Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository

Thesis Format



Doctor of Philosophy




Stainton, Robert J.


Slurs are derogatory words; they seem to express contempt and hatred toward marginalized groups. They are used to insult and derogate their victims. Moreover, slurs give rise to philosophical questions. In virtue of what is the word “chink,” unlike “Chinese,” a derogatory word? Does “chink” refer to the same group as “Chinese”? If “chink” is a derogatory word, how is it possible to use it in a non-derogatory way (e.g., by Chinese comedians or between Chinese friends)? Many theories of slurs answer these questions by assuming that slurs communicate derogatory messages. However, little attention has been paid to the speech acts slurs are used to perform. In this dissertation, I argue that slurs are illocutionary force indicators: words to perform the speech acts of derogation. “Chink” is a derogatory word because its use is to derogate the Chinese, just like the phrase “I promise” has the use to make a promise. To derogate the Chinese is to enforce a norm which assigns to them an inferior normative status. Slurs are also propositional indicators: words that contribute to the truth-conditions. “Chink” has the same referent as “Chinese,” its neutral counterpart. Appealing to speech act theory enables my theory to answer questions about slurs, e.g., slurs can be used in non-derogatory ways because the felicity conditions of derogation are not met. To illustrate the advantage of my theory, I will explain how other theories of slurs fall short because they take positions opposite to mine on certain issues. For instance, Mark Richard’s theory, unlike mine, takes utterances of slurs to have no truth values. It follows from his theory, I will argue, that lying with “Chang is a chink” is impossible. Finally, I will defend the force indicator theory from common objections. My force indicator theory provides a case study of the use theory of meaning and a framework for political philosophers to study the harm of slurs.

Summary for Lay Audience

Slurs are very puzzling. As derogatory words, they are used to insult and express hatred and contempt toward marginalized groups. But in other contexts, they seem to be able to do the opposite. For example, bigots call sexual and gender minorities “queer” to insult them. However, since the 1980s, activists have been proudly labeling themselves “queer” in order to challenge discrimination. Slurs raise many philosophical questions. Why is a slur like “queer” a derogatory word? How can a derogatory word like “queer” be used to show pride? The most common answer is that the use of the word “queer” is to describe the bad things about a person, such as being odd, strange, and eccentric. But this does not easily explain why “queer” can be used in a non-derogatory way. To challenge this answer, I argue that the use of a slur like “queer” is not just to say something about people; its use is to do something to them, that is, to derogate them. To derogate people is to make them inferior. A derogatory word like “queer” can be used proudly by activists, just like a dagger can be used on a cutting board as a cooking tool, despite its standard use as a weapon. This picture of slurs helps us to better understand their harms and how to regulate offensive language.