A philosophical analysis of the “n-word”

This article in Quillette by Matthew Small, a graduate student at Western University (formerly the University of Western Ontario), raises a question I hadn’t though much about: what if a word is considered offensive to some but not all members of a minority group? (Actually, that holds for “majority groups” as well: some southern whites may be offended by the term “cracker” and others may not.)

I’ve discussed many times whether words—most prominently the “n-word”—might be okay to use in a teaching situation, for example as it’s used in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. About two years ago it seemed to be okay if it came up in literature and could form the basis of a productive discussion. But now it seems it cannot be used by non-blacks at all, and I do not use it.

But what if the word offends some members of a group but not others? Many Jews, for instance, might be deeply offended by the use of the slur “kike”, and while I see it as a form of bigotry when used to denigrate Jews, I have no objection, as a secular Jew, to it being used, read or discussed in books like The Catcher in the Rye or Babbitt. Perhaps other Jews would, although “kike” hasn’t attained the taboo status of the n-word. So is it never okay to say “kike” if some Jews object to the word being uttered even when it’s not meant to denigrate Jews, but rather for a genuine educational purpose? Is a handful of objecting sufficient to make it immoral to utter the word, even in the classroom? This is the topic of Small’s essay (click on screenshot to read):

Here’s the precipitating incident at Small’s university:

Over the last week, Western University (where I am currently enrolled) has been mired in scandal over an instructor’s decision to utter a racial slur during a discussion of popular culture in his English literature class. More specifically, the instructor (Andrew Wenaus) suggested that Will Smith’s use of the phrase “home butler,” in a 20-something year old episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, may have been a subtle reference (sanitized for consumption on syndicated television) to the phrase “house nigger,” which was, during the pre-emancipation period, used to refer to black slaves who worked in the household.

It is, I suppose, debatable whether Smith’s use of the phrase “home butler” was in fact intended by the show’s writers as a reference to the aforementioned slur. [JAC: I think it’s pretty clear that’s what the phrase meant.] It is not, however, debatable whether or not this slur was used to refer to black slaves who worked in the household. That is a straightforward historical fact.

For daring to articulate this fact in his classroom, Wenaus has been dragged on social media (and by the local press) as racially insensitive at best, and a racist at worst. He has had to issue a public apology, along with promises to undergo additional sensitivity training, and Western’s president has established a specialized task-force aimed at combatting systemic racism on campus (of which Wenaus’ utterance apparently constitutes evidence). Meanwhile, Western’s Ethnocultural Support Service has issued a statement reminding the university community that it is always inappropriate for a white person to utter the offending term, “regardless of intent or how they said it.” This preempts any possible appeal to the presumptively anti-racist intentions behind Wenaus’s lecture, or to the crucial distinction between the use and mention of a term.

From this recounting of events, it doesn’t seem that Wenaus is a racist. Yet he mouthed a word that could be used as racist, and therefore is by default a racist. We all know of things like this happening, and not just with words, either. “Cultural appropriation” is a related issue. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts’ kimono display, in which non-Japanese were allowed to don kimonos, was the subject of protest by some Asians, but defended by others, including a group of older Japanese ladies who showed up at the Museum wearing kimonos. I suspect that most people here would defend the kimono exhibit but perhaps not the use of the n-word in non-racist contexts.

Small defines the claim that a word cannot be used if any members of the relevant group object to it—no matter what outgroup members think—as the deferential standard:

This deferential standard basically asserts that white people have no right to an opinion about what is or is not racist, and that to suggest otherwise is a mark of racial privilege. So, if a black student declares that Wenaus’s utterance was racist, then it was racist. End of discussion.

The deferential standard is self-defeating in at least two ways. Firstly, it is unable to account for the fact that there will inevitably be differences of opinion among black people about whether a given incident or statement is racist. Although several black people at Western have objected to Wenaus’s remark, I am personally acquainted with several others who find it to be unobjectionable, given the context in which it was uttered, and the intention of the speaker (which was presumptively anti-racist). They cannot all be right. But according to the deferential standard, both camps speak with equal moral authority by virtue of being black, which implies that the same incident must be at once both racist and not-racist. This is clearly absurd.

Well, this is a moral and emotional issue, not an objective decision about “racist or non-racist”. Clearly a word can be interpreted by some as racist, and by others as not. What Small is talking about here is how society in general deems the use of such words. Small continues:

If we are unwilling to accept this incoherent conclusion, we need to find some way of adjudicating which of our two disagreeing camps of black people has it right. [JAC: again, it isn’t a “right or wrong” issue; it’s an issue of what society as a whole deems to be racist versus non-racist.] The only way to do so would be to posit a set of objective criteria governing what is and isn’t racist. But by doing so, we have already abandoned the notion that we are obligated to defer to the opinions of black people, as this latter approach would be appealing to a subjective standard. And if we can agree that there exists a set of objective criteria governing what is and isn’t racist, there seems to be no good rationale for forbidding white people from participating in discussions about what those criteria are and the circumstances under which they are applicable. Thus, the deferential standard leads to a paradox, for which the only solution is to reject the deferential standard.

He adds that there are further complications because “The deferential standard. . . overlooks the fact that some black people find the standard itself to be racially patronizing.”

This is a conundrum I hadn’t thought of before. All I know is that I dare not use the n-word in any context lest I be demonized as a racist, even in discussing whether the word can be discussed in classrooms or mouthed by whites singing rap songs.

Small concludes that, by unofficially adopting the deferential standard, Western University is violating its motto of Veritas et Utilitas (“truth and utility”), because, in refusing to discuss phrases like the origin of “home butler”, Small argues that it’s become “inappropriate for us to utter certain indisputably true statements, because the value of truth is trumped by the emotional states of one or another demographic.”  He then draws the overly dramatic conclusion that this form of Social Justice Warriorism is a religious faith because it requires “suspension of disbelief [in an educational purpose] out of respect to the larger narrative”. Ergo, suggests Small, Western is no longer a secular institution. But this is a digression that makes his essay seem too tendentious. Still, the philosophical issue remains.

I’m not so interested in this comparison of SJW-ism to religion, or in a conflict between truth and utility, because one can always circumvent the n-word (granted, sometimes to the detriment of education and discussion). In the end, It’s clear that the denigrated group, compared to other groups, has the sole power to label a word “offensive.” But Small’s article brings up the issue of what one does when some group members object to a word but others don’t.  I don’t object to a discussion of the word “kike” or any of its companion slurs for Jews (“sheeny”, “Hebe”, “Yid”, or “Christ-killer”) IF the word is used in an academic and heuristic way, and is not intended by the speaker to denigrate anybody. But if, say, 5% of Jews do object, does the word then become taboo?

Weigh in below.

 

100 Comments

  1. Posted November 9, 2019 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    Your post could be taken as self-contradictory. You won’t use the n word but quote a passage with “house nigger” in it. Doesn’t that mean you have used the n word, at least in the same way that someone teaching the related literature has used it? Or is there a difference between print and spoken use of the term? And would it have been appropriate or as effective if you had edited the passage and wrote “house n***” or some other euphemistic way to avoid the offensive term?

    • Posted November 9, 2019 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

      I was quoting someone else, but, truth be told, I didn’t notice it when I wrote this draft. At any rate, this demonstrates the ambiguity around the use of the term in an academic setting.

      • Posted November 9, 2019 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

        I agree. Also if you had substituted an alternative or I had when I quoted your quoted passage, how would a reader know what was actually said or written by the original author?

      • Posted November 9, 2019 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

        I agree. Also if you had substituted an alternative or I had when I quoted your quoted passage, how would a reader know what was actually said or written by the original author?

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted November 10, 2019 at 7:24 am | Permalink

        And if PCC had written ‘house n-word’ everyone would still know precisely what he meant anyway.

        Which just shows how absurd the whole kerfuffle is. All these clumsy euphemisms do is draw attention to the allegedly offensive word. In the same way some overzealous TV ‘bleeping’ common words out in conversation makes the discourse sound much, much worse than the original un-bleeped statement would have been.

        cr

        • GBJames
          Posted November 10, 2019 at 7:49 am | Permalink

          Damn. Sometimes you just make sense. 😉

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted November 10, 2019 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

            Celebrate it. It doesn’t happen often. 🙂

            (Seriously, thanks)

            cr

  2. Mike
    Posted November 9, 2019 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    Steven Pinker was at my university a few weeks ago to accept an award. His presentation was a tour of his controversial ideas, including his support for free speech on campus. The questions afterward included one about hate speech, and his answer focused on the distinction between mentioning versus using a slur like the n word. He said the n word aloud once in the course of answering that question. The world didn’t end, the question got answered, and the discussion moved on to another question. Seemed about right.

    • Posted November 10, 2019 at 1:44 am | Permalink

      “controversial ideas including free speech on campus”

      Oh boy, have we gone this bad?

    • Posted November 12, 2019 at 11:41 am | Permalink

      This elementary point of linguistics and philosophy of language is lost in most of these discussions. I cannot remember a situation where it was actually a “use” at stake, at least in the “nigger” case. (Note *my* mention, not use. :))

  3. Mathew Goldstein
    Posted November 9, 2019 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    Similar behavior can be good or bad, right or wrong, depending on the context. Context is important. Contexts where using a particular word or phrase is academic or heuristic are substantially different from contexts where using the same word or phrase is insolent or disrespectful. People who insist on entirely context free evaluations of behavior are more often than not mistaken. And yes, it can make a difference who the speaker is also, that is a component of the context, but that is one potentially relevant context among many, that is not the one and only relevant context difference.

  4. Mike Anderson
    Posted November 9, 2019 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    But if, say, 5% of Jews do object, does the word then become taboo?

    I would say it’s never absolutely taboo but it should be context sensitive. For instance, in a class of 29 whites and 1 black, academically discussing the n-word could be very uncomfortable for the 1 black, because it puts a spotlight on that one person’s otherness. But in a context of 15 blacks and 15 whites, such an academic discussion could be productive and less uncomfortable.

    (Similar issues might apply to a group of 29 males and 1 female – that level of disparity just changes things.)

    No easy answers.

    • Timothy Reichert
      Posted November 9, 2019 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

      Doesn’t the word “black” also put a spotlight on the person’s otherness? Doesn’t any reference to race or ethnicity put a spotlight on people’s otherness?

      The word “black” can be used to express just as much hate as “the N word” depending on how you use it. Making a word “taboo” does nothing but add power to that word.

      • Mike Anderson
        Posted November 9, 2019 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

        Doesn’t the word “black” also put a spotlight on the person’s otherness? Doesn’t any reference to race or ethnicity put a spotlight on people’s otherness?

        Yes. In some contexts putting a spotlight on otherness is harmful, whether the otherness is gender, race, height, weight, etc.

        It’s not taboo to talk about weight, but in some contexts it’s harmful (e.g. when there’s a single overweight person in the group).

      • Saul Sorrell-Till
        Posted November 9, 2019 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

        “Making a word “taboo” does nothing but add power to that word.”

        This is very wrong; hugely wrong. Making a word like n***er taboo is an implicit _signal_ that we, as a society, consider racism a problem worth dealing with. It is a signal that racism and behaving in a hateful, racist way has social consequences.

        It demonstrates to genuine racists that society at large does not agree with them, and it demonstrates that fact to every other neutral onlooker too. It is enormously valuable.

        • Posted November 9, 2019 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

          “Making a word like n***er taboo is an implicit _signal_ that we, as a society, consider racism a problem worth dealing with.”

          Banning a word is a trivial and ineffective way to fight racism. It makes people seek different words to express their racism, as Trump did when he called African nations “shithole countries”. It allows racists to pretend they aren’t racists by scrupulously avoiding use of the banned words.

          • Saul Sorrell-Till
            Posted November 10, 2019 at 8:39 am | Permalink

            Again, you miss the point. The ‘banning’ of the word(not actually a ban, more just a messy consensus reached by society over the span of decades) isn’t the point. It’s what it signals, what it symbolises. It’s a kind of ‘do not cross’ warning to aspiring racists: if you go beyond this line you will become politically, socially toxic.

            “a trivial and ineffective way to fight racism”

            No, it’s the opposite. It’s an extremely non-trivial, extremely effective way to fight racism. It reminds every racist out there that their views are not considered socially acceptable. It sits in the back of their ugly, pusillanimous minds and has for a long time helped tamp down their instinctive desire to proselytise.

    • Mike Anderson
      Posted November 9, 2019 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

      And teachers and authority figures will inevitable misread the context at times, and this shouldn’t be a fireable offense. It should be a “teachable moment” in which those offended learn that is was a misreading of context that produced the offense, and the teachers will learn to tune their reading of the context.

    • Posted November 10, 2019 at 6:08 am | Permalink

      As a woman, I take offence to this (just so I can make this point): I identify as a person, first and foremost, and I feel uncomfortable whenever someone want to ‘other’ me by making a distinction between my sex and that of others. This is true of employers and special-rights groups and everyone else, and whatever is my assigned ‘identity’ by anyone else. I hope to treat others as I hope to be treated myself, while being open-minded enough to appreciate nuance and to not take undue offence. (Which is why I wasn’t really offended by your comment, since I know you were trying to make a good point, even if it’s one I ultimately disagree with.)

  5. Timothy Reichert
    Posted November 9, 2019 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    If there is an offensive word that hurts people’s feelings and you want to give that word even more power to do so here’s what you do. You treat it like we are treating the N word. That’s precisely how you give a word more power to hurt people than it ever had before.

    We know the R word doesn’t hurt the feelings of anyone with mental disabilities until someone tells them that they should be deeply offended by that word. Then it hurts. Prior to that only the intent had the power to hurt. Now the word alone has that power.

    Banning or making words taboo is about as foolish and anti-helpful as human behaviour gets. And now I shall close with the very racist statement that sticks and stones may break your bones but NAMES WILL NEBER HURT YOU!

    • Timothy Reichert
      Posted November 9, 2019 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

      Neber!

    • Nicolaas Stempels
      Posted November 9, 2019 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

      The R-word, is that Republican or Retarded? Or what?

    • Posted November 9, 2019 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

      That is where I am at right now. On television and in the movies the n-word was used rather frequently as a dramatic pejorative, or in historical context (the Roots television series), and for comedy (think Blazing Saddles. The weight of the word was really losing power. It was becoming merely edgy.
      But not any more.

  6. GBJames
    Posted November 9, 2019 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    I must lead a sheltered life. I’ve never heard “sheeny” before.

    And I’m reminded of What Makes America Great?” (Firesign Theatre)

  7. Diana MacPherson
    Posted November 9, 2019 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    Words aren’t racist. They are words. People are racist. They use words to express their racism and denigrate others. This is why intentions matter. Words can offend. We should be offended by words that are used to denigrate others but being offended doesn’t mean the user is intending to denigrate. Sometimes offence is necessary.

    • Posted November 9, 2019 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

      I have heard that some Canadians find the term “Canuck” offensive when used by non-Canadians (read Americans). That is bizarre given the Vancouver NHL team is called the Canucks. If true, I figure some people, even Canadians, will find a way to be offended.

      • Posted November 9, 2019 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

        I think there’s a general principle at play here. A nickname like “Canucks” is acceptable when used by those to which the term applies but not by outsiders. Its use to refer to the hockey team is much less offensive than when it is used to refer to Canadians in general because of the lack of an alternative. It is assumed that when you say “Canuck” to a regular Canadian it is meant to be derogatory or disrespectful unless you are one also or are referring to the hockey team.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted November 9, 2019 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

          Ah we don’t care.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted November 9, 2019 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

          Nope. We don’t care. We see it as a nick name and don’t mind others calling us that.

          • Martin Levin
            Posted November 11, 2019 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

            I’ve never heard a fellow Canuck find the term offensive. Besides the Vancouver hockey team, there was a comic-strip character named Captain Canuck, who’s also been featured on a postage stamp.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted November 9, 2019 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

        Nope. Canadians do not find the word “Canuck” offensive. I think this is something non Canadians thought up. I’ve had my NZ relatives think the same thing. There was an Olympic ski team called the “Crazy Canucks”, we had a comic book hero called “Captain Canuck”. We call ourselves that. Like calling an Australian an “Aussie” or a New Zealander a “Kiwi”.

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted November 10, 2019 at 7:05 am | Permalink

          Now, to really offend a Canadian, you have to call them a ‘Yank’. 😉

          cr

          • chris moffatt
            Posted November 10, 2019 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

            We would definitely form a committee and pass a vote of censure if you used the “Y-word” to a canuck.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted November 10, 2019 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

            Hate speech denying our cultural identity. 😂

    • boudiccadylis
      Posted November 9, 2019 at 9:56 pm | Permalink

      But we should be sure to know what the word means for example niggardly.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted November 12, 2019 at 12:06 am | Permalink

        Heh. I once got in the shit for using ‘bemused’ in an email, referring to a pugnacious adversary’s latest effort. He thought I was laughing at him.

        cr
        (Actually – I was. 😉

  8. Posted November 9, 2019 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    I am far from being an historian, but it seems to me that time sorts these moral disputes out with remarkable consistency. Again and again, people like Matthew Small go down in history as heroes to be emulated while people like the folks who populate Western’s Ethnocultural Support Service go down in history as fools and knaves to be laughed at and despised.

    It is curious to me how consistently that seems to be the case. Of course, I might be exaggerating the degree to which historians express approval and disapproval of people’s behavior — their expression of those things is typically far more subtle than I have let on. Still, it’s a safe bet they will almost universally approve of Small and disapprove of the others.

  9. cicely berglund
    Posted November 9, 2019 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    Indeed, no easy answers. To turn the discussion around a bit: being of a certain age-I have a couple of friends who are each cognitively deteriorating in visible ways.
    One of them is highly sensitive to those facts and is very hurt if it is even mentioned in a group and also offended if anyone even offers to help out. There is most often even a tiny sense of condescension or self conscious awkwardness in such offers. The other friend takes all offers of help very straightforwardly and gratefully and is good about putting the other person at ease about offering- so! What you gonna do? Granted these are individual circumstances-but to try to make rules seems impossible. People respond according to the degree of all sorts of factors in the situation.

  10. Posted November 9, 2019 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    “The n-word” seems rather a patronizing kindergarten-teacher construct, but I suppose that in a society that regards language as we once regarded physical violence, it’s unavoidable. In my own remote youth, an educated person was expected to be capable of suffering the blathering of idiots without losing composure. Whatever it all means, however, I doubt that one’s use of language should be limited by one’s genetic heritage. That’s racism, pure and simple.

    • Posted November 11, 2019 at 3:46 am | Permalink

      It may be a patronising kindergarten construct (and I hate it) but if you don’t use it in place of “nigger”*, you might get fired.

      https://www.thejournal.ie/netflix-executive-fired-for-using-n-word-4087573-Jun2018/

      An executive from Netflix was fired for using the word in a meeting that was about discussing which words are too sensitive to use in a business context, and then using it again when discussing the original offence. The whole thing is just so infantile.

      * I especially hate that I am as susceptible as all the other sheeple. It took quite an effort of will to write the actual word there instead of “the n-word” and you’ll note I avoided writing it anywhere else in this comment.

  11. dd
    Posted November 9, 2019 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

    Quotation from the article:

    “Western’s Ethnocultural Support Service has issued a statement reminding the university community that it is always inappropriate for a white person to utter the offending term, “regardless of intent or how they said it.” ”

    But what if it’s said by an Asian or Hispanic? Then what….?

    And look what just happened in Texas:

    “University of North Texas staff attorney resigns less than 24 hours after sparking controversy by using N-word as example during free-speech event”

    https://www.dallasnews.com/news/education/2019/11/08/staff-attorney-uses-n-word-as-example-during-free-speech-event-sparking-controversy-at-university-of-north-texas/

    • Posted November 11, 2019 at 5:24 am | Permalink

      Deplorable news from a place where I once taught.

      Sewell, I assume (the article is not available in the UK), did not *use* the word “nigger”, but referred to its use (as did I, just then). The distinction is crucial. If we ignore it, we are giving the mere utterance of the word magical power,like the Tetragrammaton.

  12. Posted November 9, 2019 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    How black does one have to be to be able to use the n-word, or to have an opinion about using the n-word that must be respected by non-blacks? Is it based on some kind of genetic test? We all know the difficulties with that. Is it determined by a blackness committee? Can one proclaim one’s own blackness, a la Rachel Dolezal?

    I’m sure there are many questions like this implied by the woke position. Finding a set of objective criteria for telling if some speech act is racist would be an impossible task.

    • dd
      Posted November 9, 2019 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

      I really recommend Douglas Murray’s book “Madness of Crowds” to you.

      A great insight of his, as far as i know, regarding “woke culture” is that contradiction is not a bug, but a critical feature of its power wielding.

  13. Jon Gallant
    Posted November 9, 2019 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    Small’s conclusion that SJWism is really a religious exercise strikes me as beyond question, considering the sect’s various Medieval features. To wit: (1) A catechism of Virtues and Sins, which casts dissent of any kind (e.g. that of Brett Weinstein) into the perdition of “racism”, “the alt-Right”, etc., just as the Church of Rome denounced all Christian heretics as agents of the Devil. (2) Hordes of lay preachers who make a living by granting indulgences for such sins as “white privilege”, much like the pardoners of late Medieval times. (3) Strict avoidance of forbidden words or thoughts, and insistence that everyone else do the same.

    • max blancke
      Posted November 9, 2019 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

      I think it is important if one is serious about advocating for atheism, to address the apparent human need to manufacture a synthetic version of those same beliefs, but centered around some secular issue or set of issues.
      I can certainly see almost every aspect in Christianity duplicated in SWJ beliefs. This article is about both blasphemy and original sin (for some of us). Heretics, as you mentioned, Confession of sins, the sale of indulgences, even an occasional messiah.
      What it seems to lack is redemption.

      I think it would be interesting to see what the SJW movement would have looked like had it sprung from a culture with a primarily Hindu background.

  14. phoffman56
    Posted November 9, 2019 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    It’s too bad that the internationalism of universities, a very desirable thing, ends up infecting some stupidities of the U.S. on many, perhaps even all, universities in Canada.

    Western is just 100 km. (sorry, 62.5 miles) down the road from me. An earlier stupidity last year affected Wilfred Laurier University, formerly Waterloo Lutheran, just a km. or so down the road from the one I retired from and still have an office at.

    Does it not occur to USians and Canadians that, in almost all cases, an assertive sentence, even uttered, requires a subject and a predicate (etc. etc. if imperative or interrogative ,,,) and so nearly always requires more than one word. It is only one or more sentences which can possibly be offensive, not words themselves which are not sentences.

    So to refer to a word, simply as a word, as being offensive, is just plain stupid.

    Now I’m well aware that the single word at issue here, for example when shouted at a person, is often effectively a sentence, and that is almost always offensive, deeply offensive and morally very bad. (Why am I going on about what is so patently obvious ??!!!)

    But that such a word can occur within sentences, ones which are not the least bit offensive, should be perfectly obvious to every one with a mental age beyond about 7, hopefully with at least a tiny bit of education, at least some from parents who are not irretrievably ignorant.

    Presumably someone, hopefully frequently, probably Pinker, but maybe even someone born, bred and remaining a USian, has said what I just said above.

    But most discussions on this, including the ones here by what otherwise seem to be pretty well educated people, seem to go all over the place, off the rails.

  15. Saul Sorrell-Till
    Posted November 9, 2019 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

    This is more of Quillette’s meat-and-drink, which is grievance journalism. Specifically, grievances-about-grievances. People on the right complaining about people on the left complaining. What a mewling shadow of itself that site has become.

    Re. the article, of course there are edge cases. People will be criticised for ridiculous reasons, like the professor mentioned in the article; that is not fair, and he shouldn’t have been forced to apologise.

    But that’s because these are tacit rather than explicit rules. We’ve never set them down in stone as a society, so some people will push them too far and some people will ignore them entirely.

    The question is: what is the alternative? We have thankfully – painfully, effortfully – stumbled upon a very, very fragile(far more fragile than the writer of this article I think would admit) agreement that using the n-word is Not Cool.

    That agreement relies on absolutely nothing but social stigma to enforce it. There are countless other, similarly tacit agreements that constitute what we commonly call political correctness. Sometimes PC goes too far. In particular environments, eg. colleges, it has more of a habit of being misused, abused.

    But I am generally disinclined to start nibbling away at its foundations simply on the basis of the anecdotes and Twitter flurries I hear about. Extreme political correctness gets a lot of shit, but the amount of work its moderate version does in the background is completely taken for granted. Give me an alternative that works and I’ll sign up but until then, steady as she goes.

  16. Randall Schenck
    Posted November 9, 2019 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    There are a couple of words used to describe white or caucasian people. One is Honky and the other Haole and to determine the meaning or derogatory nature of these words we must hear from white people. Both terms are kind of regional but also used specifically by other races. Honky is used by African Americans and Haole is used by Asians and others living specifically in Hawaii. In other words, you won’t hear the term Haole used in Japan, Korea or Philippines. If you ask, they won’t know what you are talking about. But those living in Hawaii all know the term. Also, if you are a white person living in Hawaii, you know the term (Haole) as well but here on the mainland, not so much. That leaves us with the question, is Haole considered bad, derogatory, – yes and no.

  17. FB
    Posted November 9, 2019 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    I suspect that the Arabic word “kafir” is causing more harm in the world nowadays than the n-word. What about “sinner”? The same rules should apply to those three words (and many others), methinks.

    • Nicolaas Stempels
      Posted November 9, 2019 at 10:40 pm | Permalink

      As far as South Africa goes that is correct, the k-word is an absolute nono, but I doubt you were pointing at that.

  18. Posted November 9, 2019 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    “Kike” has an obscure etymology. One claim is that it was actually a slur used by resident jews against new immigrant jews. The preferred theory (which, for some reason, I find it doubtful) is that jewish immigrants at Ellis Island would not use the customary X to mark entry forms and used a circle instead. The Yiddish word for circle is kikel, and the immigration inspectors called anyone marking papers with a circle a kikel, which got shortened to kike.

  19. Posted November 9, 2019 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    When you review the communication in such situations, it’s apparent they are not used to put down an individual, nor to encourage the usage of such words. We’ve been over the use-mention distinction many times, but that should be the first question. For example, “niggardly” starts with an n, too, and would also be an “n-word“ together with nix, nightingale and nobble. One can describe the features of the word, like how many letters it has, its etymology, and in which contexts it is used. To do this, you need to mention the word to tell people what the referent is — what is being discussed. You are then pointing at this word itself, to discuss it, which is different from using the word to insult someone, where it is hurled at somebody else.

    It is customary that I always bring up the Yehova sketch from Life of Brian, because it illustrates the principle quite well. How can the prosecutor talk about the misdeed without saying the word? It was meant to illustrate the silliness of the hard-and-fast rule that Yehova‘s name can’t be mentioned. But picture the alternative scenario. The prosecutor reads the accusation: “this man has uttered the Y-word!” After a moment of silence and rising mumbles, a heckler shouts: ‘so what!? One can say “the Y-word”’ “Yeah yeah, yeah“ the crowd agrees. And they would be right, it’s perfectly fine even by their rules. How can they convict the blasphemer?

    Of course, that’s a solvable. When Americans say “the n-word” people know it actually means the taboo word that can’t be said. And if not, air-quotes, can convey the switching between using and mentioning. But then there‘s the next bizarre situation, where no law can be written with the taboo word, and it’s not possible to distinguish between actually having said “the Y-Word (meaning Yehova)” and “the Y-Word” (meaning the Y-Word). How would you defend yourself from the accusation of having said the “Y-Word” (the non-blasphemous version)?

    In the end, the general rule for woke people holds: half of them are illiterate morons. The other half are power-tripping social dominators who enjoy wielding power over others, which they cruelly abuse. Half of them is additionally either well-intentioned, or narcissistic.

    It’s amazing that American society caves in to this nonsense, but is deaf to real social justice concerns.

    • Posted November 11, 2019 at 5:40 am | Permalink

      “Jehovah” is interesting. It derives from the biblical YHWH, regarded as too sacred to ever be uttered except by the High Priest on the Day of Atonement in the Temple. So when it occurs in sacred writing it is read as “Adonai”, the Lord, which is how it is commonly translated.

      But then in turn “Adonai” camps be regarded as too sacred for ordinary use, so the rigidly orthodox now say “ha-Shem”, “the-Name”, except in actual prayer.

      This reminds me of the succession of terms used to refer to Afro-Americans, as each in turn inherits the baggage of its predecessor.

  20. A C Harper
    Posted November 9, 2019 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

    The video game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was released on 26 October 2004 for PlayStation 2 and on 7 June 2005 for Microsoft Windows and Xbox.

    I actually got a second-hand copy in the autumn of 2005 and I was initially shocked by the language used… the main protagonists were members of street gangs and the black ones were using ‘niggah’ as a habitual conversational marker. And the (black) police used it casually in a dismissive way.

    Although the language caused a ripple at the time the most controversial aspect was the ‘Hot Coffee’animated sex scenes. I guess sex trumps language.

    • Michael Waterhouse
      Posted November 9, 2019 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

      I was on my way down to Target to get that game (I had heard nothing about any sex scenes I tell ya) and from the time I set off to the time I got there, it had been stripped from the shelves, cos word had got around and reached those in high places.

      I don’t know how long the ban lasted. I think there was a re-release. And then the inevitable hack.

      • Saul Sorrell-Till
        Posted November 10, 2019 at 8:49 am | Permalink

        Those scenes were never actually in the game as played. The only way to access them(and they were comically tame) was to buy the PC version of the game and do some dodgy code-related stuff(I’m not a PC gamer, as you can tell).

        The sex scenes were never included in the game but they were never cut entirely either – they remained hidden in the underlying code, that was the extent of it. The controversy was a whole lot of nothing. Typical when it comes to the mainstream media dealing with gaming.

  21. Posted November 9, 2019 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

    My view is that the ‘n word’ is not just offensive or taboo – it can actually cause harm. See
    https://yandoo.wordpress.com/2018/06/13/the-harm-of-racial-slurs/

  22. Posted November 9, 2019 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Logical Place and commented:
    My view is that the ‘n word’ is not just offensive or taboo – it can actually cause harm. See
    https://yandoo.wordpress.com/2018/06/13/the-harm-of-racial-slurs/

    • phoffman56
      Posted November 9, 2019 at 9:07 pm | Permalink

      In the article by you referenced, as far as I can see, there is not a single example of a word which causes actual harm. If anything, there are examples of assertive sentences which cause harm. Entitling a blog “The Logical Place” leads the reader to hope for some clarity about language.

      • Posted November 10, 2019 at 5:00 am | Permalink

        You must have missed this example:
        ‘Similarly, Tirrell (1999: 43) states that the perlocutionary effect of racial slurs is clear: ‘they are angry put-downs that attempt to reduce the person to one real or imaginary feature of who they are’. She argues that it is not simply because such a particular speaker has a particular (racist) attitude that a racial slur is harmful (Tirrell 1999: 44). In other words, racist attitudes are not in themselves harmful – it is the perlocutionary speech acts that do the harm. She says that:

        …the heart of the expression is its designating of the person as subordinate…To call someone a ‘n**g*r’ today is at minimum to attribute a second-class status to him or her, usually on the basis of race and, arguably, to take that lower status to be deserved (Tirrell 1999: 45).
        So rather than racism being an attitude or mental state of a speaker, Tirrell (1999: 45-46) regards racism to be ‘a structure of social practices that supports and enforces the subordination of the well-being of some races to the well-being of members of other races’. (For instance, slavery in the United States had not only a negative effect on the well-being of the slaves, but it also had a positive effect on the well-being of the slave-owners and their descendants for all the free labour from which they profited). In terms of speech act theory, Tirrell argues that ‘the social, psychological and economic practices of treating dark-skinned African-Americans as less valuable that light-skinned European-Americans give content and force to the term n**g*r’ (Tirrell 1999:49).‘

        • GBJames
          Posted November 10, 2019 at 7:47 am | Permalink

          I think you (and she) miss the point. We aren’t even really talking about calling insulting and demeaning people here. We’re discussing the absurdity of confusing that with words themselves to the extent that one can’t even utter them when discussing the use of the words.

          From your citation, I must conclude that Terrell is a hopeless postmodernist who has lost herself in abstraction. Does she really think that racism goes away when people stop uttering selected words? Has she offered a list of all the words that need to be banned in order to achieve an un-bigoted world?

          • Saul Sorrell-Till
            Posted November 10, 2019 at 9:11 am | Permalink

            There is a mid-point between these positions. You can concede that using this word doesn’t necessarily cause grievous harm.

            But you can also maintain that the taboo nature of these words is incredibly important, in that it symbolises the general society-wide attitudes towards racism. It’s a signal to the racists in our midst that their views are considered toxic and there will be social consequences if they start pushing their prejudices. They will be shunned. It constantly reminds them of that fact.

            I think political correctness is so much a fabric of our daily lives that we don’t notice the good it does. It plays a big part in holding pluralistic societies together. Even those of us who find its extreme manifestations really, really fucking annoying can admit that to start junking some of its most fundamental building blocks – like the taboo against the n word – is a Bad Idea.

            • GBJames
              Posted November 10, 2019 at 9:43 am | Permalink

              An equally valid argument is that political correctness plays a big part in tearing at our social fabric. Far too much social energy is wasted, misdirected at detecting and punishing trivial or non-existent offenses.

              I never use the word “nigger”, and never would, in reference to a person. But I’ll fight to the end to keep Huckleberry Finn on the shelves of our public schools.

            • Posted November 10, 2019 at 11:35 am | Permalink

              I agree that political correctness has done good that often goes unrecognized. Where it goes wrong is when it devolves to where speaking, or not speaking, some word decides whether you are correct. It is more “word correctness” than political correctness. A whole generation of racists have thought that by not using the n-word they are automatically considered not racist. Trump uses this implicitly when he claims he’s “the least racist person in the world” and he and his supporters bond over it.

      • phoffman56
        Posted November 10, 2019 at 9:24 am | Permalink

        Of course I agree with GBJames’ response above.

        To put it some of it another way, you seem to have completely missed my point, that point being harped on to boredom by me, both in the response to you and in my earlier ‘rant’, and now just below:

        My entire point is the stupidity of the banning of single words, which, on their own, never have any assertive meaning. And so they cannot possibly be, as simply single words, regarded as offensive. I cannot put it in any simpler way; that seems pretty simple itself compared to the real problem of actually offensive utterances which are sentences; and there seems to be a total confusion of this in most discussions, including much of the present discussion. It is supposed to be about whether a certain single word, whenever and however uttered or written, should be considered offensive.

        Your example appears to be nothing to do with that, quite apart from your example’s other weaknesses. There is not the least indication in your response to me of a realization of the difference between
        1/ sentences and more which are (many times obviously) offensive, and
        2/ this utter nonsense about banning single words.
        Let’s get beyond kindergarten if possible.

        • Posted November 10, 2019 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

          If you are referring to me, that is a straw man. I have not advocated banning any words. You must have missed this paragraph in the introduction to my paper: ‘Another point of clarification is that in this paper, I intend to discuss the philosophical principles of racial slurs and free speech, rather than the policy or legal aspects of these concepts. The question of whether racial slurs should be permitted, regulated or prohibited by law is one that lies more within the scope of political philosophy or jurisprudence than the philosophy of language.‘

        • Posted November 10, 2019 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

          That is a straw man. I have not advocated banning any words. You must have missed this paragraph in the introduction to my paper: ‘Another point of clarification is that in this paper, I intend to discuss the philosophical principles of racial slurs and free speech, rather than the policy or legal aspects of these concepts. The question of whether racial slurs should be permitted, regulated or prohibited by law is one that lies more within the scope of political philosophy or jurisprudence than the philosophy of language.‘

          • phoffman56
            Posted November 11, 2019 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

            The straw man is you (along with several others here) going on about the obvious evil of people who use that word (the one starting with a letter after ‘m’ and before ‘o’, to be a bit flippant; and I’ll apologize beforehand for that) in assertions which really are terrible. That includes simply shouting the one word at a person, an act which is effectively also an assertive sentence.

            You still give no indication that you understand the big difference between what is above and what Jerry asked us to discuss: His instruction at the very end is
            “…does the word then become taboo?
            Weigh in below.”

            It is the height of stupidity to make any single word taboo, quite independently of the sentence in which it is to be used.

            It’s as simple as that.

            Do you, or do you not, agree? Please don’t change the subject.

            • Posted November 11, 2019 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

              You obviously haven’t read my paper, where I argue against the ‘taboo’ interpretation of racial slurs.

              • phoffman56
                Posted November 11, 2019 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

                Good, I’m happy that you do agree.

                Note however that both in your paper and in 21. above you say
                “My view is that the ‘n word’ is not just offensive or taboo..”

                The use of “just” there seems to say the opposite, that you don’t agree, but rather think a single word should be banned in some sense, rather than just the obviously offensive sentences should.

                In your paper “taboo” never occurs in such a way as to indicate that you do agree.

                Perhaps you could provide a word or phrase quote directly from your paper so I can find where you, as you now claim, “..argue against the ‘taboo’..”

                It has nothing to do with “interpretation”.
                It simply has to do with not falling for the (perhaps a wokeness mental wonkiness) stupidity of tabooing a single word

              • Posted November 11, 2019 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

                ‘In my view, the above scenarios provided by Camp and Whiting neatly separate the derogatory force of racial slurs from merely causing offence or uttering taboo words. The significance of this distinction is that, as we saw in the examples provided by Charles Lawrence earlier in this paper, the argument that racial slurs are merely offensive insults is used as a defence against taking any action regarding the use of such slurs. Put simply, this argument is that insult and offence are common components of public debate, and to restrict their use would constitute an unjustified restriction of free speech.’

  23. Posted November 9, 2019 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

    Words are not the thing; they represent the thing. How they represent the thing is determined by the belief/attitude of the person using the word and the audience for whom the word is intended. When a word is
    considered to have inherent power, humans create alternative words or use other existing words creatively. So, we end up with many more ways of expressing the original “offensive” word.

    No words should be considered unspeakable. All people using any word should consider the effect on their audience before using said word, and be willing and able to accept the consequences.

    Think about the OED for a moment. Look at how language has modified over time with some words dying, some changing meanings many times over and others being created anew.

    • Posted November 12, 2019 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

      Words should be considered unspeakable when they are addressed in a way that will bring ridicule or scorn to a person. Words can hurt, destroy, pull down, motivate or lift up. Proverbs 18:21 says “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” The tongue can be used as a weapon to harm and destroy, or as a tool to build up and heal. Our words should have a positive effect on others.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted November 12, 2019 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

        Who decides this big bad list of words? Some thing I find offensive may not be offensive to others. And what if offence is how I show my passion and motivation but having you understand how disgusting something is to me?

      • GBJames
        Posted November 12, 2019 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

        I find Bible citations extremely offensive. They hurt my dance of decency. Retract them immediately, Guesslla, and apologize.

        See how this works?

  24. Posted November 9, 2019 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

    So we all use “n-word” to stand for the actual (forbidden) word. So is “n-word” non-racist? I suppose it isn’t if someone were to state “Twain used the ‘n-word’ in Huckleberry Finn.” But what if someone screamed or held up a sign to a group of African Americans saying “you’re a bunch of dirty n-words”? Of course that would be as racist as if he uttered the word itself. We all know what n-word stands for.

    My point is that if “n-word” is racist or not according to how it is used or the intent of the user, why shouldn’t that be true for the actual word?

    • Posted November 12, 2019 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

      The “n word” would never have been considered a racist word, had it never been used to bring a dim light to a particular group. One should avoid using words that could harm others.

      • Posted November 12, 2019 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

        Yes, but my view is that using those words in an academic/discussion context causes no real harm, only imagined harm.

      • Posted November 12, 2019 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

        I agree that one should avoid harming others, and certain words used in certain circumstances can harm others. But, for example, did professor Laurie Sheck harm anyone in her class by using the n-word in discussing James Baldwin’s essay? She may have made some uncomfortable, but that isn’t harm. The purpose of Baldwin’s essay is to make people uncomfortable.

        Ultimately, (non-physical) harm happens within the person claiming to be harmed, and people have the ability to contain their emotions. I believe it is a hallmark of maturity that we not let ourselves feel harm from the words of others, particularly if they are strangers.

  25. denise
    Posted November 10, 2019 at 12:14 am | Permalink

    I had someone become completely unhinged on me once when I defended another Jew who used the word Yid. As far as I know the word means Jew or even just “guy” in Yiddish, so how could it be a pejorative?

    The person who became unhinged had been on the receiving end of it used as a slur, but even so why would you allow bigots turn your own word for yourself into an insult?

    • Posted November 11, 2019 at 5:50 am | Permalink

      If I, being Jewish, actually use the word “Yid”, I would probably be expressing solidarity. If a non-Jew were to use it, I don’t see how it could be anything other than an insult(and here I’m with the Stoics; unequal treatment should be resisted but insults are best ignored).

      But as with “nigger”, we must allow the word to be freely referred to, to avoid giving it magical power.

  26. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted November 10, 2019 at 6:43 am | Permalink

    Oh dear. I am so tempted to yell “n****r n****r n****r” along the lines of Monty Python’s “Jehovah” victim…

    Speaking as a Limey Pakeha Honky, that is.

    But PCC is clearly a transgressor: he finishes “does the word then become taboo?” ‘tabu’ or ‘tapu’, as we know, is derived from a Polynesian word meaning ‘forbidden’ or ‘sacred’. Quite clearly the use of it in this context is blatant cultural appropriation and denigrates/trivialises the significance of its meaning to its native progenitors.

    cr

    (Ohmigods, I said ‘native’. Shoot me now…)

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted November 10, 2019 at 6:58 am | Permalink

      Of course, it has not escaped my attention that the Python skit could be construed as a savage attack on traditional Judaism, if one wanted to construe it that way. Also on schoolmasters.
      Also on any other religions (ahem) who feature stoning. Also on women since it clearly implies that a majority of spectators at such a barbaric spectacle were women. Also on Italians since the Roman soldiers blatantly did nothing to stop it. I could go on…

      This sort of prejudicial censoriousness is alarmingly easy to do once you get the knack of it.

      cr

    • Azreal
      Posted November 10, 2019 at 7:00 am | Permalink

      Love this post!

  27. bric
    Posted November 10, 2019 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    John McWhorter, an African-American Linguistics Professor, has written on this subject a number of times, I would say that he has ‘standing’
    https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/08/whites-refer-to-the-n-word/596872/

  28. Matt
    Posted November 10, 2019 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    I think this discussion is really about euphemisms, i.e., when should we use a euphemism or less direct word to avoid offending others. The same questions being asked about the n word apply to many other derogatory words. However, the n word stands alone for reasons we all know. For me, rather than spend hours trying to define precisely the rules for its usage I’d rather play it safe and not use the word at all, as an acknowledgement of the horrible racism associated with the word. I know some people like to use it out of spite and then justify it as free speech. But there are always people who use freedom as an excuse to be jerks.

    • GBJames
      Posted November 10, 2019 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

      You’re simply avoiding the issue. What of the people who want to ban Huckleberry Finn from library shelves?

      • Matt
        Posted November 11, 2019 at 8:55 am | Permalink

        I’m not avoiding the issue. I am talking about the word’s use today, I’m not arguing to purge hundred year old books that contain the word.

        • GBJames
          Posted November 11, 2019 at 11:52 am | Permalink

          You said “not use the word at all”. That includes having it read by students of history and literature. You can’t take a “no use” position and then claim not to be referring to some usages.

          • Matt
            Posted November 13, 2019 at 11:49 am | Permalink

            How is reading a 100 year old book using the n word?

            • GBJames
              Posted November 13, 2019 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

              Srsly, Matt?

              Do you use words when you read this site. Are we not using words to communicate now? Does it matter whether the words are 100 years old or written ten minutes ago?

              Books, old and new, are filled with words that are features of language. We read books and discuss them. Are you seriously suggesting that we can read the word “nigger” in Huckleberry Finn but only if we read silently when nobody else is around?

  29. Steve Gerrard
    Posted November 10, 2019 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    I don’t really see the academic necessity of analyzing the phrase “home butler” in a 20 year old episode of a TV situation comedy in the first place. There is more reason for such a discussion in Huckleberry Finn, though.

    It does seem to me that an academic can choose different phrasing and still make their point. “House Negro”, for instance, followed by “or the unacceptable derivative term”, would get the job done. I think it is possible to make all the useful intellectual points without actually using the word at all, and without saying “n-word” either.

    The question is still valid, but there is (and should be) an obligation to try and avoid using these offensive terms whenever possible. With a little thought, it is actually quite possible to avoid them in almost all cases.

  30. Ullrich Fischer
    Posted November 11, 2019 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

    The absurd length that the offense sniffers of the Cult of the Woke enforcers on ivy league US campuses go to police language and enforce self-criticism sessions (which often as not do not rehabilitate the “offender”) may be a symptom of the over-weighting of administrators as compared to professors and other teaching staff in those universities. All these offense sniffing committees need administrators to oversee them and provide an opportunity for the empire-building administrators to increase the size of their teams. The end result is sky-rocketing tuition fees, the hounding of excellent teaching staff out of the profession, and a general decline in the value of the “higher education” offered at these institutions.

  31. Hempenstein
    Posted November 11, 2019 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

    If someone could come up with a single-word synonym for niggardly, they’d provide a great service. There’s no connection between that and the n-word, as has been noted whenever a kerfluffle over it arises, but people have short memories. (Niggling, however, seems not to raise eyebrows.)

    An urge to use it most recently came up today when I saw a piece about deporting foreign nationals who have served in the US military, after their service ended. But then it occurred to me that that wasn’t actually a niggardly act, since it would only have been so if they were begrudgingly allowed to stay.

    • Posted November 12, 2019 at 4:34 am | Permalink

      Ofc “niggardly” is ok. But check out the etymology and implied historical connotations of “denigrate”, already used 8 times in this thread

      • Hempenstein
        Posted November 14, 2019 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

        Thx, did not know and never occurred to me that denigrate might have a connection.

  32. Posted November 12, 2019 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    IMO, the numbers are not the point – but rather patiently analyzing reasons (or even feelings).


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