Munich Center for Mathematical Philosophy (MCMP)

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Talk: Robert Carlen May (UC Davis)

Location: Ludwigstr. 31, ground floor, Room 021

18.05.2022 16:15  – 17:45 

Joint Work with Christopher Hom (Texas Tech University)


Ideological Words and Thoughts


Ideologies, a form of folk social theory, are a pervasive feature of contemporary life, infiltrating our everyday experiences, socially, politically, and culturally. Our language and its use reflect the values that constitute these ideologies, which gains expression through associated propaganda meant to attract and maintain adherence to the ideology. A key feature of propaganda are focal words whose meanings express the core values that define the ideology, and to be explained is their power and prominence. Perhaps the most forceful and evocative form of this ideological language is pejorative language. Pejorative words - racist, sexist, homophobic, religious epithets, and so on - abstractly encapsulate ideological norms and beliefs, and are focal to the propaganda utilized in support of these ideologies. The capability of the use of these powerful words to degrade, insult and often threaten their targets derives from the concepts they express, which mirror the social reality in which they are situated, a reality where oppression and discrimination is an established norm. Such norms are unjustified, and so fail to accurately represent the moral fabric of the world. In this way, pejoratives are failed language, failing to hook on to reality, and mirroring a deeper, darker social failure. The core notions of the analysis are moral innocence and semantic innocence. Moral innocence is a fact about the moral fabric of the world - that no one ought be denied moral worth on the basis of race, gender, religious or sexual orientation, etc. This is to say that the norms justifying racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia and the like are irrevocably morally flawed. Semantic innocence is the reflection of this fact in the literal meanings of pejorative words. In this paper, the thesis of Moral and Semantic Innocence will be developed, analytically and critically.

NOTE: This talk will discuss pejorative language, language that has the potential to offend or cause distress. This language will be neither used nor mentioned in the talk, but will be referred to via established conventions, e.g., by terms such as “the N-word”, “the K-word”, and related locutions.