Slurs and Race

Warning: the following post mentions racial slurs, and even though I am convinced such mentions are not offensive, they might nevertheless be triggering to survivors.

One of the phenomena that a linguistic theory of slurs must account for is the fact that even though both the following assertions are offensive unacceptable, they seem prima facie to be unacceptable in different senses:
  1. Selena Quintanilla was a spic.
  2. John Wayne was a spic.
This difference manifests in the fact that even though some people (who, presumably, hold certain negative attitudes towards some other people, including Selena Quintanilla but not John Wayne) would find (1) acceptable, no competent speaker would find (2) acceptable.

The deep question, of course, is what does “unacceptable” means here and what is the difference between these two cases.

Many philosophers have tried to explain this phenomena in terms of truth, and so we have two broad camps regarding this issue: Elminativist accounts of slurs, take (1) and (2) to be both false, and try to explain the difference in terms of something extra non-semantic (perhaps pragmatic, perhaps attitudinal) putting the offensive element of slurs inside their semantic content. I call them “eliminativist” because they think slurs are empty terms; since slurs encode in their semantic content conditions (including negative stereotypes) that are not satisfied by any object, they are empty. Social constructivist accounts take (1) to be true and (2) false, so they try to explain slur’s offensive element in terms of something extra non-semantic (perhaps pragmatic, perhaps attitudinal, cf. Langton 2012, McGowan 2012, Saul forthcoming, etc.) putting the difference between (1) and (2) inside the slur’s semantic content. I call these accounts “social constructivists”, because they take slurs to refer to socially constructed kinds, not natural kinds.

Elsewhere, I have hold that the same difference holds for other terms that are not slurs, like “cool”:

(3) Fannypacks are uncool.
(4) Being comfortable in one’s skin is uncool.

But yesterday I found out that the same difference (or, at least, a very similar one) seems to hold also for racial terms that are not slurs. For example, 

(5) Selena Quintanilla was hispanic-american.
(6) John Wayne was hispanic-american.

The difference manifests in the fact that even though most people would find (5) acceptable, almost no biologist would find (6) acceptable. The reasons biologist (and some philosophers) reject (6) and (5) is because:

“Although the phenotypic characteristics, the manifest features that have traditionally been used to divide our species into races, are salient for us, they are superficial, indicating nothing about important differences in psychological traits or genetic conditions that constitute some racial essence.” (Kitcher 2007

The argument goes something like this: Since the use of terms like “hispanic-american” “assumes an inner essence, as in "blood", that was necessary and sufficient for membership of the original races, before any interbreeding” (Papineau 2016), this assumption must be considered part of the conditions defining the extension of the concept in such a way that if the assumption is false (as it seems to be, from a biological point of view) then the extension is empty. In other words, it is an analytic truth that for someone to be hispanic-american, there must be some hispanic-american blood in him or her; since there is no such thing as hispanic-american blood, nobody has it and therefore, none is hispanic-american.

Once again, many philosophers have tried to explain this phenomena in terms of truth, and so we have two broad camps regarding this issue: most realist naturalists advocate elminativist accounts of race and therefore take (5) and (6) to be both false, trying to explain the difference in terms of something extra non-semantic (perhaps pragmatic, perhaps attitudinal) putting the biological essentialist element of race terms inside their semantic content (Appiah 1996, Zack 2002). I call them “eliminativist” because they think racial terms are empty terms; since racial terms encode in their semantic content conditions (including biological essentialism) that are not satisfied by any object, they are empty. Social constructivist accounts take (5) to be true and (6) false, so they try to move the essentialist element out of the semantic content (for example, by taking an externalist stance towards the semantics of racial kinds, like Haslinger 2008), putting the difference between (5) and (6) inside the racial term’s semantic content (Omi and Winant 1994, Mills 1997, Haslanger 2000).

And notice that the same holds also for the terms “man” and “woman”, as I noticed after reading Nancy Bauer (2015). Some people think that since the use of these terms presupposes false biologically essentialist theses, they are empty, while others think that this presupposition is not part of the term’s semantic concept. 

A similar point can be made about astrology: is it better to say that nobody is actually an Aries since part of what we commonly mean by “an Aries” is not just someone who was born on certain days, but also someone whose character and/or fate is determined at least in part by his or her being born on those days? Or is it better to say that some people are Aries, but that the widespread belief that Aries have common personality traits or fates determine at least in part by their being Aries is superstitious and ultimately false? Does it make a difference?


In all these cases, there is a rising consensus that the solution must depend on the practical consequences of adopting one view or another. Is it better to just get rid of these terms and start anew with better – more just and more accurate – concepts? Or is it better to keep them around but re-appropriate them for a more just social arrangement? Is there a difference?

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