'Extremely Racist' and 'Incredibly Sexist': An Empirical Response to the Charge of Conceptual Inflation

Journal of the American Philosophical Association 9 (1):72-94 (2023)
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Abstract

Critics across the political spectrum have worried that ordinary uses of words like 'racist', 'sexist', and 'homophobic' are becoming conceptually inflated, meaning that these expressions are getting used so widely that they lose their nuance and, thereby, their moral force. However, the charge of conceptual inflation, as well as responses to it, are standardly made without any systematic investigation of how 'racist' and other expressions condemning oppression are actually used in ordinary language. Once we examine large linguistic corpora to see how these expressions are actually used, we find that English speakers have a rich linguistic repertoire for qualifying the degree to which and dimensions along which something is racist, sexist, homophobic, and so on. These facts about ordinary usage undermine the charge of conceptual inflation. Without awareness of facts about ordinary usage, theorists risk making linguistic prescriptions that are unnecessary or counterproductive.

Author Profiles

Shen-yi Liao
University of Puget Sound
Nat Hansen
University of Reading

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