Postmodern Me?

A commenter writes, apropos my post that discussed how the word “slut” could some times be pejorative and sometimes not,

So now we’ve gone from offensiveness as determined by what the speaker said, through what the subject “felt”, and back to what the speaker “intended”. Isn’t postmodernism grand?

IMHO, a word is a word. If the word has no purpose but to be offensive, then it’s an insult (the C word). If the word is purely descriptive, it’s not an insult — it’s a description. If it’s an insulting way of describing someone, it’s rude/insensitive. If it’s used positively by the class of persons that the speaker thinks the person would be a member of, then it may still be rude, but the subject hardly has room for much of a moral objection.

I can’t claim any expertise on postmodernism, but it seems to me that my point was something that many people, postmodern, modern, and premodern, should easily agree on. “What the speaker said” generally speaking has meaning because of what listeners infer is “what the speaker intended.” Likewise, “what the subject felt” is likewise influenced by the subject’s judgment about “what the speaker intended.” The purpose of language is communicating ideas from the speaker to the listener, so the meaning of words naturally depends on what listeners are likely to infer the speaker really intends. (The purpose of legal language is somewhat different, so I set aside here discussions about how to interpret statutes or constitutions.)

Consider the title of my original post about the Rush Limbaugh “slut” diatribe, “How Charming.” What I said was “how charming.” In context, though, what I intended was “how rude,” since it was clear to reasonable people who read the post that my title was intended to be sarcastic. If Rush Limbaugh had read the post, he would have probably felt reproached (whether or not he would have agreed with the reproach), precisely because of what he thought I was intended. If he had said, “what Volokh said was that I was charming, so I’ll take it as a compliment,” we would have assumed that he either didn’t read very carefully, or was being either deceptive or sarcastic in his own statement.

All reasonable theories of the meaning of words have to account for this reality — if postmodernism says so, it’s only because other theories do, too. All words have multiple meanings in multiple contexts. Even “cunt” might in some contexts not be an insult, but a quotation, or (depending on one’s tastes in such matters) a sexual turn-on between lovers, or other things as well. Conversely, descriptive words can often be used in an insulting context. “Jew,” as a noun, is descriptive, but “don’t be such a Jew” would presumably be seen as an insult both of the target and of Jews generally — unless, of course, it’s said humorously.

There are no words that have “no purpose but to be offensive,” and no words that are “purely descriptive.” However much we might sometimes want a pure world in which each word has a unique, unambiguous meaning independent of context, that is a world of computer language or mathematical language (and then only sometimes), not of human language.

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