Munich Center for Mathematical Philosophy (MCMP)

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Talk (Work in Progress): Stefan Rinner (MCMP/LMU)

Location: Ludwigstr. 31, ground floor, Room 021.

23.01.2020 12:00  – 14:00 


Slurs and Freedom of Expression


Hate speech is often offensive and derogatory and sometimes even harmful. Nevertheless, in liberal societies, there is considerable debate on whether hate speech should be legally restricted; even in those societies that have adopted hate speech regulations. For example, a very common argument against restrictions on hate speech in liberal societies goes, roughly, as follows: If we restrict hate speech, we thereby restrict our freedom of expression. Liberal societies are committed to freedom of expression. Therefore, restricting hate speech is incompatible with a liberal society.

Caroline West presents an argument against the first premise of this argument. First, West points out that even in liberal societies like the United States speech has never been entirely unrestricted. For example, there are restrictions on when, where, and how one can express an opinion. These restrictions on speech are not considered to be restrictions on our freedom of expression, as long as there are places, times, and manners where, when, and how we can utter our opinions or sentiments. Following this, West argues that at least some hate speech could be regulated in a similar way; i.e. hate speech involving the use of slurs and epithets. For example, West argues that since slurs have neutral counterparts, e.g. 'wop'/'Italian', everything that can be said with a slur could be said with its neutral counterpart. Therefore, the argument goes, restricting hate speech involving slurs would not restrict our freedom of expression.

In the first part of this talk, I will argue that West's argument presupposes a certain theory regarding slurs; i.e. a so-called non-content theory of slurs according to which slurs do not have any specifically derogatory content; be it semantic, pragmatic, presuppositional etc. Following this, in the second part of this talk, I will look at a special case of sentences involving slurs; so-called mentioned uses of slurs. For example, non-content theorists like Anderson and Lepore claim that even mentioned uses of slurs can easily cause offense and alarm. Following this, it has been argued, in the spirit of West, that instead of mentioning the slur one should use a neutralizing expression, like 'the N-word'. However, although everything that can be said with a mentioned use of the N-word could be said with the expression 'the N-word', and, thus, a restriction on mentioning the N-word would not restrict our freedom of expression, I will argue that the same cannot be said of slurs that lack a neutralizing expression like 'the N-word'. On the contrary, I will argue that in journalistic and in academic contexts such restrictions would even lead to a form of censorship.