Considering Slurs: Context, Usage, and the Meaning of Pejorative Language

By Ricky Shear, HI Graduate Research Assistant

Juan Colomina-Almiñana, Assistant Professor in the Department of Mexican American and Latina/o Studies, led the March 28th meeting of the Faculty Fellows Seminar. Colomina-Almiñana’s discussion focused on his current research which “describe[s] linguistic meaning as the intersection between individual expressive narratives” and “cultural narrations…of the societies an individual speaker inhabits.” He calls this linguistic position “Perlocutionarism,”and his latest research analyzes how slurs and derogatory words are “particularly illustrative” of this position.

In both his discussion with the seminar and a draft of a chapter from his current book project, The Semantics of Racial Epithets, Colomina-Almiñana was careful to distinguish slurs from insults. According to Colomina- Almiñana, whereas insults express “contempt towards a single individual,” slurs are “employed by speakers to directly disparage or subordinate not only the target, but also all individuals and groups that the word can be applied to because they possess a certain trait.” He then explained how his Perlocutionist position differs from the prominent Prohibitionist position, which holds that the use of slurs is potentially offensive in any context, even when quoted for teaching purposes or when appropriated by the targeted group to be used without derogation or contempt. Colomina- Almiñana counters that while the Prohibitionist position prevents harm that can be done through the intentionally derogatory use of slurs, it also “silence[s]” those targeted by slurs by preventing them from using slurs “in a different way to diminish [their] contemptuousness.”

Colomina-Almiñana’s solution to this problem is to argue that slurs’ meanings  are indistinguishable from those implied by their use. In other words, the ways in which people use slurs to communicate determine their meaning. Thus, Colomina-Almiñana concludes that slurs’ meanings are “ruled by the normativity of the speech community the speaker [of a given slur] belongs to.” According to Colomina-Almiñana, understanding the meaning of a particular usage of a slur “requires accounting for the way that the speaker expresses negative, demeaning attitudes to the target” based on a particular “bigoted worldview.” Colomina- Almiñana outlines the Perlocutionist approach to reducing the harm done by slurs by claiming that we should “establish new conventions that explicitly exclude certain derogatory uses [of slurs] from our ordinary vocabulary by the non-recognition of, or disagreement with” bigoted worldviews and thereby reduce or eliminate derogatory uses of slurs while allowing those targeted by slurs to reclaim them for non-derogatory purposes. To illustrate the use of a slur for reclamation he gave the example of “The Slants,” an all Asian, post-punk band that recently won a US Supreme Court case protecting the use of trademarks that could be considered disparaging.

Faculty Fellows responded to Colomina-Almiñana by suggesting possible similarities between his philosophical approach to language and that of folkorists and cultural anthropologists who analyze the relationships between language’s cultural context, usage, and meaning. Colomina- Almiñana and other Fellows discussed the importance of acknowledging that words’ meanings evolve over time, suggesting that we should attend to the historical resonances in contemporary usages of words while also attempting to change the social norms of slurs’ usage and thereby change their meanings. Faculty Fellows also had a lively discussion of whether Colomina-Almiñana’s quotation of slurs in his writing was offensive and suggested that examples of slur usages should be presented alongside their cultural and historical contexts so that the meaning of a given slur could be understood in relation to its use and function in a specific community.

See the Humanities Institute’s website for more information about the Faculty Fellows Seminar and the 2018-2020 class of Faculty Fellows.

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