Language is a multifaceted system with its positive and negative sides. What we today refer to as “hate speech” is in fact the “dark side” of language which can be found in any country, culture, or form of communication. Irrespective of whether online or uttered in person, hate speech is the way people wield language as a weapon to attack identities and beliefs of others. “Hate speech” is nowadays a heavily debated topic, on which scholars still do not agree. Foxman and Wolf (2013) maintain that hate speech includes several categories of speech, from racism to homophobia, misogyny, and promotion and sale of products, etc. The European Union‘s “Framework Decision on Combating Certain Forms and Expressions of Racism and Xenophobia by Means of Criminal Law” defines hate speech as “public incitement to violence or hatred directed to groups or individuals on the basis of certain characteristics, including race, colour, religion, descent, and national or ethnic origin”. It should be noted that this last definition does not include gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, age or disability, which play in fact a pivotal role in the hate speech debate. Hate speech should therefore be rather defined as an attempt (speech, symbols, images, etc.) to malign a person based on their immutable characteristics
Consequently, hate speech has clearly negative connotations, as is generally accepted. But how comes that society tolerates this destructive “linguistic behaviour”? First, it should be noted that hate speech has both a short-term and a long-term impact on individuals. Henri Tajfel’s social identity theory sustains that people who categorize themselves into groups seek positive social identity through comparison with other groups. Thus, it appears that one motivation for hate speech is the inclination to affirm a group’s identity by degrading others. Hate speech also constitutes an effective means of reaffirming an existing social order, putting members of other groups down and reminding one group’s dominance. According to the statements by John Austin’s lectures at Oxford (which were published under the title “How to Do Things with Words”), “we don’t just speak to state matters of fact; by speaking we also do things”; this clearly demonstrates why language can be identified as a core element of violence and discrimination. We do things with words, and sometimes these are bad things.
Hate speech needs to convey some pragmatic force (i.e., by effectively performing something, modify the reality in which it is uttered) to function as an effective attack or threat. Amongst the various folds of hate speech, there are also some indirect effects, such as the disempowering of the force of socially disadvantaged groups. In fact, the pragmatic force of a speech can be strongly penalised by the membership to a specific group which is eventually considered “disadvantaged” due to gender, race, sexual orientation, etc. In some circumstances, speakers belonging to these groups use discursive conventions to produce a specific speech act (thus conveying a specific performative force), but their utterance can easily lose power. This is what Kukla (2012) calls “discursive injustice”. According to the author, women and other so-called disadvantaged groups are subject to a “distinctive distortion from speaking to uptake, which undercuts their social agency in ways that track and enhance existing social disadvantages”. This is clearly true because every speech act, in order to have any performative force, requires uptake (i.e., the actual difference it makes to the audience). Society has its own large network of conventions and rules that entitle a speaker to utter a statement in the frame of a certain speech act. Having a disempowered social identity, though, could be a threat to the kind of speech act one wants to perform. In case an alternative uptake is produced in output, the speech act varies accordingly in the effect it has. This kind of distortion of the performative force of a speech act is a direct consequence of the social disadvantage of some groups, enhanced by hate speech in the first place.
Hate speech fuels more than one kind of bias-motivated violence on a societal level and it impacts individuals as well. The expression of discrimination can induce stress and behavioural health problems in specific minorities (especially young people, as reported in Leventhal, 2008). The media and social media are commonly held responsible for spreading a violence-based culture, which contributing to misinformation. The short- and long-term effects of hate speech are also found in a study by Leets (2002), that refers to Jewish and LGBTQIA college students. The study shows that the effects (although not always in intensity) are similar to those of other traumatic experiences, causing anxiety, humiliation, intimidation, anger, fear and helplessness. Moreover, amongst all members of the targeted groups, children are most vulnerable to hate speech. If exposed to it on a regular basis, they may begin to question their own self-worth, thus believing in their supposed inferiority.
In conclusion, it would be useful to consider how to combat hate speech. Nations often find legal solutions to the problem, thus prohibiting and criminally punishing hate speech (e.g., in the U.S. hate speech in workplaces is severely punished), but the phenomenon continues to exist. If thinking about censorship is just as wrong as condoning hate speech, failing the attempts to stop spreading hate speech could harm people’s dignity and thus normalizing societal and bias-motivated violence.
Bianchi, C. (2021). Hate speech: Il lato oscuro del linguaggio (Italian Edition). Editori Laterza. Carlson, C. R. (2021). Hate Speech (The MIT Press Essential Knowledge series). The MIT Press. Council Framework Decision 2008/913/JHA on combating certain forms and expressions of racism and xenophobia by means of criminal law (2008), Official Journal L328, http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=CELEX%3A32008F0913 Foxman, A. H., & Wolf, C. (2013). Viral hate: Containing its spread on the Internet. Macmillan. Kukla, R. (2014). Performative Force, Convention, and Discursive Injustice. Hypatia, 29(2), 440–457. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1527-2001.2012.01316.x Leets, L. (2002). Experiencing Hate Speech: Perceptions and Responses to Anti-Semitism and Antigay Speech. Journal of Social Issues, 58(2), 341–361. https://doi.org/10.1111/1540-4560.00264 Leventhal, A. M., Cho, J., Andrabi, N., & Barrington-Trimis, J. (2018). Association of Reported Concern About Increasing Societal Discrimination With Adverse Behavioral Health Outcomes in Late Adolescence. JAMA Pediatrics, 172(10), 924. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamapediatrics.2018.2022 Oboler, A. (2019). Viral Hate: Containing Its Spread on the Internet. By Abraham H. Foxman and Christopher Wolf. Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. 256 pages. Hardback $19. Journal of Contemporary Antisemitism, 2(1), 87–92. https://doi.org/10.26613/jca/2.1.26
Figure 1. Burton, K. (2020). Uomo in cappotto marrone che tiene smartphone. Pexels. Retrieved from https://www.pexels.com/it-it/foto/uomo-in-cappotto-marrone-che-tiene-smartphone-6147280/
Figure 2. Wasser, M. (2017). Woman holding her face in dark room. [Photograph] Unsplash. Retrieved from https://unsplash.com/photos/j8a-TEakg78
Figure 3. Choubin, A. (2021). Woman in black framed eyeglasses and red hoodie. [Photograph]. Unsplash. Retrieved from https://unsplash.com/photos/RAVTBBgHdck Figure 4. Kat, J. (2021). A boy crying tears for his loss. [Photograph]. Unsplash. Retrieved from https://unsplash.com/photos/NPmR0RblyhQ