#MeToo, Discursive Injustice, and Shifting Social Norms: A Linguistic Case Study of Commonwealth v. William Henry Cosby Jr.

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Swarthmore College. Dept. of Linguistics
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This paper explores the effect of the #MeToo movement on sexual assault discourse and social norms in the United States through a case study of Commonwealth v. William Henry Cosby Jr., a trial that occurred both before and after the emergence of the movement. The recent #MeToo movement brings questions of voice and power to the public eye. In addition to constructing a community in which survivors could feel supported and unified, the emergence of the #MeToo movement also created discursive space for survivors, a vulnerable community, within national and international discourse. While the construction of this space clearly connected and unified a large population of survivors of sexual assault, the question of the movement's effect on the larger discursive and social environments surrounding rape culture still remains. Specifically, to what extent did #MeToo affect sexual assault culture and discussions around it? Additionally, how can these observed shifts in discourse be used to better understand the shifts in culture as a result of #MeToo? Using Kukla's (2014) theoretical framework of Discursive Injustice (DI) in order to analyze portions of Commonwealth v. William Henry Cosby Jr., I observe the level of performative power the complainant in the trial, Andrea Constand, is able to express and the frequency with which her expression is limited by other actors in the trial, namely defense lawyers. The theory of 01 in congruence with various analyses of common linguistic styles used by lawyers to maintain control in courtroom discourse, such as tag questions, repetition, and paraphrasing, provide a structure for how to accurately, and as objectively as possible, quantify and observe these expressions of discursive agency (Conley & O'Barr 2005). Ultimately, I find that the largest changes in aggressiveness and frequency of 01 between the 2017 and 2018 portions of the trial occur during juxtapositions between Constand and "victim" stereotypes of sexual assault. Because 01 is largely fueled by underlying social norms, this apparent shift suggests a larger social change in community conventions regarding stereotypes and expectations of sexual assault survivors. Specifically, I suggest that the direct association between personal credibility and adherence to "victim" stereotypes experienced the greatest normative shift as a result of #MeToo. Overall, this paper augments the growing literatures on the impact of the #MeToo movement on sexual assault culture and 01 as a theory of linguistic and social power. In order to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the implications and consequences of #MeToo and other social movements on language and social norms, more case studies and large-scale data collections need to be conducted.