On Linguistic Vulnerability: How Words Inherit Meaning

July 26, 2015

One of the greatest accomplishments of 20th-century philosophy was firmly moving from Descartes’ “Cogito ergo sum” (“I think therefore I am”) to Sartre’s “L’enfer, c’est les autres” (“Hell is the Other”). No longer are we unsure whether anything exists outside our own consciousness; now we’re concerned that other people’s consciousnesses will define us in a way that’s unpleasing or even offensive to us. This, in my mind, much more accurately explores the human experience than wondering if the chair in front of me really exists.

To probe questions such as these, many thinkers in the second half of the 20th century started to examine language itself as the central locus of power, whether on the level of the State or in everyday interpersonal relations. Human beings are shockingly vulnerable to the words (and non-verbal cues) of other people, because without them we literally cannot exist in human society. Maybe this sounds like nonsense to you, but take a moment to reflect deeper on this. The words of others (Sartre’s les autres) constitute us in a certain fashion, go some ways toward determining our identity, and we cannot count on others’ words to be kind, especially if a person belongs to a historically disadvantaged ethnic or socioeconomic group. As Toni Morrison wrote in her Nobel Lecture, “Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence.”

But how? Why do certain words (racial epithets, slurs, hate speech in general) and concepts (negative stereotypes of groups) within a language persist and maintain their power to wound? The answer is closely related to the concept of inheritance found in object-oriented programming languages. Strange idea, yeah, but hear me out. A word in a natural language carries with it a “sedimentation” of all its past usages, and invoking a word is akin to participating in a ritual whereby all past usages are summoned to some degree or another (these are ideas found in the writings of J.L. Austin, Jacques Derrida, and Judith Butler). In other words, each time a word is used it inherits past meanings given to it, much in the same way as an instance of a class in Java inherits the behavior of its class and its superclass. Oftentimes, this effect is innocuous, for example, with the word “failboat,” which only makes sense in light of past usages. But there are some words, like the n-word, that, according to Judith Butler, “work in part through an encoded memory or a trauma, one that lives in language and is carried in language.”

Now, in programming languages, it is usually quite difficult to strip out inherited information from an instance of a class. But no matter how difficult is it in a programming language, it’s a cakewalk compared to trying to do this in real life. Racial slurs and cultural stereotypes, which are actively passed down from generation to generation and carry with them “encoded trauma,” can take decades or even centuries to change. But change they can. As Butler attests, accomplishing this may require a prolonged effort to reappropriate and resignify language (cf. the n-word), but active resistance through language (or by some other means) remains the best avenue to escape the power of the language that is wielded by the dominant class.