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Hate Speech and Cumulative Harm

An article the Warner School community read together recently as a prompt for discussion of hate speech posed some important and interesting ideas about the nature of the harm caused by use of such speech. The article is, “Hate Speech and Its Harms: A Communication Theory Perspective” (1997), by Clay Calvert. While Calvert limited his attention to racist and sexist speech, the models presented are helpful for thinking about hate speech directed at any targeted group.

Two models of communication were described: 1) a transmission model that focuses on behavioral and emotional changes in the recipient of hate speech, which is the one used in legal proceedings to determine whether punishment is warranted; and 2) a ritual model that focuses on the cumulative effects of hate speech, as well as on the social context created and resulting reinforcement of disparate, negative treatment of targeted groups. Two quotes from the article captured my attention, as they stressed the ways that speech creates contexts and shapes action and behavior. As Warner and the University more broadly strive to create an inclusive community and campus culture, this focus on context is informative.

First, in distinguishing the two models from each other, Calvert wrote, “The ritual model, in contrast, points to a different harm. It is a long-term, cumulative harm that accrues with repeated use of racist epithets directed at targeted minorities. The harm is the subordination of racial minorities, including the perpetuation and reinforcement of discriminatory attitudes and behaviors. In brief, use of racist expressions creates and maintains a social reality of racism that promotes disparate treatment…” (p. 6). To me, this pushes us to consider not only what individual acts do in terms of harm, but also to consider the broader milieu that emerges from collective actions, or actions of different people that form a whole. While protection of free speech is and absolutely should be a core value at our University, attention to the kinds of ritual communication that shapes our community is also key. Similar to the notion of recognizing micro-aggressions — actions and speech that send subtle but clear negative messages to non-dominant people — examining the more everyday rituals that form the University context can be illuminating in identifying those that do or don’t support building an inclusive, welcoming environment.

Second, Calvert emphasizes that, “Harm may not be directly or immediately perceptible from a single instance of hate speech. Rather, its impact may be cumulative, realized when instances of speech are viewed in the aggregate over time. A single moment of human communication, it must be remembered, ‘does not occur in a social or cultural vacuum’ (Kubey, Larson, & Csikszentmihalyi, 1996, p. 99)” (p. 7). I find this helpful in thinking about what happens when a single instance of hate speech occurs – the target of the speech and other people who are treated as “other” or outsiders are affirmed in their fears that they are not valued, are misunderstood (at least), and/or are seen as dangerous, inferior, and unworthy (at worst). A single instance sits within a history of instances that has lead to the current situation that involves distrust and division. The University, of course, is not unique in this situation, as, although we have elected a biracial US President, our society continues to be divided along multiple dimensions of difference. History matters, but it is something that we can also disrupt if we build a series of ritualized communications and actions that characterize an inclusive community.

The previous blog entry by Vivian Lewis and Stanley Byrd gives important insight into why discussions of race (and other kinds of difference) are difficult. Knowing how to respond to hurtful speech and acts that don’t qualify as punishable offenses is also difficult. I think that these two models of communication are helpful in illuminating how important social context is in reinforcing or combating divisiveness that subverts our movement to an inclusive campus climate and culture, while also maintaining our commitment to free speech and the open exchange of ideas.

Reference: Calvert, C. (1997). Hate Speech and Its Harms: A Communication Theory Perspective. Journal of Communication, Journal of Communication 47(1), 4-19:

Nancy Ares
Faculty Diversity Officer
Associate Professor Teaching and Curriculum

Why is it so Difficult to Talk About Race?

“Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot in things racial, we have always been, and … continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards. Though race-related issues continue to occupy a significant portion of our political discussion, and though there remain many unresolved racial issues in this nation, we, average Americans, simply do not talk enough with each other about things racial.” Eric Holder, US attorney general Feb 19, 2009


Mr. Holder was describing the general population, but he could have been talking about academic communities- including our own University of Rochester. We academics tend to pride ourselves on being too logical and fair-minded to succumb to petty prejudices. The majority of academics believe that discussions about race and ethnicity centered on our own campus are therefore unnecessary. Opportunities to discuss race within the university generally draw only very small groups of individuals.  When the Provost and Vice Provost held town hall meetings in various locations around campus to discuss diversity efforts, the turnout was modest at best.  Most of 8 or so individuals at the Medical Center town hall were Faculty Diversity Officers, who meet on a monthly basis anyway. While it is true that we all lead busy lives, it is also true that discussions of race tend to be uncomfortable.  As academics we are no different than the general population in that regard.


The Diversity Book Reading Group, facilitated by Stan Byrd, Manager of Multicultural Affairs and Inclusion for the University’s Department of Human Resources recently read and discussed, “Race Matters” by Cornel West. The following quote from the first chapter of the book provides us an important context.


“Since the beginning of the nation, white Americans have suffered from a deep inner uncertainty as to who they really are.  One of the ways that has been used to simplify the answer has been to seize upon the presence of black Americans and use them as a marker, a symbol of limits, a metaphor for the ‘outsider’.  Many whites could look at the social position of blacks and feel that color formed an easy and reliable gauge for determining to what extent one was or was not American.   (Ralph Ellison, “What American Would Be Like Without Blacks” -1970).


Ellison’s quote provides us with a simple and easy understanding of the foundation of oppression (be it racism, sexism…etc).  The basic premise is I am X, you are Y, Xs are better than Y; therefore I am better than you.  We would submit that Americans still have a conservative, ‘pull yourself up by your own boot straps’ (I have done it, why can’t you), capitalistic (us versus them…and I want more), Judeo-Christian, Euro-centric, American Dream perspective.  We receive messages (from the moment we are born) about who we are and who we are not; including why we would not want to be ‘the other’.  Many of these messages are communicated non- verbally. It feels like it is in our DNA.  Thus, this quintessential American dream is a lie for many including our earliest immigrants. 


Those who have been marginalized (who do not see themselves explicitly included in the ‘dream’) are most aware of the lie.  Those who are mainstream (who have the “privilege” of not noticing that they inherently included) do not want to give up the “dream”.  Unfortunately the ghost of the dream is everywhere: in the news, media, our classrooms (elementary, high school and higher education), our churches, our institutions and our government.


So – why is talking about race so uncomfortable? To talk about race means you have to look at your own circumstance, whether you are mainstream or marginalized and this can be a painful endeavor.  To open up to discuss your particular circumstance in a group, you have to access deep emotions (including fear) means processing layers and layers of “baggage” related to race, class/caste, sexual orientation, etc. Many have ‘inherited’ generations of this angst, fear, loathing, anger, disgust, disbelief and mis-information about race. The thought of discussing it with another (particularly someone not in your situation) is fraught with much built up fear (conscious or unconscious).  Many have also ‘inherited’ years and years of nihilism. Nihilism in West’s book is identified as a central threat to Black Americans.  Many are living lives of coping with a sense of horrifying, meaninglessness, and hopelessness.  It can become a numbing detachment from others and self, and self destructive. For those experiencing this sense of nihilism it is often too painful to discuss. For the ‘others’, it may be too painful to put yourself in the shoes of the other and recognize all the ways in which you collude in keeping this sense of nihilism in place.  Note:  when mentioning nihilism, all disfranchised, marginalized, ostracized, oppressed people are included.


In an academic setting, it is far too easy to intellectualize issues of diversity.  Yet institutions and groups that have been most successful at becoming more diverse have found that these conversations cannot be purely intellectual to move forward. As we strive to become a more diverse University, it is incumbent upon all of us to join in these conversations. The most progress for individuals and organizations will be made if we deal with these emotions honestly and in ways that support our individual/mutual development and growth.


Vivian Lewis

Associate Dean for Faculty Development- Women and Diversity


Stan Byrd

Human Resources – Manager Multicultural Affairs and Inclusion


Help Us Think About Retention

The current economic climate is giving us just the excuse we need to focus on faculty retention, largely because we expect our current focus, faculty recruitment, to yield minimal results over the next year or so, as the pace of hiring is slowed. I see this as a great opportunity for focused efforts on retention, as it has occurred to me that perhaps our primary focus should have been on retention all along. That is not to say that those involved in the faculty diversity initiative, and all academic leaders for that matter, should not continue their proactive efforts to change the face of the faculty through recruitment when given the opportunity to do so. I’ve learned an important lesson, however, since I took on this job – bringing diverse faculty to the University before we have done everything we can to insure that the underrepresented faculty that are already here feel included in the community, are appropriately mentored, and are generally satisfied with the UR experience does a great disservice to all involved. We are in danger of engaging in a revolving door phenomenon, and finding that five years from now, we have lost as much diversity as we have gained.

I heard a speaker last week urge the audience to work on our empathy, which she characterized as a learned skill. We need to be able to understand people whose experiences are different from our own in order to create a good and positive environment for others. So perhaps we should spend a few minutes each day thinking about how our University experience would differ if we were in the shoes of someone of a different race, gender, religion, or ability than ourselves. Then we may be able to generate the ideas that will help us keep the door from revolving.

Lynne Davidson
Deputy to the President
Vice Provost for Faculty Development and Diversity

A CELEBRATION of Diversity and Inclusiveness

We know that a commitment to diversity and Inclusiveness and improves teaching, working and learning environments, empowers persons and gives persons a voice that they may not have realized they have. Often this requires the hard work of listening, hearing and paying attention with a commitment to change old patterns and institutional barriers.

Joy and enactment of celebrations are part of the human spirit, and the celebrations of special events are part on academic life. So why not a celebration of diversity? At the School of Nursing we have discovered that celebration can also be a wonderful resource for enhancing diversity and inclusiveness. “CELEBRATE US, CELEBRATE YOU” was sponsored by the School of Nursing’s Advisory Council for Diversity and Inclusiveness and by the University Office for Faculty Development and Diversity. The event was orchestrated by a planning committee that included faculty, staff, students, and alumna.

On February 26, 2009 we celebrated with music and dance performances by School of Nursing students, University groups and community organizations. There was,of course, a variety of wonderful food that is only possible in a pluralistic society such as ours. The two and one half hour celebration was fun!

However one of the most meaningful experiences was the discovery of the diversity that already existed among us. The planning committee asked members of the School of Nursing community to participate by bringing art objects and artifacts from our own ethnic background and from our own experiences and travels. About 200 objects were catalogued and displayed for all to enjoy.

I will end this blog by sharing only one of the many email responses to the planning team after the event

“ It was remarkable to see the people of the school come together to explore and discover the rich cultural heritage that was ours. Repeatedly I heard people comment in various ways that we are all different but really the same. I discovered things about my co-workers that I probably would not have thought to ask, but as a result of the event I now know people a little better. The exhibits of “artifacts’ sometimes told their own story but they also invited story-telling and thereby brought people together. One had the impression of walking into a friendly museum where one is truly invited to touch, ask questions and celebrate the seeming dichotomy of diversity and unity “.

What do you think of such celebrations?
Have they worked for you?

Mary Dombeck
School of Nursing

What Makes Classical Music Classical and What Does this Have to do with Diversity?

In a recent “Talk to the Newsroom” blog, Anthony Tommasini, chief classical music critic of the New York Times, was asked, “What makes classical music classical? Seriously. I recognize it when I hear it but I don’t know how to define it. How do you?”

His answer? “You can’t say that classical music is more serious than other kinds of music, or more complex, necessarily, or more substantive, and so on. [. . . ] I don’t think that Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony is more profound than the Beatles’s song “Eleanor Rigby.” But the Mahler is a whole lot longer. [. . . ] So, I think that’s all I can see about the matter. With apologies to Chopin’s “Minute Waltz,” most works of classical music are long. (

Of course, his answer was a lot more complicated: it went into some detail about the consequences of length: more musical development, contrast, variation, complexity – those words long associated with western classical music and the discourses surrounding it.

The label “classical music” is actually an outgrowth of the ideas of an eighteenth century German philosopher, poet, and literary critic, Johann Gotfried von Herder (1744-1803). Herder was also a collector of German folk music and published songs of the volk, or the “common people”, seeing them as the source of German culture. Later writers, to distinguish these musics from those of the court and the city, added the labels, “classical” and “popular” to Herder’s “folkmusic” musics, constructing a three-part hierarchy of musical classification, based on class. Classical music came to be that associated with court patronage, schooling, and lots of money, and many of us still use this classification system today to distinguish one music from another.

What is so much fun about Tommasini’s response to the question posed by the blogger, is that it completely ignores the historical notion of class as a defining factor.

So, I pose the following questions:

— Is “class” still important to the definition of “classical” music? If so, why? If not, why not?

— Is the study, performance, and creation of classical music open to everyone? How? How not? And,

— Should we give up these labels altogether? What others (if any) would we substitute?

Ellen Koskoff
Professor of Ethnomusicology
Chair, Eastman School Diversity Committee