Lepore on slurs

David A. Daniel dad at POKERWIZ.COM
Mon Nov 8 22:05:48 UTC 2010

I gotta say that, at the time, I was pretty surprised at the response to Dr.
Laura's use of the n-word. It was, as Lepore discusses in the article, a
reported (or or semi- or generically reported) use of the word. She said,
paraphrasing, "you hear it on HBO from comedians all the time, N-word,
N-word, N-word." Of course, she said the word whereas I transcribed it here
as n-word. This didn't strike me as a big deal because, in fact, one does
hear it on HBO all the time. Now, some caveats: from my position at a
distance here (Brazil) I had never heard of Dr. Laura, did not know she had
rep for being a right wingnut which of course colors anything she says, did
not know if her show was on normal broadcast or satellite or whatever. When
I heard the recording I only thought she was being obtuse by not speaking to
the woman's issues: the woman was complaining about being called a n--- by
her husband's friends, and Dr. Laura was responding about it being said
often and publicly, but not about it being directed at anyone specific.
These are very different cases. If someone on HBO rants on, saying asshole,
asshole, asshole, it is quite different from someone calling YOU an asshole
to your face, after all. So I thought Dr. Laura's parallel was irrelevant
and, again, obtuse, but I didn't appreciate the earth-shaking nature of it.
On the other hand, n-word is not the only thing you can't report on
(broadcast) TV; a person could be in similar trouble for reporting the use
of fuck, by saying fuck rather than saying f-word. So just because one is
reporting speech wouldn't necessarily always give license to report it
exactly as said (a point Lepore misses).

Be that as it may, Lepore just touches on a couple of points - well, the
whole article is pretty short so I guess touching on points might be
expected - that I thought were key and deserved more attention. One is that
at different times in history society seems to agree that certain words are
going to be taboo, and for no particular reason. If you say "feces" or
"shit" you are referring to exactly the same thing - perhaps even to the
same pile of the same thing - but one way is acceptable and the other is
not. This always seemed odd to me, but it is true of basically every taboo -
of the "four-letter" variety - word. Fuck is bad, sexual intercourse is
good; dick is bad, penis is good; cunt is bad, vagina is good; ass is bad,
rear end or buttocks is good, and so on and so forth. Society just decides
at times that one way to express something is OK, and another is not.

So we have the same thing with the slurs: faggot is bad, gay is good; N-word
is bad, African-American or black is good, etc and so on, just as with the
"four letter" words, randomly choosing one over the other. Except that these
slur words involve, as he says, target groups that, at different times and
for different reasons, decide which term to be offended by and which not.
That is the other crucial point that I thought Lepore skirted. As a
multi-generation-American-of-English-ancestry, heterosexual WASP I am not
inherently a member of any currently slur-targeted group and therefore (that
is, any slur that matters), I have always figured it was not up to me to
decide what someone else should be offended by. In other words, if a group
of people decides that they want to be called A and will be mortally (or
homicidally) offended if they are called B, then that is entirely up to them
and I really have no place to opine one way or the other. Lepore mentions
this but does not, I think, give it enough weight: taboo slur words are
taboo because a sufficient number of the targeted group has decided the
words will be taboo. It's kind of like a permission thing, even a power
play: You can't say it because we will not allow you to say it (but we will
allow ourselves to say it).

-----Original Message-----
From: American Dialect Society [mailto:ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU] On Behalf Of
Laurence Horn
Sent: Monday, November 08, 2010 5:22 PM
Subject: Lepore on slurs


a Times blog entry on slurs and appropriation/reclamation, touching
on a number of topics we've discussed here, by Ernie Lepore (Rutgers,
philosophy and cognitive science) and a number of commenters:



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