Forbidden Words

11 March 2015

This week our topic is Forbidden Words!  Now when we say forbidden, we don’t mean legally forbidden.  This is, after all, still the friggin’ United States of America.  And last I looked, we still enjoy the First Amendment right to say whatever we darn well please.   We’re talking about morally forbidden words – words that hurt, insult, and demean. 

Of course, there is that old saying,  “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me!”   But that clearly seems wrong.  Think of racial epithets, like the N-word.  Or ethnic slurs, like the K-word.  Or gender-based slurs like the B-word or C-word.  That sort of language is incredibly hurtful.

But we have to be careful here, since not all uses of racial epithets are intended to hurt and demean.  For example, some black people use the N-word not as a term of derogation, but almost as a term of endearment and/or racial solidarity.  Plus there’s a feminist magazine called Bitch.  I doubt the publishers of that magazine think of themselves as sexists.   Those are what philosophers call an appropriated use of slur words. That’s when a group that was originally the target of a slur, appropriates the word and uses it in a non-slurring fashion.   Appropriated uses raise some really fascinating issues.  For example, can a black rapper who uses the n-word complain about white people using it -- without being a hypocrite?  Does anything prevent a white person from using the N-word as a term of endearment?  Or can only a black person get away with that?

Those are definitely interesting questions and we’ll take them up in the course of the show.   But right now I want to focus on standard, non-appropriated uses of slurs words first.  My gut tells me it’s always wrong to call a woman the B-word or to call a Jewish person the K-word.   And by that I mean wrong in both the sense of morally objectionable and wrong in the sense of false.  To call a Jewish person the K-word is to imply they're despicable because of their religion.  To call a black person the N-word is to imply they're despicable because of their race.  But that’s just false.  No one is despicable just because of their race or their religion.

Of course, not everything false is morally objectionable.  If I called John Perry a Martian, for example,   I’d be saying something false but not anything morally objectionable.   Wrongly calling a non-Martian a Martian is different from wrongly calling someone the N-word because when you use an ethnic slur, you’re not just implying something false.  You’re also helping to perpetuate or echo a history of oppression.  You’re endorsing certain negative attitudes and stereotypes that have historically served to keep the targets of the slur in their place.  That’s the morally objectionable part.  So when you refuse to use these words, you disavow the oppressive history that's wrapped up in them.

But we have to be careful here.  I don’t mean to say that slurs are always instruments of oppression.   Take the word, ‘honky.’  That’s a racial slur typically aimed at the historically more powerful by the historically less powerful.  It’s a sort of defensive racial slur.   Still, since the word ‘honky’ is used to denigrate white people just because they're white, you might think it’s just as bad as the N-word.   I don’t think that’s quite right.   Though both are slurs and both are illegitimate,  there seems to me to be an important difference between them.  And that’s something that we will explore in this episode.

I should also say that I don’t want to defend the view that slur words can never be either truly applied or morally appropriate.  Some people are really and truly A-holes.  And some people are really and truly F-ing, Nazi bastards.  Such people deserve to be slurred.

I think this shows that we need to distinguish two different kinds of slurs – generalized slurs and particularized slurs.  A generalized slur conveys a negative attitude toward an entire class of people – even when the speaker is explicitly referring to just one particular member of that class.  Particularized slurs are, well, more particular.  More individual.   I call a particular Jewish person the K-word, I’m denigrating all Jews, in one fell swoop, and not just this particular Jew.  But if I call Smith an a-hole, I’m expressing a negative attitude about Smith, but not necessarily about anybody else.   Particularized slurs might sometimes be legitimate.  But generalized slurs probably never are.

I hope I’ve said enough to convince you that the language of derogation is subtle and complicated thing and that there is a lot to discuss. I’m eager to have you join in the discussion.  

Comments (8)

Guest's picture


Wednesday, October 24, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

`Yes, the language of

`Yes, the language of derogation is 'a subtle and complicated thing'. Be-that-as-it-is, there are still N's, K's, C's and any number of SOBs, who behave badly, and thereby EARN derogation. Don't like what I just wrote? OK. Move to the Middle East, speak freely and see how long your life remains your own, if at all. Or write what is on your mind; get it published; make money and be prepared to hide. Salman Rushdie wrote a pretty good, post-modern fiction, back in about 1989. We found that Muslims (some of them?) have no since of humor. Nor much of a sense of anything else, outside of radicalism. My car needs a new muffler. That'll cost about $200-250. That's what I'M talking about. Hah, hah.

Guest's picture


Thursday, October 25, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

Well, let's see: there have

Well, let's see: there have always been slurs---at least as long as we, as socially conscious beings, have recognized them as such-maybe 200-250 years? As far as the distinction between particularization and generalization goes, I had never heard that articulated before reading this post. I, for example, consider the term politician a "generalized" slur, while many (if not all) politicians think of it as a term of endearment. They are proud of their ideology, and consider themselves true defenders of truth, justice and the American* way. But, in any case, a democratic society, such as the US of A, aims to have it both ways by saying there shall be freedom of speech. Then, over the years since 1776, inconvenient truth(s) and legislative mandates have intervened. Freedom of speech is a dangerous freedom. Truth (or opinionation) has grave (sometimes literally) consequences. So, it seems unrealistic to say we can have it both ways. Some anarchistic shit can always pull out a gun and kill you if you say the wrong thing to him or his whore. Enough slurs for you, particularly or generally? Or maybe its just me, hmmm?
(* item: truth and justice are not solely American concepts---just thought I should clear that up...)

Guest's picture


Friday, October 26, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

When One cleans up One's

When One cleans up One's language One cleans up One's life,
And One becomes simply better this Way.
For One as is All,

Guest's picture


Wednesday, October 31, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

There are all of these

There are all of these forbidden words. Forbidden ideas. And---with forbidden words and ideas, come illegal, amoral, actions. Murderers, hiding behind religious and/or philosophical ideologies. Tortures, perpetrated to compel renunciation of well-considered and long-held beliefs. We need not concentrate upon or lay blame to any singular source. All are guilty. Have been for decades---centuries...

Guest's picture


Saturday, November 3, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

Words can be hurtful and

Words can be hurtful and harmful -- they can destroy relationships and lives. Yet, such words reveal more about the speaker than about the subject. So, why, exactly should they become forbidden? Educated people know, do they not, that not everything spoken is true? Are words forbidden to protect others, to hide our ignorance, or repress our evil-nature? It seems our political correctness is quickly reaching the point of ultra-Puritanism.
Frank N. Earnest (may i assume a reference to the comic strip) has provided another category of forbidden words -- those that may be completely harmless, even beneficial, but are objectionable to some power- group.

Charles Osborne's picture

Charles Osborne

Monday, March 23, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Hidden agendas

Hidden agendas
I wonder about three aspects of derogatory words, in addition to the issue of whether somebody deserves condemnation.
First, it is logically offensive to criticize a person by criticizing his group--unless the group truly deserves insults (like Nazis or thieves), and the person shares their shame or guilt. It would be wrong to call a politician a Nazi for things that are not Nazi-like--but appropriate for things that are.
Second, it is logically offensive to avoid truthful criticism in general just to avoid hurting people's feelings. If a politician does Nazi stuff, we should call him or her on it, even if it hurts feelings. This does not mean that we should always police people's faults--only that we are not logically forbidden from calling a spade a spade if we think it is called for.
This point is sometimes lost in law. Sexual harassment, for example, is one of the few laws that is defined by what the victim thinks (if a woman feels harassed by an action, she is). We would never determine assault and battery by what the victim thinks or feels--there must be overt visible action that everybody of sound judgment would call assault and battery.
So must we ban words that offend people, whether they ought to be offended by them or not? In most company, we know what words are offensive to the crowd, but in public we do not always know that. That is why signs might be posted to refrain from profanity or vulgarity because of the crowd that might be there (children are allowed, for instance). This is a courtesy issue--not law or morals--but because in some cases it affects a place of business, it is also a financial issue. We don't want people running off our good customers. And the law gives some support for this. The only support from morality on this is that morality calls upon us to show respect for others to the best of our ability, and insults (if not deserved) do not show respect.
And the third question is whether it is immoral to use derogatory language at all (when it is not justified). The hinge of reasoning here falls upon the word "justified." I am justified in calling somebody a murderer if he or she is one (though that does not entail that I must bring it up). Am I justified in calling someone who killed a deer a murderer? I would say no. Or someone who killed by accident? Again I would say no.
Consider the N-word, or the others listed above for Jews, or for Puerto Ricans, etc. I consider it morally relevant that there is never "justification" for these words, because they do not attribute anything morally interesting to the victims. They are meant only as an insult (though why they are insulting is cloaked deep in the history of the words). If the n-word, for instance, only meant "black-person!" why would that be an insult? If it meant, "low-down, no good black person," then it would be an understandable insult--but nobody wants to ban that language, because sometimes it is true.
Is it that the n-word is never sometimes true? As African Americans use the term, I think that sometimes it is true (as the word "murderer!" can sometimes be true). As white people traditionally used it (low class southern white people), it was a term that carried no crimes or immorality with it, yet was meant as an insult because it associated a belief in inherited inferiority with the group. So the insulting false-accusation (that makes it unfair and therefore not moral) is that it carries these hidden false assumptions.
(Note--I grew up in Memphis before integration, and we were taught not to use the n-word because it was low-class language, and that was moral reason enough.)
This conversation does not address the weird logical problem that referring to a word should never be confused with using the word. If I "use the n-word" on the witness stand to say what the accused really said, I am not in the logical sense "using the word" myself--I am merely referring to it. But we have got used to being confused about the logic of it, and came up with "the n-word" as a way of referring to it without using it. This assumes that people know what "n-" stands for (but logically we can never tell them).

Guest's picture


Sunday, July 26, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

That was interesting to read,

That was interesting to read, thx!

deShoebox's picture


Tuesday, April 5, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

My question is why we have

My question is why we have forbidden words in the first place. Yes, it's obvious that common civility and a desire for harmony tend to preclude the use of such things as the N-word, the K-word, the C-word, and so on. They are almost universally considered insults. But why is "fuck" forbidden, or "shit"? I can say "sexual intercourse" or "excrement" or any of a number of other synonyms, but why are these simple words - mostly of Saxon origin, I think - so widely thought of as unacceptable? My own theory, not based on much evidence, is that it is a class thing. Using these words indicates a lower class origin and they "must" therefore not be used.
The real question, maybe, is why we need forbidden words.What social purpose does it serve to forbid them, in other words, and who gets to decide that they are and that they should remain forbidden? I say, "Screw these opinionated self-appointed moral arbiters!" Or is that forbidden, too?