Another week brings yet national controversy where no person was robbed, raped, molested, abused, maimed, or killed. Instead, the controversy involves a prominent person or academic who has been accused of using language that is assumed to be inherently offensive, hateful, or derogatory. As is nearly always the case, there is outrage, protest, and calls for the person to be punished. Increasingly, as the Chronicle of Higher Education recently reported, there are threats of violence against the accused.
Yet from the standpoint of communication theory, no word (or set of words) is inherently offensive. Simply put, human beings shape and guide what words mean. That all human beings are inherently different means that words will always have different meanings and lend for different interpretations. Such is the nature of human diversity, meaning that such are the implications that come with recognizing human diversity. To assume that certain words are inherently offensive (even sexist or racist) is to deny human diversity, and thus to make believe that our different experiences and backgrounds have nothing to do with how we interpret words and symbols. If there is any transgression committed in these kinds of language controversies, it is usually by those who quickly put out self-righteous statements condemning the accused, such as claiming, in a recent controversy, that the person’s words were “sexist and disparaging to all women.” (Really, all women?) These kinds of self-righteous statements reject the reality that human diversity means, besides being of different genders, races, religions, and sexual orientations, that all human beings are also of different modalities, sensibilities, rationalities, mentalities, ideologies, and epistemologies. Consequently, human beings will always perceive words and symbols differently, judge words and symbols differently, use words and symbols differently, and relate to words and symbols differently. To value human diversity is to be at peace with this kind of language diversity.
Moreover, besides the matter of diversity, there is the matter of intent. Intent is foundational in communication theory. As Richard West and Lynn Turner, authors of Introducing Communication Theory: Analysis and Application, explain, without intent, the study of communication becomes impossible. “If everything can be thought of as communication—our verbal and nonverbal unintended expressions—then studying communication in a systematic manner is not only challenging but nearly impossible. . . . By defining everything as communication, we inevitably undermine the field we wish to study.” Intent means that our communication should be judged solely by our intention. As such, before we judge any person’s words to be offensive, we need to know the person’s intent. Indeed, how did intent come to have no place in these language controversies? Who among us wants to live in a society where intent has no place, and thus can be vulnerable to any kind of sanction from any person or organization?
Finally, in communication theory context matters. We continue to assume that language is the foundation of communication. As such, words supposedly matter, and knowing how to use words properly and correctly is supposedly important. Presumably, our failure to use language properly and correctly is why communication problems arise. But then there is that persistent problem, as in “Yes, I know what I said, but you are taking my words out of context.” Such an admission reveals that context shapes what words mean. In short, words mean nothing outside of context. As Gregory Bateson reminds us, “without context there is no communication.” In fact, contexts exceed words in terms of what is truly important in communication. Without contexts, words meaning nothing, and what words mean is guided and shaped by contexts. Consequently, no word is inherently racist or sexist. What words mean must always be understood within a context. Yet knowing what context is shaping the meaning of any word (or set of words) is all but impossible to know reliably as there are many forces (e.g., racial, cultural, historical, political) that shape the context that in turn shape the meaning of words. So again, any politics that begins on the premise that certain words are inherently offensive reflects no rigorous understanding of communication theory.
There will soon be yet another public shaming of another prominent person who is found guilty of using “offensive” language. All of the shaming rituals and practices will be on full display. News reports will casually use the term racist or sexist remarks. There will be hostility and even threats of violence against the accused. But this kind of language politics needs to end. It undermines the flourishing of human diversity and diminishes our understanding of the important relationship between diversity, democracy, and communication.
Amardo Rodriguez, Ph.D. Department of Communication and Rhetorical Studies Syracuse University