Saturday, July 22, 2017

Can slur avoidance be taken too far?

I was rather flabberghasted to read an otherwise good post on Language Log seriously suggesting that racial slurs are so painful they should be coyly asterisked out even in careful lexicographical explanations of why they should not be used. I do not pretend to any expertise on the impact of the specific slur in question there - I'd prefer to hear more black linguists' comments on that - but much of the argument they make is general, not specific:
If you take the standard linguistic analysis of slurs, though, the word’s power does not come from mere taboo [...] The word literally has as part of its semantic content an expression of racial hate, and its history has made that content unavoidably salient. It is that content, and that history, that gives this word (and other slurs) its power over and above other taboo expressions. It is for this reason that the word is literally unutterable for many people, and why we (who are white [...]) avoid it here.

Yes, even here on Language Log. There seems to be an unfortunate attitude — even among those whose views on slurs are otherwise similar to our own — that we as linguists are somehow exceptions to the facts surrounding slurs discussed in this post. In Geoffrey Nunberg’s otherwise commendable post on July 13, for example, he continues to mention the slur (quite abundantly), despite acknowledging the hurt it can cause. We think this is a mistake. We are not special; our community includes members of oppressed groups (though not nearly enough of them), and the rest of us ought to respect and show courtesy to them.

Anglo culture has a long tradition of scrupulously avoiding certain words in order to respect and show courtesy towards, in particular, women and children - people who were thought of as weaker and more emotional than adult men, and in need of their protection. Politeness is great, but if you treat people like they're made of glass, you're not only patronizing them, you're excluding them - you're implying that there are some discussions they just can't handle. (The term "white knight" comes to mind.)

This is ironic in general - people who have made it through serious oppression tend to be pretty tough, though everyone has their vulnerabilities. It's doubly ironic within an academic context, in that a core academic skill is the ability to confront and (if necessary) rebut personally threatening arguments without getting carried away by one's immediate reactions. In order to master North African historical linguistics, I've had to read works by colonial generals and OAS terrorists who fought and killed to subjugate my ancestors, and whose attitudes often colour their work; most people working on marginalized languages will have had similar experiences. If I can deal with that, do you really expect me to be incapacitated by some professor's cautious mention of, say, the word "raghead"? Words certainly can hurt, but slurs have enough power as they stand without adding the power of absolute taboo on top.