Featured Philosop-her: Robin Jeshion


Robin Jeshion is professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California. She specializes in the philosophy of language and mind, focusing especially on topics concerning the ways that language contributes to shaping cognition, and cognition shapes and is manifest in language.  Her research includes work on the relationship between the semantics of singular terms and the nature of singular thought; the semantics of demonstratives and the nature of perception and spatial representation; the semantic, cognitive, and social functions of proper names.  Most recently, she has been writing about slurring terms, and related expressions, attempting to understand to what extent attitudes and/or social structures are incorporated within their semantics and pragmatics.  Outside of mind and language, she has written about mathematical intuition, a priori knowledge, the epistemological status of proofs, and Frege’s logicism. Before returning to USC, she taught at Yale University, the University of California, Riverside, the University of Arizona, and spent a year as a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, supported by an ACLS Burkhardt Fellowship. This spring, she will deliver the Wedberg Lectures in Stockholm, presenting Dehumanizing Slurs, four talks that bring together much of her work on this topic.

Slurs, Dehumanization, and the Expression of Contempt

Robin Jeshion

Thank you, Meena, for running this terrific blog and inviting me to present a post.  I’ve lately been thinking and writing about slurring words, expressions like “Kike”, “Chink”, “Spic”, and “faggot”, pejorative terms that target individuals on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, nationality, socioeconomic status, occupation, and various other socially important properties.  Such expressions raise a spate of questions regarding their semantics and pragmatics: Do sentences containing slurs ever express truths?  How can we account for what has come to be called in the literature the ‘offensiveness’ of slurs? Is it somehow semantically encoded as a proposition, perhaps a proposition encoding the stereotype of the group or a proposition encoding that the group merits contempt? Or is it rather that slurs are terms conventionally used for expressing a speaker’s attitude, perhaps an attitude of contempt?  Is a semantic explanation needed at all to account for slurs’ offensiveness – perhaps it can rather be explained entirely pragmatically, e.g., by reference to social prohibitions on uses of slurs or socio-linguistic facts regarding which groups tend to use slurs? Do those who use slurs engage in actions of “othering”, and if so, is this captured linguistically?  How can we explain the fact that uses of slurs are extraordinarily destructive – dehumanizing – to their targets and can tend to make hearers feel complicit?  What accounts for the fact that those who use slurs signal something about their social allegiances and affiliations? How should we explain the appropriation of slurs, the phenomena through which a slur’s offensiveness is neutralized?  What is the relationship between slurring terms and various other pejoratives, expressions like “jerk”, “freak”, “wino”, “blimp”, “commie” – are any of these of the same linguistic type? And how are they related to approbatives like “goddess”, “hottie, “saint”, and “ace”? And bare expressive intensifiers like “damn” and ‘effin”? It would be easy to go on, to spin out twelve more questions. With such a rich set of phenomena – and obviously deeply important social, political, and psychological matters at stake – it is no wonder that interest in such expressions has been rapidly accelerating.

The text that follows is adapted from a paper in which I offer a bare sketch of my semantic theory of slurs.  The view is inspired by two key ideas.  One is that there are multiple sources of the offensiveness in utterances of slurs, only some of which ought to be explained semantically. The dominant aspect of slurs’ offensiveness that should be explained semantically is needed to explain their capacity to dehumanize. John Amaechi, the first NBA player to openly identify as gay, called slurs “a threat to human dignity” and remarked about the slur “faggot”:

…young people are being killed and killing themselves simply because of the words and behaviors they are subjected to for being perceived as lesbian or gay, or frankly just different. This is…an indication of the power of that word, and others like it, to brutalize and dehumanize.

Amachi’s remarks are apt. Slurs dehumanize.

We need a theory of slurring terms that fully explains how and why they dehumanize, one that explains how they signal that their targets are unworthy of equal standing or full respect as persons, that they are inferior as persons. Extant analyses of slurs’ semantics have faired poorly on this score. I hope to do better with the account I offer.

The other key idea is that slurring terms function semantically in virtually the same way that their neutral counterparts function when given contemptuous intonation and when fronted by certain expletives or negative adjectives.

[1]Jake is a Kike.

[1a]Jake is a fucking Jew.

[1b]Jake is a JewC.

(I use italics to denote intonational stress, and superscripts to italicized material to indicate the type of prosodic pattern given to the word, where the superscript letter denotes the affective attitude conveyed by that pattern. Here, “C” denotes contemptuousness.) In effect, [1],[1a], and [1b] all mean the same thing.


On the view I favor, slurring terms possess three separable semantic components. One is the group-designating component. A slurring term, references the group that is referenced by its neutral counterpart. The truth of sentence [1] depend only upon whether Jake is Jewish, and so is truth conditionally equivalent to [1NC].

[1] Jake is a Kike.

[1NC] Jake is Jewish.

So slurring terms share some semantic structure with their neutral counterparts. However, given that the slur and neutral counterpart make parallel semantic contributions along this dimension, the group-designating component does not account for slurs’ offensiveness. This marks its separation from the other two components of the semantics, both of which, likewise, make no contribution to the truth conditions.

The second component is expressivist:  slurring terms are used to express contempt for members of a socially relevant group on account of their being in that group or having a group-defining property. Note that this component involves the expression of the speaker’s attitude toward his targets, not a separately semantically encoded descriptive content, say, contemptible on account of being Jewish.  Views on which slurring terms semantically encode such descriptive contents are markedly different.  Suppose that “Kike*” encodes the descriptive content given by “worthy of contempt on account of being Jewish”. Then, although it is not misconceived to regard the utterances of

[1] Jake is a Kike

[1c] Jake is a Kike*

as communicating the same information, they do so in different ways.  While the utterance of [1c] encodes the proposition that the target is worthy of contempt on account of being Jewish, the utterance of [1] does no such thing.  It communicates, rather, the speaker’s contempt itself, which is expressed, not asserted.  A proponent of the analysis involving semantic descriptive encoding will be hard-pressed to explain why the negation of [1c], as in “Jake is not a Kike*” or “It is not the case that Jake is a Kike*”, are not what would be used to deny the derogating content of [1]. Yet they ought to do so if “Kike” is synonymous with “Kike*”.

This expressive component indicates that slurring terms share semantic properties with other expressives like intensifiers (“totally” in “That is totally interesting”), exclamatives (“holy crap!”, “Wow!” “Ouch!”) and other explicitly performative expressives (“right on!”) which similarly function to express speakers’ emotional or attitudinal states and do not contribute meaning by predicating a descriptive content.

Despite this similarity in semantic structure with other expressives, do not assimilate the expressive component of slurring terms to the “mere” expression of a feeling, like a flash of anger or a state of frustration. While contempt is an affectively laden attitude, often accompanied by feelings of abhorrence, hostility, and hatred, no particular “raw” subjective feeling need be felt by one who uses a slur.  Indeed, one could express contempt for someone coolly, without any “heat-of-the-moment” feeling.  Furthermore, the expression of contempt differs from the expression of purely subjective feelings like pain or fear or astonishment, which are largely insulated from normative assessment and neither implicate nor represent their objects as pain-, fear-, or astonishment- worthy.  By contrast, contempt, like resentment, is a highly structured affectively- and normatively-guided moral attitude that is subject to evaluation for its appropriateness.  As such, in using slurs, speakers not only express their own contempt for the target, but also implicitly represent (but still do not say or assert that) their targets as worthy of contempt. And because contempt is a moral attitude specifically held toward those one regards as inferior as persons, users of slurs thereby implicate that targets ought to be so-regarded as inferior.

The third component to slurs’ semantics is what I call the identifying component. Extant expressivist views neglect this component, and thus, to my mind, haven’t gone far enough in accounting for how the nature of contempt infects slurring terms’ semantics. Contempt involves taking those properties that are the basis for regarding the target contemptuously as fundamental to the targets’ identity as a person and this feature of contempt is semantically encoded. As a matter of the semantics of the slurring term, an utterance of

[2] He is a faggot

does not simply ascribe a property to the target, here, that of being gay.  It classifies the target in a way that aims to be identifying. In calling someone “faggot”, the homophobe takes a property that he believes someone to possess and semantically encodes that it is the, or a, defining feature of the target’s identity.  As such, it is used to shape the target’s social identity, and so to dictate how others ought to treat, regard, think of, and respond to its target. As a matter of their semantics, “Kike”, “Chink”, Nigger”, “faggot”, “whore” are used so as to signal that being Jewish, Chinese, black, gay, a prostitute identify what its targets are.

The classification of the target in a way that aims to be identifying should not be conflated with any notions of metaphysical identity or essentialism.  In wielding slurs, racists, anti-Semites, and homophobes are not in the business of presenting their target’s group membership either as an essential, metaphysically necessary property, or as determining or explaining their other properties.   Rather, they express that the target’s group membership is the, or among the, most central characteristic(s) for classifying what the target is, as a person, construed along a broadly moral dimension.

Notice that the identifying component is dependent upon the expressive component because the identifying component partially captures what it is to regard someone with contempt.  That is, it follows from what it is to find someone contemptible on the basis of being gay that one takes that person’s sexual orientation as the most or among the most central aspects of that person’s identity. This dependence is, at heart, moral-psychological, but is manifest in the semantics. A speaker who expresses contempt toward her target for being G thereby also expresses and implicitly represents G as fundamental to her target’s identity as a person.  Thus, within a single speech act, the speaker expresses both her contempt and way of identifying the target as a person.

Together, the expressive and identifying components explain slurs’ common and conventional capacity to derogate. As a matter of their semantics, slurs function to express the speaker’s contempt for his target in virtue of the target’s group-membership and that his target ought to be treated with contempt in virtue of that group-membership, because what the target is, as a person, is something lesser, something unworthy of equal or full respect or consideration. In this way, slurs, as a class, conventionally function to dehumanize.
























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