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By Douglas Moran

Use-Mention distinction fading; Idiocracy ascendant

Uploaded: Jul 21, 2018

Failures to make this distinction can have substantial real-world consequences, damaging reputations and lives. Yet in even the simplest cases of this aspect of basic journalism, the national "news" media can't seem to be bothered to get right even simple, obvious cases.

I expect that most, if not all, of my readers know what the ^Use-Mention Distinction^ is, but that many don't know the name. So what is it? It allows us to talk about words and how they are being used. The proofreader might say "You spelled 'incorrectly' incorrectly." The first instance of "incorrectly" is a mention of the word and the second instance is a use of the word. In a game of Scrabble, you could truthfully say "Chris has four letters" (letters = tiles). But it would be false to say " 'Chris' has four letters" (letters = characters) because it has five (witness "it", not "he" or "she").

The Use-Mention Distinction is analogous to your making a statement versus your quoting someone else's statement. However, some argue that they are separate subcases of a larger phenomenon. This has a long and contentious history in field of Formal Philosophy -- disagreement being the bread-and-butter of philosophy. But I am not going to plunge you into this.

This distinction also occurs in computer programming, and that may provide better intuitions, as well as additional motivation for being sensitive to the distinction. A variable can be used in multiple places in the program (a piece of text). In some places it is used for setting (changing) its value; in others, getting the current value. In algebra equations, variables have no physical existence, and they can be regarded similarly in many computer programs. However, this is an abstraction away from reality because a variable in a program is a name (mention) for a location in the computer's memory, one that holds the (current) value for the variable. Good programming practice is to minimize the section of the program that knows of the variable. However, sometimes the programmer needs to have a few other sections of the program have access to that variable's value, so he passes to those sections a reference to that memory location -- the memory location now has difference references (names or mentions) in different places in the program. An analogy is that if John is inviting people to a party at his house, "my house" is appropriate for those who have already been there, but a street address will be needed by others.

The Use-Mention Distinction is relatively easy when there is only a single level, but it can get complicated when there are multiple levels of references (names). One major category of errors in computer programs is the failure to turn a mention into a use (called de-referencing), and "modern" computer programming languages have been designed to minimize the opportunities for the programmer to create those error-prone circumstances. But I digress.
Aside: I wanted to be able to say that that this was starting you "down the rabbit hole", but it is only "Through the Looking-Glass".(foot#1)

----Substantial real-world problems----

To avoid triggering readers who don't understand the Use-Mention Distinction, for the purpose of discussion here (including comments) let me posit that the Undead regard the word "vampire" to be a slur. Because even mention of this word creates outrage, the word has been given a name, the "v-word". However, in some private discussions about what to do when the word "vampire" occurs in existing and new literature, some people don't say "v-word" but instead used "vampire" directly. This is then falsely reported as them having "used" the slur.

Part of my doctoral thesis work was in this area, so failures to make the distinction register much more strongly with me than with most people. What triggered this blog was two recent occurrences in major news stories. The most recent involved Papa John's founder, John Schnatter. Even though the original story made it clear that he had only mentioned the slur in a discussion of policy, the headlines in that and all derived stories falsely asserted that he had used the slur.(foot#2) He resigned or was removed. The details are irrelevant here, especially since there appears to be a lot that is not publicly known or disputed.

I expect corporations to take the easy path when faced with the "Outrage Machine", but there have been a few that stood up for principles and for the falsely accused. The big disappointment was that the University of Louisville also immediately caved in, seeing him resign from the Board of Trustees and removing names from several buildings. I would like to be able to expect universities to stand up for principles: Part of the social contract with universities was for them to host a pool of experts who could be relied upon to provide that expertise to public debates. Academic Freedom for faculty provides a layer of protection for when pressure is put on the university administration. Unfortunately, today when I see professors in public debates, my initial reaction is that they are not offering any expertise, but are merely corporate shills or advocates for some political or other interest group.

A recent similar incident where Netflix fired its Chief Communications Officer for mentioning a certain word in discussions of policy about the use of that word. Again, the news media falsely reported him as having used the slur.(foot#3) What I found remarkable about this incident was that while various Netflix products actually uses the slur, which is acceptable to them, but a mere mention isn't. Logically, it should be the reverse.

This blog's title starts "Use-Mention Distinction fading" because of an incident back in November 2015. A class of graduate students in the Communications Studies Department at Kansas University either didn't respect or didn't understand the Use-Mention Distinction. There had been a major demonstration at another university (U. Missouri) and a townhall meeting at KU, and a professor was having a discussion with her graduate Communications class about how to talk about such events. I infer from the articles that a student claimed that s/he saw a certain racial slur on buildings around campus, and the professor responded that she hadn't seen such slurs on their campus, mentioning the word itself rather than using the euphemistic name for the word. Outrage ensured and the grad students wrote an open letter calling for her firing. The letter included other claims against her, but her mention of the slur seems to be the primary point, and my reading between the lines suggests that the real issue was her asking for examples/evidence of claims being made by the students. She was placed on paid leave and eventually cleared, but the University subsequently decided not to renew her employment contract. As expected, the media falsely claimed throughout that she had "used" the slur. What I found remarkable is that no one commented that the students' Open Letter also contained a mention of that word. By the students' own standard -- that such warranted firing the professor -- they should have been expelled.(foot#4)

Declared to be off-topic: Since the mention of a word is logically equivalent to using a name for that word, one might reasonable expect that there would be no different reaction to the two variations. I know of no research why there is such a difference in this case, possibly because it would be hard to design practical experiments to explore it. Since any discussion would involve speculation and personal experience and not discussable facts, I have declared this question to be off-topic (comments will be deleted).

----Context doesn't matter----

The late, great comedian George Carlin had a bit where he uttered a long sequence of words that could be used as slurs in order to make the point that such words needed context to be offensive.(foot#5) Distressingly, this is no longer true. In the incident involving the Papa John's founder (above), part of his apology was "Regardless of the context, I apologize.".

In an earlier blog, I wrote of the Nazi Pug case in Scotland where the court explicitly rejected that context matters and intent matters and convicted a comedian. And this was far from an isolated case in the UK.(foot#6)

Ignoring context causing legitimate posting to be banned happens so frequently on social media that I don't bother to archive the really good examples -- I can easily find enough with simple web search.(foot#7)

----Idiocracy: Rule (government) by idiots----

"^Idiocracy^" is a 2006 movie set in a future where the intelligence of the population has progressively descending into actual idiocy over the centuries. Inspired by "In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king", the script injects into this situation two people of normal intelligence from our present times.
Please, no disparaging comments or banter about this -- the reference is to inspire thought. And don't use "idiot" as an insult.

In the novel ^1984^, "^Newspeak^" was the incremental dumbing down of language to limit what people could talk about, including eliminating aspects needed for discussion of complex thoughts.


The Use-Mention Distinction may appear to be a minor technicality, but it is one of a increasing number of basic journalism skills that I no longer expect to find in the national "news" media. As part of an earlier blog, I discussed experiences that lowered my expectations of journalists,(foot#8) but those expectations continue to decline.

Most of us are too far removed from the media giants to have much impact. The best you can do is read more critically and point out good examples to friends. The rising alternative news media is a potential option, but the Internet giants are issuing policies that prioritize the large, corporate sites. They claim that this is to address the problem of fake news, but those favored sites are prime purveyors of fake news and not held accountable by the policies. If you have personal connections to people who work at the Internet giants -- Facebook, Google/YouTube, Twitter, ... -- you might mention this to them in case such input somehow filters up to their policy makers.

1. Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There
is a 1871 novel by Oxford University Mathematician and Logician ^Charles Dodgson^ writing under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll. The problem of names and names of names appears in Chapter 8:
The White Knight said "... The name of the song is called 'Haddocks' Eyes.' "
"Oh, that's the name of the song, is it?" Alice said, trying to feel interested.
"No, you don't understand," the Knight said, looking a little vexed. "That's what the name is called. The name really is 'The Aged Aged Man.' "
"Then I ought to have said 'That's what the song is called' ?" Alice corrected herself.
"No, you oughtn't: that's quite another thing! The song is called 'Ways And Means' : but that's only what it's called, you know!"
"Well, what is the song, then?" said Alice, who was by this time completely bewildered.
"I was coming to that," the Knight said. "The song really is 'A-sitting On A Gate' : and the tune's my own invention."

Untangling this:
- The song is "A-sitting on a Gate".
- The song is called "Ways and Means" -- its commonly used name.
- The song's name is "The Aged Aged Man" -- its title, that is, its official name (presumably little used or unused)
- The song's name is called "Haddocks' Eyes" -- the common name of its title / official name. Don't ask why the text -- a string of characters -- that is the title would need a name.
I think this passage is slightly wrong: The song is what is sung, so "A-sitting on a Gate" a reference to the song, which would imply that it and "Ways and Means" and "The Aged Aged Man" would each be ways of referring to the song. However, in Lewis Carroll's time, one couldn't include the performance of a song in a document, so I regard this "error" as a knowing fudge to accommodate that limitation.

2. Papa John's incident:
Original story: ^Papa John's Founder Used N-Word On Conference Call^ by Noah Kirsch - Forbes, 2018-07-11. Web search will find similar headlines in major news outlets.

3. Netflix slur incident:
Example headline (and article) (paywall): ^Netflix Fires Chief Communications Officer Over Use of Racial Slur^ - NY Times, 2018-06-22.

4. Kansas U and mention of slur:
- ^An Open Letter Calling for the Termination of Dr. Andrea Quenette for Racial Discrimination^ - archived version of article at Medium?.
- Original story from which other coverage is derived?: ^KU professor who used n-word in class discussion is placed on leave^ - Lawrence Journal-World (Kansas), 2015-11-20. "Andrea Quenette has been criticized on social media and now faces formal discrimination complaint."
Example news coverage:
- ^Kansas professor under investigation for using racial slur that left students "in tears"^ - The Washington Post, 2015-11-23. "I was incredibly shocked" a black KU grad student said. "Before I left the classroom, I was in tears.".
- ^Kansas professor who used racial slur in class is cleared of wrongdoing^ - The Washington Post, 2016-03-20. "Andrea Quennete, who used the 'n-word' and upset several students, plans to return to a University of Kansas classroom."

- ^Kansas professor on leave after using racial slur in class^ - The Washington Post, 2015-11-21. "A white University of Kansas professor is on paid leave after using a racial slur during a class discussion about race."
- ^KU is terminating professor who used N-word in class^ - The Kansas City Star, 2016-05-25.

5. George Carlin performance:
This performance can be found on the web, and especially on YouTube, with the title "They're Only Words", or you can do a web search for "george carlin slurs context".

6. Scotland: context doesn't matter:
My blog "^Mocking Nazis is a crime in Britain: Free Speech #1^", 2018-05-01.

7. Banned regardless of context:
"^Why is Instagram Censoring a 1992 poem revered by the LGBTQ community?^" - Quartz?, 2018-01-26.

8. Earlier blog: low expectations of journalists:
^This time we're not lying. HONEST! No, really!^, 2018-01-19. Non-clickbait headline: "Highly partisan media, the Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect & examples from my history".

An ^abbreviated index by topic and chronologically^ is available.

----Boilerplate on Commenting----
The ^Guidelines^ for comments on this blog are different from those on Town Square Forums. I am attempting to foster more civility and substantive comments by deleting violations of the guidelines.

I am particularly strict about misrepresenting what others have said (me or other commenters). If I judge your comment as likely to provoke a response of "That is not what was said", do not be surprised to have it deleted. My primary goal is to avoid unnecessary and undesirable back-and-forth, but such misrepresentations also indicate that the author is unwilling/unable to participate in a meaningful, respectful conversation on the topic.
A slur is not an argument. Neither are other forms of vilification of other participants.

If you behave like a ^Troll^, do not waste your time protesting when you get treated like one.