3

When I say "mention" or "mentioning" I mean it as in the "use/mention distinction".

When I say "slur" I mean

A derogatory or insulting term applied to particular group of people. [Lexico]

What happened to get me to ask this question? A user quit the site when they found that our site finds it acceptable to mention the n-word, even though it is relevant to the post at hand. This led me to question our current stance, because if this user was vocal about the issue, how many good contributors leave without me knowing? How many good contributors are suffering without me knowing? I want us to be more inclusive of people, and maybe that means a bit of bowdlerising.

So, to cover the first objection: yes, similar topics have been discussed in the past (1, 2). But they were broader, about offensive phrases in general. I specifically want to talk about slurs. Also the posts are old, and I think it is good to get a fresh perspective on our entrenched ideas.

We have had a question this year (3) about slurs and the answer restates what is current policy. That's not a criticism, but I really think we need a second look.

The last time this came up (4) is where I will draw from what I think our current policy is.

A more thorough treatment of offensiveness can be seen in Andrew Leach's answer about flagging. (8)

To summarise: our current policy is that we should avoid mentioning slurs unless they are particularly relevant. Don't leave them in quotes unless you are specifically talking about the slur. Don't mention a slur, unless the post is specifically talking about that slur.

I think that is a good policy. It is similar to the policy on the RPG site (5). Most other sites I have looked at don't consider slurs by themselves, but have this rule applied to profanity in general (6, 7).

My question is: can we improve upon it? The answer might be no. I will post my answer, proposing a stricter policy of bowdlerising no matter what. I hope to see others, as well as healthy respectful discussion.

References

  1. Referencing the existence of words that may be offensive
  2. Offensive/NSFW words: what are the boundaries?
  3. Ethnic slur in question: what's the procedure?
  4. Is using "colored girls" as an incidental example offensive or unwelcoming?
  5. https://rpg.meta.stackexchange.com/a/11247
  6. https://scifi.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/11898/is-it-acceptable-to-use-an-nsfw-word-in-a-question
  7. Are expletives (cursing, swear words or vulgar language) allowed on SE sites?
  8. Do we have any general guidelines on flagging?
22
  • 7
    This is a “mission impossible” topic in my opinion. Recently an internal European Commission document advised officials to use inclusive language such as “holiday season” rather than Christmas and avoid terms such as “man-made”…. the document was finally, and luckily, withdrawn. You’ll always find someone who takes offense at whatever term you may say. But words are the real stuff of a language site and unless there is a clear offensive intent, I would not limit their usage.
    – user 66974
    Dec 6 '21 at 13:16
  • 2
    @user66974 I don't think the goal is to remove every single word any individual person could find offensive, or to dictate the use "inclusive language". If allowing certain slurs is making people leave the site, it's worth discussing whether we can include source material that contains those slurs in posts in a way that allows people sensitive to them to avoid them without significantly impairing our ability to ask and answer questions about it.
    – ColleenV
    Dec 6 '21 at 13:36
  • 1
    @ColleenV - The problem I see is that sensitivity to “offensive” terms is highly subjective. For me, I was once heavily insulted because of my nationality in comments that were hastily deleted by the user. I didn’t leave the site for that reason.
    – user 66974
    Dec 6 '21 at 14:00
  • 3
    @user66974 There are a lot of issues we can't completely solve on a global site that allows people to interact without moderators approving each post. That doesn't mean we don't try to mitigate the issue as much as possible for as many people as possible.
    – ColleenV
    Dec 6 '21 at 14:07
  • @user66974 I appreciate your opinions. I'm sorry to hear you had such a bad experience and I'm glad you are strong enough to stick around. My main concern is with people who don't have such strength, I think we're losing diverse voices for what I think could be a small cost. Dec 6 '21 at 14:12
  • For clarification, 1) are there instances of asking directly about particular slurs, or is this more about slurs (or taboos) used in the context of asking about something else? Also 2) Is this only about slurs/group epithets or is about any kind of taboo word (but slurs being primary among them)?
    – Mitch
    Dec 6 '21 at 14:48
  • 1
    Incidentally, where I come from (the UK) a 'slur' was and mostly is a derogatory comment about someone, e.g. saying or implying that they are a thief, adulterer, liar, etc. An aspersion. The meaning of 'epithet that is racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, etc' seems to be a mainly US thing. Dec 6 '21 at 16:52
  • 1
    @MichaelHarvey Any targeted slur like calling another user a "liar" is covered by the Code of Conduct, not this discussion of how we should handle untargeted slurs for academic discussions. Targeted slurs against community members are never permissible.
    – ColleenV
    Dec 6 '21 at 16:54
  • 1
    This site can be hostile. For example, to those with disabilities. Sometimes it's the words used (eg "f—tard", as a swr answer, presented without mentioning the offensiveness of the second half), but other times it's the contexts it shows up in. I have no problem with the word "autistic", but it's offensive to see it come up as a swr suggestion to "synonym to narrow-minded". And this can't just be fixed by adding asterisks. (And it's hard to talk about because in doing so the discussion becomes much worse than what was originally said.)
    – Laurel
    Dec 6 '21 at 17:07
  • 1
    @MichaelHarvey I think it is obvious from context that is not the sort of slur we're talking about. Slur can mean a word so offensive people want to censor it, and can also mean "aspersion". Words can have multiple meanings.
    – ColleenV
    Dec 6 '21 at 18:15
  • 2
    I happened to witness a disagreement between an author and a user who edited out the N-word that was in a song verse. The word was not essential to the question, and in the end it was left out. The outraged user however then downvoted something like 20 posts that contained the racist term in the body. The term was relevant in all those cases. I found that action to be excessive and highly unfair to the authors who had respected the rules of conduct. When I used the B-word (lets see who understands that one) in one of my questions that was downvoted by a number of users.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Dec 8 '21 at 2:58
  • 2
    Another time a question about the M-word and spreading caused quite a stir and attracted a number of downvotes, although the positive reception heavily outweighed the negative response I realised that some people (usually Americans) are highly sensitive about derogative terms and are quick to take offense. It needn't be the N-word, the C-word, the M-word or the B-word. If we go down that road we will not see the end of it. I am not insulting any user or visitor if my question specifically refers to any of the sexist, racist, ageist etc terms that exists.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Dec 8 '21 at 3:08
  • 1
    Another time on a different site someone asked me to delete a comment of mine because it contained the word crazy. I refused because it was a figure of speech it's crazy to think and it was not aimed at anyone. The user evidently flagged the comment because it was hurtful for their mental health and it was deleted by the mod team.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Dec 8 '21 at 3:16
  • 1
    I think it is unhelpful to conflate CoC type debates over what is offensive in commentary with this discussion about slurs that need to be spelled out to communicate. I think we should substitute the worst identity-based slur we can imagine for the word "slur", then limit our discussion to whether our current policy of not requiring that horrible word to be obfuscated at all if it is being discussed academically can be improved upon. It is a fact that horrible slurs negatively affect some people when they read them. Can we accommodate them better than "suck it up or leave"?
    – ColleenV
    Dec 8 '21 at 15:14
  • 3
    I came across a paper on slurs and register that is the sort of material I imagine would need to be explicit if there were a question written about it. slurring words belong at the intersection of a number of categories in a sociolinguistic register taxonomy, one that usually includes [+slang] and [+vulgar] and always includes [-polite] and [+derogatory]. what distinguishes ‘Chinese’ from ‘c---’ is ...the fact that ‘c---’ is lexically marked as belonging to different registers than ‘Chinese’.
    – ColleenV
    Dec 8 '21 at 15:24
17

I am wholeheartedly against a policy of censoring the mention of "slurs". It is anathema. Sanitising question titles is a matter of expediency in order that the entire site is not banned in certain circumstances; that's a rather different [and technical] matter.

I am wholeheartedly supportive of a policy which censures the use of "slurs". Using such language against people on the site (or outside it) is unacceptable. This is already codified in the latest advice on flagging.

However, in order to ask a question about derogatory words, it's necessary to mention them. It should not be necessary to refer to a key. You cite the issue of ambiguity in your answer: I can think of at least three "n-words" which Mark Twain could have used: which one is it? How on earth is a site which is (or should be) devoted to the academic discussion of language supposed to deal with the progression of meaning between form N1 and N14 via N3 and N57? Or the different uses to which F6 can be put? (Does each use of word F6 get a separate entry in the glossary?) I have no idea what t-slur is supposed to be; I can think of several candidates. Such a requirement is unworkable.

Perhaps instead of a Meta post with a glossary the words should be called out within the post in order that each can be coded within each post. N1 in one post might be different from N1 in a different post. But that requires a sentence or a list somewhere, of the kind "When I use N1, I mean..." — which actually draws attention to the word, rather defeating the object. Perhaps that could be set in a spoiler, but carry on reading.

You say "The whole point is to make the text easier for people to read now and in the future," which I'm afraid is self-evidently false. It's far harder to read about N1, N14, N3 and N57 than the actual forms of a particular word.

It appears that there are people who are triggered by certain words. That's unfortunate, but I don't believe it can be avoided; nor, in fact, should it be avoided. If you don't like a word, move on to a different post. It could be a site about language is not for you, just as a site about maths is not for someone who is traumatised by a symbol like 8, or a site about engineering which uses a symbol like μ. [That sentence is not flippant: it's the same issue.]

This proposal is censorship, pure and simple. It's not expedient sanitisation; it's explicitly banning certain words in any circumstances. It's completely alien to a site about language, in exactly the same way as Physics.SE could not ban μ. If you don't like a word, move on to a different post: don't try and stop other people seeing that word.

This is a hill I'm prepared to die on.

Note: I wouldn't be against — in fact I think I'd be in favour of — putting a "trigger warning" somewhere which could be shown as people join the site.

13
  • 1
    I agree censoring slurs is a bad idea. I don't think a general "trigger warning" helps at all. All that does is say "if slurs make you uncomfortable, you're not welcome here. And, we're not going to tell which slurs you might see or in which posts you might see them. Any post you click on could have something nasty buried underneath an innocuous title." It would be better for posts that have language very likely to offend readers to have a way that people could choose whether to be exposed to it or not.
    – ColleenV
    Dec 6 '21 at 13:42
  • 1
    @ColleenV Oh yes: rather like one can choose to grey-out questions with certain tags. It would need to be a network-wide addition, and could work. But everyone's exclusion list is different, which means they would have to write it for themselves.
    – Andrew Leach Mod
    Dec 6 '21 at 13:45
  • 1
    Not every post that could make someone really uncomfortable can be determined in advance. I remember a misunderstanding about a picture of a child dressed up as Hannibal Lector for Halloween posted on Meta in a non-Halloween context being really distressing for someone. We can take some steps to obscure certain really offensive slurs though. I think using spoilers for non-gratuitous mentions is enough. It also prevents the search from indexing the text though, which might be a problem for people searching for discussions of a particular slur.
    – ColleenV
    Dec 6 '21 at 13:48
  • 1
    Regarding "...bring buried under an innocuous title," I would certainly hope that a slur which is germane to a question is mentioned and sanitised in a title rather than simply being dropped as an unexpected bomb into the question. If it's not germane to the question it doesn't need to be mentioned at all. In fact I think such a question on Main might well have occasioned this Meta question.
    – Andrew Leach Mod
    Dec 6 '21 at 13:56
  • I was imagining how I would perceive a general trigger warning if I were new to the site, not necessarily commenting on how the site is currently working.
    – ColleenV
    Dec 6 '21 at 14:03
  • By easier to read I mean less traumatic. I understand readability would be an issue. ColleenV has suggested that it could be gotten around by describing the word in the post, without mentioning it at all, which I think could be a good solution. Dec 6 '21 at 14:18
  • @MattE.Эллен I would find it traumatic to be continually reminded that we had become a censorship society, which is something I have no wish to be a part of.
    – Andrew Leach Mod
    Dec 6 '21 at 14:30
  • 1
    Also, thinking about "sanitizing titles" - I don't think the author of the question that prompted a meta discussion about Lou Reed's lyrics could have predicted that one of the answers would have a "problematic" phrase, or that the author of the answer knew that their example would cause an issue. I think some sort of mechanism to hide the text from unintentional viewing makes more sense.
    – ColleenV
    Dec 6 '21 at 14:42
  • @ColleenV Hmm, OK... but that needs to be automated, as (as you point out) people don't necessarily know that there will be a problem. Perhaps you could write an answer here to that effect, as — with enough upvotes — that would provide impetus for a Meta.SE post about its implementation.
    – Andrew Leach Mod
    Dec 6 '21 at 14:51
  • 1
    I think automating it would be a mistake. I think the number of posts that need to have naked slurs in them to make their point is very small. A policy on the correct way to handle them is the only thing the community really needs. Then, we handle it just like we handle "fluff" like "Dear English experts,....Thank you in advance for your answers, Colleen" or naughty words in titles. I am still thinking about what I would like to see. I'm at the "random thoughts on specific aspects of the topic" phase right now :)
    – ColleenV
    Dec 6 '21 at 14:56
  • If you automate, don't you risk the 'clbuttic' issue? Dec 7 '21 at 9:18
  • Your final note is what I came here to say—feel free to address sensitive topics, but put something "above the fold" to mention that they are discussed. Whether policy or optional manual practice, it's probably a good idea. The antidote to censorship is courtesy. Dec 7 '21 at 19:44
  • 1
    Damn good, and damn right too. Additionally, I'd add that I sure wish people would keep their motherfucking hands off of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. For all the N-words it uses—and it uses plenty—it is such a magnificent champion against racism that this work of one of the preeminent authors in American literature deserves to be seen in full, unbowdlerized and in all its glory.
    – Robusto
    Dec 15 '21 at 20:29
7

Our current policy covers slurs well enough, and we don't need an additional policy specifically for ethnic, religious, LGBT-related, and other identity-based pejoratives.

The current policy summarized is:

We should avoid mentioning slurs unless they are particularly relevant. Don't leave them in quotes unless you are specifically talking about the slur. Don't mention a slur, unless the post is specifically talking about that slur.

It is sometimes necessary to include slurs in posts, and it is not necessary to obfuscate them when written in the context of an academic discussion about them.

4
  • 2
    I went ahead and posted the "we don't need another policy" POV to have a place to capture points about the existing policy being sufficient.
    – ColleenV
    Dec 6 '21 at 18:51
  • 'Legitimate', while it should be obvious, may need to be explained. I take it to mean 'necessary for understanding'. Does understanding of the quote need the slur i the quote? If not, then remove it. Is there another example that doesn't use a slur? If so, then use the other example.
    – Mitch
    Dec 6 '21 at 20:17
  • 1
    @Mitch I made this a community wiki in hopes that the folks that support this particular view would edit it to clean up my hasty language and add points like the ones you've made in your comment. I think we can do better than the current policy.
    – ColleenV
    Dec 6 '21 at 20:30
  • I reread your answer and it says everything well enough for me. Let's say I was just emphasizing what you already said. That said, I don't consider this censoring - you have to say the nasty word to know what you're talking about. But bowdlerize the title, say NSFW or despoil. Then say what you mean mean what you say don't be a dick don't poke the bear just because.
    – Mitch
    Dec 6 '21 at 22:52
3

Thanks to everyone for participating, especially Andrew Leach and ColleenV, and thanks to the people who helped me to prepare the question.

It's clear that the community, on the whole, doesn't want to change our policy on slurs, so the current policy will remain in place.

1

I think we do need a policy on how to handle slurs that are necessary for a meaningful question or answer and a recommendation for what to do when a slur is part of some source material, but knowing the exact slur is not necessary to understand the point being made.

I do not think we should get distracted by trying to determine what words count as "slurs"; there are some words that are obviously slurs that are recognized as deeply offensive. There are some slurs that people who aren't familiar with them would likely agree shouldn't be used gratuitously once they've been informed of their impact on others. If someone objects to the classification of something as a slur, we use our already established mechanism for resolving that - we discuss it here.

Below, I'm going to assume we're talking about words and phrases most of us agree are slurs. I’m not talking about swear words like ‘fuck’ or pejoratives like ‘idiot’. I’m talking about the words that newscasters hesitate to repeat on-air even when quoting someone. This isn’t a novel problem and since this site is a community and not a newspaper or scholarly journal, I think we can agree on some accommodations to make this a more comfortable place to interact without sticking a knife in the heart of free expression.

When we don't really need to know the exact words

  • Can we remove it completely? Use an ellipsis like ... or trim the quotation to begin it after the slur or end it prior to the slur.
  • Does completely removing it make the sentence difficult to understand? Replace it with neutral language in brackets that conveys a similar meaning. For example, instead of

By and by they fetched the [n-words] in and had prayers, and then everybody was off to bed.

use

By and by they fetched the [workers] in and had prayers, and then everybody was off to bed.

  • Is the fact that it was a slur important to the meaning? Replace it with "slur" or with a neutral language description of the type of slur, if that is important to the meaning:

The suit alleges that she was called "[misogynistic slur]" by her boss on multiple occasions.

When we do need to know the exact words

  • Describe the use in neutral language, then hide the actual usage in spoiler text:
    This is just an example. I'm not making any assertions about the offensiveness of the lyric or the necessity of using the possibly-offensive part of it. If we decide to go this direction with the policy, it should be replaced with a better example.

A well-known example of this structure is in the lyrics of Lou Reed's 1972 song "Walk on the Wild Side". (Some people might find the outdated language here offensive.)

And the colored girls go
Doo, doo-doo, doo-doo,...

5
  • 1
    If I ask a question about the history of the word "gay", "idiot", "lame", "pussy", "knucklehead" or an expression such as "loony bin", which can all be used as slurs, what do I do? Add a spoiler? Avoid mentioning the offensive word/expression in the title? Paraphrase the offensive term?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Dec 11 '21 at 18:41
  • I have a real question (not sure if this is the best place to ask it though): are people less offended when ellipsis or asterisks are used to mask a derogatory slur? I personally find it softens the impact a bit, but I only have an inkling that my reaction may be in the majority (given that it seems to be fine to publish "f*ck" almost anywhere, but not "fuck", I think many others may have similar reactions). Note I intentionally did not use a slur as an example here because I could get my point across without using one. Dec 13 '21 at 7:10
  • 1
    @RockPaperLz-MaskitorCasket My personal opinion is that using ‘f*ck’ or other forms of fig leaves where everyone who’s not a child knows what’s under it is pointless posturing. Either write it or don’t.
    – ColleenV
    Dec 13 '21 at 12:48
  • 1
    (Also, the reason we started mangling certain words on the Internet was to bypass automated filters while still letting our readers know exactly what we meant.)
    – ColleenV
    Dec 13 '21 at 13:20
  • I don't remember any automated filters on the early internet, which had very little back-end processing. I do remember mangling certain words to help people from getting weird looks at work. Dec 14 '21 at 5:56
-13

Policy: always censor slurs, even when mentioning.

Examples:

  • Quoting Huckleberry Finn:

By and by they fetched the [n-words] in and had prayers, and then everybody was off to bed.

  • Talking about a slur

She was called [t-slur] by passers by.

Why is this better than the current policy?

People are leaving the site because we mention slurs. We can talk about slurs without mentioning them. If we stop mentioning slurs then we will upset fewer people. More people can feel comfortable using our site. We help more people.

What problems does this cause

There are three that I can think of

  • Ambiguity

I think everyone knows what n-word means, but what about t-slur or f-slur? We would need a way to allow people to know what we mean. One possible solution is a meta thread where each slur is mentioned, explained and the Bowdlerised form is given. Please let me know other solutions.

  • Words no longer being slurs

When I was a kid spastic was a slur against people with cerebral paulsy. Apparently it's not that anymore. How can we tell when a slur stops being a slur? If we adopt this policy then I would expect another meta discussion to try to figure this out.

  • Should we go back and censor old posts?

Yes. We can't be more welcoming if the words are still there. The whole point is to make the text easier for people to read now and in the future.


I know this policy seems radical, and to some it seems anathema to the site, but as we've revisted policies now, this could be revisited in the future, so I say it's an experiment worth having.

15
  • If the question can be asked without knowing the exact word that was used in that spot, why would we not just remove it completely with "..." instead of using X-slur? My vocabulary of slurs is not large enough to begin to guess what "t-slur" actually stands for, and for the people who do know, it doesn't really protect them from reading the slur does it? Their brains are going to fill it in regardless. If it's not important to know exactly which slur was written, it shouldn't be hinted at. If it is important to the question, it shouldn't be written in a way it can be misinterpreted.
    – ColleenV
    Dec 6 '21 at 13:16
  • I don't think we have in-line spoilers to hide single words, so I would rather see the entire quote hidden in a spoiler or the slur replaced with just slur than see "n-slur", "c-slur", etc. there are (unfortunately) plenty of slurs for each letter of the alphabet so adding the first letter to help people guess which one was meant doesn't reduce the ambiguity enough to justify not completely removing the slur.
    – ColleenV
    Dec 6 '21 at 13:20
  • @ColleenV my approach was based on this video about the n-word. That's not to say I don't like your idea. It would alleviate the problem of ambiguity, because what slur refers to would have to be explained in each post. Dec 6 '21 at 14:01
  • 1
    In situations like the Huck Finn quote, we could just replace the slur with something that mimics how the original text intended it to be interpreted, like "By and by they fetched the [workers] in and had prayers, ..." We would not want to do that to the entire book of course, but for the purposes of a question where the specific word used there isn't important, that seems like the most sensible course of action to me. People who know the book might know there was a slur there, and people who don't are no worse off.
    – ColleenV
    Dec 6 '21 at 14:17
  • 2
    A few observations: if you were to enforce this policy, I'm sure "people are leaving the site" will happen much more often. About upsetting people: that is just part of life. Being upset is not an existential threat. It is just unpleasant; you move on. Besides, there are 1001 worse upsets happening here every day, such as receiving a down-vote or disagreement of any kind: that is much more upsetting than reading a negative word that isn't meant for you personally, nay, that isn't even used, but only mentioned. P.S. Telling people that they should get upset is a way to actually create upsets. Dec 6 '21 at 15:25
  • 1
    I see now that Andrew has "This is a hill I'm prepared to die on" above. Your proposal is seriously upsetting to many people. Please stop. Dec 6 '21 at 15:28
  • 1
    I'm still trying to puzzle out what '[t-slur]' means. Any hints? Dec 6 '21 at 16:54
  • @MichaelHarvey a slur against trans people Dec 6 '21 at 17:00
  • @MichaelHarvey advocate.com/commentary/2014/02/20/op-ed-its-time-stop-t-word However, there is a long list of ethnic slurs that start with T as well: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_ethnic_slurs#T
    – ColleenV
    Dec 6 '21 at 17:02
  • @MattE.Эллен, and here I was, thinking it must be "tramp". Or "trollop".
    – ilkkachu
    Dec 10 '21 at 13:26
  • 1
    To quote Nathaniel Hawthorne, "No in thunder". Making life so that it offends no-one is impossible and doing so offends everyone. Dec 13 '21 at 16:34
  • @FeliniusRex that's not what we're trying to do. Dec 14 '21 at 9:27
  • @MattE.Эллен Frankly, I don't believe you. Dec 14 '21 at 21:16
  • @feliniusrex i can't help your incorrect beliefs. Dec 14 '21 at 23:30
  • @MattE.Эллен shrugs Your suggestion is crystal clear in its aims and that's why it has so many downvotes. Dec 15 '21 at 14:08

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