Derogatory Terms: Racism, Sexism and the Inferential Role Theory of Meaning

In Kelly Oliver & Christina Hendricks (eds.), Language and Liberation: Feminism, Philosophy and Language,. SUNY Press (1999)
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Abstract
Derogatory terms (racist, sexist, ethnic, and homophobic epithets) are bully words with ontological force: they serve to establish and maintain a corrupt social system fuelled by distinctions designed to justify relations of dominance and subordination. No wonder they have occasioned public outcry and legal response. The inferential role analysis developed here helps move us away from thinking of the harms as being located in connotation (representing mere speaker bias) or denotation (holding that the terms fail to refer due to inaccurate descriptive content). The issue is not bad attitudes or referential misfires. An inferential role semantic analysis of derogatory terms shows exactly what is at stake between those who argue that the terms should be eliminated (Absolutists) and those who claim they can be successfully rehabilitated (Reclaimers). The Reclaimer maintains, and the Absolutist denies, that certain contexts can detach the derogatory force from deeply derogatory terms. The article looks at these claims with respect to ‘nigger’ and ‘dyke,’ setting out the inferential role of each term and examining detachability potential. Explaining detachability in terms of linguistic commitments, this article also addresses the issue of whether such terms count as political discourse, and examines the implications of that issue.
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