Slurs and Toxicity

It’s Not about Meaning

In: Grazer Philosophische Studien
Jesse Rappaport City University of New York,

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Slurs are special. They can be so powerful and harmful that even mentioning them can be offensive. What explains this “toxicity” that many slurs display? Most discussions in the literature on slurs attempt to analyze the derogatory meaning of slurs, differing in where they locate this meaning – in the semantics, pragmatics, etc. In this article, the author argues that these content theories, despite their merits, are unable to account for toxicity. For a content-based approach to toxicity implies that two meaning-equivalent phrases should have the same toxicity. The author argues that this is not the case for the analyses proffered by current content theorists. Instead, he argues that we can only explain toxicity by understanding the special neurolinguistic properties of slurs. The author then draws out the consequences of this view for the issue of non-derogatory uses of slurs.

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