, reclamation is the subversion of powerful mechanisms of oppression, but when unsuccessful, the act has the ironic force of constituting mechanisms of oppression.