As COVID-19 continues to ravage the world, there is somehow a raging debate about the acceptable name of the novel coronavirus.
In the American context, the flame is especially stoked by, at least for a short period, Trump’s insistence on calling it “Chinese Virus”. Even if they are not as blatant, other opportunistic conservative politicians have used similar terms to shift the responsibility away from themselves. At the same time, Asian American groups, including TaiwaneseAmerican.org, have pushed back against the language for its perceived effect on exacerbating racialized xenophobia against Asian Americans.
In the Taiwanese context, “武漢肺炎” remains the colloquial term alongside the official name. Not just in some newspapers and on some pharmacy signs, but also (in parentheses) in communications from the government. Indeed, some vocal commentators from—for the lack of a better term—the pan-Green camp have even insisted on using the name as a defense of Taiwanese political identity against the perpetual threat from China.
As you might expect a philosopher to say, there is no simple univocal answer to the question of whether the name “Wuhan coronavirus” is prejudiced. (In fact, as we will see, this question is itself ambiguous between multiple questions.) However, I hope to show how tools and concepts from philosophy of language can help us think through this question.
Bad Answers: Semantics, Etymology, Intention
A popular defense of using the name “Wuhan coronavirus” appeals to the surface meaning of the individual words. After all, contrary to China’s propaganda,“Wuhan” is just the name of the city in which the coronavirus was first discovered and spread. So, what could be wrong with that?
Another popular defense of using the name “Wuhan coronavirus” appeals to its origin. After all, it was the name that China originally used in talking about the novel coronavirus. So, what could be wrong with that?
“If we consult the dictionary, we learn that “niggardly” can be traced back to Middle English and Old Norse, and has no etymological connection to the racial slur. […] We pretty much have dumped that word, because it is so easily misunderstood and other words will do, and also because it carries a permanent taint: The only person who would conceivably use it now would be a snickering, anti-p.c. asshole trying to make an obnoxious point.”
In other words, to decide whether a term is prejudiced or not, we cannot simply look to its semantics or its etymology. We must look to its pragmatics, or how a word is embedded in our social practices—including how we speak, but also how we act.
More generally, there is often no rhyme or reason why certain words are acceptable and others are not—certainly, no semantic or etymological rhyme or reason. In fact, even as we try to rectify names to decouple them from underlying unjust social implications, our successes are likely to be short-lived. For example, to mitigate ableist attitudes, crippled became handicapped became disabled became differently abled. More often than not, the acceptability of a term simply depends on what we do with them.
Indeed, adopting a pragmatic perspective suggests that the question of whether a term is prejudiced or not is ill-formed. Terms are not prejudiced or not by themselves, but in their uses in particular contexts. So we must instead ask whether different uses of “Wuhan coronavirus” or “武漢肺炎” in different contexts are prejudiced.
Yet another popular defense of using the name “Wuhan coronavirus” appeals to the speaker’s intention. After all, users of the term in Taiwan certainly do not intend to further anti-Asian American prejudice in the United States. So, what could be wrong with their uses?
But it is important to remember that our uses of terms do not exist in a vacuum. By speaking a public language with other people, which then further circulates the terms with all their pragmatics, we give up some control over the effects of our words. For example, even if someone intends nothing nefarious when using the word “niggardly”, given all the uses of the same word by snickering, anti-p.c. assholes out there, their words can still effect malice. Or, similarly, even if someone means no malice and intends to simply use the term that was acceptable when they learned it, their use of “crippled” can still engender ableist attitudes today.
Contexts and Uses
There are many factors that differentiate conversational contexts: presuppositions, default inference patterns, speakers, audiences, etc. The same term can thus vary in its pragmatics across contexts.
The existence of different contexts means that we should be especially wary of projecting the peculiarities of our own conversational contexts onto others’. Given the cultural dominance of the West, there is especially a tendency for people coming from Western contexts to project their contexts’ peculiarities onto other contexts. Yes, there is overwhelming evidence for believing that the term “Wuhan coronavirus”, as spoken in English in the United States, activates longstanding racialized xenophobic sentiments, which can turn into very real harms for Asian Americans. However, there is not so clear evidence that the same presuppositions and default inference patterns holds with the term “武漢病毒”, as spoken in Mandarin in Taiwan.
For example, the Wikipedia entry for “List of incidents of xenophobia and racism related to the 2019–20 coronavirus pandemic” is maddeningly long, but Taiwan is notably absent from the list. Of course, this is not to say that there are no anti-Chinese xenophobic attitudes in Taiwan. There certainly are. However, the way in which the term is embedded in this local semantic matrix is not obviously the same as other local semantic matrices.
Nevertheless, the existence of different contexts does not mean that they are entirely independent of one another. Someone used to saying “武漢肺炎” in Mandarin is likely to translate it into “Wuhan coronavirus” when speaking in English, despite the significant pragmatic differences between the extant uses of the respective terms in their respective contexts. The acceptability of one in no way entails the acceptability of the other.
As Taiwan stakes its place on the international stage, there is all the more reason to attend to such pragmatic differences. The insistence of using “Wuhan coronavirus” in such conversations, on my view, is not only inconsiderate, but self-sabotaging.
It is not necessary for telling the world about Taiwan’s remarkable response to the pandemic. Nor is it necessary to hold the Chinese government and the World Health Organization responsible for their failures. (But beware to not conflate the failures of the government with its people, most of whom are victims with whom we ought to sympathize.)
In my view, Taiwan’s CDC is taking a reasonable enough step in continuing to use “武漢肺炎” in parentheses alongside “COVID-19” because, in this context, it might be more communicatively effective to inform most of the people it’s responsible for. However, we should—always, but especially now—attend to the pragmatic impact of our words, even unintentional ones, before we speak them to to different people in different contexts for different aims.
(As an example of this considerate code-switching, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s April 1st speech uses “武漢肺炎” in the Mandarin portion, but “COVID-19” in the English portion, as well as the English transcription of the Mandarin portion.)