We Actually Don’t Know What Slurs Are

Philosophers of language are interested in what a slur is and how it does its dirty work.

It would take a while to explain exactly how mysterious slurs are, but here is an attempt.

The most natural thing for a non-philosopher to think is that slurs are predicates just like anything else, like “red” or “bad.” A slur then would be something like “inferior because of his/her race” so that calling someone a slur is the same is saying something objectionable about them. However, this cannot be right for two reason.

1. Slurs “scope out” of unasserted uses. If I say “If you’re a bad person, I don’t want to hang out with you,” then I have no insulted you. I have merely introduced a hypothetical. I’ve said IF you’re a bad person and so have not ASSERTED that you are a bad person. However, if I said “If you’re a *, I don’t want to hang out with you,” then I have said something quite offensive. This is a puzzle. Slurs are offensive even when they are not actually predicated of a person (but only hypothetically predicated of them).

2. Slurs can be used unoffensively. I’ve been playing a lot of basketball in Harlem, and trust me, many of the black people I play with refer to other black people there with a word that I could not use. This is also anomalous. Nobody can use “red” to mean “blue.” But slurs can be offensive on the lips of some people but not by others.

The other thought is that slurs have no content but merely express anger or hatred or something, just as “ouch” expresses pain, but it doesn’t MEAN anything. This seems not to work though because exclamations don’t have application conditions but slurs do. Someone could say, “that’s a *,” but be wrong because the person he’s pointing at doesn’t have the race of the slur that was used. Another racist could say “False, that’s not a *, that’s a *” and insert the slur appropriate to the person’s race. You cannot have a similar conversation about “ouch.” It’s true that I could be insincere about when I’m feeling pain (and could say “ouch” when I’m not in pain), but there is never a conversation where I say “That pain was an “ouch”” and you say “No it wasn’t, it was a “yikes.”” This brings up a second point: slurs are used as standard predicates and so seem to have application conditions (true when applied to some people and false when applied to others).

But if slurs aren’t normal predicates or expressives, what in the world are they? Philosophy tries to answer this question.


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