Thursday, June 9, 2011

Slurs: prohibitionist vs. semanticist views

There are two main competing theories on why slurs (racial, ethnic, religious, gender, etc) are offensive. On one view, the offensiveness of a slur is a result of the semantic content of a slur. On the other view favored by Ernest Lepore, slurs are offensive not because of any semantic content but because they are violations of some social prohibition on speech. I favor the semantic account. Lepore defends his prohibition account here and here. But the arguments he uses to support his view seems to me to be deficient and very unconvincing. Here are two objections he raised against the semantic account:

First, how can some be more offensive than others (including those targeting the same group)? And second, why can some of us use slurs without being offensive while others of us cannot? The proposal that slurs are expressions whose occurrences are prohibited purports to explain these features better than views that invoke the content of the word, i.e. their meaning. In fact, appeals to meaning don’t seem to be capable of coherently accommodating either of these features.

To the first question, it has already been addressed rigorously, and, to my mind, convincingly here by Christopher Hom in his semantic account of slurs. Basically, slurs are masked conjunctions of associated properties attributed to members of groups in general according to this view. In fact, I think the problem to be more of a problem for the prohibition perspective to account for why some slurs are more offensive than others than it is for the semantic perspective.

The second point Lepore raises is also accounted for in Hom's paper rigorously and, again, convincingly so I will move on to my own counter arguments against some of the other points from the prohibitionist account.

Lepore says that his prohibitionist view of offense does not rely on the intentions of a speaker and suggests that this is a strength of his view for he says that we lack such power over words to change their meaning simply by intending it to have some arbitrary meaning. But this is clearly misleading. Slurs can often be created by fiat. These neologistic slurs will instantly have the semantic content of their cognates or synonyms by stipulation and hence their offensiveness. Consider if I were to announce publicly that from now on the word "mook" is to mean the racial slur "honkey." If I were to call white people "mooks," instead of using "honkey" in the usual derogatory way it is usually used, it most certainly would be offensive to white people. If they take offense to "honkey" no doubt they will then take offense to "mook." The prohibition view cannot account for this for no one or group informally nor formally prohibited "mook" for this word was a non word before my public stipulatory act bringing it into existence.

It's interesting that Lepore uses the example of Virginia senator George Allen when he called one of his aids "macaca" as an example purporting to support his view when it actually seem to counter his argument. Lepore says:

Recall his campaign for senator was derailed by his “playful” reference to an Indian American campaign worker for the opposition. His stated intention (sincere or not) wasn’t enough to change perceptions of his chosen expression’s significance
But "macaca" was not a word ergo it could not have been prohibited qua racial slur so Lepore's view cannot account for the reason it is offensive. The reason it is offensive is because of its semantic content: it seems to attribute certain properties to Indians (namely, that they are or resemble monkeys, or macaques). It attained its semantic content via the word "macaque."

I think that the semantic view can account for all of the objections Lepore raises and, moreover, and ironically, I don't think the prohibition view can account for them.

Additionally, Lepore's view cannot account for why dictionaries and hate literature differ in offensiveness as both contain racial slurs. Moreover, Lepore's own example of why slurs are not offensive when uttered by some groups but very offensive when used by others seems to counter his own view (whereas Hom's semantic view accounts for non offensiveness in usage among the "in group" members). His example is from the movie Rush Hour when Chan says "What's up, nigga!" to a black bartender after his buddy, Carter, who is black, says the same phrase to that bartender. Chan's utterance is offensive while Carter's is not despite the fact that they had said the same thing. Lepore also has an explanation but I think the semantic view accounts for it better than the prohibitionist's view.

I also disagree with Lepore when he claims that the mere mention of some slur is offensive. His prohibitionist view seem to have this as a consequence but it seems to be a consequence not desirable for such a view. He gives the example of the use of "The N-word" in popular usage to stand for the racial slur, "nigger" as support for that claim. But even if the actual word is used instead of the contorted "first-letter-stand-in," they are almost always far less offensive in such cases because they are merely mentioned as opposed to used in their common offensive manner. When people with tourrette's utter slurs (i.e., merely mention them instead of using them) due to their the coprolalia associated with the disorder, we also seem to see such utterances as far less offensive than when uttered by some bigot. What can account for the attenuation of that offensiveness other than its intent which is associated with a semantic content?

A prohibitionist view will have serious problems accounting for that attenuation because its the word that is prohibited but the word has different offensiveness uttered from the mouth of a tourette's sufferer than from a bigot.

Next, consider this objection from Lepore to the semantic view:

However, we should reject this view because it too fails to explain the relevant data. First, the view as stated claims the inference instituted by the slur says all members of the targeted group exhibit the negative property. But we can imagine a bigot who, after being presented with evidence that the victim of his slur does not exhibit the negative property associated with the term, still applies the word to his target. And secondly, for any given slur, what is the specific assumption one is licensed to infer? Here is a homework assignment: take a slur and try to figure out what everyone who hears it would infer. It is doubtful you will come up with a single idea that everyone who knows the term shares.

As Hom showed in his paper, a slur is often a paraphrase for the conjunction of many attributive assertions towards members of a group. The deeper the history of associations between some group and the pejorative stereotypes used to oppress them, the more assertions are in that conjunction. So it should not come as a surprise that a slur will still be offensive even when it is shown one member does not have one attributed property. That's because it still attributes other (offensive, derisive, etc) properties to the group in general.

Finally, Lepore says:

One final challenge for the advocate of a content-based explanation: paraphrases of what a slur supposedly means do not match in offense.
But this we can simply deny. Paraphrases (that is, assertions with the same semantic content) often are as offensive as the slurs they paraphrase. According to Hom's semantic view, slurs are basically paraphrases of a conjunction of assertions attributing negative properties to some group. Say that the word "hillbilly" is a paraphrase for the conjunction, "All members of this group are stupid, wife-beaters, alcoholics, inbred, poor, ignorant, and backward..." Hom's paper says that how the slur gets to have such a content is by a history of use via associating the word with institutions of harm and oppression. He calls this history of association via institutions of harm and oppression its semantic "loading" and when such a slur is used against someone purported to be a member of that group (such as Appalachians or other rural people), its contents are unloaded or "exploded."

Whether the offensiveness of a slur is its semantic content or its violation of some social prohibition is of serious social and legal consequence. This is not some obscure academic debate with no "real" import. As many issues in philosophy, it bears on us considerations in many ways not apparent at first. Consider issues on free speech. If the offensiveness of a slur is its content and its content attributes certain negative and false properties to those falling under its reference or its content is harmful in that attribution, then hate speech may not be protected under the Constitution as free speech when it can be shown that slurs were made with certain kinds of willful intent or negligence . Much as the Constitution protecting free speech does not protect slander and other forms of defamation against individuals when such defamation is shown demonstrably false and made under certain unjustifiable and legally liable circumstances, a bigot or organization may be shown to be making similar false assertions and hence liable to legal action.

[EDIT: I've included these comments and counter arguments that have recently occurred to me against Lepore's prohibitionist account.]

Additionally against the prohibitionist, I offer the following suggestive counter examples. Recently, I saw a movie about the standup comic Louie CK. In one of his comic routines, he talks about the word 'Jew'. He claims that it is the only word that is both the commonly accepted word for a group and its slur. It only becomes a slur depending on both context and how it is pronounced, he claims (I think Woody Allen also has a similar routine about the word). Now that is pretty funny but it has some insight to it. Consider:

"Johnny is a Jew," said in a casual, informative tone and "Johnny is a Jew" said in a suspicious, derisive tone with emphasis on the last vowel.

If 'Jew' in the last instance is offensive because it is prohibited, then 'Jew' said in the first instance also should be offensive because they are the same word. On the other hand, the same word can have very different meanings (that is, have different semantic contents) depending on context which would explain why it is not offensive but informative in the first instance but used as a slur and thus offensive in the second.

I also think there is a "cart before the horse" issue that can be raised against the prohibitionist. They cannot explain why some words are prohibited rather than others.

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