Sunday, January 27, 2008

Linguistic Intuitions Gone Badly Awry

The intuition that the derogatory content of an epithet scopes out of every linguistic context, regardless of its occurrence (e.g. embedded under negation, in quotation, in fiction, etc.) has lead to the racial harassment charge against Professor Donald Hindley at Brandeis University for his apparent mention, not use, of the term 'wetback'.  In his Fall 2007 Latin American Studies course, Hindley said:

Mexican migrants in the United States are sometimes referred to pejoratively as 'wetbacks'.

Notice that what he said was not only true, but informative and relevant in a discussion about racism.  For details, see Bill Poser's recent entry on the Language Log.

Before we start burning Twain novels from the university library, let's all reread Frege's 'On Sense and Reference' (1892), paragraph 6, along with the First Amendment, shall we?

Update, this quote seems particularly relevant:

“Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the Government’s purposes are beneficent.  Men born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasion of their liberty by evil-minded rulers.  The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding.”

Justice Louis Brandeis, U.S. Supreme Court (dissenting opinion) Olmstead v. United States, 277 U.S. 438, 479, 72 L.Ed. 944, 957, 48 S.Ct. 564, 66 ALR 376 (1928)

1 comment:

Than said...

That is outrageous. It's almost as bad as the guy that got fired for using "niggardly" in a business meeting. While we're on the topic, I would like to say how much I appreciate the work you've done in this area, Chris. It is insightful, relevant, and necessary (in a non-modal sense) given the culture we find ourselves in.