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National Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: What is Wrong With Stating Slurs?

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This article received an honourable mention in the undergraduate category of the 2023 National Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics

Written by Leah O’Grady, University of Oxford


This essay will argue that it is wrong to use slurs in a non-derogatory context due to the phenomena of constitutive prohibition, put forward by Alexandre and Lepore (2013). That is, I will argue that slurs are wrong because they are considered wrong. Throughout, I will use ‘offensive’ interchangeably with ‘considered wrong (by the marginalised community to which it applies)’. I wish to distinguish ‘offensive’ with ‘wrong’. A slur is wrong if and only if it does harm to the marginalised community to which it applies. I will begin the essay from the assumption that an offensive slur is not necessarily wrong and vice versa. However, through argument I will conclude that slurs are wrong because they are offensive, that is, it is wrong to say slurs because it implies either an ignorance of or a disregard to the wishes of marginalised communities.

That slurs are wrong, even when said out of context, is a curious property which does not apply to other derogatory language. For example, the phrase ‘women are inferior to men’ is a harmful phrase when speaker A is arguing it. Consider a speaker, B, who repeats the phrase in a different, non derogatory context, for example ‘how dare you say that women are inferior to men!’. When speaker B says the phrase, it loses its meaning. However, many would argue that if speaker A were to call women an offensive slur, then even for speaker B to say ‘how dare you call women ****!’ would be offensive in itself, as the slur maintains its offensiveness even when used in a non-derogatory context. Such non derogatory contexts also include reading aloud slurs from literature, or singing along to slurs in songs. While it is clear that slurs in derogatory contexts are wrong due to the harm they impart on marginalised communities, it is not clear how slurs are harmful in non-derogatory contexts. What is the distinction between the semantic value of slurs in non derogatory contexts vs derogatory contexts? In derogatory contexts, such as ‘women are ****s!!’, what is implied by the use of the slur is that the speaker attaches negative attributes to women. It is easy to see how this has negative impacts on the individual woman and women as a class. It categorises the individual as a woman and therefore deserving of derision. However, in non derogatory contexts, the semantic value of the phrase is lost. The speaker has no intention of attributing such negative characteristics to women. So what possible harm could speaker B be doing to women as a class by speaking a slur?

One would expect the harm of a slur to lie in the function of the slur. It is harmful to C for A to use a slur towards them, because A has categorised C as part of a marginalised group and wishes to insult them on the basis of belonging to such a group, or perhaps on the basis of behaving in ways that A does not approve of given C’s membership to such a group. A prime example of this would be the s-word, directed towards women who are perceived as particularly sexual. The harm from the slur is expected to arise because C understands the meaning of the slur and that A has intended to insult them and insult their group.

The offensiveness of slurs is not dependent on the overall meaning of the phrase, as we have seen. One could attempt to rebut this by arguing that semantic value of the slur survives embedding in a phrase such as Speaker B’s, and as such offensiveness is dependent on meaning.

However, it is not offensive to use censored slurs in non-derogatory contexts. Censoring is such that the word is still recognisable, and as such the semantic value of a slur-phrase is identical whether speaker B censors the slur or not. The most obvious real-world example of this is the n-word, the censored version of which it is perfectly acceptable for me to type out as part of an essay, or refer to orally in an argument, but would not be acceptable for me to type out in its entirety. I argue in this essay that the use of slurs is both offensive and wrong, and as such I will not type out the n-word, or any slurs, in this essay. These include slurs used against marginalised groups to which I belong, despite the fact that I believe the harm imparted by slurs is indexical, that is, dependent on the speaker. A non-censored slur is offensive, while a censored slur in the same context is not. As such, offensiveness cannot be dependent on semantic value.

If both have the same semantic value, the only difference between a censored and non censored is the arrangement of letters or sounds. Jesse Rappaport argues that it is this what constitutes the offensiveness of slurs (Rappaport, 2020). However, Rappaport’s argument comes from psychology, arguing that individuals find slurs more offensive when they are said in completion, but from a non-cognitive perspective. It does not explain why slurs are considered more offensive when said in completion in theory, not why people have more visceral reactions to slurs expressed in completion. In addition, Rappaport’s theory does not sufficiently account for reclamation. If the very sounds or arrangement of letters is what makes a slur offensive, why is it less so when said in the same context by a member of the marginalised community to which it applies.

As an alternative, I suggest Anderson and Lepore’s (2013) argument that slurs are offensive because they are prohibited. Speaker A is aware that saying a slur, in any context, is prohibited by the marginalised community to which it applies. Speaker A saying this slur, in any context, breaks a rule set by such a marginalised community. The saying of the slur demonstrates either an ignorance to this rule or a disrespect of the wishes of the marginalised community, or both. In non derogatory contexts, the harm is not in the word itself but in the saying of the word. As such, prohibitions of slurs are constitutive of their offensiveness.

If we follow the logic of the Alexandre and Lepore argument, then the fact that saying the slur is considered wrong due to the speaker’s disregard of the rule against saying slurs, then saying the slur is wrong if and only if the disregard of the rule against slurs is harmful in itself. The wishes of a marginalised community are generally set in place to protect the community from tangible harms, but as discussed, it is difficult to identify the tangible harms of stating a slur in a non derogatory context. What intrinsic harm lies in disregarding the wishes of a marginalised community? The sacrifice that a speaker makes in not saying slurs is minimal. As such, choosing to state slurs demonstrates a disrespect towards the wishes of the marginalised communities to which they apply. Thus, stating slurs in non-derogatory contexts does have a harmful meaning semantically. Stating slurs attaches a property to the marginalised community to which they apply. The property in question is ‘wishes not worthy of respect’. Stating slurs is not as harmful or wrong as saying slurs in a derogatory context, but is wrong nonetheless.

The rule against stating slurs can be a useful dog-whistle, an indication to members of the marginalised community that another individual pays heed to the boundaries they set, including non-linguistic rules which do have a tangible impact on marginalised communities. An example is cultural appropriation, the boundaries of which are set by marginalised communities. If a white individual chooses to wear a traditional native American headdress as a costume, for example, this devalues the significance of the headdress in the wider culture, which is a tangible harm to the community. Refusal to state slurs as an indication of a commitment to the wishes of marginalised communities is a useful tool.

To explore this further, I want to examine slurs of smaller marginalised communities that are commonly used but not commonly known as slurs. Examples are the e-word, used against the Inuit population, and the g-word, used against the Romani population. Imagine a speaker C, who uses the e-word. An Inuit or Romani person, upon hearing a speaker C could be rightfully upset at the speaker’s ignorance, and frustrated at the general ignorance of the word’s status as a slur. However, speaker C would not be knowingly crossing a line set by the marginalised community, and as such would not be attaching the property to the marginalised community that their wishes are not worthy of respect. As such, according to the constitutive prohibition argument, it is not wrong or even harmful to use a slur in a non derogatory context if one does not know it is a slur, that is, that it refers to a marginalised community and has derogatory connotations. This feels like a problematic conclusion. The Inuit population are smaller and there is not as large a historically documented and generally known conflict involving Inuit people as black people. However, stating the e-word seems just as harmful to the Inuit community as stating the n-word is harmful to the black community. The constitutive prohibition argument struggles to account for the wrongness of stating slurs in ignorance.

The intuitive wrongness of stating the e-word arises from Speaker C’s ignorance of its status as a slur which, although indirectly, attaches similar properties to marginalised communities to stating a known slur . Of course, individuals cannot be expected to research the etymology of every word they use. However, even if Speaker C does not know the e-word is a slur, they use it to describe the Inuit people, or a caricature of Inuit people. Describing Inuit people in ignorance of the wishes of the Inuit community implies an attitude towards them, that their wishes are not worthy of seeking out, or that they fit into a caricature. As such, even in the case of ignorance, the constitutive prohibition argument accounts for the harm done by slurs.

To summarise, slurs are wrong because they are prohibited by marginalised communities, and to disregard this prohibition at very little gain demonstrates a disrespect towards the community’s wishes, even in the case of ignorance. This implies an attribution of negative properties to marginalised communities. As such, stating slurs in non derogatory contexts which does harm by the same mechanism as stating them in derogatory contexts, but to a lesser degree.



Anderson, Luvell, and Ernie Lepore. “A Brief Essay on Slurs.” In Perspectives in Pragmatics, Philosophy and Psychology. Springer, 2013.

Slurs and Toxicity: It’s Not about Meaning”, Jesse Rappaport. Grazer Philosophische Studien, (2020)


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6 Comment on this post

  1. The argument does not take note of those instances (which can appear as a large portion of the total) where a slur, on its own, or as part of another phrase, has become more embarrassing to the social group from which it originated than to the target social group. In such circumstances the politically correct usage can become promoted from within the originating social group in such a way as to minimise its own embarrassment rather than express respect for the other.

    In reverse (small to large social group) the many cases of the reappropriation of words can also mask similar issues. Take rainbow, snowball, bounty and so on. They may all originally have quite innocent meanings which then become tainted by an appropriation, creating sensitivities for the majority of adult language users as they become more widely known.

    In both situations, research into the origins of a slur or phrase can be compromised to such an extent history itself becomes re-written. (At a cultural level this does equate to the contextually stronger culture overwriting the history of the other culture in favour of a more appropriate history for itself, thereby hiding significant historical influences for the other social groups(s)).

    All of the arguments in this article and response identify a living language domain, where meaning and use become contextually defined by and within social groups, often in a private way as a means of communicating membership as well as identity. A quite crude example would be a very large neon sign saying Fuk Yu. Those contextually aware of the language and company name would immediately see it as advertising for a piano company, as well as an apparent english innuendo that the sign indicated the boundaries of a coarser suburban locale. Yet others would interpret it in a way they considered appropriate to their language knowledge and contextual awareness. Only applying the arguments presented in the blog article and the local people should perhaps consider foregoing their own language and names in such signs using F** Y* instead, because the company was after all well known locally, and doing so would be respectful to a minority english speaking community whose innuendo mentioned above paradoxically must also be discarded and forgotten as a means of improving perceptions of that suburban area. All together that would be comparable to not appreciating many of Shakespeare’s works or purging the english (or other) language as well as negating potentially beneficial social indicators/pressures.

    It does seem to become necessary to remain contextually and culturally alert in the deployment and interpretation of any communication or words, indicating there is a greater importance in being able to broadly comprehend any communication in its various potential context(s), than be offended by any particular offering as given. This would appear to be especially important when considering languages and any social groups cultural indicators arising from the various ethical/moral uses of words.

  2. I’m Romani and I feel as though you’ve nailed it in large part, someone else’s ignorance is not my fault and it still harms. Everyone I ever hear use the g word I educate on the word. Unfortunately I’m frequently reduced to having to use it myself when asked about my heritage they think I mean Romania when I say Romani or they think Rome when I say Roma but everyone seems to know the g word. My rule with language is if it defining of human characteristics or behaviors and creates a mental image look up it’s origins. That’s something I actually do because I know how offensive it is when people use what they like be ause they like it without considering the origins.

  3. Ian,

    There are a couple of things to consider.

    The slur is actually a multi-worded meaning simplistically of,

    “A Group is Lesser Because”

    where the Lesser is often implicit and the Because is some social grouping differentiator giving assumed status to others not in that Group (the same reasoning underlies a lot of jokes).

    The slur word is simply a pointer or shorthand to the meaning, arrived at by usage which becomes custom.

    Thus we get the X-Word question,

    “Does replacing the original slur word with another word change the meaning of the slur?”

    It’s a question that often provokes a “No, But…” response of the form that boils down to,

    “How do we refer to the use of the slur without using the slur?”

    And the answer is actually you can not.

    Which brings us to “the sugar problem” back in the 1950s and 60s we had Science Fiction (SiFi) magazines and books and “cuss words” were not allowed. So various tricks by authors were used to get around the rules.

    The result was the word “sugar” got used instead of the cuss word. The result is that some people ended up saying “Oh sugar” as a replacment for the cuss word, so sugar actually became a cuss word in it’s own right although slightly more socially acceptable[1].

    Which leads on to the second point of,

    “If you change the label to X-Word, how long before X-Word simply replaces the original word as the slur short hand?”

    The answer is,

    “However long it takes for for it’s usage to become custom”

    Which with modern communications and media can be very quickly indeed.

    Thus I see the “banning of label words” which is essentially what “Political Correctness”(PC) does has three effects,

    1, It does not solve the slur issue.
    2, It allows certain types a power or control they would otherwise not have.
    3, They can weaponise their power to control others through fear.

    Such PC people inevitably cause an incredible amount of harm and if you talk to people in groups that do have slurs against them, you will find that they do not want those PC people doing what they do, because it almost always causes more harm to the Group.

    The solution to shorthand slur words I was told by one person in a Group that was slured by custom is,

    “We grab it, we own it, and we make it proud”.

    The slurs will only go away when those who use them from,

    1, Having been hurt or in fear.
    2, Because of their own inadequacies
    3, To make profit from

    Cease to do so. Of the three the first two can generally be resolved by Education, Integration and Time. It’s the third that is most dangerous because they will do what ever they can to prolong the slur. The US history of the various “Reds under the beds” eras last century will tell you a lot about it[2] and it’s harms. Unfortunately we appear to be at the begining of another one.

    [1] My view on cuss words are that they have a place in life as they serve a necessary psychological purpose. And as part of that, they have to be loud, the have to be robust, and they have to be able to be growled or similar, so they sound vehement thus psychologically releave stress. So sugar realy does not cut the mustard in this respect. Nor does “Oh silly me” when you have just whacked your thumb with a hammer or similar.

    [2] The US “Reds Scares” are very clearly a way to not just profit but inflict control. Reading George Orwell’s post WWII book on all forms of propaganda “1984” will tell you much about it, unfortunately this century many politicians appear to regard it as a training manual.

  4. The following was written before seeing the various responses, but I think it may still be interpreted in a way which responds to and adds to this debate, so am posting it without further ammendment.

    The various interpretations (or layers of meaning) by different social groups in this example are unlikely to be perceived because of the passing of time, leading to important elements probably once more being totally missed in favour of the more savoury common interpretations which then actually mask rather than highlight other more meaningful indicators of any cultural/moral divide/difference.
    When that is seen, does a need to move beyond common interpretations of Fuk Yu signs to perceive the wider range/layers of meanings indicative of the detail of cultural ethical/moral differences/tensions arise? Where the same/similar language motif is used across cultures (even if the meanings differ) to appropriate only one meaning to address as a means of removing any perceived tension assures the continuation of other tensions which may be wrapped up in that motif masking detailed differences in ethical/moral outlook and possibly hiding any private emotive content used by/within certain social groups and which may be indicative of social inequities becoming creatively and factually used within the affected social groups. In those types of consideration knowledge of things like colour and their social attributes is also required if the layers of associated meaning are to be more broadly perceived rather than simply assigned from within a differing cultural context. And when a mix of cultures begins those issues become even more complex. Take an easy issue in the colour red for instance, in chinese culture it can have a meaning of happiness, whilst gold references prosperity. (Think chinese restaurants and the frequent use of the colours red and gold) And thinking of the colour red there have been some changes occurring in contextual comprehensions of that colour across/between cultures because of traffic lights. The book The Primary Colours provides some popular reading material on colour meanings.

    A debate may be had that it is better to chip away at a single issue, but that can promote a singular focus upon lesser evils rather than gaining a sufficient comprehension to allow any broader base cause to be perceived and potentially addressed. Although there would probably be agreement that small chips can be helpful in addressing a known root cause.
    In the case of the Fuk Yu neon sign the two main social group members were an ethnic chinese population and an english colonial population, with the sign delineating two distinctly culturally defined districts of a highly commercial modern city.

  5. I have no axe to grind here, either pro or con. Words are powerful. And, they have consequences. Forces at work in various corners would diminish or cancel outright freedom of speech. Dark territory, seems to me.

    1. Yes that is as may be. However those areas require comprehending if the way that slurs may arise are to be comprehended.
      So in a discussion group where apparently ethnographical discussion of ethical/moral material should be able to be openly discussed, rather than blissfully directed and skirted around, it seems more important to extend discussion into how slurs may be formed rather than looking at how they may be negated after they have been formed.
      The innocent creation in one field, of what may be considered a slur in another has already been highlighted and room created for analysis/discussion, but for particular reasons that has not been taken up.
      Another slur method recently seen deployed in the public arena appears in the expressed definition of an oxymoron, where the definition itself, although it may be said to be true, is potentially weighted in one particular direction sufficiently to be perceived as a slur. Determining the ethical/moral correctness in those cases appears to require the ability to move beyond the paradoxical setting portrayed by the oxymoron rather than determining the rightness or wrongness from within any particular worldview contained within the paradoxical set used. And that, when people are effected means a deeper understanding enabling the given to be transcended. For example where a deliberate malice may be involved in a slur, that malice may be linked back to ego, using something like Schopenhauer’s Basis of Morality. And that links back to the power issue you attempt to side step, still in dark territory, but perhaps not so consequential because it ostensibly brings the discussion back to individuals rather than social groups and surely, the most important element of how ethical frameworks may be rightly/wrongly managed.

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