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I am preparing a presentation for a mathematical modeling conference soon, involving online discourse which contains racist and other slurs as one of the prominent features under study. The specific slurs used as keywords are not an insignificant part of the experimental methods.

I would like to deliver a talk that respects the conference-goers and everyone involved, while not alienating or offending anybody. However, the data itself is highly offensive and this is a basic premise of the research.

I am unfamiliar with the standard practice here; I have seen computational social science conferences where they simply list the words fully spelled out, but that audience was probably much more familiar with this type of data.

I should note that while this work is well within the scope of the conference, it is a slightly irregular source of data and many in the audience may not be familiar with it at all.

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    This might be country dependent. In the UK it's frowned upon to say the words, even if they are in the text: bbc.co.uk/news/newsbeat-65410599 Tangentially related: This is also how it is handled at my daughter's London(UK) secondary school. May 3 at 13:27
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    In the US as well, and this is a very international conference. May 3 at 19:44
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    While I agree with avoiding it in a spoken presentation, I'd definitely ensure that your presentation slides contain a link to the raw, un-Bowdlerized data, so that people can properly reproduce your work. May 4 at 8:23
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    Since nobody seems to have said it yet: whatever your decision, you should start with a content warning (so that people who might be harmed by hearing/seeing the words can prepare themselves or make the choice to leave). May 4 at 18:12
  • I just want to mention this because I didn't see anyone else say it - the most obvious thing to do is to ask the people organising the conference what they want you to do! It may be that they have established procedures, or at least can agree on some sensible stuff to do. There is absolutely no reason for you not to email them.
    – ors
    May 6 at 8:48

6 Answers 6

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As a person of color, I would much rather even the most offensive words be spelled out on the screen rather than misunderstand the research. There is an understanding that this is a research context and no one is called anyone else at the conference that name. This has also been standard practice in the (admittedly few) times I've come across this. People refrain from saying the words out loud in the presentation, although I suspect this is due to the presenter perceiving a stronger stigma against it rather than other people minding.

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    There are certainly debates about this; your perspective is valid but doesn't capture the potential risk when there is not unanimous agreement: academychronicle.com/6545/school/… universityaffairs.ca/opinion/dispatches-academic-freedom/… dailyprincetonian.com/article/2022/11/… insidehighered.com/news/2019/02/01/…
    – Bryan Krause
    May 3 at 15:12
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    Absolutely. Papering over the offensive history doesn't help.
    – Buffy
    May 4 at 12:56
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    I agree, but if there are going to be offensive and uncensored words, it would certainly be worth giving a brief and tasteful warning at the beginning so people know what they should expect (and potentially have a chance to leave if they feel the content would upset them)
    – DBS
    May 4 at 13:43
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    @BryanKrause - Conceptually, if the quotation of a slur is hurtful to many students, it probably should be avoided, in much the same vein that depictions of horrific mutilations would probably be avoided in most history classes unless absolutely necessary. It does seem curious, though, that directly quoting the most vile (but slur-free) expressions of hatred and even showing equally unambiguous symbols of bigotry (swastikas, Confederate flags) in the course of discussing them in context usually meets with a far milder reaction.
    – Obie 2.0
    May 4 at 23:40
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    In other words, while basic politeness should always have priority—including not using language that is likely to offend when it is not absolutely necessary for some greater purpose—if one considers that, in a course on racism, someone would probably arouse far less controversy by quoting from Mein Kampf to establish Hitler's anti-Semitic aims or showing pictures of rioters with Confederate flags than quoting from a song that used a slur in a non-derogatory manner, it seems to weaken any argument against quotation that is based on the bigoted semiological content of slurs.
    – Obie 2.0
    May 4 at 23:56
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Linguist here. I don't work on hate speech specifically, but the issue is important and a matter of active scholarly discussion. I'm going to talk a bit about the literature, and then a bit about my own experience. The short version is that I would recommend erring on the side of caution wherever possible.

"We can distinguish two different questions here," say Cepollaro and Zeman (2020) in their introduction to an edited volume on issues in the meaning of slurs. "[O]ne is whether or not slurs are derogatory when mentioned; another is whether in certain contexts mentioning slurs is justified by an important purpose: such contexts may include theoretical and experimental investigation on epithets, activism against bigotry or testimony in court."

There is no consensus yet, at least in the literature (I continue paraphrasing Cepollaro and Zeman here). Earlier work on the question (e.g. Schlenker 2007) proposes that slurs can be rendered inert by being isolated from the original context. More-recent studies (Anderson and Lepore 2013a, 2013b; Anderson 2016) say the opposite - that those words are still volatile and harmful even when they are in a laboratory setting. Cepollaro, Sulpizio, and Bianchi (2019) do a perception study that finds a middle-ground but is perhaps closer to those urging caution: they find that reported use of slurs carries a lessened degree of offense, but it's still very much nonzero.

My own opinion is that, by analogy, bombs in the laboratory are still bombs. The fact that we understand them and want to study them doesn't mean they're suddenly innocuous - especially if there are people in attendance who are targeted by a slur in question.

In my experience, one of my Black colleagues (a raciolinguist specifically) took me aside once and very patiently explained that it had been a major problem for me (a white woman) to have left an in-group reclaimed slur essentially unchallenged in a presentation. It was in there because it was in a table of big-data results from a study of emerging words on social media. I'd noticed this term and thought about it and decided to say nothing, which was the wrong call. I was happy to apologize, but I regret that I made anyone present have to figure out how to explain this to a white woman who might have flown off the handle for all they knew.

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So, I actually just figured this out for my particular case.

What I forgot to mention, which is crucial, is that the research method in question doesn't begin with the set of slurs as keywords a priori but in fact selects them from another dataset using an automated procedure that also picks up a few words which are not slurs but are generally representative of the word list.

What I decided to do was just to omit the offensive keywords and report only the procedure by which the words are selected along with a sample of the keywords that does not include any slurs and then mention that the algorithm also produces some extremely derogatory keywords which we do not print.

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    That makes sense. I was on the fence about this but I am also new here. May 4 at 0:18
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    @aome both ways are ok - academia.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/5281/…
    – Bergi
    May 4 at 1:10
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    Since it contains new information relevant to the question, this is probably more useful as an update to the question rather than an answer.
    – Ben
    May 4 at 11:28
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    I think you should be able to select the checkmark to highlight that this approach solved your problem.
    – henning
    May 4 at 11:49
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    Indeed, but I'd recommend adding the "I forgot to mention..." information into the question.
    – Ben
    May 5 at 23:55
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Ask yourself "Do they really need to be shown to understand the research?" Be honest here. Just because it is common in your field to display the words, that doesn't mean it is necessary to understand. If you redact racist slurs, and just state there are racist slurs in many studies you could still understand the talk. You can even take 10 sec to explain why you are not including them on the slides.

Alternatively, if the slurs are needed to understand the talk, one option is to pre-empt the slides with a warning slide stating that "the following slides will contain racist and inflammatory slurs. These can be triggering, I struggled thinking about whether to include them, but ultimately I need them displayed for the audience to understand the methodology, please feel free to leave the room or look away. I will give a few seconds now for anyone who wants to leave the room to do so." I'm not sure that wording is great but that is the idea. You can even post the warning on your first slide, which might be a less awkward time for people to leave the room. The important thing is that you've demonstrated to the audience that you have thought about it and are making an effort.

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    Good ideas. What do you think about the idea of partial redaction...for example, writing 'mathematician' as :m*********cian', that sort of thing? One issue with fully redacting all the slurs is that I have a list of about 150 keywords and approximately 80 percent are offensive. May 3 at 23:46
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    @KevinDaley a list of keywords that long doesn't seem like presentation material. Even in a paper, if there's an option for supplemental information, that would be a better place. So you're probably dealing with a smaller set in your talk/slides. If partially redacting, be sure to avoid ambiguity, and note that relying on counting asterisks to disambiguate similar redactions is likely to distract your audience's attention
    – Chris H
    May 4 at 10:28
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    Th-s is an i-ter--ting appr--ch, bu- ask y--rself, do --u ever r---ly n-ed to b- sho-n a-l -arts of non-cen---ed tex- to und--stand -t? Ju-t b- h-nest h-re.
    – Ben
    May 4 at 11:31
  • If the terms are key to the research, and especially if the research is into something like linguistics or specific word frequencies, then it seems odd to redact them. I can't imagine that someone who would experience extreme distress at reading the word "spider" would be perfectly fine if it were redacted as "sp*der". If the words are key and part of the research, then I'd leave them as is and treat it as a data point (though be tactful in describing it or when giving a speech). If they're part of a quotation and incidental to the research, then redacting it seems fine.
    – Aos Sidhe
    May 5 at 17:47
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Suppose that you actually include, say, the "n-word" in your slides. It's certainly possible that no-one in the audience will object if you explain your motivation clearly enough. It's also possible that, no matter how clearly you explain your motivation, some people will still come up to you after the talk and tell you how hurtful it has been to have seen that word and how you cannot possibly understand the hurt that the word has caused because of this or that reason. How are you going react then? If you're going to react with a contrite apology, you definitely shouldn't have displayed the word in the first place. If, on the other hand, you are willing to stand your ground in the face of a person telling you how grievously they have been hurt by seeing a certain sequence of letters in your slides, then I sincerely applaud you, but that's only the first hurdle for you to clear.

The next hurdle is that it's possible, depending on the size of the audience, that you will get someone going into full outrage mode and sharing it on social media. Just because 9 people here will tell you that it's okay (because they want to believe the others will be equally reasonable) doesn't mean that the 10th person, the one that actually sits in on your talk, will share that perspective. Then you may well get a mob of strangers who know absolutely nothing about the context in which you displayed or mentioned the word forming strong opinions about what an awful person you are and how they need to make sure that your institution and collaborators know about this. If you think that in such a case your instutition and your colleagues will have your back, you are most likely wrong.** You will most likely get some private expressions of sympathy but very little public support, no matter how well you explain your motivation for displaying the word. Are you willing to stand your ground in the face of this type of outrage? If you are (in which case I applaud you in the strongest terms), then you can begin to think about whether including the word in your slides is the right thing to do or not. But if you aren't, then you probably shouldn't include it. Note that once you use the word, this is something that anyone can use against you at any point in the future in any context. Is this something that you are okay with?

Finally, in the matter of whether including the word is the right thing to do or not, you will have to make up your own mind. The idea that you can delegate this kind of decision to "experts" is mistaken (although certainly reading what people who have thought about the matter more deeply can be helpful). The main question is, do you think that there such serious harm is exposing adults to something like the "n-word" given its history that no amount of explaining can give you the right to mention it during your talk, or do you think that the idea that even mentioning this word in a context such as yours traumatizes adult humans is at best a superstition and at worst a pretext under which to force others to at least outwardly display conformity to the dominant ideology of the highly educated cosmopolitan class on pain of career consequences? I personally am much more sympathetic to the second perspective, but the point is that this is up to you to decide.

You may espouse neither of these two perspectives, but from your question and comments it seems almost certain you are much closer to the first than to the second. In that case, you should exercise a great deal of caution and ask yourself very seriously what you are going to do if someone comes up to you after the talk and claims to be deeply hurt by seeing the word. People who are prone to react like that no matter how much explanation you provide do exist, and it's anyone guess what the chances of one of them showing up to your talk. Are you going to apologize and "do some extra reading about the slur in question", like trikeprof did? In that case you shouldn't include it in the first place.

Even if you do share the second belief, you should do a cost-benefit analysis of whether it's worth it to you, given that there may well be people in the audience who passionately believe that there is an obligation to shield adults from seeing and hearing the word and who will stop at nothing, including actively working to damage your career, to achieve this goal. For example, I would very much have liked to include the "n-word" in this answer to illustrate my point, but the cost-benefit analysis is that the benefit would have been negligible (especially given that it would have been edited out in a matter of minutes) and almost equally well achieved by spelling out that I would have liked to do so, while the cost of doing so might definitely be non-negligible. The same applies to your talk: if you think it should be okay to include the word in your talk, it's still probably a better idea to avoid it and instead make clear your disapproval of theatrical and tribal reactions to any mention of the "n-word". This will suffice to make the point and will not jeopardize your career to the same degree that actually saying or displaying the word might. In the current climate, unless this is a hill that you're 100% willing to die on, I recommend that you don't.

** I am too lazy to google examples right now, but in any case, anyone with the slightest amount of familiarity with the matter is aware of such examples, while people who profess not to be aware of examples of careers being senselessly ruined by the moral panic around the "n-word" will not be convinced by any number of examples.

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    I am downvoting this answer because it doesn't really answer my question. I am not here to determine the ethics of referring to racial slurs without regard for whether people are offended, that is outside the scope of the question. What I was looking for is a way to convey the same information , or as much of it as is necessary to understand the math, without offending anyone needlessly. May 4 at 0:33
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    @KevinDaley I address the question of how to decide whether or not you should redact the relevant terms in some way or another. Surely this is part of your question? If it isn't, did you also downvote the answer of aome, who addresses exclusively this aspect of your question (should you or should you not redact the relevant terms) and unlike myself actually recommends that you do not redact the relevant terms? (Moreover, I do not understand how you propose to decide what constitutes "offending anyone needlessly" without considering the ethical aspect of things.) May 4 at 0:41
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    While I don't agree with every part of this, I am one of the upvoters of this post (+1). Particularly valuable is the first paragraph, which points out that people should take an approach that they are willing to defend later if challenged. As to the notion that this post does not address the question, it is perhaps more expansive than the question, but it does give some valuable advice on the matter at issue.
    – Ben
    May 4 at 11:26
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    DV because the question isn't answered in good faith but rather taken as opportunity to post a long rant about political correctness.
    – henning
    May 4 at 11:55
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    @henning The vast majority of the answer is in fact written in good faith: I do genuinely think that if the OP follows the advice from the most popular answer (aome's), they may get into serious trouble, or into a situation where they may later regret their decision. The much shorter part where I express my own opinion is indeed not crucial to answering the question, but it serves the purpose of publicly expressing an unpopular opinion. This is imo a very important thing to do and I do unapologetically and consciously take opportunities to do so. Apart from the footnote, no ranting though. May 4 at 12:55
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Let self-selection effects do the heavy-lifting here --- In your title and description of your presentation (and maybe also in its abstract if it has one), make it clear what the topic is and that it contains racial slurs. If you want to add extra precaution, you could repeat that information at the start of your talk and give people a chance to leave if the topic or content is something that would upset them. You needn't go so far as to add "trigger warnings", but I'd recommend that your description of your talk be clear that it includes rracial slurs, so that there are no surprises in content. If a person turns up to an academic talk on the analysis of data relating to the use of racial slurs (and this topic has been clearly advertised as such), it is unlikely that they are the type of person who is offended by reading racial slurs in an academic context.

As to the substantive issue of whether or not to censor the terms, my recommendation would be to use the non-censored presentation of the terms at issue. In my view, it is good to preserve the use versus mention dichotomy clearly, and to reinforce this by taking the view that mention of racial slurs is appropriate in these contexts. Moreover, there is a lot of research suggesting that academic practices that encourage "safetyism" (e.g., sensitivity and offence to words and ideas) are a cause of poor learning outcomes and psychological dysfunction (for an overview, see e.g., Lukianoff and Haidt 2018). Of course, if you do this you might run across an audience member with an opposing view (and even one who is upset by seeing the uncensored terms) so you should be prepared to explain why you choose to use the terms in this way.

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