Prejudiced and discriminatory communication is studied in a wide range of social science disciplines, including communication, sociology, anthropology, and social psychology. Some forms, such as hate speech, are explicit, and they are recognized easily by an audience as reflecting prejudiced viewpoints. Other forms are more implicit: neither the speaker nor the audience may be aware that the speaker holds prejudiced views, even though independent evidence demonstrates that such views indeed are held. The conditions under which prejudiced views are expressed, as well as the forms that these communications take, are the subject of this article.
Functions Of Discriminatory Language
Discriminatory language is insidious because of the myriad functions that it serves. Drawing upon the extant literature on prejudice, Ruscher (2001) identifies five types of functions: economy of expression, group enhancement/ego defense, social functions, ingroup dominance, and impression management. These functions are not mutually exclusive, and can have similar surface features. For instance, two individuals may have similar stereotypes of lower income individuals and both call them “trailer trash,” but one may use the term when his or her own middle income group is threatened (i.e., ego defense) and the other simply may use the term as a quickly understood social reference (i.e., economy of expression). Specific illustrations of these functions appear below in the discussion of explicitly and implicitly prejudiced language.
The five functions are important to consider because they provide insight into why speakers use prejudiced and discriminatory language. For example, economical expression, often seen in the short or symbolic labels used for outgroups, helps individuals preserve mental resources. As cognitive misers, social perceivers utilize shortcuts or heuristics whenever possible. Using stereotypes to group people is economical because attention is freed to focus elsewhere. Reliance upon the perceptual shortcuts of stereotypes – and shorthand expressions to reference the stereotyped group – proves both functional and practical. Speakers should use economical expressions when they would use stereotypes: when they are not motivated to think carefully about the targeted group or when they are under time pressure.
Discriminatory language also serves as an ego protector and as a way to enhance the social status of the ingroup. In many cases, people derive self-esteem from comparing their own status to that of others. When downward social comparisons are made, people feel good about their status relative to others, and self-esteem can be maintained or even increased. As Thompson and Crocker (1990) demonstrated, social comparisons at the group level may engender intergroup bias, which tends to increase as presumed group threats also increase. Thus, certain forms of discriminatory and prejudiced language emerge when people feel threatened.
Prejudiced language also serves three social functions: avoiding contact, detachment, and delegitimization. By avoiding interactions with groups who may be the subject of prejudice or discrimination, people convince themselves that they are nonprejudiced. When people selectively avoid contact with disparaged outgroups, they reduce their opportunities to behave in a discriminatory fashion. Ironically, rather than recognizing their avoidance as discriminatory, individuals who have limited their own opportunities for further discrimination instead boast of their exemplary record in not discriminating in daily interactions.
If contact is inevitable, people may become verbally and emotionally detached from certain outgroups, and reference them in sterile ways, if they mention them at all. For example, rather than referencing outgroups in ways that might evoke emotion or action (e.g., “Women are raped in Dafur refugee camps”), detached speakers avoid emotional descriptions (e.g., “There’s unrest in Sudan”). Finally, delegitimization is the most severe social function of prejudiced language. Bar-Tal (1989) notes that this process involves rejection based on the perceived “less than human” status of a group or individual. People use language to communicate these perceived differences to others, which in turn justifies an outgroup’s low status and mistreatment. Discriminatory and prejudiced language that serves social functions appears most when a group benefits from social distinctions, such as during wartime or periods of scarce resources.
A fourth function served by discriminatory language is dominance maintenance. In order to maintain power hierarchies, privileged groups attempt to guard other groups’ access to certain resources. Privileged groups may blatantly prevent or subtly interfere with certain ethnic minority groups and women acquiring or maintaining high-status positions. By blocking avenues to access, the ingroup protects and maintains its power. The more powerful ingroup may, for example, control the news media or determine which dialects and languages are appropriate for formal discourse. A more subtle example in interpersonal communication involves the use of “tags” to imply what positions are descriptively or prescriptively normal. Unless otherwise specified, listeners often assume “doctor” references a white man, and speakers’ use of terms such as “lady doctor” emphasize this assumption. Such tags implicitly can communicate both how speakers believe the world is and how it should be.
Finally, using discriminatory language allows people to maintain their nonprejudiced self-perceptions. Social sanctions discourage people from openly expressing prejudiced ideals; consequently, people use language to deny or mask their prejudice. To this end, people may use bifurcations (verbally distinguishing between acceptable and unacceptable subgroups of the outgroup) or concessions (disparaging qualities about the outgroup that are acknowledged in the occasional ingroup member). Alternatively, prejudiced language can serve impression-management functions by playing to the audience’s presumed opinions: a speaker who wishes to be viewed favorably will adjust his or her degree of explicitly prejudiced language to match the audience’s presumed views of the outgroup.
Explicitly Prejudiced And Discriminatory Language
Explicitly prejudiced and discriminatory communication often involves derogatory comments about an outgroup or outgroup member. Sometimes these comments comprise brief group epithets, whereas sometimes they are lengthy narratives about an outgroup’s alleged negative behavior.
Group epithets comprise short, usually negative, labels applied to outgroups and individual outgroup members. Sometimes called ethnophaulisms (from ethnos for “nationality” or “a people” and phaulizo “to disparage”), these slurs provide economical expressions for outgroups. Historical examples include “frogs” for Frenchmen, “iron maidens” for professional women, “pickaninnies” for African-Americans, and “crackers” for lower income rural whites. Derogatory labels provide insight into how the speaker – and his or her own group – views members of an outgroup. First and foremost, the use of a label implies that the speaker views the target as an outgroup member rather than as an individual. Second, the speaker views the target negatively, and is willing to let listeners infer that negativity; even speakers ignorant of a label’s meaning will use it in order to convey negativity.
Derogatory labels also serve a social function, insofar as they can indicate social roles or delegitimize group members from the larger society. The speaker essentially tells listeners to stay away from labeled outgroup members. The most extreme form of delegitimization involves the reconstruction of outgroup members into less-than-human outcasts. In wartime or during periods of “ethnic cleansing,” for example, outgroup members are referenced with dehumanizing terms such as “gooks,” “social diseases,” “savages,” and “animals.” Bar-Tal (1989) notes that extreme delegitimization helps justify atrocities such as slavery, internment, and extermination.
Derogatory labels for outgroups may be used when ingroup members are communicating among themselves, or they may be used in communications intended for outgroup members to overhear or inadvertently read. Most people recognize derogatory labels as being intentionally expressed and potentially harmful; such labels epitomize the subjective understanding of hate speech. From a legal standpoint, however, derogatory labels may not meet stringent criteria for hate speech. In the United States, for example, the first constitutional amendment protects freedom of speech; hate speech is an exception, but is not simply hateful language. The criteria for hate speech are that the words threaten an immediate breach of the peace, are intended to hurt message recipients, and that exposure to these words is inescapable to their target (i.e., “fighting words”). Scrawling derogatory labels in public locations (e.g., graffiti) is unlikely to meet these stringent criteria, although obfuscating the source and potentially affecting more recipients actually may be more destructive than “fighting words.”
Although few objective truths about outgroups are easily proven, social scientists regularly find that people prefer to believe that their own viewpoints are veridical. With respect to views of outgroups, validation can be provided through a wide variety of storytelling methods. In both casual and formal communication settings, speakers provide alleged evidence for why certain outgroups deserve to be viewed negatively; speakers may be indoctrinating new group members or may be validating the views of veteran group members. For example, van Dijk (1988) reports a storytelling session by a Dutch couple who relay a tale about their Turkish neighbor. The story details the slaughtering of a sheep in a bathtub during Ramadan, pieces of the sheep becoming lodged in the drain, and the eventual arrival of the police. In recounting this explicitly prejudiced communication, the couple clearly is aware that their impression of the outgroup is negative. But because they have presented factual disparaging evidence, they also presumably expect the listener to share their view, or at least to appreciate why they have the right to hold it.
In recent years, stories about outgroup members have circulated on weblogs and electronic mail. Occasionally, the stories include digitally manipulated photographs or are attributed to an expert. Although these stories share a similar purpose – demonstrating an outgroup’s abominable behavior – the Internet medium allows communication to be rapid and widespread. Prejudiced communication over the Internet also has ideal features for impression management. Bloggers can post anonymously or through a pseudonym. Alternatively, individuals who forward stories through electronic mail can include comments that mask their own opinion (e.g., “I didn’t write this . . . just passing it along”). Electronically shared stories quickly can develop into urban legends. One example – which has been falsified – provides a detailed testimonial about unsanitary and aggressive behavior of a busload of New Orleans evacuees at a Texas rest stop following Hurricane Katrina. Like the interpersonally communicated story of the Turkish neighbor, the electronic story of evacuees helps ease guilt about the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe and justifies social distance.
Discriminatory language also may be couched in terms of jokes or purportedly humorous emails. In a sense, prejudiced jokes are a type of storytelling about disparaged outgroups. Prejudiced humor serves many roles, including entertainment, promoting ingroup camaraderie, and expressing shared attitudes and values. Depending on the particulars of the joke, this form of prejudiced communication may serve group enhancement functions (e.g., disparaging the outgroup), social functions (e.g., prescriptions for social interaction), dominance maintenance (e.g., proving why the outgroup deserves its inferior social status), or impression management (e.g., the audience will think more favorably of the person who sent it). Outgroup-disparaging humor also serves economical expression in the sense that it can bolster the stereotypes held by recipients, rendering them stronger and more easily retrieved for use.
Implicitly Prejudiced And Discriminatory Language
Prejudiced and discriminatory communication also can assume more subtle implicit forms; speakers of these communication patterns may not even recognize that they are betraying their own prejudices and listeners also may not realize that the language is discriminatory.
Several types of implicit discriminatory communication patterns serve the egodefensive/group enhancement function. For example, researchers find that first person plural pronouns (e.g., we) are associated quickly with positive feelings about the ingroup, and are used when referencing the ingroup. Cialdini et al. (1976) found that when the home sports team won a game, people used expressions such as “we won,” thereby enhancing themselves through connection to the team. Conversely, people used expressions such as “they lost” when the home team lost a game, thereby protecting self-esteem by distancing themselves. Thus, consistent with the ego-defensive/group enhancement function of discriminatory language, people desire to see their own group in a favorable light; when they cannot easily do so, they find a way to distance themselves from it.
The general preference to view the ingroup in a favorable fashion in part underlies intergroup bias. Consistent with intergroup bias, people tend to see their own groups as possessing more favorable characteristics and producing more superior work than other groups. In communication, intergroup bias is seen clearly in the linguistic intergroup bias (LIB), initially investigated by Maass (1999) and her colleagues. Generally speaking, the LIB reflects a communication pattern in which the behaviors of the ingroup are portrayed more favorably than the behaviors of an outgroup. When an ingroup member performs a positive behavior, the speaker characterizes the behavior abstractly, as though the behavior is indicative of the actor’s personality.
For example, if an ingroup member donates money to charity, the speaker might say, “she is generous.” Using this adjective implies that the actor performs similar actions across time and different situations. In contrast, if an outgroup member performs the same behavior, however, the speaker concretely might say, “she gave some money today,” which fails to imply generosity across time and situations. For negative behaviors, the LIB shows the converse: negative behavior performed by an ingroup member is characterized concretely (e.g., “He did not tell the truth about Paul”) whereas negative behavior performed by an outgroup member is characterized abstractly (e.g., “He is dishonest”). Because so many of the stereotypic qualities that people believe about outgroups are negative, abstract characterizations often serve to bolster and preserve stereotypes.
Among the most researched indicators of intergroup bias in communication settings, the LIB shows considerable generalizability across languages, communication mediums, and type of intergroup relationship. The pattern has been demonstrated in multiple languages in various countries, including Italy, Spain, the United States, and China. It also emerges orally, in writing, and when people select among written descriptions. Finally, the pattern emerges in a variety of intergroup settings, such as with ethnic, regional, and political outgroups, age cohorts, personal relationships (e.g., enemies vs. friends), and rival teams. Perhaps most interesting, the bias can be exacerbated or mitigated by motivational and dispositional factors. Threats to self-esteem or high levels of dispositional prejudice can exacerbate the LIB, whereas the motivation to be accurate can mitigate the bias. Research suggests that most people do not realize that they are displaying any bias in their communication patterns.
Besides the degree of linguistic abstraction for specific behaviors, implicitly prejudiced communication also emerges in how speakers characterize events. For example, in their delineation of how powerful people camouflage the control that they wield, Ng & Bradac (1993) proposed how speakers rely upon a number of linguistic masking devices; these non-mutually exclusive devices include generalization and permutation. Generalizations can include the use of adjectives to characterize behaviors (i.e., as in the LIB), but also comprise generalizations to entire groups (e.g., “People on welfare don’t want to work”) or to unspecified events (e.g., “Immigrants cause a lot of problems”). Permutation relies upon the fact that listeners typically assign greater responsibility to the subject of the sentence than to factors later in the sentence. A statement such as “The defendant lied to the judge” implicitly assigns more blame to the defendant than a statement such as “The judge was lied to by the defendant.” As with the LIB, the groups to which speakers belong and their prejudices can influence their use of linguistic masking devices.
Implicitly discriminatory language also emerges in whether language is inclusive or prescribes what is normal. Organizations that address invitations for social events to “employees and their wives” send a subtle message to female employees, unmarried individuals, same-sex couples, and couples in unformalized relationships: although diversity may be tolerated, it is not expected or celebrated. Gender-biased language also sends messages about what is normal. The tags (e.g., lady doctor) discussed earlier are one example. Another example involves use and perceptions of gender-biased terms such as stewardess instead of flight attendant or chairman instead of chair. Research shows that individual differences in sexist attitudes are linked to the use and perceptions of genderbiased language, suggesting that it can serve a group-dominance function. Finally, subtle discrimination in language can be found in what is not said. For instance, men may ask a female co-worker her opinion on a tie or retail store, but may fail to include her in discussions of football.
Although most widely considered with respect to gender, language that prescribes normalcy extends to bias toward other groups. For example, speakers may include an ethnic tag for historically white male positions (e.g., black doctor). Whites may solicit computer advice from an Asian colleague. Job recruitment websites may be devoid of photographs depicting applicants over 45, suggesting older adults are unwelcome and consequently deterring applications. Implicitly prejudiced communication therefore can be subtle, barely noticed, and far-reaching.
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- Bar-Tal, D. (1989). Delegitimization: The extreme case of stereotyping and prejudice. In D. Bar-Tal, C. F. Graumann, A. Kruglanski, & W. Stroebe (eds.), Stereotyping and prejudice: Changing conceptions. New York: Springer, pp. 169–182.
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- Thompson, L. L., & Crocker, J. (1990). Downward social comparison in the minimal group situation: A test of a self-enhancement interpretation. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 20, 1166–1184.
- van Dijk, T. A. (1988). How “they” hit the headlines: Ethnic minorities in the press. In G. Smitherman-Donaldson & T. A. van Dijk (eds.), Discourses and discrimination. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, pp. 221–262. x