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Many news outlets never ever spell out the n-word, even when discussing the word or quoting someone. I'm wondering what's the reasoning for doing so.

To clarify: I fully understand why it is wrong to use the word to describe or refer to a person. What I don't understand is how anyone can be offended by usage like, "<some person> amply deserved getting sacked for calling their superior <n-word, spelled out>."

Clearly, the person doing the name-calling did something wrong: In addition to insulting their boss, they implicitly asserted the existence of a race and attached to it a wide, culturally understood set of negative stereotypes about that race, thereby strengthening the shared belief in the existence of that race and the truth of those stereotypes, all by using one word.

But what is the damage done by describing explicitly what happened?

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    It's self protection, it can be taken out of context and people will crucify you for it.
    – A.bakker
    Jun 15 at 18:00
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    It's a taboo. simplyphilosophy.org/study/what-taboo
    – user4894
    Jun 15 at 19:58
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    "But what is the damage done by describing explicitly what happened?" This is a religious phenomena. Just as religion has certain practices that may seem arbitrary and pointless to outsiders, this is something like that. The damage is that the religious tenet was violated. Jun 16 at 16:47
  • @AmeetSharma: It is literally that, in the Durkheim-ian sense of religion, rather than the edgy atheist sense of implying it means it's something to sneer at. A recurring issue, has seen the development of a social value, in thus case a taboo, which binds people together in enacting & defending it. Free speech, and habeus corpus, are literally sacred values, in this context (to some communities). Like those who write G-d, or refuse to depict Mohammed.
    – CriglCragl
    Jun 16 at 19:26
  • It’s unfortunate, but I don’t think you’ll get good feedback to a question like this here. People will up-vote or down-vote based on their personal moral sentiment and political ideology, not on the presence or lack of reasoned argumentation. There is a lot of moralizing in the comments and answers. Jun 16 at 19:27
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Philosophers of language sometimes call this phenomenon the embedding failure of slurs (see, e.g., Bolinger, 2017). I suggest you read up on that, if the topic interests you. Just search for embedding failure slurs on Google Scholar or whatever, there's a huge literature on the topic.

Most philosophers of language don't find the question whether slurs ought to be embeddable interesting. That is to say, perhaps "Schiphol is a <slur>" should be pragmatically very different from "Schiphol is not a <slur>", but it just turns out that these two sentences have interesting features in common, having to do with the slur, regardless of whether it is or is not negated. Rather, philosophers take embedding failures as linguistic data, and try to account for them with their theories of the semantics and pragmatics of slurs.

Bolinger, R. J. (2017). The Pragmatics of Slurs. Noûs, 51(3), 439–462. https://doi.org/10.1111/nous.12090

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  • And when these philosophers refer to these words, do they spell them out? Because that’s going to reveal what they really think. Jun 16 at 18:13
  • The n-word is spelled out in Bollinger (2017), along with others, @JustSomeOldMan Jun 16 at 19:38
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    Thanks, that's very interesting. Would you say the usage I cited above "<A> called <B> a <C>" is a very short direct quotation (although without quotation marks) and therefore insulated as per Bolinger? Jun 16 at 19:53
  • I'm not sure, but it does seem to fall under that category. Bear in mind, though, that what Bolinger is doing is formulating a theory in pragmatics that aims at predicting (successfully or not) whether some uses of slurs will be deemed acceptable or not by speakers generally; not formulating a theory in ethics that aims at ruling which uses of slurs should be deemed acceptable.
    – Schiphol
    Jun 16 at 20:34
  • Well, that's not part of his model, it's part of the data he's reviewing: he states that it is deemed acceptable to use a slur when it's insulated. He goes so far as to say that that's uncontroversial. Looking at the discussion here and elsewhere, I think he might be wrong. Jun 17 at 7:12
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This isn't a simple binary problem; there are levels to consider along the lines of this (overly simplistic) distinction:

  • Words that are merely meant to be insulting, disparaging, bullying, degrading, etc.
  • Words that are politically problematic: that carry the weight of social oppression, historical group violence, or deep-seated cultural hatred.

If we use terms of the first sort — like 'fatty', 'nerd', 'd_kwad', 'f_khead', 'sh_t-for-brains', etc, — we hurt people's feelings — sometimes extremely badly — but at the end of the day it is personal and individual, without any real social or political teeth to it. People get called names and they (usually, not always) survive and grow. It's a nasty moment in human life, sometimes even a fatal one, but it's a moment that can pass.

However, when we use terms of the second sort — as people in the US sometimes do for blacks, Jews, Muslims, women, gays, and others — we're not just hurting feelings. We are echoing the language that mobs of white men used during lynchings and slave auctions; that Nazis used while rounding up people for concentration camps; that men use during sexual assaults; that Right-wing pundits use to stir up anti-Islamic hatred. It is not the language of a person degrading another person; it is the language of a society degrading a group, and that group degradation continues as long as the language is kept alive.

Respectable news outlets and other forms of mass media do not spell out or use the n-word (or similar terms), not because they're worried they might offend some particular person, but because the use of the word carries the weight of social oppression. If news outlets regularly used that word, we would be right back in the mindset of the segregationist South, where whites are 'whites' and blacks are 'n_s', and any possibility of equality or fair treatment fades away like the morning dew. Instead, respectable news outlets prefer to talk about 'people', without unnecessary reference to stigmatizing language.

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    Yet plenty of other slurs don't face the same level of ostracism. That sounds like a posteriori, ad hoc justification for a childlike, pseudo religious taboo. And does not change the fact that the word does exist and that some people use it. Why is it taboo to make a citation of those people to hold them up to their responsibility while never using the word itself to refer to actual people ?
    – armand
    Jun 16 at 4:55
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    This answer does not cover important realistic elements, such as forbidding even simply meta-references to “nigger” is often a power-play and a way to undermine important conversations rather than have them. This answer is a simplistic capitulation to claimed offense and uses copious loaded language to evoke emotions. Jun 16 at 9:00
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    @armand: That's simply not true. I can lay out a list of words that are just as ostracized as n___: k___ for Jews, c___ for women, f___ for gays, etc. Group degradation/domination words are hardly uncommon. The main difference between these words is that there's a notable subsection of the US population that really, really wants to degrade and oppress blacks, with monomaniacal focus. We only have the issue of the n-word because lots of d__kheads are out there wanting to use it in political speech. Jun 16 at 14:21
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    "except for discussions of the n-word itself, of course" But that's exactly what the OP is talking about and what is prohibited by American society. In such discussions one can never spell out the n-word. Look at the incidents described here: theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/08/… and here: youtube.com/watch?v=J2r5oMy6Pes. Are these folks making up these incidents? This is a completely different phenomenon from the b-word or c-word. Jun 16 at 14:47
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    @TedWrigley: "There is literally no conversation that requires..." I don't know about "requires," but your comment is actually a good case in point: as an ESL speaker, it took me a minute to understand what you mean by the c-word, and I'm blissfully unaware of the k-word. Spelling these words out would have eased communication. Jun 16 at 19:22
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Brief Summary of this answer: The word, like any taboo word, is (effectively) off-limits because a decisive enough portion of today's society has declared it off-limits. Whether or not you think they are right to do so doesn't change the fact that this has happened. When you use it, whether or not your intention is to express "I am a racist," that's how it will be perceived.


Language is a form of communication that draws its meaning from context. Every era and culture has taboo words that cannot readily be spoken for one reason or another --this list changes and alters over time due to cultural drift. In the ancient Jewish tradition, the name of God must never be written fully out or spoken --it is too sacred. As recently as a generation ago, certain terms referring frankly to sexual acts were never reproduced in print by any reputable publication.

In contemporary America, there is an increasingly widespread understanding that the only current usage of the "n" word, when spoken or spelled out in full with an "-er" ending (as having diverged decisively from the in-group variant with the "-a" ending), is to offend and injure, through symbolic endorsement of a white supremacist world view. According to that understanding, those who do not wish to deliberately offend will self-censor, regardless of other context. As this view becomes more dominant, that becomes the effective meaning of the term in all public discourse whether or not that matches the actual intentions of the speaker or writer.

The fact that academic and journalistic usages of the word were previously considered acceptable is largely irrelevant. Anyone, in the year 2021, who writes the "n" word out in full is well advised to know what they will be perceived as expressing and why.

Citations:

  1. How the N-Word Became Unsayable - NY Times
  2. Should You Say the N Word? - Washington Post
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  • “There is a general common understanding that the only usage of the "n" word, when spelled out in full with an "-er" ending, is to offend and injure, through symbolic endorsement of a white supremacist world view” – nonpartisan citation greatly needed. Bolinger explicitly spells out the words in a serious philosophical context. And then there’s Mark Twain and Harper Lee right off the bat. Jun 16 at 21:06
  • What citations would qualify as "non-partisan" in your view? Jun 16 at 21:07
  • Also, you omitted my clause "In contemporary America." The bulk of my answer is explaining that the usage of the word is different now because of the common usage of these particular times. Jun 16 at 22:17
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    "is to offend and injure, through symbolic endorsement of a white supremacist world view"... In this incident: youtube.com/watch?v=9_-gn8Mm2xc did this white fan deliberately seek to offend by reciting the song lyrics? Jun 17 at 1:24
  • @JustSomeOldMan - Citations added as requested. Since you never answered my question of what you would consider as "nonpartisan" I'll just have to assume you'll find these acceptable. Jun 17 at 4:51

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