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Slurs as ballistic speech

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Slurs are words with a well-known tendency to conjure up painful memories and experiences in members of their target communities. Owing to this tendency, it’s widely agreed that one ought to exercise considerable care when even mentioning a slur, so as to avoid needlessly inflicting distressing associations on members of the relevant group. This paper argues that this tendency to evoke distressing associations is precisely what makes slurs impactful verbal weapons. According to the ballistic theory, slurs make such potent insults because they enable their users to maliciously inflict noxious associations on members of their target groups. To motivate this theory, I demonstrate its ability to explain a number of facts about slurs’ offensiveness that pose formidable difficulties for competing theories of slurs. I argue that the ballistic theory not only explains why slurs make such explosively impactful terms of abuse, but also why: (i) uses of slurs can provoke offense even when they aren’t interpreted as expressions of the speaker’s racist (or otherwise bigoted) attitudes; and (ii) why mentions of slurs are inoffensive in some contexts, but in other contexts, warrant a level of offense every bit as severe as that warranted by weaponized uses. I conclude with a brief discussion of a practical application of the ballistic theory. I demonstrate that the theory has an important consequence for legislative efforts to regulate and punish weaponized uses of slurs.

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  • 19 March 2021

    Reference for T. Williamson has been updated as well as indentation after quotes


  1. Poetry is not the only medium in which the intentional evocation of words’ associations is commonplace. A referee at Synthese helpfully points out that such evocation is also typical of comedy. This is perhaps most evident in self-referential comedies that place the same phrases in the mouths of multiple characters, so that that a given character’s use of the phrase inherits comedic impact from earlier uses by others.

  2. Real-world examples of incidents of this sort are easily found. This example was inspired by an incident reported in the Denver Post in September 2018, in which an unidentified person spray painted the phrase Arbeit Macht Frei across a concrete bridge in the immediate vicinity of a synagogue. In response, the synagogue commissioned a handwritten Torah scroll dedicated to the victims of Auschwitz and Dachau, which they then paraded past the bridge amidst song and dance. At the dedication ceremony, Rabbi Brackman remarked that while ‘many people think of the Holocaust as something static, something that took place years ago… the reality is that we live with it every day’ (Schmelzer 2018).

  3. An analogy: By punching someone in the face, you’ll likely succeed in displaying strong, negative attitudes toward that person. But that obviously doesn’t mean that a face punch is a purely expressive act: The puncher typically values the infliction of pain or injury as a valuable end in itself—quite apart from its ability to signal their attitudes about the target.

  4. A referee at Synthese raises the concern that, since the n-word’s associations display considerable interpersonal variation, associations may not be the right tool to use in explaining the offensiveness of weaponized uses of the word. After all, no matter how pale or vivid their individual associations with the n-word might be, Black Americans ordinarily regard weaponized uses of the word as offensive to roughly the same, extremely high degree. In my view, this does not pose a deep problem for the ballistic theory. An individual’s assessment of the offensiveness of a given slur will ordinarily reflect not only their own associations with the term, but also their perceptions concerning how the term affects other people. And members of a slur’s target group will ordinarily grasp the slur’s power to evoke highly distressing associations in other members of their community, no matter how pale or vivid their own individual associations might be. That said, it seems improbable that very many Black Americans would characterize the associations evoked in them by a weaponized use of the n-word as anything less than highly distressing, given the well-known role this term has played in the violent history of Black oppression in America.

  5. Nunberg (2018, p. 286), too, explains the impactfulness of the n-word with appeal to the associations its use is apt to evoke in Black audiences. On his view, when a speaker pointedly chooses to use the n-word rather than the word Black, they are thereby affiliating themselves with the perpetrators of the kinds of violence and discrimination to which Hughes refers. In the next section, I compare Nunberg’s account and my own in detail. I argue that Nunberg overstates the importance of affiliatory intent: Uses of slurs may warrant offense even when the speaker pointedly disclaims any affiliation with such perpetrators. Moreover, as (1) and (3) show, not every self-affiliatory act of this kind exhibits the visceral impactfulness characteristic of a weaponized use of the n-word. For another example of a view according to which slurs evoke, and signal allegiance to, the attitudes and perspectives of their historical users, see Lepore & Stone (2018, p. 147–48).

  6. Bolinger, too, allows that uses of slurs may sometimes be inoffensive when the speaker’s reasons for using the slur are sufficiently good (2017, p. 454). She argues that, when the speaker’s reasons demonstrably necessitate the use of the slur, the speaker’s selection of the slur is a ‘forced choice’. On her view, it is only a speaker’s free selection of a slur over its neutral counterpart that signals their espousal of bigoted attitudes. The difficulty faced by her account is that the unforced use of a slur may warrant offense even when it isn’t received as evidence that the speaker espouses bigoted attitudes. If a White speaker makes unforced, ironic use of s**c, they are very likely to cause offense to Latino hearers, even if those hearers don’t interpret the utterance as a signal that the speaker espouses bigoted attitudes. This is readily explained by the ballistic theory.


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I would like to thank Michael Devitt, Leah Fortgang, Jeanie Glaser, Harvey Lederman, Eric Mandelbaum, Gary Ostertag, Kate Ritchie, two anonymous reviewers for Synthese, and especially Stephen Neale for helpful comments and discussion. I would also like to extend special thanks to Luvell Anderson and Ernie Lepore, whose joint work on slurs exercised an especially significant influence on my own thinking.

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Correspondence to Richard P. Stillman.

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Stillman, R.P. Slurs as ballistic speech. Synthese 199, 6827–6843 (2021).

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  • Slurs
  • Associations
  • Use/mention distinction
  • Reappropriation