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Anderson, Luvell, Lepore, Ernest (Ernie). Slurring Words
2013, Noûs 47 (1):25-48
Added by: Clotilde Torregrossa, Contributed by: Thomas Hodgson

Abstract: Increasingly philosophers (and linguists) are turning their attention to slurs – a lexical category not much explored in the past. These are expressions that target groups on the basis of race (‘nigger’), nationality (‘kraut’), religion (‘kike’), gender (‘bitch’), sexual orientation (‘fag’), immigrant status (‘wetback’) and sundry other demographics. Slurs of a racial and ethnic variety have become particularly important not only for the sake of theorizing about their linguistic distribution adequately but also for the implications their usage has on other well?worn areas of interest. In ‘Reference, Inference, and The Semantics of Pejoratives,’Timothy Williamson discusses the merits of Inferentialism by looking at Dummett’s treatment of the slur ‘boche.’Mark Richard attempts to show that, contrary to a commitment to minimalism about truth, one is not conceptually confused in holding that slurring statements are not truth?apt discursive discourses, i.e. statements that are neither true nor false, but still represent the world to be a certain way. Others, like David Kaplan, argue that slurs force us to expand our very conception of meaning. Slurs also rub up against various other issues like descriptivism versus expressivism as well as the semantic/pragmatic divide (cf. Potts). Slurs’ effects on these issues make it difficult to ignore them and still give an adequate theory of language. In this paper, we will be particularly interested in the potential slurs carry to offend. Though xenophobes are not offended by slurs, others are – with some slurs more offensive than others.2 Calling an Asian businessman ‘suit’ will not rouse the same reaction as calling him ‘chink’. Even co?extensive slurs vary in intensity of contempt. Christopher Darden once branded ‘nigger’ the ‘filthiest, dirtiest, nastiest word in the English language’ (Kennedy, p. 23); we doubt anyone reacts as such to ‘negro,’ yet it too has become a slur. How can words fluctuate both in their status as slurs and in their power to offend? Targeted members themselves are not always offended by confrontations with slurs, for example, so?called appropriated or reclaimed uses (the camaraderie use of ‘nigger’ among African?Americans and ‘queer’ among homosexuals). These various data focus our investigation around three questions: Why are some confrontations with slurs offensive? Why do some impact audiences more forcefully than others? How do targeted members sometimes succeed in mollifying them? The consensus answer to the first question is that slurs, as a matter of convention, carry negative attitudes towards targeted groups. Since we know so much about how words communicate content, a brief canvass and evaluation of available explanatory alternatives is appropriate; in particular, do slurs offend audiences because of what they semantically express, presuppose, linguistically display (but not describe), or conventionally implicate? Or are their effects determined by negative tone – i.e. the subjective images they summon? These strategies – whether semantic and not – are committed to the view that slurs (or their uses) get across offensive content; they disagree only over the mechanism of implementation. Our overarching aim in this paper is to deflate all content?strategies: each, no matter how it is conceived, we will argue, is irrelevant to an understanding of how slurs function and why they offend. Our positive proposal, in brief, is that slurs are prohibited words not on account of any content they get across, but rather because of relevant edicts surrounding their prohibition. This raises more than a few pertinent questions we will address below, including how words become prohibited, what’s the relationship between their prohibition and their offense potential, and why is it sometimes appropriate to flout such prohibitions?

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