Saturday, December 31, 2011

Dr. Laura and the use/mention distinction

     [This originally appeared in Dissent the Blog, August, 2010. For some reason, I neglected to include it here, where it surely belongs. And so, belatedly...]
kraut [krout] noun informal sauerkraut. • (also Kraut) informal, offensive a German.*
     I suppose you’ve heard about Dr. Laura Schlessinger’s so-called “rant” in which she repeatedly “used” the “n-word.”
      No she didn’t. She only mentioned it.
      If I tell you that using the term “kraut” to refer to a German is offensive, I have not “used” the term “kraut.” Rather, I have done something else with it. In my field, we say that I have mentioned it.
      See the point?
      Let me cut to the chase. There’s a big difference between Jim’s remark and John’s remark:
Jim: “Get away from me, you Kraut!”
John: “Using the term ‘Kraut’ to refer to Germans is usually offensive.”
     What Jim said is offensive. What John said is anything but offensive.
     Philosophers (and, evidently, linguists) are taught this distinction because it is very important to maintain if one is to avoid confusion. It ain’t rocket science: it is one thing to use a word—that is, to use it in an ordinary sense of using. It is quite another to approach a word as a word (or a phrase as a phrase or a sentence as a sentence, etc.) and to discuss it as such. If I say that “nigger” (depending on the context) can be a highly offensive term, I am commenting on the term. I am saying that its use can be very offensive. I am in no sense expressing any attitude or judgment about African-Americans! (See also Can a White Person Ever Legitimately Use the N-Word?—a Penn State linguist making essentially the same point.)
      In fact, in saying that “nigger” is an offensive term, I am making an important (albeit an obvious) point.**
      I Googled the “use/mention distinction” and found many entries. Wikipedia seems to offer a decent account of the distinction (I skimmed it).
      Linguist Bill Poser has a good discussion of exactly this point—namely, political correctness running afoul of the important use/mention distinction—in this post. He discusses a case in which a professor was found guilty of racial harassment (by his university, Brandeis) for saying in class such things as:
“Mexican migrants in the United States are sometimes referred to pejoratively as 'wetbacks'.”
     According to Poser,
His offense is described as having used the word 'wetback'. This is false. He did not use the word 'wetback'; he mentioned it. That is, he did not choose the word 'wetback' for his own communicative purposes. Rather, he referred to its use by others. This is not a mere distinction of terminology: there is a vast difference between the two. When someone uses a word, he or she is responsible for what it conveys, but when one mentions a word, one assumes no such responsibility.
     Let’s get back to Dr. Laura. What was offensive—or, as I’d prefer to put it, what was ridiculous—was Schlessinger’s position and arguments. Schlessinger seemed to be arguing that, since some blacks freely use the term “nigger” [or "nigga"] in referring to themselves and others (arguably at times without offensive intent), it follows that anyone may use that term. But, obviously, context (including evident intent) is important. That’s so basic, I’m embarrassed to have to say it.
      Schlessinger’s point was that the caller, a black woman, who was offended by things her husband’s white friends did around her (asking her how black people like this or do that) was over-sensitive.
      If Schlessinger can’t see why those crackers and their questions would make a perfectly reasonable (i.e., non-oversensitive) person uncomfortable or worse, then she is an idiot. (OK, I'm having a little fun with you. They might not be crackers. Could be cookies.)
      Well, no. Not literally an idiot. You know what I mean.
      But do pull your head out of your ass, lady.

      *(From my Mac's dictionary.)
      **(Naturally, some terms are so toxic that one must take care even to mention them. For instance, it would be foolish to loudly discuss this matter at a cafeteria, freely mentioning the word “nigger” or, say, “fag.” Indeed, some terms are so toxic [to some ears] that even mentioning them produces cringing. Decent people generally seek to avoid causing cringing, though obviously there are exceptions. Healthy and reasonable people can usually make the necessary adjustments and their cringe response soon ceases. We sometimes discuss people as though they were all experiencing PTSD. And that’s just ridiculous. Let's encourage people to be strong and healthy, not neurotic. But let's be decent and sensitive, too.)