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Passionate speech: why Conspiracy theories cannot be debunked

Open lecture, Assoc. Prof. Dr. Todor Hristov Dechev

11/12/2019 dalle 11:00 alle 12:00

Dove Dipartamento di Interpretazione e Traduzione, Palazzo Montanari, corso della Repubblica n. 136, Aula 2

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Conspiracy theories are not merely statements about states of affairs. They are also speech acts and because of that their meaning consists not only in what conspiracy theorists say but also in what they do with words, i.e. in the pragmatics of their stories. As far as debunking ignores the pragmatic dimension of conspiracy theories, it can be counterproductive, and it can easily deteriorate into a dialog of the deaf. The lecture will try to demonstrate that, from the point of view of pragmatics, conspiracy theories are a form of passionate speech. The concept of passionate speech has been introduced by Stanley Cavell to account for the perlocutionary effects of utterances like declarations of love, demands or insults which distinguishing feature is that they improvise with conventions in order to claim situated rights, most notably the right to address the other and to demand response in kind, here and now. The lecture will use the concept to explain how conspiracy theories can be used to claim rights which denial can be experienced as wrong, even if the facts are right. The unintended effects of debunking will be demonstrated by an analysis of the lines of argumentation in a 2014 television debate between Bulgarian anti-vaccination activists and medical experts. The analysis will try to demonstrate how the anti-vaccination activists, in the course of their attempts to claim the right to demand from the experts to address their worries, resorted to a conspiracy theory, and how the medical experts, in trying to debunk the conspiracy theory, failed to respond in time and in kind to the demand of the anti-vaccination activists, and in effect lost the debate.