By Shalom Chalson
Slurs are expressions that demean or insult. Debate regarding the offensiveness of slurs has produced three theories of slurs: semantic, pragmatic, and prohibitionist. In this essay, I will attempt to argue that Combinatorial Externalism (CE), a semantic theory, offers the best explanation for the offensiveness of slurs. I believe this to be the case due to CE’s emphasis on literal meaning, as derived from discriminatory institutions. To argue this successfully, I will first outline what offensiveness is. I will then explicate the semantic account, CE. Following this, I will argue that CE better addresses features of offensiveness than other theories. It provides more plausible explanations for i) derogatory autonomy and ii) derogatory variation. I will then raise and respond to the objections that CE is too narrow as it fails to account for i) perspectival dependence and ii) appropriation. It is hopefully in doing so that I will show that CE, or the semantic theory, is the most plausible account for the offensiveness of slurs.
Features of Offensiveness
In order to show that the semantic account of slurs, and CE, is the best account for offensiveness, I will outline what offensiveness consists in. In “The Pragmatics of Slurs”, Renee Bolinger outlines features of offensiveness (2015). These features are abstracted from discussions in various papers and so, they model our broad intuitions about slurs. A theory that best addresses these features would be the most broadly appealing. They are as follows:
- Derogatory autonomy — slurs offend regardless of speaker intent;
- Derogatory variation — slurs are not equally offensive;
- Perspectival dependence — the use of a slur suggests the speaker’s negative attitudes;
- Embedding failure — embedded slurs are still offensive;
- Insulation — slurs can at times be used without offence.
In this essay, I will argue that CE best addresses these features. And because CE, and the semantic theory, best accounts for these features, I will conclude that it provides the best explanation for the offensiveness of slurs.
I will first outline the semantic theory of slurs and CE. Semantic theorists hold that slurs are offensive due to their literal meaning. Within this theory are sub-theories such as silentism and combinatorial externalism (CE). For the purpose of this essay, I will discuss Christopher Hom’s theory, CE. CE is an extension of semantic externalism (SE), posited by Hilary Putnam (1973) and Saul Kripke (1980). SE is the theory that claims that natural kind terms like ‘water’ derive their meaning externally (perhaps through a linguistic community), and not solely through psychological states. A natural kind term can be used successfully even if the speaker does not know its meaning. Similarly, Hom posits that a slur can incite offence even if the speaker does not know its meaning. A slur is offensive because it literally means that a member of the class to which it refers ought to be subjected to discrimination. And this is on account of the member possessing a particular set of characteristics. This member has these characteristics due to their membership of that class. The characteristics, or the literal meaning of the term, are determined by discriminatory institutions. Furthermore, slurs and their non-pejorative correlates (NPC), or neutral counterparts, are not co-extensive. This is to say that a slur, like “b*tch”, and its non-pejorative correlate, “women”, do not refer to the same persons.
In order to determine if CE is the best account of offensiveness, I must weigh it against the outlined features of offensiveness. CE, unlike the pragmatic theory, accounts for derogatory autonomy by emphasising discriminatory institutions. For slurs to have derogatory autonomy, offensiveness must not depend on the attitudes of the speaker. Most of us experience ‘squeamishness’ at the mention of a slur. These responses seem to be independent of speaker intent. According to CE, slurs are offensive due to their literal meaning. The explosive force of a slur is “proportional” to the content of the quality it expresses. And this quality is proportional to the institutions against the groups to which the slur applies. One way in which this captures offensiveness is that it accounts for disgust. Slurs remind us of unequal institutions which contradict the intuitive notion of “mutual respect and equal concern” for all persons. Recipients of slurring terms are not seen as being “equal” to the speaker. Slurs relegate recipients to whatever the literal meaning of the term suggests: a “n*gger” would be said to be characteristically ‘poor’ and a ‘labourer’, according to the definition of the term. A member of any society supports discriminatory institutions when using a slur. And to do so, knowingly or unknowingly, is to suggest that relevant individuals ought to be further discriminated against. Discriminatory institutions lead to unfortunate consequences which are proportional to the offensiveness of slurs. Failing to know the meaning of a term or not intending to offend do not compensate for this sheer offensiveness.
In direct contrast, a pragmatic theory like Fregean Minimalism (FM) would attribute the offensiveness of slurs to contexts of utterance. FM is the theory that slurs and their NPCs are co-extensive terms. And so, ’n*gger’ and ‘African American’ have the same referents. Slurs are offensive due to their tone, rather than their literal meaning. Tone, or ‘colouring’, are negative or positive “psychology attitudes”. And so, a slur is offensive when used with offensive intent. Hom argues that under FM, slurs and NPCs are co-extensive terms. So, a speaker may use a slur in place of the NPC. Take, for instance, that someone is fond of their friend Sheila, who is Jewish. He could say, “Sheila’s a k*ke”, without intending to offend. Though the word is defined as a “slur for Jewish people”, an FM theorist would say that this is not offensive. The NPC and the slur refer to the same group of people. Sheila’s friend does not offend because he is could as well be saying “Sheila’s a Jew”, and he does not express an offensive tone. However, this fails to account for squeamishness. If a slur can be used in place of an NPC, the offensiveness of slurs is dependent on the speaker. But this pays no attention to the listener’s interpretation. We intuitively think that ‘k*ke’ is offensive in most cases. But FM would not grant this. To ignore the listener is to fail to account for derogatory autonomy, and more worryingly, the offensiveness of slurs. Any theory appealing strictly to contexts of utterance would fail to do so. CE does not suffer from this problem.
CE also accounts for derogatory variation while the prohibitionist theory does not. It is the notion that offensiveness differs between slurs. And so, some slurs are more offensive than others. In a Saturday Night Live sketch, Chevy Chase interviews Richard Pryor for a janitorial position (Anderson and Lepore, 2013). They play a word association game which ends with Chase saying “n*gger”, only for Pryor to reply with “dead honky”. There seems to be an asymmetry in offensiveness: “dead honky” offends Chase personally, while “n*gger” offends the class, “African Americans”, in addition to offending Pryor personally. This is explained by CE. Because institutions are stacked against African Americans rather than White Americans, terms which discriminate against them are much more offensive. The use of the term ‘n*gger’ is intimately connected to the treatment of Black people by White people in America. And as an excerpt from H. A. Jacob’s autobiography shows — “do you suppose that I will have you tending my children with the children of that n*gger?” — the treatment of Black slaves by their White ‘owners’ in the 1800s involved the term as a tool for derogation. Systemic racism was extended not to individuals, but every member of the class. Conversely, White Americans were consistently in power, favoured, and had greater access to opportunities. The asymmetry of slurs is due to the asymmetry of institutions. By appealing to this, CE accounts for derogatory autonomy.
The prohibitionists’ account of this phenomenon, however, is unsatisfying. They believe that slurs are offensive because they are prohibited. A word is prohibited when “relevant individuals” decide it to be a slur. The use of slurs risks offending the community that prohibits them. While prohibitionists do not appeal to literal meaning, they share elements with Hom’s view. Like in CE, communities prohibit slurs because of the historical circumstances surrounding the use of these terms. “N*gger” is more offensive than “honky” because the circumstances around the former are much more grim than that of the latter. Yet, this explanation seems to be a matter of convenience. We can refer to the use of the slur ‘n*zi’. Gore Vidal called political pundit, Bill Buckley a “cypto-n*zi” on live television in 1968. Buckley’s angry response was indicative of offence. The mere prohibition of the term does not explain its offensiveness because it is not a prohibited word. The historical circumstances surrounding the use of the term — the Holocaust — is grim. Why then can the term have both offensive and inoffensive uses? In my opinion, CE has the benefit of appealing to literal meaning, which can differ even within the same term. There can therefore be a two-fold meaning of ’n*zi’ — one meaning a deplorable person associated with nazism, and the other meaning a person of generally extreme views. The recipient of the slur would be offended if their views do not actually align with nazism. The prohibitionist could reply by saying that one community prohibits the use of the word while the other does not. With slurs targeting racial groups, terms like ’n*zi’ and ‘b*tch’, derogatory content can be levelled personally, at anyone. In this case, the prohibiting and non-prohibiting communities would be arbitrarily divided. This seems unnecessary when we may just appeal to two-fold meaning, as, I believe, is expressed by CE.
In order for CE to be the most plausible theory, it must withstand objections levelled by pragmatists and prohibitionists. The pragmatic theorist might argue that CE fails to account for perspectival dependence. This refers to the use of slur’s indication of a speaker’s negative attitudes. According to FM, a slur is offensive if its use expresses a negative tone. And so, every offensive use of a slurring word necessarily indicates a negative psychological attitude. Because CE is such that every offensive use of a slur is as such because of the meaning of the slur, the intention of the speaker has no effect on offensiveness. And a single use of a slur does not suggest negative attitudes. Yet, CE can also account for this. Regardless of if one knows what a slur means, the speaker must belong to a society of discriminatory institutions. According to CE, slurs would not be derogatory without these institutions. And so, the use of a slur makes a speaker complicit in propagating these institutions. This is akin to a negative attitude. It therefore seems that CE might still be able to account for perspectival dependence.
The prohibitionists might further argue that CE has an inadequate account of appropriation. Appropriation is the reclamation of a slur by members of the group it is used against. Though not strictly a feature of offensiveness, it applies to derogatory variation and insulation. Hom proposes that it occurs when the meaning of a slur changes over time. Members of a systemically disadvantaged group can decide to “recapture political power”. But this does not seem to adequately account for the slur ‘b*tch’. The word is no longer used strictly against women and is in some cases a personal insult, or even a compliment. Hom, in arguing against racial epithets, excludes an analysis for terms which may not share the same offence structure. How can the recapturing of political power explain its use as a personal insult or compliment? According to the prohibitionist account, on the other hand, a group member can use a slur without violating prohibition when membership provides an “escape clause”. Members of the class to which a slur refers can decide if a term is acceptable. And so, women may use the term “b*tch” as a term of empowerment because their membership in the class of women allows it. Since the appropriated term has been in use for a while, the word is also used by members of other communities and can be used in as a personal insult or compliment since it is no longer strictly prohibited.
Yet, Hom could just as well argue this is due to institutions of the past. The literal meaning of the term — a “malicious” woman who should be discriminated against because of her gender, can be exploited by the group to which it refers. Yet, the literal meaning also refers to the female dog. And as Sally McConnell-Ginet notes, it derogatorily imposes “servility”. Both cases oppress women by attributing undesirable qualities to them. Just as in the case of the term ‘n*zi’, the word ‘b*tch’ can have more than one meaning — one determined by institutions, and the other, by the community. Accordingly, the appropriated term is a symbol of empowerment because the original literal meaning is subverted. ‘Servile’ and ‘malicious’ come to mean ‘strong’ and ‘cunning’, such as in the case of the phrase “bad b*tch”. This appropriation parallels the feminist movement over the course of the 20th Century. But its still derogatory use refers to its original literal meaning. One issue the prohibitionist might have is an offensive use even after appropriation. ‘B*tch’ can still be used as a slur. It can be extended to men — “is your lazy b*tch of a brother gone out yet” or “you’re my b*tch”. The use of ‘b*tch’ in the second instance is not widespread, but definitely offensive. Its use among men in prisons exerts ownership of one man over another. So how can a term that is no longer strictly prohibited, due to appropriation, continue to offend? CE could simply attach the original literal meaning to the term to a groups if it faces similar discriminatory institutions. The use of rape in prisons to exert power and authority is a discriminatory institution against the ‘weak’. Here, ‘b*tch’ is derogatory because literally means that the recipient is ‘owned’ by the speaker, imposing the ‘servility’ as noted above. The prohibitionist could claim that this use of the term is still prohibited, but their need to appeal to specific communities, like that of women, precludes offence on the part of other groups to which the slur may be applied. And so, I believe that CE better explains this crucial feature of slurs and is therefore a more plausible account for offensiveness.
By explaining the features of offensiveness Bolinger outlined, CE addresses the offensiveness slurs. And, as I have argued, CE better addresses the features of derogatory variation, autonomy, perspectival dependence, and appropriation than do the other theories. As a result, it seems that CE, and the semantic theory of slurs, is the best account for offensiveness of slurs.
Image Credits: Commens, maverickphilosopher