Language, Offensiveness, and Equality

I’ve finished a biography of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.  Wittgenstein really sparked the idea of how language expresses how we see the world.  So language-users see the world when they use a different language, or as Wittgenstein would say, a “form of life.”  Here are some examples that I use for my class:

  1. Gua in Chinese means watermelon, papaya, melon.  In short, it means having that shape.  Asian languages split up words like that.  Thus, they see the world differently than we do.  Chinese language-users see the world starting with shape first and then they go into specifics.
  2. Define father.  English users define it as a male that has biological DNA.  Some cultures define father more functional rather than biological.  So a brother or a friend can be a father according to some languages.  Imagine seeing the world like that.
  3. “Everyone is going to Paris.”  Imagine a world where everyone’s goal was to get to Paris.  It doesn’t matter what they’re doing now.  The entire goal is to get to Paris.  You would look at the world in a totally different way.

Thus, when you speak a different language or phrase it differently, you literally see the world differently.

Now, I was wondering if offensive language influences how we look at the world and perhaps our social attitudes towards people.  Consider this, which do you find most offensive:

  1. “You’re such a fag.”
  2. “You’re such a bitch.”
  3. “You’re such a nigger.”

Now which is most offensive?  To me, number three is the most offensive, then number two, then number one.  Indeed, I think this fits with my worldview: my friends jokeingly say these phrases, with the exception of number three.  So how does this relate to the world?  Because number three is the most offensive, I think any form of race inequality is seen as crude and bad.  Now this doesn’t mean that racism is gone.  By no means.  But to be honest, when I watch the news or even simply observing my surroundings, I notice more gender inequality than racial inequality.  We can even look at the recent election: 79 % of college students say they’re ready for a black President, whereas 63% of college students say that they’re ready for a female president.  With this, I think calling someone a “nigger” is considered more offensive than “bitch.”  But what about “fag?”  I think this word is thrown around casually which means it’s hardly seen as offensive, and since this is a prejorative term for homosexuals, they seem to get the worst end when it comes to respect.  With this, homosexuals have it bad because our language is constructed in a way to not treat them with respect.  Imagine a world where the word “nigger” was thrown around casually.  Our world would be where we see black people as not equal to us.  But because our culture and language has deemed that word to be bad, race relations have gotten better.

It seems like a stretch, but based on this, if “bitch” has the same connotations as “nigger” then there might be more gender equality.  Same thing with “fag.”  Imagine where “fag” has that same negative connotation as “nigger.”  Perhaps they would gain more equal status.  I don’t mean simply rights or privledges, but getting along with people in general.

In short, I think that on some level, if you want to aim for equality and respect, you must change the way people use language.

About shaunmiller

I have just completed a visiting position as an assistant professor at Dalhousie University. My ideas are not associated with my employer; they are expressions of my own thoughts and ideas. Some of them are just musings while others could be serious discussions that could turn into a bigger project. Besides philosophy, I enjoy martial arts (Kuk Sool Won), playing my violin, enjoying coffee around town, and experimenting with new food.
This entry was posted in Culture, Language, Paper Topic, Race, Respect, Same-Sex, Values. Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Language, Offensiveness, and Equality

  1. Michelle says:

    A lot of my friends have the following view:
    “I’m not racist, I have black friends and I’m okay with most everyone in every race. However “nigger” refers to a certain type of black person, not the race in general. “Nigger” means a black person who is lazy, a criminal, drug addict, lives off of the government,etc. (one or more of those combined”

    Basically they compare it to “white trash” meaning one or more of the same things with the above adjectives.

    In my opinion, if the word “nigger” did not have such a violent, dark and horrible past and it was more of a recent word with a more recent meaning it would not be as offensive. But since it is such a horrible and offensive word, people who consider themselves not a racist, will still use that word to describe a certain group of people within a race.
    What do you think of this?
    Also, if it is so offensive, why do African Americans use it in music, comedy, etc.? I know a lot of comedians and muscians say that they are trying to associate a different image, a more positive association with that word…but that white people shouldn’t use it still? It’s a very confusing logic.

    As for the term “bitch”, it’s sad really…I suppose I have just kind of grown numb to it.
    As for the term “fag” it’s thrown around so carelessly that its effects I think are not in full light yet and not seen as offensive because it’s so common.

  2. Mike says:

    I like Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language” on this subject. I think Wittgenstein’s discussion of language is a bit more primordial.

  3. shaunmiller says:

    Hey Michelle,

    You’re right that different races takes on the meaning of the word differently. I still say it’s part of the culture, in this case, the black culture. Their world view is something of “I can say ‘nigger’ but no one of my race can.” Like I said, language forms a worldview and this is their worldview.

    As for “bitch” and “fag,” it’s become so common that people don’t even see the offensiveness behind it anymore, thus they don’t see the inequalities between genders and sexual orientations. They are invisible to it. So how do we change it? Well, since language constructs a worldview, I think the only way to do it is to form an association with those words to something negative.

    Hello Mike, I haven’t read Orwell’s essay but I’m familiar with it. I think the major difference is that Orwell was talking about how English-users take words and twist them to some rhetoric. While I like his essay, I still like Wittgenstein’s approach because he associates language with a form of life, a Weltanschauung if you will. Language forms your views of the world, and I don’t think Orwell provides that in this particular essay.

  4. Mike says:

    What I meant to say is that Orwell emphasizes how we might shape language (what you’re doing). Wittgenstein emphasizes how deeply language shapes us — it has much more power over us than we have over it.

    I think we’re better off letting these words become more benign. What sorts of words will people use when trying to cause a fight if “nigger”, “bitch” and “fag” become benign and common?

  5. shaunmiller says:

    Mike, this is my point exactly. I think if these words become benign, this causes you to see the world where those negative connotations aren’t that negative. “Fag” no longer has that negative aspect, but becomes common. The homosexuals, then, lose that sense of respect and equality. It’s the same with “bitch” and “nigger.”

    As for the Wittgensteinian aspect, I think language is something that we control. After all, he said that language is like a tool. So language doesn’t have that power over us much like other philosophers like Lacan or the post-structuralists would have. We still control language, but the language presents us with a world-view.

  6. shaunmiller says:

    Mike, after re-reading what I posted, perhaps I was a bit too hasty. I think using J.L. Austin would be a better approach. The Speech-act gives the perlocutionary act of seeing these negative words as normal. Combine this with the idea that language forms the world, this speech-act creates the world in where those words have no negative meaning. If that gives no negative meaning, then those minority groups get no respect in that worldview.

  7. Killer J says:

    What about this:

    Racism is MORE rampant than both misogyny and homosexism due to the offensive nature of these words. People are MORE hesitant to use the word “nigger” because it shocks their senses and feels uncomfortable to do so.

    Now why would this feel uncomfortable? Perhaps deep down, they feel as though black people ARE below them but wish they didn’t feel this way. They are uncomfortable with their own racist beliefs, which makes the “N” word more shocking.

    It’s the same concept of
    Q: Why is a joke funny?
    A: Because at least a part of it is true.

    Well, my logic on this works as follows
    Q: “Why is using the word ‘nigger’ offensive to people?”
    A: “Because those people have, at some level, racist beliefs.”

    Back to what I was saying. Racism is still more rampant than homosexism and misogyny, and this is due to our uncomfortable feelings with our own beliefs. Here are three jokes. Rank them on a 1-10 scale for your own internal shock/offensive/uncomfortable level.

    Joke 1
    Q: “How do you get four fags to sit on one barstool?”
    A: “Turn the barstool upside down.”

    Joke 2
    Q: “Why did the woman cross the road?”
    A: “Who cares! What’s the bitch doing out of the kitchen?”

    Joke 3
    Q: “How do you starve a Black?”
    A: “Hide his foodstamps underneath his workboots.”

    Disclaimer: Don’t judge me, assholes! These jokes are to prove or disprove my point and aren’t a reflection of my beliefs.

  8. shaunmiller says:

    Killer J,

    I’m not sure I understand how the word “nigger” would make racism MORE rampant. After all, if that word causes a sense of shock, wouldn’t that cause less racism rather than more? If this was the case, then why would black people be more offended than white people with that word. I don’t think they’re secretly racists when it comes to black people.

  9. Killer J says:

    Reread my post, I didn’t conclude words MAKE racism MORE rampant. I summed it up nicely, so I won’t repeat myself. For clarification, it’s similar to the psychological defense of projection, i.e. “I harbor resentments, but I am not okay with myself for harboring these resentments. In order to bypass this uncomfortable situation, I subconsciously react with revulsion when I see the same racism being used by others.”

    Also, as far as black people being offended by the term, it has been shown that unfortunately minorities harbor negative beliefs about themselves. Maybe this is a factor?

  10. shaunmiller says:

    Good point, Killer J. I was researching this and I came across something interesting. It’s unforunate, but it happens as can be seen here. I guess the issue is more complex than imagined.

    The link takes you to a movie clip. It’s 22 minutes long. If you don’t have time to watch the whole thing, just watch the first five minutes. Absolutely stunning!

  11. Killer J says:

    That’s horrible stuff. When I made my assertion, I was referencing something similar. In a diversity class I took in graduate school, the teacher had us watch a similar program yielding similar results.

    Anyway, that’s why words shock people in my opinion. We’re confronted with a subconscious belief we wish we didn’t have due to our natural prejudice.

    I think all people harbor prejudices even if they don’t hate or consciously denegrate others. It’s natural to pre judge, as that’s how we make sense of the world from the time we are infants. We lump things in to categories. Unfortunately, bad things happen when this natural learning skill carries over to social relations.

    Those able to truly examine their own belief system and be honest with themselves have the best chance of truly being open minded. Not the pseudo-tolerance of race/sex/sexual orientation many claim to have, but true tolerance.

    Self-awareness yields the capacity for true personal AND social change, not denial.

  12. shaunmiller says:

    Just to clarify Killer J, are you saying that we are, by nature, racist or subconsciously or innately racist? I wanted to make sure before I make my next comment.

  13. Killer J says:

    I’m saying stereotyping (not necessarily racism) is learned, however, the method by which stereotyping is learned happens to be innate.

    When we are born, we lump stuff in to categories to make sense of the world. At first, everything is chaos right? Well, we begin separating and chunking up our world to make sense out of it. We learn people, furniture, sounds, and food are different things. Eventually, this learning skill moves from the rudimentary to much more specific. Once we learn, at a young age, that we exist as our own being we then lump ourselves in to categories. We may begin to identify ourselves by gender, age, and place in family. This categorization becomes more specific the more we develop, and we delve in to SES, race, looks, etc.

    Since we begin to put ourselves in to a category, we seek out those who are like us. “Those who are like us,” can reference things like family, hobbies, and classmates. It also references those who look like us. This, of course, applies to race as well. We seek out those who are like us.

    Once we have found those who are like us, we seek to understand those who are different. This is where prejudice comes in. We put labels on different groups (positive or negative) to understand, differentiate, and at times, denegrate. Although crude and simplistic, this categorization makes us feel at ease since the world is less chaotic due to being “explained” to some degree. This is something we all do, just to varying degrees.

  14. Killer J says:

    My point from the last post can be seen in the video you posted of those black children. They definitely lumped black and white in to two categories, and assigned the dolls value based on color. Unfortunately, they were socialized to view their own race and therefore, themselves, in a negative light.

    This categorization process is illuminated quite vividly.

  15. shaunmiller says:

    Ok, I see what you mean. I disagree however. I think it’s true that categorization is an innate quality that we do, but I think stereotypes is something that is learned. So we can lump eye color into different categories, but stereotypes is something that we observe in the world (like if someone has blue eye color is smarter than someone who has brown eye color, for example). But with everything else about how we categorize the world, I agree with you on that.

  16. Killer J says:

    Dude, read the first line I wrote in my last post. I’m saying exactly what you are. HAHA! Damn bro, sometimes I think you disagree with me just to disagree with me!

    We agree dude, let it go!!! lol

  17. Pingback: Sexist Jokes Provokes Tolerance of Violence Towards Women « Shaun Miller’s Weblog

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