Leibniz-Zentrum Allgemeine Sprachwissenschaft Leibniz-Gemeinschaft

How Language is Used to Oppress (HaLO)

Oppressive speech is speech that harms and disempowers its targets. It includes hate speech (slurs “Yid”, “Spic”), derogatory attitudes (“migrant vermin”), and negative moral talk (“gypsies are feckless”). Such speech doesn’t just offend but seeks to harm the target during the conversation, so that they feel humiliated, attacked, denigrated, and silenced. This harm is not confined to conversation. Utterances shift social norms by changing people’s opinions about how targets ought to be treated. Oppressive speech uses this effect to establish and maintain oppressive norms. Recent rhetoric in politics is a vivid example of this. This is a significant cause of economic and social harm to many groups. Oppressive speech is thus one of the most urgent social and political issues of our time.

The project uses a multidisciplinary approach that combines the complementary strengths of game theory, theories of social norms and social injustice, to explain:

(i) the effects of oppressive speech within a conversational game;

(ii) the way speech can shift norms that govern the social game; 

(iii) how the desire to maintain social injustice motivates oppressive speech. 

The proposed model of oppressive speech combines three interlinked work-packages:

·   (WP1) Oppressive conversational games.

·   (WP2) Oppressive speech shifting social norms.  

·   (WP3) Structural oppression and social change

Project events