Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Stephen R. A. Neale

Committee Members

Michael Devitt

Gary Ostertag

David Papineau

Subject Categories

Philosophy of Language | Semantics and Pragmatics


Slurs, Associations, Free Speech, Reappropriation, Use-Mention Distinction


Oppressive slurs like the n-word are fighting words par excellence. Their power to incite conflict and inflict emotional injury is unmatched by that of other, more commonplace insults. But what is it that makes oppressive slurs such potent verbal weapons? A commonplace view among both philosophers and legal theorists is that slurs make such potent insults because their uses convey extremely offensive, bigoted attitudes. This dissertation argues that this view is mistaken, and that its falsity has important implications for hate speech jurisprudence. I argue that, to grasp what makes slurs such potent verbal weapons, we ought conceive of them not only as tools for expression, but also as tools for a sadly neglected use of language that I term the ballistic use of language. I argue that, like a burning cross, or a swastika spray painted across a synagogue’s doors, an oppressive slur like the n-word is best understood as a tool for the infliction of traumatic associations on members of its target group.

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