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Sticks and stones may break bones, but words also hurt

In her pre-school life, Laura Leets made up her own words with help from her identical twin sister.

"We would flip through magazines giving things names," says Leets, an assistant professor of communication. Today, Leets studies name-calling, an interest that evolved from her early exploration of language.

Because she and her sister had their own words, Leets recalls, she didn't feel compelled to talk to others. Her sister, now a Southern California lawyer, translated for her. This worried her parents, who were advised to expand the twins' private world by sending them to preschool. Today, Leets shows no hesitation to speak about her studies of deprecating communication, or "how people construct language to strip others of their dignity."

Epithets directed to Jews, homosexuals and ethnic groups, subtle put-downs delivered with a smile, even anti-government rhetoric delivered on talk radio and the Internet catch her attention. "I look at how harmful speech impacts people and how they cope with it," she says. She also investigates how "subtly shifting language can produce very different versions of reality," perhaps even affecting the political climate of a whole nation. "This has significance for how social stereotypes persist and may enable us to detect prejudicial beliefs."

Leets' research agenda is aimed at "integrating what is right now a very segmented field. That is, categories of prejudice such as racism, anti-Semitism, ageism, ableism and homophobia are viewed as separate problems. I believe there is a common framework to all these forms of deprecating speech, and my goal is to devise a heuristic model of the process that may be driving all these forms of prejudice."

Leets comes from a "multi-ethnic" background that she doesn't like to explain because "in my classes my students are always so curious, and I say, it doesn't guide or inform my work. Let's focus on the issues."

"What caught my eye early was why we treat each other differently based on skin color, when it could be eye color, hair color or anything," says the native of the Los Angeles basin.

After receiving one of the first doctoral degrees offered in communication by the University of California-Santa Barbara, Leets came in September 1995 to Stanford's Communication Department, where she is the only faculty member specializing in the study of inter-group communication. She is also an affiliated scholar with the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity.

"Most of the people in this [communication] department study mass media, but you have people like myself around the country who study language, ethnicity, identity and interpersonal relationships from a social science perspective," she says.

Emotional component of hate speech

In her research, Leets finds that targets of deprecating speech react to the trauma in a pattern similar to the response of victims of crimes.

Like crime victims, their first reaction is strongly emotional, followed by feeling the need to change their attitudes in order to understand the incident. Some crime victims and harmful-speech victims report a third phase, in which they change their own behavior as result of the incident.

The victims of disparaging remarks usually attribute the speaker's motives to a "prejudicial disposition or repressed hostility," she said, reporting on a recent study involving more than 200 students at another college campus. They saw the event as an "enduring reflection of the speaker's disposition," she said, rather than as related to a particular situation, although the motives attributed to the speaker did vary somewhat with the context in which the speech occurred.

Many said they would react by responding assertively to the speaker while a like number said they would respond with silence. A large majority ­ 84 percent ­ viewed silence as taking the higher moral ground.

Many more said they would discuss the incident with people other than the speaker. "Often processing a hurtful event involves talking with others in order to express emotions, to seek information and to be recognized as victims," Leets said. "In this study, the majority of the participants were likely to solicit support, usually from family and friends."

Homosexuals were far more likely to say they would seek support than Jews, however, a difference that might be related to historical or socialization differences, Leets said. "It is not uncommon for Jewish youth to be prepared from an early age to expect hostility," she said, given the long history of prejudice against Jews. "In contrast, homosexuals do not have the same pre-established family and community support network. In fact. their experience frequently entails social isolation."

Reactions to disparaging remarks vary also depending upon whether they were explicit epithets or more subtle and indirect. Less direct examples of disparaging speech are subject to multiple interpretations and a particular meaning that a listener gives the words may not match the speaker's intent, she said.

An example of an indirect remark that she used in her studies involves a Caucasian student saying to an African American or Hispanic classmate after they leave a class discussion on affirmative action: "You must be a good role model for Blacks/Hispanics. Your intelligence stands out." A more direct version would be: "You must have some white blood in you because blacks/spics can't make it at a white university. They just don't have what it takes."

A majority of the Asian American students in her studies were more offended by indirect messages than by direct ones, while a majority of African American, Jewish American and gay American students judged the direct expressions of bigotry toward their groups as more upsetting. Caucasian students, who were not the target of the speech examples, also found the direct expressions of bigotry more disturbing.

Other researchers (including Stanford psychology Professor Hazel Markus) have shown that cultural expectations vary over how direct speech should be. In some Asian cultures, speaking styles are generally less explicit than in American mainstream culture, and so it is possible that people from Asian backgrounds are more attuned to the context surrounding less explicit speech, she said.

'Loud and angry voices' in media

Leets' interest in words as weapons has led her also to investigate reactions to anti-government rhetoric on radio talk shows and the Internet with Peggy Bowers of St. Louis University. "I think President Clinton was onto something when he said, after the Oklahoma City federal building was bombed, that these 'loud and angry voices' of extremists were eroding our relationships," Leets said.

Clinton, like others after the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, actually implied that such hate speech might prompt people to violence, but Leets notes that mass media research does not tend to support the idea of "powerful, direct effects" of media. "We say that the media affects some of the people some of the time in some contexts. The media is crucial in setting the agenda ­ in telling us what to focus on ­ but people don't accept what the media says lock, stock and barrel. The research shows they are more discriminating than that."

She and Bowers decided to look for possible widespread but subtle effects of anti-government media rhetoric. Perhaps, they thought, as Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has suggested, a steady stream of such speech might break down trust between people, or their sense of goodwill.

"I took actual messages from militia groups on talk radio or the Internet as well as some negative comments about our government by Patrick Buchanan during his presidential campaign, some neutral messages, and some more positive statements by Colin Powell and President Reagan," Leets said. "I had a professional broadcaster read the messages so I could look at the messages themselves and not at their [original speakers'] emotional tones. Then I asked people, how harmful do you think this is for yourself and for society at large?"

The reactions, she said, were of moderate magnitude for both positive and negative messages. The positive messages about government tended to increase listeners' feelings of solidarity and security, she said, while the negative messages both reduced their feelings of solidarity and security and increased feelings of fear and hostility. Reactions to Buchanan's rhetoric were as strongly negative as to those of militia members, whose rhetoric is generally considered more extreme, partly because it often advocates or condones violence.

While she couldn't measure how the speech changed the collective mood or climate per se, Leets said her results suggest that "constant, unremitting anti-government speech plants the seeds of doubt in people about how much they can trust their government and each other, and fear breeds a kind of self-protection that privileges self and self-interest."

Buchanan's rhetoric, like that of the militia, questioned the government's trustworthiness and pitted one group of citizens against another, so that, in terms of spreading divisiveness and acrimony, his views may have been seen as "no different than [views of] those who would back their views with arms."

Some western democracies have attempted to restrict hate speech by making forms of it a violation of civil laws. Leets doubts such laws are a useful alternative for the United States. "In this country, given our history, we are probably always going to err on the side of free speech," she said. That her American subjects viewed extremist messages as only moderately harmful and upsetting to society may even stem from the fact that Americans expect extremist speech as a necessary part of democracy.

"Deprecating speech is the most commonly reported hate crime and can contribute to ethnic unrest, discrimination and acts of violence," she notes, but laws may not be the most effective way of dealing with it. "Over time I am trying to identify strategies that could effectively reduce the negative personal effects of deprecating speech. At this point, even providing a conceptual overview is helpful as people try to understand its impact on inter-group relations."


By Kathleen O'Toole

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