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Content warning: today’s episode contains language that some viewers might find upsetting and that may not be viewable in all settings.

We’ve talked about how language works and how powerful it can be. Sometimes, that power can be harmful. Today, Hank explains the use/mention distinction, the difference between dirty words and hate speech, as well as thick concepts and metaphorical identification.


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Hank: Warning: This episode of Crash Course Philosophy contains language that may be upsetting for some viewers and may not be appropriate for viewing in certain settings. Consider the following sentence: Jason shot a mouse in his boxer shorts. Simple enough. Or is it?

Like, my first thought was that Jason was wearing the boxer shorts when he shot the mouse. But maybe the mouse was wearing Jason’s boxer shorts? Or maybe the mouse was wearing his own boxer shorts?

Or was the mouse in Jason’s boxer shorts while he was wearing them!? And while we’re at it – what kind of shooting are we talking about? Was it done with a gun, or with a camera?

Words can go wrong, in lots of different ways. And when they do, the problem usually comes down to the distinction between speaker meaning and audience meaning – or what a speaker intends, as opposed to what a listener understands. When these two meanings don’t match up, the results can range from confusing to hilarious.

But words don’t only convey meaning. They can also relate attitudes. And when a speaker’s attitude doesn’t match that of their audience, their words – whether they were intended to be just funny, or edgy, or dirty – can end up being seriously harmful.

And now is the part where I warn you that we’re going to talk about some of those harmful words today. I’m going to say them, even though I’m not going to like it. You are going to hear them.

You also probably won’t like it. And we’re both going to know what they mean. But we have to talk about them because they’re everywhere, and they’re powerful. [Theme Music]

Let’s start out with a harmless example of miscommunication: our mouse-in-boxer-shorts.

The reason that sentence is so confusing is because we understand most language by context. But sometimes – like in a lone sentence about a mouse – the context just isn’t there. And the result is often ambiguity – when a statement has more than one plausible interpretation.

But there are other times, when we do have context, but it isn’t enough. Because there’s the context that you share with your interlocutor – stuff that’s known to both of you – like how mice don’t wear underwear. But there’s also the personal context that each of you brings to the conversation.

Like, if somebody makes a stupid off-the-cuff joke about “your mother,” that could turn out to be really painful, if your mother has recently died. There are other kinds of unintentional linguistic harm, as well. Some of which I’m sure you’ve encountered, probably in texts or emails.

One person says something as a joke, but the other person reads it as serious, and takes offense. These are cases where the speaker tried to flout one of Grice’s maxims that we talked about, by, say, using sarcasm or irony. But the audience was using the cooperative principle, and assumed that everyone involved was saying what they really meant.

So a sarcastic text, if read without the help of social cues like tone of voice or body language, can end up creating miscommunication. But when it comes to the injuries caused by language, the greater concern for us here is words that are deliberately chosen to cause harm. Now, let’s pause for a moment here to talk about how we talk about harmful language.

Philosophers often rely on what’s known as the Use/Mention Distinction. This is the difference between talking about a word, and talking with the word. Let’s look at the difference between using the word "philosophy" and simply mentioning it.

Consider this statement: “I have a hard time staying awake in my philosophy class after lunch.” Right there, I used the word "philosophy." But when I say: “ 'Philosophy’ is a Greek word meaning ‘love of wisdom,’ ” I’m mentioning the word, or talking about it. The use/mention distinction is helpful when we talk about sensitive, or taboo words, because, we have to use them in order to talk about them. And there are actually many kinds of taboo words.

Some are considered off-limits just because they’re, for lack of a more philosophical word, dirty. Dirty words are scatological, blue, coarse. They refer to things like body parts, bodily functions, and sexual acts.

You probably don’t want to use these words in polite company, but if they do offend people, it’s because they offend their sensibilities, and not, say, their ideas about themselves or their identity. These words are used for emphasis, to shock, and to express strong attitudes, but their point isn’t to target a person. Their point isn’t to harm.

In contrast, hate speech consists of words that are directed at a member of a group. And they’re used specifically because of that person’s membership in that group. These groups are generally based on something that’s key to a person’s identity – like race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or religion.

Hate speech is typically understood as more morally problematic than dirty words, because hate speech is designed to hurt. But how can mere words cause harm? To understand this, we need to talk about a linguistic phenomenon known as thick concepts.

These are words or ideas that come pre-loaded not just with descriptive meaning, but also with evaluative content. There are attitudes and values that are baked into these words that are hard, if not impossible, to un-bake. For instance, "murder" is a thick concept that contains a description – it means to kill someone.

But it also contains evaluation – murder is unjustified killing. There’s no such thing as a good murder. Now with this concept in mind, let’s consider a theory about how certain words cause harm, posed by American lawyer Charles R.

Lawrence III. Lawrence argues that hate speech should be legally punishable in the United States, just as it is in some other countries. His argument focuses on thick concepts that are used to disparage a person for simply being who they are.

What’s problematic about these concepts, he says, is that you can’t pull their descriptive meaning away from their inherent negativity. Both the meaning and the attitude are tied up in a single word. Let me give you an example, a word that I am going to have a hard time saying.

It’s a hateful word, but we can’t pretend it doesn’t exist. Because, in a sense, that mentality – the idea that certain words shouldn’t be discussed, and analyzed, and argued about – gives these words even more power. The word I want to talk about is "faggot. " This word has descriptive content, in that it’s commonly used to describe a homosexual man.

But that description is bound up with an inherently hateful attitude – so much so, that the target of the word is unable to separate that attitude from the fact about his identity. The word hurts, because it tells its target that an essential part of his identity is bad. Being told you’re wearing an ugly shirt or that you have a stupid haircut might sting, but those aren’t essential parts of you.

If you’re told that who you are is inherently bad, or wrong, then you’re being hit to your core. The point of using a word like that is to harm. That’s all it’s used for.

That is its sole purpose. And Lawrence argues that, while free speech is important to democracy, hate speech should not be protected. Instead, he says, hate speech should be understood as belonging to the class of speech known as “fighting words.” And yes, that’s an actual term.

They’re not just for cartoon cowboys. Fighting words are words that are meant to incite violence. And since the point of protecting speech is to promote open communication, Lawrence says, words that are designed to replace communication with violence and fear don’t deserve constitutional protection.

Contemporary American philosopher Stephanie Ross offers another explanation of the way that words can cause harm. Let’s head over to the Thought Bubble to explore it with some Flash Philosophy. Rather than focusing on words that most people would agree are negative, Ross deals with words that generally seem innocuous.

Think of the word "baby," used as a term of endearment among adults, particularly applied to women. Nothing wrong with calling your significant other "baby," right? Well, Ross thinks there might be.

She says the words that people use to refer to us can create what’s known as metaphorical identification. Think about the characteristics of your average baby: helpless, dependent, relying on others to care for them, to make decisions for them. Ross argues that, when a person is repeatedly referred to with a word like "baby," a metaphorical identification gradually takes place, whereby she begins to think of herself as having those traits.

In other words, she starts to see herself as powerless and dependent, as someone who relies on others – particularly the men who call her that – to take care of her. This might sound far-fetched, but think about it. The way we think of ourselves is largely shaped by what we believe others think of us.

And we tend to act according to the expectations that we think others have of us. So, a child who knows he’s thought of as a troublemaker is more likely to continue acting out, while a child who’s perceived as a “winner” is more likely to push himself to win. To be clear, Ross doesn’t think this is something that happens consciously.

She sees it as insidious, eating away at our self-perception without us even being aware of it. The words people use to refer to us, end up informing the way we understand ourselves. Thanks, Thought Bubble!

Now, what about hurtful words that you probably wouldn’t classify as hate speech? I’m talking about more prevalent language – the kind we use in the cafeteria, in the dorms, when talking to our friends, or talking about our enemies. They’re hurtful, but they’re powerful in a somewhat different way, because they’re almost mainstream.

And because we see them as less threatening – no big deal – they could actually be more likely to cause unintentional harm. So consider another word that I really don’t want to say: "slut." This is another thick concept. It has descriptive content, in that it’s used to refer to women who have casual sex.

But it’s the evaluative content that really does the work when this word is used. The attitudes that are baked into this word – attitudes specifically about women and sexuality – are so potent that it’s even used to describe women who don’t have casual sex. People use it to describe to women who just, like, wear clothes that they consider revealing.

And the word is meant to mean, “that kind of woman is bad.” The attitude and the description are all bound up together. Now, maybe you have opinions and reasons for those opinions that you feel justify using this word. But it might also be the case that you don’t actually think there’s anything wrong with having casual sex, or wearing certain kinds of clothes.

So, you might want to think twice about using a word like that. Because when you use it, you’re signaling a specific attitude to other people. You’re endorsing that attitude.

So if it’s an attitude you don’t really hold, and one you don’t think others should hold, you should take care not to spread it through your speech. OK. Now let me make just one more point.

No one is telling you what you should or shouldn’t say here. That’s not my job. My job is to help you scrutinize – with a philosopher’s distance – the language that we all use.

The philosophy of language can help us bring scary, powerful words out into the open, and figure out why they’re scary and powerful. And then, with reasoned arguments, we can understand and explain how the language that we use can inflict harm on others. Obviously, deliberately using words to harm is awful.

But, even if you don’t intend hate with the words you use, your audience might not understand that, because speaker meaning and audience meaning don’t always match up. Only by thinking seriously about the words we use, and what they mean, can we understand how they might be perceived by others. Today we talked about words, and how they hurt.

We learned about the use/mention distinction, the difference between dirty words and hate speech, and we also learned about thick concepts and metaphorical identification. Crash Course Philosophy is produced in association with PBS Digital Studios. You can head over to their channel to check out a playlist of the latest episodes from shows like: PBS OffBook, The Art Assignment, and Blank on Blank.

This episode of Crash Course was filmed in the Doctor Cheryl C. Kinney Crash Course Studio with the help of these awesome people and our equally fantastic graphics team is Thought Cafe.