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The Ethics of Lanuage

Hi philosophy meetup members,

For our February meeting, I'd like to talk about the ethics of language. I presume that most of us would agree that freedom of expression is important, insofar as this means that (in general) we ought to have the legal freedom to express the ideas we wish to express. But what about the freedom to use language as we wish? Is it ever right to say "You shouldn't speak/write that way"?

Here are a few different ways in which this question comes up:

1. Grammar/spelling/punctuation: What does it mean to say that a certain spelling or grammatical construction is incorrect? What if the supposedly incorrect spelling doesn't hinder communication? What if it becomes more common than the original? Does the enforcement of grammar rules only serve as a means of class distinction (demonstrating one's education and upbringing)?

2. Racist/sexist/offensive slurs: Is it always wrong to use such language, or only when one's audience takes direct offense? Can one excuse oneself by saying that "no offense was intended"?

3. Euphemisms and loaded language: Is it wrong (morally? legally? linguistically?) to say, for example, that waterboarding is not torture but rather an "enhanced interrogation technique"?

As usual, I'll say a few words to begin, and then we'll move on to open but moderated discussion. I look forward to hearing your thoughts!

Please note that this meeting is taking place in the upstairs boardroom of Waves coffee house. Waves is kind enough to let us use the space for free (they normally charge), so if you're attending this meeting please do buy a coffee or treat!



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  • Larissa K.

    1. I believe incorrect spelling and grammar does hinder communication because it distracts from the point the writer wishes to communicate. I also think that increasingly poor grammar and spelling is becoming the norm due to the fact that people read less for 'entertainment,' that education focuses on 'job training.' What is social class defined by then? Is it education/money? The two can be mutually exclusive, especially in a place like Alberta.
    2.As a woman, I think it is ignorant to use such language. Language does create/reflect reality. I've been educated here and in England and I've seen this through experience. Yes, once can excuse oneself with no offence intended, but this is a cop out.
    3.George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language" answers this question. Again, language is used by those in authority to distort reality ie. killing civilians is 'collateral damage'. Using this language is dangerous because it distances bureaucrats from the damage that their policies do.

    1 · February 8, 2014

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