The N-word and the Misleading Simplicity of the Use/Mention Distinction

by Joseph Shieber

One of the philosophical tools that seems utterly obvious to me is the so-called “use/mention distinction”. Because it strikes me as so obvious, it is always baffling to me that people seem to have such trouble with it.

Simply put, the use/mention distinction is this. Let’s look at use first.

In order to choose an easy case, let’s say that the word I’m using is a noun. If I use a noun, I utter or write the noun in order to refer to what the noun refers to. So if I write “Neptune is the farthest planet from the sun in our solar system”, the word “Neptune” in that sentence refers to the planet Neptune.

If I mention a word, on the other hand, I am not using the word. Let’s take the case of nouns again. If I mention the word “Neptune”, then I’m referring to the word itself, rather than the object to which the word refers. So, for example, in the sentence ‘“Neptune” isn’t the only seven-letter planetary name’, I’m referring to the word “Neptune” rather than the planet Neptune.

Simple, right?

So why does it seem so hard for people to get it?! For example, there was the recent kerfuffle over an Augsburg University professor who, in discussing James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, had a student who quoted Baldwin’s use of the N-word. The professor, then, in discussing the student’s mentioning of the word, employed the word himself.

Note: Baldwin used the word, but the professor, Phillip Adamo, did NOT; he merely mentioned the word by discussing the student’s quotation of Baldwin.

Adamo himself was clear on this point. He’s quoted as saying

I see a distinction between use and mention. To use the word, to inflict pain or harm, is unacceptable. To mention the word, in a discussion of how the word is used, is necessary for honest discourse.

Ironically, however, the very article from which I take that quote — a piece in Inside Higher Ed entitled “Too Taboo for Class?” — discusses Adamo’s employment of the N-word in a ham-handed way that erases the use/mention distinction. Indeed, the first sentence in the tag-line under the title is, “Professor is suspended for USING the N-word in class” (emphasis mine).

Now, although I don’t think that Adamo should have been punished at all for mentioning the word, I actually think that he’s wrong when he says, at the end of the brief quote, that mentioning the N-word — the actual six-letter word that begins with “n” and ends with “r” — “is necessary for honest discourse”.

In fact, all that’s necessary for honest discourse is some way of referring to the word so that we know which word we’re talking about. And to do that, the euphemistic “N-word”, though inelegant, is perfectly serviceable.

And when it comes to actually employing the word itself, I agree with Jelani Cobb, the New Yorker staff writer and Columbia University journalism professor, who is cited at the end of the Inside Higher Ed piece as suggesting that

the potential downsides of actually saying it are large enough, and the likelihood of derailing conversation high enough, that it’s not worth saying even if you have the most purely pedagogical motives.

Thinking about why Cobb is right is helpful, and may be useful in explaining why, though the use/mention distinction is so simple, it’s nevertheless so tricky.

It seems to me that the problem is that, even when you emphasize that you are merely mentioning the word, rather than using it, the violent, racist echoes of the word are too loud to ignore.

Here’s one way that I’ve found helpful in making sense of this property that certain words have of being morally loaded, even when someone explicitly states that they don’t intend to employ those words in a way that carries their morally loaded connotations. It involves the notion of quasi-realism, coined by the philosopher Simon Blackburn.

Roughly, quasi-realism is a position regarding the nature of moral beliefs or moral claims. In order to describe it, let’s first look at a view that is VERY different from quasi-realism, a naive moral realism.

According to this naive moral realism, there are moral facts just like there are other sorts of facts, like facts about whether grass is green, or water is wet, or fire is hot. And since there are moral facts, we can have moral beliefs or make moral claims, and what makes those beliefs or claims true is that the beliefs (or claims) line up with the facts.

So on the naive realist view moral beliefs or claims work exactly the same way as other beliefs or claims. My belief that grass is green or my claim “Water is wet” is true just in case grass really is green or water really is wet. And similarly, my belief that torturing puppies is wrong is true precisely because torturing puppies really is wrong.

The naive realist view certainly is admirably simple. Unfortunately, for many philosophers, it’s also simply too naive. Many philosophers just don’t see how there could be any such things as moral facts, nor do they think that speech acts that look, superficially, like moral factual claims are actually claims at all, when you drill down to their underlying logic.

Let’s call the philosophers who are skeptical about naive moral realism for these reasons “moral anti-realists”.

The beauty of Blackburn’s quasi-realism is that he shares all of the anti-realists’ qualms about naive realism. However, Blackburn thinks that he can both deny that there really are moral facts AND still talk as if there are such facts.

The reason Blackburn thinks that he can do this is that people treat discussions about moral facts as expressions of moral views.

So, suppose I said something like, “Torturing puppies isn’t really wrong”. People would think I’m a monster! And my attempts to reassure them that I was simply trying to make a point about the metaphysics of morality probably wouldn’t be terribly helpful.

So suppose, like Blackburn (roughly!), you think that expressions of moral condemnation are really just expressions of negative emotions associated with the things you’re condemning. According to the metaphysics of this view, what you’re really doing when you say something like “Torturing puppies is wrong” is that you’re saying something roughly like “Torturing puppies: BOO!” In other words, you’re not in fact making a claim at all, but expressing an emotion.

What makes Blackburn’s view quasi-realism, though, is that Blackburn thinks that it’s perfectly acceptable for anti-realists to talk as if realism were true. That’s because claims like “It’s true that torturing puppies is wrong” or “It’s a fact that torturing puppies is wrong” or “Torturing puppies really is wrong” are themselves understood as expressions of negative emotions associated with torturing puppies. Even though these are claims about language or about facts, they’re taken to be claims about the actions that are the subject of that language or those facts.

And, conversely, if you were to try (correctly, in Blackburn’s view) to state the metaphysical facts by saying “It’s not true that torturing puppies is wrong” or “There’s no fact of the matter about whether torturing puppies is wrong” or “It’s not the case that torturing puppies really is wrong”, then people would think you’re a moral monster with no regard for cute, little puppies, rather than simply an analytic philosopher. And again, that’s because although you’re trying to talk about a CLAIM — the claim that torturing puppies is wrong — people take you to be talking about the action that is the subject of that claim, the act of torturing puppies.

We don’t need to get too deep into the details of Blackburn’s theory. For our purposes, what we’ve done so far is enough.

It seems to me that Blackburn’s theory of quasi-realism can be useful in discussing cases like Professor Adamo’s employment of the N-word.

As the quote from Jelani Cobb noted, the problem with employing the N-word is that it risks derailing the conversation in which it appears — even when the speaker has the purest of motives. The puzzle, though, is why that should be the case — particularly when someone, like Professor Adamo, explicitly notes that they are MENTIONING the word, rather than using it.

In the study of the pragmatics of language there is a phenomenon known as “cancellability” that refers to the possibility to retract some implications of what one literally says by explicitly noting that you don’t intend your listener to draw those implications.

Suppose, for example, somebody asks me, “Is there a gas station nearby?” If I say “Yes”, the implication is that not only is the gas station nearby, but it is also open and currently selling gas. I can cancel that implication, however, by saying, “Yes, but they’re replacing the underground gas storage tanks, so you can’t get gas there.”

What Blackburn’s discussion of quasi-realism suggests is that morally charged discussions have implied consequences that are often difficult to cancel. If I say “It’s not true that torturing puppies is wrong” — even if my intent is only to make an abstruse philosophical point about the fact (assuming it is a fact) that no moral claims are factual — it’s difficult to keep my listener from attributing to me evil intent toward cute, cuddly puppies.

That’s because when you make a claim like “It’s not true that torturing puppies is wrong”, it sounds suspiciously like you’re saying that it’s permissible to torture puppies — even if that’s not in fact what you’re saying at all.

I think something similar is going on in the N-word case. When someone like Professor Adamo even mentions the N-word, their listeners assume — wrongly, in this case — that the good professor is implying that it’s permissible to use the N-word. And because of the charged nature of the notions surrounding the word, it’s not easily possible for the professor to cancel those implications, even when he attempts to make clear that he is merely mentioning the word for pedagogical purposes.