National Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: What is Wrong With Stating Slurs?

Written by Leah O’Grady, University of Oxford
The intuitive wrongness of stating the e-word arises from Speaker C’s ignorance of its status as a slur which, although indirectly, attaches similar properties to marginalised communities to stating a known slur . Of course, individuals cannot be expected to research the etymology of every word they use. However, even if Speaker C does not know the e-word is a slur, they use it to describe the Inuit people, or a caricature of Inuit people. Describing Inuit people in ignorance of the wishes of the Inuit community implies an attitude towards them, that their wishes are not worthy of seeking out, or that they fit into a caricature. As such, even in the case of ignorance, the constitutive prohibition argument accounts for the harm done by slurs. However, it is not offensive to use censored slurs in non-derogatory contexts. Censoring is such that the word is still recognisable, and as such the semantic value of a slur-phrase is identical whether speaker B censors the slur or not. The most obvious real-world example of this is the n-word, the censored version of which it is perfectly acceptable for me to type out as part of an essay, or refer to orally in an argument, but would not be acceptable for me to type out in its entirety. I argue in this essay that the use of slurs is both offensive and wrong, and as such I will not type out the n-word, or any slurs, in this essay. These include slurs used against marginalised groups to which I belong, despite the fact that I believe the harm imparted by slurs is indexical, that is, dependent on the speaker. A non-censored slur is offensive, while a censored slur in the same context is not. As such, offensiveness cannot be dependent on semantic value.
That slurs are wrong, even when said out of context, is a curious property which does not apply to other derogatory language. For example, the phrase ‘women are inferior to men’ is a harmful phrase when speaker A is arguing it. Consider a speaker, B, who repeats the phrase in a different, non derogatory context, for example ‘how dare you say that women are inferior to men!’. When speaker B says the phrase, it loses its meaning. However, many would argue that if speaker A were to call women an offensive slur, then even for speaker B to say ‘how dare you call women ****!’ would be offensive in itself, as the slur maintains its offensiveness even when used in a non-derogatory context. Such non derogatory contexts also include reading aloud slurs from literature, or singing along to slurs in songs. While it is clear that slurs in derogatory contexts are wrong due to the harm they impart on marginalised communities, it is not clear how slurs are harmful in non-derogatory contexts. What is the distinction between the semantic value of slurs in non derogatory contexts vs derogatory contexts? In derogatory contexts, such as ‘women are ****s!!’, what is implied by the use of the slur is that the speaker attaches negative attributes to women. It is easy to see how this has negative impacts on the individual woman and women as a class. It categorises the individual as a woman and therefore deserving of derision. However, in non derogatory contexts, the semantic value of the phrase is lost. The speaker has no intention of attributing such negative characteristics to women. So what possible harm could speaker B be doing to women as a class by speaking a slur?
To explore this further, I want to examine slurs of smaller marginalised communities that are commonly used but not commonly known as slurs. Examples are the e-word, used against the Inuit population, and the g-word, used against the Romani population. Imagine a speaker C, who uses the e-word. An Inuit or Romani person, upon hearing a speaker C could be rightfully upset at the speaker’s ignorance, and frustrated at the general ignorance of the word’s status as a slur. However, speaker C would not be knowingly crossing a line set by the marginalised community, and as such would not be attaching the property to the marginalised community that their wishes are not worthy of respect. As such, according to the constitutive prohibition argument, it is not wrong or even harmful to use a slur in a non derogatory context if one does not know it is a slur, that is, that it refers to a marginalised community and has derogatory connotations. This feels like a problematic conclusion. The Inuit population are smaller and there is not as large a historically documented and generally known conflict involving Inuit people as black people. However, stating the e-word seems just as harmful to the Inuit community as stating the n-word is harmful to the black community. The constitutive prohibition argument struggles to account for the wrongness of stating slurs in ignorance.
If we follow the logic of the Alexandre and Lepore argument, then the fact that saying the slur is considered wrong due to the speaker’s disregard of the rule against saying slurs, then saying the slur is wrong if and only if the disregard of the rule against slurs is harmful in itself. The wishes of a marginalised community are generally set in place to protect the community from tangible harms, but as discussed, it is difficult to identify the tangible harms of stating a slur in a non derogatory context. What intrinsic harm lies in disregarding the wishes of a marginalised community? The sacrifice that a speaker makes in not saying slurs is minimal. As such, choosing to state slurs demonstrates a disrespect towards the wishes of the marginalised communities to which they apply. Thus, stating slurs in non-derogatory contexts does have a harmful meaning semantically. Stating slurs attaches a property to the marginalised community to which they apply. The property in question is ‘wishes not worthy of respect’. Stating slurs is not as harmful or wrong as saying slurs in a derogatory context, but is wrong nonetheless.
One would expect the harm of a slur to lie in the function of the slur. It is harmful to C for A to use a slur towards them, because A has categorised C as part of a marginalised group and wishes to insult them on the basis of belonging to such a group, or perhaps on the basis of behaving in ways that A does not approve of given C’s membership to such a group. A prime example of this would be the s-word, directed towards women who are perceived as particularly sexual. The harm from the slur is expected to arise because C understands the meaning of the slur and that A has intended to insult them and insult their group.
Slurs and Toxicity: It’s Not about Meaning”, Jesse Rappaport. Grazer Philosophische Studien, (2020)
This article received an honourable mention in the undergraduate category of the 2023 National Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics
To summarise, slurs are wrong because they are prohibited by marginalised communities, and to disregard this prohibition at very little gain demonstrates a disrespect towards the community’s wishes, even in the case of ignorance. This implies an attribution of negative properties to marginalised communities. As such, stating slurs in non derogatory contexts which does harm by the same mechanism as stating them in derogatory contexts, but to a lesser degree.
Anderson, Luvell, and Ernie Lepore. “A Brief Essay on Slurs.” In Perspectives in Pragmatics, Philosophy and Psychology. Springer, 2013.
As an alternative, I suggest Anderson and Lepore’s (2013) argument that slurs are offensive because they are prohibited. Speaker A is aware that saying a slur, in any context, is prohibited by the marginalised community to which it applies. Speaker A saying this slur, in any context, breaks a rule set by such a marginalised community. The saying of the slur demonstrates either an ignorance to this rule or a disrespect of the wishes of the marginalised community, or both. In non derogatory contexts, the harm is not in the word itself but in the saying of the word. As such, prohibitions of slurs are constitutive of their offensiveness.
If both have the same semantic value, the only difference between a censored and non censored is the arrangement of letters or sounds. Jesse Rappaport argues that it is this what constitutes the offensiveness of slurs (Rappaport, 2020). However, Rappaport’s argument comes from psychology, arguing that individuals find slurs more offensive when they are said in completion, but from a non-cognitive perspective. It does not explain why slurs are considered more offensive when said in completion in theory, not why people have more visceral reactions to slurs expressed in completion. In addition, Rappaport’s theory does not sufficiently account for reclamation. If the very sounds or arrangement of letters is what makes a slur offensive, why is it less so when said in the same context by a member of the marginalised community to which it applies. The rule against stating slurs can be a useful dog-whistle, an indication to members of the marginalised community that another individual pays heed to the boundaries they set, including non-linguistic rules which do have a tangible impact on marginalised communities. An example is cultural appropriation, the boundaries of which are set by marginalised communities. If a white individual chooses to wear a traditional native American headdress as a costume, for example, this devalues the significance of the headdress in the wider culture, which is a tangible harm to the community. Refusal to state slurs as an indication of a commitment to the wishes of marginalised communities is a useful tool.
This essay will argue that it is wrong to use slurs in a non-derogatory context due to the phenomena of constitutive prohibition, put forward by Alexandre and Lepore (2013). That is, I will argue that slurs are wrong because they are considered wrong. Throughout, I will use ‘offensive’ interchangeably with ‘considered wrong (by the marginalised community to which it applies)’. I wish to distinguish ‘offensive’ with ‘wrong’. A slur is wrong if and only if it does harm to the marginalised community to which it applies. I will begin the essay from the assumption that an offensive slur is not necessarily wrong and vice versa. However, through argument I will conclude that slurs are wrong because they are offensive, that is, it is wrong to say slurs because it implies either an ignorance of or a disregard to the wishes of marginalised communities.
The offensiveness of slurs is not dependent on the overall meaning of the phrase, as we have seen. One could attempt to rebut this by arguing that semantic value of the slur survives embedding in a phrase such as Speaker B’s, and as such offensiveness is dependent on meaning.