The Instability of Slurs

Christopher Davis and Elin McCready. 2020. The Instability of Slurs. Grazer Philosophische Studien, Volume 97: Issue 1. DOI: 10.1163/18756735-09701005


The authors outline a program for understanding the semantics and pragmatics of slur terms, proposing that slurs are mixed expressives that predicate membership in some social group G while simultaneously invoking a complex of historical facts and social attitudes about G. The authors then point to the importance of distinguishing between the potential offensive and derogatory effects of slur terms, with the former deriving from the impact on the listener of the invoked content itself, and the latter deriving from inferences about speaker attitudes and intentions. The authors use the resulting framework to discuss several controversial cases of slurs and slurring: (i) terms targeting political views such as 'Nazi' and 'terf', and (ii) cases in which non-slurs are used to derogate, as in cases of misgendering. The authors conclude that what counts as a slur is in part dependent on a background system of ideological assumptions, meaning that whether a particular term counts as a slur will depend in part on one's ideological commitments and assumptions.

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