Communicating offense: the sordid life of language use


We encounter offense through various media: an intended facetious remark, a protester’s photographic image of an aborted fetus, an epithet, a stereotypical joke of a minority racial group. People say things that cause offense all of the time. And causing offense can have serious consequences, both personal and professional; the offending party is subject to termination, suspension, or social isolation and public opprobrium. Since the stakes are so high we should have a better understanding of the mechanisms of offense involved in these media and how they work. In this dissertation I focus on two mechanisms for communicating offense—i.e. racial and ethnic slurs and racial humor. First, I lay out a few distinctions concerning the particular kind of offense being targeted, objective versus subjective offense, and when state involvement might be appropriate for penalizing offensive behavior. Next, I discuss racial slurs and the conditions of their offensiveness. I offer a non-content based view of slurs’ offense, which contradicts the consensus view held by most philosophers of language and linguists working on this issue. Also, I look more closely at a purportedly non-offensive use of slurring language, so-called linguistic appropriation, and determine that appropriated uses are permissible in certain settings only under certain conditions. And finally, I propose a tri-partite analysis of racial jokes that provides conditions for when they are merely racial, racially insensitive, or racist.



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Luvell Anderson
Syracuse University

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