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:
Faculty Diversity Officer
Associate Professor Teaching and Curriculum