16 thoughts on “LePore on Hate Speech, in the NYT

  1. Basically, the author reviews, in extremely cautious terms, what constitutes a slur and why people are offended, i.e. certain words cause “discomfort,” and the audience “risks complicity,” just by hearing/reading certain words. The author then goes on to (more or less) state that he can talk about the linguistics of racial slurs in an academic setting, but not in the article, which one assumes has a more popular or general audience (which, by the way, I find a bit elitist–us regular schmoes don’t have the critical thinking skills to NOT become screaming bigots if we read about words in an article, *cough cough*)…

    It probably would have had more impact if I hadn’t been thinking of the song “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” from the Avenue Q soundtrack…:)

  2. The forthcoming Nous article on which this one is loosely based is here: http://ruccs.rutgers.edu/faculty/lepore/SlursAndOffense_11_02_09.pdf

    He’s arguing for a deflationary account of slurs which attributes their power to the sheer fact that they are prohibited words. You can get a hint of that in the NY Times article, but I don’t think it’s quite so clear.

    In my opinion, I think that this is mistaken and that slurs are not offensive simply because they are prohibited but because of content that they carry with them, content that is attached to the word’s history independent of the speaker’s intentions. I think this is an important problem for feminists to consider, since words like “whore” and “bitch” (relying on use/mention distinction here to allow me to be clear and non-offensive) are ones that feminists have reclaimed in certain settings and view as problematic for deeper reasons than just ‘prohibited.’

    I’ll have to look at the Nous article to get more of an idea as to why Lepore (with Luvell Anderson) argues as he does.

  3. I had a quick and partial look, which gave the same impression as Malcolm reports. Are powern and the positions that provide it left out? Some definitions of racism make explicit reference to power, and that has seemed to me important.

  4. I don’t get it. In their paper, and I think if I’m remembering correctly the article as well, he said that slurs’ offense doesn’t lay in their content because the denial is just as offensive as the affirmative predication of it. But couldn’t it be that by denying that X is a ( insert slur here) you are implying that there is someone other than X to whom that slur properly applies, and perhaps this implication is what’s offensive about denying that X is a (slur)?

  5. (Also, I don’t agree with the example they use of a supposed pejorative rather than slur on the bottom of page two)

  6. Kathryn, interesting point. Relatedly, the speaker might be suggesting they are in a position to judge it’s appropriate use, along with the suggestion that there are appropriate uses that Kathryn points out.

  7. I’m really not at all impressed by this argument, and am actually quite surprised that he doesn’t even consider the views of feminist philosophers and critical race theorists who have taken another position. He presentes two options, and offers reasons for rejecting the view (which he says is the most common philosophical opinion) that the problem with “slurs” lies in their content or meaning. But a rejection of this view doesn’t necessarily lead to the conclusion (his view) that the power of “slurs” lies in their prohibition (at least I think that’s his view).

    It seems to me that there’s another (more plausible) alternative: The power of “slurs” (or rather, “hate speech”) lies in the social context. Without looking at the social/historical/cultural releations of power, it’s impossible to understand why and how these “words” cause harm.

    I’m quite irritated that he doesn’t even address this argument (which was put forth years ago by feminists such as MacKinnon and Langton, and by critical race theorists such as Kimberle Crenshaw and Mari Matsuda).

  8. @helenesch – Can you recommend some citations for the scholars you mention on slurs? I see “Words that Wound” by Matsuda – would you recommend that as a starting place?

    @Kathryn – elsewhere in the article they argue against presuppositions and conventional implicatures as the cause of offense, so they’d reject that interpretation.

    I’ve looked at the original article now (still haven’t time for a really close read or reflection on the particular test cases) and it seems that one of their main concerns, connected to their tests of using slurs in indirect speech reports and conditionals, is that the alleged content of a slur is too ineffable to be paraphrased. For one example, they suggest that we should be able to cancel the effects of a slur in a sentence by saying something like:

    “Eric said that a bitch ran for President of the United States in 2008 but women are not inferior for being women.”

    But we cannot, which demonstrates that there is no presuppositional content encoded which we can withdraw.

    I think that “ineffability” is too hasty a reason to reject the possibility of semantic content (that move gets made elsewhere, too, for example in discussions of metaphorical content). But I’m sympathetic to the claim that there is no easy way to represent the content of a slur. And while there’s a lot of discussion of content externalism in analytic philosophy, I’m unclear as to how that would hook up to relations of power.

    I wonder if others have seen discussions of this in analytic articles? (I’m familiar with Haslanger on social kinds…just wondering what else might be out there.)

  9. @Malcolm, yes but they also cite what they see as problems with negation as evidence that CI isn’t the problem with slurs.

  10. @Kathryn – I think we’re agreeing? I said that they reject CI as an explanation…? Sorry if I’m missing your point.

  11. Sorry I wasn’t more clear. What I meant was, the issue of negation (which I was offering an alternative interpretation of) is part of the evidence they use against CI (among other things- some of which I also find dubious). If they would reject my interpretation because they reject CI, then wouldn’t that seem circular?

  12. Synaesthetik, I don’t think the worry is that ordinary folk will becoming screaming bigots, I think it’s more that even mentioning (as opposed to using) a slur is deemed offensive, and it’s surely true that the ordinary folk are more easily offended by offensive things that academics may be able to discuss without offence.

  13. @ Malcolm – Jennifer Hornsby has a paper on slurs, called ‘meaning and uselessness: how to think about derogatory words’. Midwest Studies in PHilosophy, 2001.

    Helenesch – don’t know if that was one of the references you had in mind – I’d be interested to know of more too.

  14. Yes, I was thinking of the Words That Wound anthology (it includes essays by Crenshaw and Matsuda). And I haven’t read that essay by Hornsby, but it sounds relevant! And here are a few more references (of the kind of feminist work that I thought should have been considered by LePore). I should mention that I haven’t read the longer article–my reaction was based on the NYTimes post included in the first link.

    Jennifer Hornsby, “Disempowered Speech.” Philosophical Topics 23, no. 2 (1996): 127-47.

    Jennifer Hornsby, “Illocution and Its Significance.” In Foundations of Speech Act Theory, ed. Savas L. Tsohatzidis (Routledge, 1994)

    Rae Langton, “Speech Acts and Unspeakable Acts.” Philosophy & Public Affairs 22, no. 4 (1993): 293-330.

    Rae Langton, “Subordination, Silence, and Pornography’s Authority.” In Censorship and Silencing: Practices of Cultural Regulation, edited by Robert Post. Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities, 1998.

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