The use–mention distinction in action

by look i have opinions

The use–mention thing I posted about earlier isn’t just hair-splitting academic bullshitting. Here’s an example of how mentioning the N word is dramatically different from using it. (And I’m afraid I’m going to mention it a lot in this post.) It’s an excerpt from David Foster Wallace’s profile of radio host John Ziegler:

“As part of his commentary on the [1997 Masters golf] tournament, Mr. [John Ziegler] posits on-air that Tiger [Woods] constitutes living proof of the fact that ‘not all white people are racists.’ His supporting argument is that ‘no white person would ever think of Tiger as a nigger,’ because whites draw a mental distinction ‘between people who just happen to be black and people who act like niggers.'”

Notice how different the first slur is from the second. “[N]o white person would ever think of Tiger as a nigger”—this can very easily be interpreted as a statement about how the N word is used. (Whether it’s even close to being true is another matter.) You could add quote marks without really changing the meaning (“[N]o white person would ever think of Tiger as ‘a nigger'”).

But Ziegler doesn’t stop there. What does it mean to say that some people “act like niggers”? I know what “acting like animals” means, and I know what “acting like criminals” means, because animals and criminals are real things. I even know what “acting like vampires” means, because a vampire is a familiar, recognizable archetype, and I’m comfortable pretending vampires are real for the sake of an analogy. Until I read Ziegler’s remark, I didn’t realize that the N word signified a recognizable type for some people, the same way “vampire” or “criminal” does for me. I guess I thought racists just used the N word as a synonym for “black person,” only with extra emphasis.

Imagine slicing up the world that way. Imagine having a special word that you reserve for badly behaved members of a specific race. I don’t want to imagine this for very long. I feel sure that our taxonomies not only reveal our values but shape them.