Why Tim Wilson is wrong about “n______”

By Patrick Emerton

A little over a week ago, Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson stated that he objects to current laws governing racially offensive behaviour because they allow members of particular communities to refer to one another using words that outsiders may not:

Asked whether he was referring to the word “n–––“, Mr Wilson said: “I won’t say it, but that’s right.”

Wilson then argued that repealing the relevant legislation – section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth) – would restore “equality” to Australia’s discrimination laws.

This objection is radically mistaken. It rests upon a confusion about the nature of language, which on this occasion feeds a misguided political agenda.

Philosophers and cultural theorists have written a lot about the nature of language, expressing different views and coming from different perspectives. Racial, racialised and racist language is a particularly contentious matter. This blog adopts the approach of Hilary Putnam and Sally Haslanger. And it explains their approach by reference to less contentious examples before addressing the word “n–––”.

There are three basic elements to the use of words: (1) people who introduce new words into the language do so by reference to real-world phenomena with which they interact; (2) because people can interact with phenomena that they don’t fully understand, it is possible for them to coin words to talk about things that they don’t fully understand; (3) many (perhaps most) people use words without directly interacting with those real-world phenomena by reference to which they were introduced, instead simply intending to use the word with the same reference – whatever that might be – as those from whom they learned it.

Take the word “X-ray”: (1) nineteenth-century scientists coined the word to describe a mysterious phenomenon that caused their photographic plates to fog up even when inside dark cupboards; (2) they were able to introduce the word into the language to talk about that phenomenon, even though at the time they didn’t know anything about X-rays except that they affect photographic plates like light but also pass through walls; and (3) most of us still don’t know much about X-rays (unless we studied physics at high school), but nevertheless can use the word ‘X-ray’ because we use it simply intending to mean the same thing as the parents and teachers that we learned it from (who in turn intended to mean the same thing as the scientists who coined the word).

On this picture, a word hooks onto the world by way of a “referential chain”, created by the links established at steps (1) and (3). The first speaker coins the word while interacting with the world; the second speaker, who learns the word from the first speaker, uses it intending to capture the first speaker’s meaning; and so on up the chain all the way to the Nth speaker, perhaps a child in school learning the word “X-ray” for the first time. The diagram illustrates a referential chain connecting all these speakers to the world:

SNS2 → S1 → W

For many words, of course, this picture is an abstraction: there is no single S1 who coined the word. But the abstraction is a useful one. It reminds us that there are some speakers who interact with the real-world phenomena and provide the “anchor” at the bottom of the referential chain, while other speakers who are not in the same situation are nevertheless able to join themselves onto the chain. And they do this by using the word with the intention that it mean the same when used by them as it does when used by other speakers, including those speakers who are the anchors at the bottom of the chain.

For some words the picture is more complex, because they are located in multiple referential chains. Consider the word “fruit”. This word has a botanical usage, and on that usage tomatoes are fruits. But the word “fruit” also has a culinary usage, and on this usage it can reasonably be denied that tomatoes are fruits because of the way they are used in cooking. The US Supreme Court made this point, when it decided that imported tomatoes were liable to be taxed not as fruits but as vegetables:

Botanically speaking, tomatoes are the fruit of a vine, just as are cucumbers, squashes, beans, and peas. But in the common language of the people, whether sellers or consumers of provisions, all these are vegetables which are grown in kitchen gardens, and which, whether eaten cooked or raw, are, like potatoes, carrots, parsnips, turnips, beets, cauliflower, cabbage, celery, and lettuce, usually served at dinner in, with, or after the soup, fish, or meats which constitute the principal part of the repast, and not, like fruits generally, as dessert.

These two referential chains for the word “fruit” are anchored to different features of the world. “Fruit” as a botanical word is anchored to natural properties of plants, in particular their reproductive and flowering processes. “Fruit” as a culinary word is anchored to culinary practices. If Americans had used tomatoes differently in cooking – as desserts, say – then tomatoes might have been fruits in the culinary sense, and the Supreme Court would have to have ruled them exempt from the vegetable tariff.

A final preliminary point: some words have built into them an aspect of speaker-relativity. The word “I”, for instance, refers to the person who uses it. I can’t use the word “I” to refer to you (I must use the word “you”), just as you can’t use the word “I” to refer to me. This impossibility is inherent to the meaning of these sorts of words.

The word “n–––”, like the word “fruit”, is located in multiple referential chains. One of these is anchored to the practices and racial attitudes of American slavery and segregation. It would be wrong to think that the word, when used in this sense, refers simply to a person’s appearance or ancestry. This would be a failure to understand the true nature of what is being referred to; it would be like confusing the botanical and the culinary senses of the word “fruit”. The word gets an important element of its hatefulness because it positions a person within this practice of racialised subordination and brutality. This is why the word is not offensive to a white person as it is to a person of colour; and why, when spoken by a white person even without malicious intention, it cannot but evoke the role that white people occupied within those practices.*

The word “n–––” is also located in a different referential chain. This chain has been created by members of a particular community attempting to reclaim the use of the word as a term of recognition. This chain has as its anchor-point the speaker’s membership of, and identity within, a particular group. When used in this way, the word includes a self-referential aspect, similar to the pronoun “I”. Whether it is possible to reclaim the word in this way is a matter of debate among members of that community, and this blog will not attempt to analyse these practices of identity-affirmation, nor to determine whether they are good or bad. But it is obvious that a person who does not belong to that group – including a white person like Tim Wilson – cannot successfully hook onto this referential chain. He cannot successfully intend to use a word that would affirm his membership of a community to which he does not belong, any more than I could use the word “I” to refer to you.

Waleed Aly has described the government’s proposed amendments to section 18C as “probably the whitest piece of proposed legislation I’ve encountered during my lifetime.” Tim Wilson’s complaint of inequality – that others can use the word “n–––” without giving the same offence as he would – reinforces the impression that the proponents of change utterly fail to comprehend non-white experiences of race and racism. He is, in substance if not in intention, complaining about two things: first, that there is a community to which he does not belong, and his membership of which he therefore cannot affirm; and second, that when he uses the word “n–––”, all he succeeds in doing is evoking the role of white people in racialised practices of brutality. In effect, he is complaining that there are people in the world whose history and experiences are different from that of white people. In making this complaint he suggests that element (2) above in the theory of word-meaning is true of him: he does not fully understand the real-world phenomenon to which the word “n–––” is anchored. Alternatively he does understand it, but is unable to acknowledge that white people and people of colour are related to this phenomenon in fundamentally different ways. This would be not just an ignorant but a vicious assertion of white privilege.

* Sally Haslanger provides a more academic account of these features of some words – that the real-world phenomena to which they are anchored are our own social practices, which many of us may not fully understand when we use the word –in her article “What are we talking about? The semantics and politics of social kinds”.

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4 responses to “Why Tim Wilson is wrong about “n______””

  1. Interesting article and challenges one aspect of the case against s 18c.

    One issue I have is the assumption that a person of colour using the word n…. is always acceptable. One of the problems with 18c is the subjective standard it sets – Many black people wouldn’t identify with being called n…. by other people of colour. The reclaiming of the word is more of an American thing. Also the tone in which the word is used can change its meaning entirely – the bolt case showed how this is relevant in interpreting s18c

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