Derogatory Words and Speech Acts: An Illocutionary Force Indicator Theory of Slurs

Dissertation, University of Western Ontario (2019)
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Slurs are derogatory words; they seem to express contempt and hatred toward marginalized groups. They are used to insult and derogate their victims. Moreover, slurs give rise to philosophical questions. In virtue of what is the word “chink,” unlike “Chinese,” a derogatory word? Does “chink” refer to the same group as “Chinese”? If “chink” is a derogatory word, how is it possible to use it in a non-derogatory way (e.g., by Chinese comedians or between Chinese friends)? Many theories of slurs answer these questions by assuming that slurs communicate derogatory messages. However, little attention has been paid to the speech acts slurs are used to perform. In this dissertation, I argue that slurs are illocutionary force indicators: words to perform the speech acts of derogation. “Chink” is a derogatory word because its use is to derogate the Chinese, just like the phrase “I promise” has the use to make a promise. To derogate the Chinese is to enforce a norm which assigns to them an inferior normative status. Slurs are also propositional indicators: words that contribute to the truth-conditions. “Chink” has the same referent as “Chinese,” its neutral counterpart. Appealing to speech act theory enables my theory to answer questions about slurs, e.g., slurs can be used in non-derogatory ways because the felicity conditions of derogation are not met. To illustrate the advantage of my theory, I will explain how other theories of slurs fall short because they take positions opposite to mine on certain issues. For instance, Mark Richard’s theory, unlike mine, takes utterances of slurs to have no truth values. It follows from his theory, I will argue, that lying with “Chang is a chink” is impossible. Finally, I will defend the force indicator theory from common objections. My force indicator theory provides a case study of the use theory of meaning and a framework for political philosophers to study the harm of slurs.



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Chang Liu
Shanghai JiaoTong University

Citations of this work

The Derogatory Force and the Offensiveness of Slurs.Chang Liu - 2021 - Organon F: Medzinárodný Časopis Pre Analytickú Filozofiu 28 (3):626–649.

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References found in this work

How to do things with words.John Langshaw Austin - 1962 - Oxford [Eng.]: Clarendon Press. Edited by Marina Sbisá & J. O. Urmson.
Studies in the way of words.Herbert Paul Grice - 1989 - Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Philosophical investigations.Ludwig Wittgenstein & G. E. M. Anscombe - 1953 - Revue Philosophique de la France Et de l'Etranger 161:124-124.

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