Slurs and Stereotypes in Mind and Society

Descriptive Language: Truth-evaluable and emotively neutral. “Golden Retriever”, “Pepperoni Pizza”, “Asian-American”, “male”, “USC student”.

Expressive Language: Not truth-evaluable and not emotively neutral. “D’oh”, “Yikes,” “Ouch,” “Fuck”, “Hurray”.

Language can be used to do more than just describe things and events or express our emotions. Language can also be used to actually create and destroy real things in our social world.

Language can be used to create new bonds and commitments.

Language can be used to disempower and destroy.

Language can be used to empower and heal.

One question that’s fun to think about is this: how many different things can you do with language?

One question of particular interest for us today is this: what kind of thing are we doing with language when we slur?

Let’s now turn to watch a few videos to provide context for better understanding the theoretical literature on slurs and for better understanding the personal experiences of targets that have been slurred. After watching the videos, what are some common themes that you found?

[Warning! The following videos contain offensive language for educational purposes]

What are some common themes that you noticed from the videos?

Let’s next consider several views of slurs from the literature to see how well they are able to account for the natural language meaning and use of slurs.

Expressive Meaning: Joseph Hedger (2012) claims that “slurs contain merely expressive content – i.e., they display an attitude of contempt on the part of the speaker toward their targets – but they lack an extension, and hence don’t make truth-apt contributions to semantic content” (p. 77-78).

Problems for Expressive Meaning: Because this view holds that slurs are purely expressive in content, this view it fails to account for the fact that slurs display systematic differences in their application towards different targets (e.g., “spic” vs “chink”, “spic” vs “slut”).

Slurs and Non-Pejorative Correlates: Christopher Hom (2008) writes that “For any racial epithet [or slur], call its nonpejorative correlate (NPC) the expression that picks out the supposed extension of the epithet but without expressing derogation towards members of that extension. For example, the NPC of ‘chink’ is ‘Chinese’, the NPC of ‘kike’ is ‘Jewish’, the NPC of ‘nigger’ is ‘African-American’, and so on” (p. 417).

Conventionally Implicated Meaning: Daniel Whiting (2013) claims that “slurs express the same semantic content when used as their neutral counterparts; that is, slurs and their neutral counterparts contribute the same thing to what is said by uses of sentences involving them” (p. 364).

Problems for Conventionally Implicated Meaning: Because this view holds that slurs and their neutral counterparts are terms that share precisely the same extension, this view fails to account for the fact that slurs and their neutral counterparts actually differ in their semantic contents since they have different associated stereotypical features (e.g., Chris Rock “Niggas vs Black People”).

Semantic Meaning: Christopher Hom (2010) claims that “for any derogatory word, D, and its neutral counterpart, N […] to call someone a D is to say that they ought to be subject to discriminatory practices for having negative, stereotypical properties because of being an N” (p. 364).

Problems for Semantic Meaning: Because this view holds that slurs literally contain derogatory content as well as threats to inflict harm on targets, this view fails to account for how slurs can be used to communicate non-threatening and non-derogatory meaning. This view also fails to account for how the appropriation of slurs is possible.