Sticks and bones may break your bones, but names can also hurt you.
Our topic this week is the linguistics of name-calling. This episode is sort of the linguistic companion of our episode on Forbidden Words. On that one, we talked to a philosopher about the semantics of slurs that are so offensive that decent people just shouldn’t use them. On this episode, we’re going to look more at words like ass-hole, that are offensive enough to pack a punch, but aren’t offensive enough to be always inappropriate.
But let’s start at the beginning, with name calling in general. Name-calling is widely regarded as a bad thing. But from a linguistic perspective, it is an utterly fascinating phenomenon. And it’s begun to capture the attention of lots of linguists and philosophers partly for that reason. Now you might say that name-calling is regarded as a bad thing, because it is a bad thing! And I certainly admit, as I have already said, that decent people shouldn’t use words like the infamous N-word or the K-word as applied to Jewish people. But it’s important not to throw the baby out with the bath water. Take the word ‘asshole’ – such a marvelous little word, a true linguistic wonder. And it’s far less offensive than the mostly unspeakable N-word. The N-word is a terrible and ugly word. To call somebody the N-word is to imply they are inferior because of their race and therefore worthy of contempt. It’s to say something both false and uncalled-for. On the other hand, some people really are assholes. They deserve to be called what they are.
Of course, though ‘asshole isn’t as harsh name to call someone as the N-word, it probably still shouldn’t be used in polite speech. Suppose Barack Obama found himself thinking that Mitt Romney was being an asshole during one of their debates. Obama wouldn’t have dared call Romney an asshole in that context, even if Romney really was being one. Still, despite its impoliteness, ‘asshole’ is sometimes a perfectly apt word. That alone makes it different from the N-word – which is never apt, in any context.
It might help to distinguish three different things – three different ways words of soft derogation, as I will call them, like the word ‘asshole’ differ from more harshly derogatory terms -- like the N-word. First, a statement like “Jones is a real asshole” can be flat-out true or flat-out false. That alone already distinguishes ‘asshole’ from the N-word. You can’t ever apply the N-word to anyone truly. That's because to be truly an N, a person would have to be contemptible solely because of their race. But no one is ever contemptible because of their race. So, when you call somebody the N-word, you're always saying something false. Or so I maintain. To be sure, someone who utters 'S is such an N' may genuinely express their felt contempt for the target of the slur and so may feel the slur to be appropriate. But that does not mean that the speaker has manage to say something true, to report on a fact about the target of the slur. Moreover, if I don't share your contempt for the target of your slur, you and I have what philosophers sometimes call a disagreement in attitude, not a disagreement over facts.
Now I maintain that the very act of calling someone the N-word is not just factually incorrect but deeply morally problematic. That's because to call someone the N-word isn't just to express one's individual contempt for that person, but also to buy into certain racists practices and stereotypes. Indeed, in the very calling one further perpetuates and endorses those practices and stereotypes. That’s part of why being called an N, stings so much -- because it's backed not just by the contempt of one person for another -- but by a whole institutionalized history of opression. (Notice I am setting aside appropriated uses of the N-word, which we talk about a great deal during our episode on Forbidden Words.) By contrast, though being called an asshole may certainly sting, it’s a different sort of sting. It's a sting entirely tied to another's assessment of your own character as an individual. For better or for worse, there is no history of institutionalized and socially sanctioned oppression against assholes. Moreover, unlike the sting of being called an N, the sting of being called an asshole, may be well-deserved. The sting of being called the N-word is, I think, never deserved.
Finally, there is the curious fact that even if it’s true that someone is in general or is just being on this occasion an asshole, it’s often just plain impolite to call someone an asshole. Apparently, some perfectly true things just shouldn't be said, at least not in every circumstance. This takes us back to an earlier point. The fact that ‘asshole’ is not a polite word, that can be uttered in any old context, is part of what gives it such power. Suppose you’re mistreating a student or an employee. Your wife pulls you aside and tells you face to face, in a firm but loving tone, to stop being such an asshole. You shouldn’t be offended; you should be grateful. Of course, if she said that same thing openly and in public, in front of all the people to whom you were being such an asshole, you might feel a bit differently.
That's because it’s one thing to lovingly admonish someone you care about, in private, with that word; it’s another thing to openly hurl it at somebody in the heat of an argument or in front of others. That’s likely to make things worse, not better. But that just shows how flexible, powerful and useful the word ‘asshole’ and other expressions of soft derogation can be. They are words that for good or ill, get people’s attention. They are really marvelous bits of language. They can be dangerous and coarsening, though. Rush Limbaugh habitually calls feminists “Femi-Nazis.” Some democrats habitually call republicans “Repugnants.” Who would deny that the use of such words has greatly coarsened our public discourse. The more we think and talk about each other in such terms, the less we’re prone to listen to each other respectfully. Unfortunately, though, the barrier between impolite speech and public discourse came tumbling down a long, long time ago. There’s probably no way to put it back again.
From a philosophical and linguistic standpoint, though, that may not be such a terrible thing. For it gives us a lot more to talk and think about here. Name-calling is clearly a fascinating thing, philosophically, linguistically, socially, morally, and politically. We’d love to know what you think about it. But do express your views in a civil way. No name calling please. That is, don't be an asshole about it! Okay?