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Preamble

When dealing with matters of such a sensitive nature, it seems sensible to begin with a clarifying statement to ensure the question is not mistakenly imbued with any malicious intent.

Racism is defined as something like:

"Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism by an individual, community, or institution against a person or people on the basis of their membership of a particular racial or ethnic group, typically one that is a minority or marginalised".

This question is in not motivated by any desire to advocate for or progress any racist attitudes. On the contrary, it is an attempt to better understand whether censorship of words in non-malicious contexts might serve to further and/or hinder the very harms the censorship is presumably intending to minimise.

Question

In Piers Morgan's interview with Ye (Kanye West) (see 06:52), it seems the word 'n****r' is beeped out of the footage.

The word is being used not with any malicious intent by Ye, but to describe instances in Tarantino's film Django in which the word was used. Ye is making a point about how a word such as 'n****r' can be contextualised, such as within a film grappling with historical racism.

Academic institutions often shape the ways in which we alter our behaviour, verbal and otherwise. Social media movements increasingly also seek to influence public debate, particularly around issues of social justice.

Within current academic literature and/or contemporary public discourse, what are the arguments for the total censorship of words, ie. censorship which is maintained even within discussion about the words themselves?

Note: I grappled with whether to censor the word in the writing of this question, but in the end decided that whilst it is a reasonable expectation to place upon ourselves - as critical thinkers - to discern between malicious and non-malicious (academic?) usage of such a fraught word, it would be hypocritical to leave the word uncensored before allowing for any answers which might persuasively show that such censorship is justified. By censoring the word, this question also becomes a useful example of precisely the issue it seeks to interrogate.

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    Re. the close vote (opinion-based). As shown in bold, the question explicitly asks for arguments from academic literature and or examples from current public discourse. It is in no way unnecessarily provocative/inflammatory and should be answerable by knowledgeable readers who have an interest in/study these issues. I would also be fascinated to know (from anyone) whether the downvote likely stems from any ascription to this question of malicious intent. Is there some flaw in how I have posed this question. It seems topical, important and philosophically interesting to me. Commented Oct 22, 2022 at 6:58
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    I can't help with the literature, and I didn't downvote. Can't see any reason a priori why in the case of what is widely regarded as a morally objectionable term, the term itself should not (in the familiar distinction) be mentioned as opposed to used. The term might be mentioned in a discussion or explanation of the very grounds of its moral objectionableness. Someone might say, against this, that the term is so morally objectionable that it should not even be mentioned; it should lapse altogether, and even mentioning it keeps it alive. At this point aren't we left with opinion?
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Oct 22, 2022 at 7:38
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    Because words have an effect regardless of the intent with which they are used. If the purpose is academic discussion beeped out words serve just as well, as long as they are recognizable, and may reduce the emotional impact because the immediate reaction is deferred by the alias. It also forestalls normalization of their use. In situations when this creates ambiguity, e.g. direct quotations, beeping out is arguably undesirable, see Kennedy-Volokh, The case for quoting the n-word in university classrooms.
    – Conifold
    Commented Oct 22, 2022 at 9:50
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    @Conifold. When a word is beeped/redacted, we still 'hear' or 'see' that word in our mind. In this sense, the redaction seems more of a polite gesture than an effective means via which to protect us from something that might otherwise seem harmful. Perhaps that politeness is key in minimising the harm? I also wonder at the merits of censorship vs desensitisation. If the sight of a spider traumatises us, one effective means of reducing that traumatisation is to become accustomed to the sight via exposure therapy. Is there a philosophical discourse re. 'protection' vs resilience-building? Commented Oct 22, 2022 at 11:35
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    As I take it, we do not want desensitisation in this case, same as with curse words. Those words have legitimate emotional uses (e.g. vividly evoking the harms of racism), but need to be defanged in other contexts. I also find the word "censorship" (often used to play on emotional buttons) objectionable. Censorship is suppression of information, no information is suppressed by repackaging. Reconstructing the word in one's mind already engages deliberative circuits that dampen the emotional reaction. But I do not have references on protection vs desensitization off the top of my head.
    – Conifold
    Commented Oct 22, 2022 at 11:54

2 Answers 2

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I doubt it's a question that academia can answer because ultimately it's not really a "problem" that can be "solved", it's a conflict of interest that can only be resolved if the respective parties agree to a resolution.

Like ultimately it's about whether you respect someone else's request not to use a word regardless of circumstances or whether you don't. That's a decision that you make. And the reasons why that person doesn't want you to use that word are subjective, so you'd need to negotiate that with that respective person on a case by case basis. Or if it's a notion expressed by a group with that group.

Sure you can attempt to generalize that the usage of a term is not offensive, but it would be incredibly tone deaf and condescending to tell other people what THEY should and shouldn't find offensive, like that question is theirs to answer, not yours.

You could formulate edge cases for that, like if language is being censored to the point where you lose expressive power you might side with ignoring the request, if there are alternative words that express the same concept or even express it better without additional baggage you might side with respecting the request or if the word is a literal trigger event for an emotional reaction you might in that situation opt to respect the request. Like if the word "sugar powder" articulated near microphone triggers nuclear Armageddon you might not want to use it despite there's absolutely nothing wrong with using these 2 words in almost any other context.

And whether it is or isn't a trigger is again something that can only be answered by those for whom it is a trigger. You can't assume that, you might not even be able to rationalize it as they might not be able to rationalize that either you could only chose to respect or not respect that request.

To be frank about it, I do not understand the notion of people that claim the word itself is problematic. Like you could imagine a language where the physical articulation of a pattern of speech physically hurts you (like a high pitches screech or whatnot) or where the word itself expresses a concept like idk if the name of your group idk "philosophers" would literally be comprised of the words for "bullshit thinkers" or something like that, so where the insult is literally part of the word.

The n-word is neither. The n-word, on a literal level, just means "black" and it's not by itself hurtful to say. The insulting hurtful part stems pretty much entirely from it's context and usage. In that it only makes sense in the context of white supremacy in which being black itself is an insult and used with hatred and contempt and the intent to impress a notion of inferiority to the other person.

What is special about it is most likely it's ubiquitous and continued usage throughout a large period of time and space. So that it projects it's own context in the sense that you don't use it unless you're a white supremacist and using it is itself a statement of hatred and contempt up to a direct threat to someone's well being.

Now while in direct communication any word for that matter could be used as a drop-in replacement for the n-word, as it's not about the word but about the context, seriously calling someone a "hamster" while giving off vibes of intimidation would trigger a similar result. That would be a localized phenomena and other people wouldn't be in on the meaning so it would lose a lot of it's power compared to being faced with what might seem to be a giant monolith.

So in other words it needs time, shared memory and continued usage in the public discourse for such a word to enter common knowledge so banning such a word completely sets racists back to square one, just that ideally now they lack the control over the public narrative and the systemic power that they used to have. Meaning it could actually make a difference. Because now people who still use the term stick out like a sore thumb, while if a term is normalized you'd create an image where racists appear much more numerous then they might actually be and where bystanders might assume "just a miscommunication" rather than a deliberate act of hostility when the word is used thereby enforcing that image and enabling abuse.

However that can also make the use/mention distinction difficult because that also sticks out, intended or not. And despite mentioning not being usage in terms of applying it to hurt people, it's still normalizing the usage of the term. And getting people accustomed to people saying racist shit to harden them against being shocked by that, isn't necessarily a great idea either as you might also harden yourself against feeling empathy for people on the receiving end as you no longer feel it to be shocking and problematic.

On the other end, if these cases in the article are true it seems pretty ridiculous that people who do not act racist, explicitly position themselves against it and whatnot, should lose their jobs over quotes and mentions. If those were accurate descriptions and not omitted crucial details that seems excessive and counter productive. Especially while simultaneously racism itself and the racist language surrounding these terms is apparently still treated as free speech and not seen as problematic or producing similar levels of outrage as the more catchy use of bad terminology. So that it appears to be treating symptoms rather than root causes.

But apparently this fixation and censorship of words seems to be a cultural thing in the U.S. where there seems to be a whole alphabet of words your not supposed to say and where the words themselves are treated as powerful. So it's probably only fitting to attempt to add racial slurs on that list as it's already culturally accepted to not use these words.

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  • Wow, this is a really well thought through answer! Thank you. Yes, we need a Good Samaritan law for use of words. If the people trying to help get hurt too, then it feels (to me at least) useless to do anything and I figure it will just have to literally die out after a few generations. Evolution heals all wounds... There was a radio personality recently who stopped doing her show because of the backlash when she said The Deplorable Word repeatedly and kept saying, "It's just a word!" True, but useless.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Oct 23, 2022 at 12:34
  • The other thing, for me, is that people really have a rickety argument when they say "it is a problem for me when you say it, but people like me can say it." If it is so hurtful, it is banned. The whole point of the argument is difference and division, perpetuating that is the last thing anyone should be promoting. It is just a heap of assumptions about motives, never very useful.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Oct 29, 2022 at 0:00
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The word comes from the Spanish. The first Africans shipped to the English colonies were classed as indentured servants, fitting with slavery having been illegal on English soil since the Magna Carta. But there was a subsequent hardening of a race based class, through dehumanising based on skin colour, inspired by the practices of the Spanish, into chattel slavery in Jamaica and North America.

On the n-word:

"It's really tied into the idea that African people aren't really human beings.

"They were more like an animal than a human being, a beast of burden, could be bought and sold, could be thrown overboard ships and literally had no rights.

"So when the N-word is used that's essentially what it's used for. So I would hope most people would understand why that is deeply offensive and problematic because it still is used in that context now."

-Kehinde Andrews, professor of black studies at Birmingham City University, to the BBC

Social progress is about balancing forces of cohesion and decohesion, as discussed here: How is Society shaped?

And from this answer Is artificially generating images of minors in sexual positions unethical? "The threat of public disorder, like from puritans or religious conservatives in Pakistan Afghanistan or Iran, shows how failure of governments to keep policy up to speed with public sentiment can lead to unrest, even revolution." Durkheim pointed to how what we together enact attitudes of holding sacred, form the values that bind groups; challenge the value, challenge cohesion of the group. Whether it's habeus corpus, or "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal". Jonathan Haidt's research behind his Moral Foundations theory, points to a core set of values that enable human cooperation, including fairness/justice.

In the UK the contraction of stating someone is Pakistani, has been given a similar level of unacceptability to the n-word, and semantically this makes even less sense than forbidding use of a word that derives essentially from saying black-thing. So you have to look at it's role in social discourse, as an agent of decohesion and racism. The above linked BBC article talks about a case where the highest level of BBC management declared it was OK to use the n-word, and public sentiment in this case through discourse rather than mob reaction, disagreed. And the cultural boundaries having changed, was recognised.

This argument talks about the role of humour and satire, in establishing where the boundaries are, without sacrificing the career and/or life of whoever found what was no longer acceptable speech: What are some arguments against insulting being illegal When boundaries have been established, and people violate them any way, they are going to face the social consequences. Like Kanye's antisemitism, is seeing him excluded from the society of people who just don't think that mode of threats and conspiracy theories is OK.

Racist discourse is very much alive. Laws or social norms unfortunately can't change that. But they can change the everyday experiences of people in public and in work spaces, and they have done so. I would argue this is part of supporting and developing human capacities for cooperation, our spevies' greatest strength: Studies exploring the rationale of gender equality Which relates to Peter Singer's Argument that 'expanding the circle of our moral concern' is the direction of moral progress.

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  • The word is clearly unacceptable as a descriptor. My question is more related to discussion about words deemed unacceptable in normal use. Do you feel the harm caused by utterance even in academic/critical contexts is too harmful? I imagine there would be many black people who would say yes and many who would say no. Is it always socially progressive to cater to the yes sentiment, or are there good/better arguments for resilience and context-recognition? Commented Oct 29, 2022 at 3:04
  • "The term itself would be perfectly harmless were it used only to distinguish one class from another; but it is not used with that intent…it flows from the fountain of purpose to injure." Hosea Easton, writing in 1837. The problem is how people with that aim, or who have been willfully ignorant of the venom of the word, seek to find excuses to use it. 'I was just quoting rap lyrics' 'I'm an academic so I can't be being racist' - those kind of excuses are very 1980s, & we have simply moved on, in trying to make a more inclusive society.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Oct 29, 2022 at 6:36
  • Yes I think I see understand. Repeating a comment in the OP: "I'm coming around to the idea that we lose relatively little by modifying troubling words such as the 'n-word', and that doing so may help a lot of people. I used to be convinced that to do so would be to allow for words to hold too great a power over us, and that we become more resilient by desensitising ourselves to them. Perhaps though, resilience can also be gained by exerting power over the word by destroying it (in the sense of, 'I'm not going to use you in any circumstances, because our language is better off without you'). Commented Oct 29, 2022 at 6:55
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    It's interesting to look at how Elon Musk's declarations about free-speech & censorship have been interpreted by Twitter users, & the impact on discourse there vice.com/en/article/jgpkqb/elon-musk-twitter-neo-nazis The arrival of the printing press enabled books & pamphlets that led to the witch panics, an early conspiracy theory, & stoked religious division & war - as well as bringing about the Enlightenment. There are unhealthy ideas that we can't allow a paradox of tolerance over to cause deterioration of discourse, & educating for critical thinking is ever more essential
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Oct 29, 2022 at 11:09
  • Mmm. Maybe what that's what I was doing subconsciously; fretting that deleting a word from our vocabulary from our dialogues constitutes the 'deterioration of discourse' you mention, when of course, this is not the case. Commented Oct 29, 2022 at 11:18

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