In linguistics, a figleaf is defined as language used to prevent a bigoted statement from being perceived as bigoted,[1][2] for example, that a person making a racist statement is not racist.[2] This includes plausible deniability, and can contribute to double standards. Figleaves may be used in regards to race, ethnicity, religion, and sex, causing them to "facilitat[e] the spread of racist speech". Figleaves may be caused by in-group bias as a part of in-group and out-group dynamics. For a figleaf to occur, users of figleaves must not have been intentionally used to manipulate their audience. Figleaves have "seriously damaging consequences, regardless of what speakers intend".[1] The concept of a figleaf was created by Jennifer Saul, who coined "racial figleaves" and "gender figleaves", who says that they come from the social norms, "Don't be racist" and "Don't be sexist".[2]

Figleaves are used across the political spectrum, meaning that they are used both people who are left-wing and also people who are right-wing, although it is not known if one side of the political spectrum uses figleaves more than the other, if there is a difference. They may be a form of motte-and-bailey fallacy which can cause a claim to have multiple different understandings.[1]


Mentioning statistics can act as a figleaf. An example of this may include saying that "Black men are prone to criminal behaviour", followed by saying that they have a higher rate of incarceration.[2]

John Turri listed examples from the left such as the hashtag #KillAllMen (a Twitter hashtag), using an example of Ezra Klein writing on the Vox website. Klein wrote that #KillAllMen is not sexist, despite calling the death for half of the human race. Klein denied that it is meant literally, which Turri listed as being a denial figleaf, denying allegations of bigotry by saying that they are not true. Turri also proposed a Humpty Dumpty figleaf based off Klein's writings, by redefining bigoted words.[1]

Turri also listed other potential examples such as "no justice, no peace", and "defund the police", although he mentioned that these do not fit the preconceived idea of bigotry.[1]

Racial figleaves

A common instance of a racial figleaf is the statement "Black men are prone to criminal behaviour", followed by "But don’t get me wrong, some of my best friends are black", suggesting that one who says this cannot be racist if they have black friends, further suggesting that the listener is not racist if they believe, accept, and repeat this.[2]

Gender figleaves

An example of a gender figleaf could be a person saying "Women are no good at math", following the statement with "In saying this, I want to make it clear that I have great respect for women". This suggests to the listener that the speaker is not sexist if they have respect for women, further suggesting that it would not be sexist for the listener to agree and repeat it.[2]

Proposed figleaves

Turri also listed and negative comments toward white people, for example, "white men are bullshit" by Sarah Jeong who then said that these comments were imitation of online harassment that she had received. Turri proposed a new figleaf based on this, the force figleaf, where people say that they are pretending to be a bigot.[1]

An example of the stipulative figleaf proposed by Turri were defenses on negative comments made about white people, saying that racism is "prejudice plus power" and saying that social structure benefits white people, meaning that racism against white people is "impossible". Another being that Jeong was not being racist because she herself is not white.[1]


Saul listed several types of figleaves, including denial, mention, and friendship figleaves. A denial figleaf is when someone denies that their comment is bigoted, a mention figleaf is when a bigoted comment is "merely mentioned rather than used", and a friendship figleaf "occurs when one indicates that one has friends in the group being singled out for bigotry".[1]


Proposed figleaves include force figleaves, Humpty Dumpty figleaves, and stipulative figleaves. The force figleaf is defined as when someone "claims that a bigoted statement didn’t have the appropriate locutionary force to count as a bigoted statement" for example, a person is pretending to be racist rather than actually being racist; the Humpty Dumpty figleaf as "when one states that the bigoted statement meant something other than what it did, as intended by the speaker", and finally, the stipulative figleaf as "when one stipulatively defines the relevant form of bigotry in such a way that the speaker could not possibly have made a bigoted statement".[1]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i Turri, John (2022-04-29). "Figleaves Right and Left: A Case-Study of Viewpoint Diversity Applied to the Philosophy of Language". Journal of Controversial Ideas. 2 (1): 1. doi:10.35995/jci02010007. ISSN 2694-5991.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Bräuer, Felix (2023-03-01). "Statistics as Figleaves". Topoi. 42 (2): 433–443. doi:10.1007/s11245-023-09893-7. ISSN 0167-7411.