Summary and Keywords
Intergroup relations shape group members’ linguistic choices, and group members’ language molds the quality of intergroup relations. Indeed, intergroup relations are often connoted by conflict, asymmetrical status, and prejudice, and the quality of intergroup relations dramatically affects the manner in which people speak about individual members and groups as a whole. Conversely, the language people rely on to address individual members and groups contributes to maintain—and in certain cases even enhances—intergroup conflict and discrimination.
Among the different forms of biased language and derogatory group labels are epithets, short tags that convey negative attitudes, and dehumanizing representations of the members or groups they address. Racial slurs, homophobic epithets, and sexist labels can be interpreted by addressing the perspective of the users, the audience, and the victim. Taking into account the user perspective, derogatory group labels express discriminatory and negative attitudes toward specific groups and communicate that the targeted individual is deviating from what is normatively expected. As far as the audience is concerned, the incidental overhearing of these labels affects the cognitive accessibility of semantic knowledge associated with the targeted group, influences the perception of the targeted individual, and strengthens intergroup biases. Finally, being the victim of these labels can negatively affect the well-being of the targeted individual by eliciting negative affect, self-directed prejudice, and worries of non-conformity. The discussion and analysis of the relation between intergroup dynamics and labeling provide the reader with crucial information to handle the current debate on politically correct speech.
I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct.
— Donald Trump, The Washington Post, August 8, 2015
The way people speak about others affects the nature of their interaction, and, conversely, the type of relation people have with these individuals shapes their choice of language when referring to these individuals. Indeed, language in general reflects and affects intergroup dynamics.
This chapter begins by introducing the power of language in social categorization. Subsequently, the analysis is moved from neutral, politically correct language to derogatory group language and speech. Derogatory group labels are group-directed slurs, such as kike for Jewish and nigger for African American individuals.
Specifically, the construal, appraisal, and effects of derogatory group labels from the perspective of the user, audience, and victim will be analyzed. In so doing, we attempt to provide a picture of the entire communicative chain by analyzing why people use these labels, what the consequences of such labels are on those overhearing this insulting language, and how derogatory language is processed and managed by the targeted individuals. Together, the theoretical and empirical evidence discussed in this chapter will allow us to critically address the current debate on “politically correct speech,” as outlined by the quotation at the beginning the chapter.
The Power of Language
Research carried out in social psychology has consistently demonstrated that group-related labels, such as women, African Americans, and homosexuals, play a crucial role in observers’ organization and evaluation of the social environment. Precursory works on categorization shows that nominal labels, such as A and B, end up representing the functional properties of the stimuli to which they are applied (i.e., lines ranging from the shortest to the longest) and turn out to convey ordinal properties of the categories (i.e., the shorter and longer lines; Tajfel & Wilkes, 1963). Category labels offer observers additional information that the stimuli do not convey. As a case in point, Rothbart, Davis-Stitt, and Hill (1997) presented famous actors’ names (e.g., Kurt Russel, Harrison Ford) on a liberal–conservative visual scale in a way that communicated the political orientation of the actors. The scale area in which actors were clustered either showed or did not show a group label, such as “conservative,” “moderate conservative,” “moderate liberal,” and “liberal.” Results showed that when political-group labels were displayed, observers increased the perceived similarity of intraclass stimuli and the difference of the interclass stimuli. Put differently, actors who were labeled as “conservative” were deemed to be more similar to other “conservative” actors and more dissimilar from actors who were otherwise labeled, for example, as “moderate.” A direct test of the information-providing function of group labels has recently been put forward by Foroni and Rothbart (2011). The authors presented participants with a series of silhouette drawings of the female body, ranging from very thin to very heavy. In addition, the silhouettes were bunched in three groups and the corresponding labels were experimentally manipulated. In one condition (herewith referred to as “weak labels”) participants read that the three groups pertain to “below-average,” “average,” and “above-average” women; in the other condition (herewith called “strong labels”), the same three groups were labeled as “anorexic,” “normal,” and “obese.” Results show that “strong labels,” compared to “weak labels,” have the power of enhancing intragroup similarities.
Not only do the semantic and lexical aspects of group labels affect observers’ appraisal of the group-related stimuli, but the grammatical properties of these labels heavily shape observers’ construal of group members. Indeed, group membership described by a noun (i.e., Jew) rather than an adjective (i.e., Jewish) triggers more stereotypical (i.e., going to the synagogue) and less counter-stereotypical inferences about group members (e.g., eating pork; Carnaghi et al., 2008; Maass, Carnaghi, & Rakic, 2015). In a similar vein, when intergroup context is framed by nouns rather than adjectives, group members increase in-group bias, preferring in-group over out-group artefacts (Graf, Bilewicz, Finell, & Geschke, 2013).
Together, this evidence speaks to the fact that language strongly affects group-based perception and intergroup processes, such as stereotyping and intergroup bias. Hence, the way we speak about groups affects how we cognitively represent and interact with them. The causal direction between language and group processes argued above might also be reversed,, with language shaping the quality of intergroup interaction as well as the quality of intergroup dynamics modeling the way groups are linguistically represented. Indeed, observers’ linguistic choices are guided by intergroup dynamics and reveal observers’ cognitive and motivational processes.
Research rooted in the Linguistic Intergroup Bias model (see Maass, 1999) shows that the way observers talk about in-group and out-group members’ behaviors is deeply shaped by intergroup motives. For example, descriptive action verbs, such as A kicks B, compared to adjectives, such as A is aggressive, are more often used to describe negative behavior if performed by an in-group member; the reverse pattern is found when the same behavior is engaged in by an out-group member (Maass, 1999). In so doing, observers attribute the negative behavior to the dispositional nature of the out-group member, and to the situational constraints when performed by an in-group member. This linguistic mechanism has been found to be effective when observers intend to maintain a flattering representation of the in-group and a less benevolent view of the out-group.
A growing body of research has recently started analyzing a specific class of group labels, namely derogatory group labels (see Croom, 2014). Derogatory group labels are group-directed slurs, such as kike, nigger, and wop, for Jewish, African American, and Italian individuals, respectively. These labels blatantly insult and offend individuals by derogating their membership. Indeed, and differently from common slurs, such as asshole, they do not degrade the person’s individual identity but rather attack his or her social identity, that is, the self-representation one derives from the knowledge about the in-group and the feelings associated with being part of that group (Sacchi, Carnaghi, Castellini, & Colombo, 2013; Tajfel & Turner, 1979). In other words, it is not their pure evaluative negative tone that causes these labels to be offensive, rather it is their racist/sexist/homophobic meaning that makes them a linguistic, group-directed discrimination device (Carnaghi & Maass, 2008). Indeed, studies in the United States attest that calling a student, especially a male student, fag is considered worse than any other swear label (Preston & Stanley, 1987). Similarly, research in Scandinavian countries suggests that young adults aged between 20 and 28 years (Bendixen & Gabriel, 2013) appraise derogatory terms referring to homosexuality as particularly offensive compared to other forms of verbal denigration if directed toward male individuals.
The availability and frequency of the use of derogatory group labels addressing a given set of groups, for instance, immigrants, homosexuals, and Jews, provide a rough indicator of the factual discriminative conditions of those groups in a given society (Allen, 1983). Hence, and in the same manner as the category labels, derogatory labels reveal users’ cognitive and motivational processes and reflect intergroup dynamics. Indeed, although any group can in principle be the target of derogatory group labels, the asymmetrical distribution of such group-bashing labels between majority and minority groups, with the latter more frequently the victim than the former, testifies to the important role of structural factors in this respect (e.g., status, dominance, and size of the group) (Leader, Mullen, & Rice, 2009; Mullen & Rice, 2003).
Moreover, as category labels shape intergroup dynamics, derogatory group labels affect those observers exposed to such language, although in those cases the audience is not directly the target of this derogatory language. Indeed, evidence suggests that being exposed to a derogatory group label, compared to the corresponding category labels, strengthens different sorts of biases such as out-group prejudice, dehumanization, and discrimination.
Finally, and differently from category labels, derogatory group labels deeply affect the victims’ well-being and their daily lives. Indeed, being the target of derogatory group labels not only affects their semantic and evaluative appraisal but bears consequences that involve negative affect, self-prejudice, body concerns, and readiness to respond physically against the user of the label.
The User’s Perspective
The use of homophobic epithets (i.e., anti-homosexual labels aimed at denigrating a homosexual individually or as a group) like fag (in English), tapette (in French), and paneleiro (in Portuguese) appears to be highly frequent across Europe. Indeed, the findings of a study conducted by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA, 2008) indicates that 91% of European respondents have heard negative comments because a schoolmate has been perceived to be LGBT. In a survey carried out in U.K. schools on the experience of young gay people, data reveal that 96% of respondents have overheard homophobic labels, such as poof or lezza, in school. Along the same vein, the National School Climate Survey in the United States (Kosciw, Greytak, Bartkiewicz, Boesen, & Palmer, 2012) shows that 56.9% of the students interviewed reported hearing homophobic labels from their teachers or school staff. Hence, the use of homophobic epithets seems to be very common across Europe and the United States, revealing deeply entrenched sexual prejudice in these geographic areas (Eurobarometer, 2012; FRA, 2015).
A core factor that promotes the use of derogatory group labels is the user’s level of prejudice toward the targets of such insults. In a recent study carried out in Poland (Bilewicz, Soral, Marchlewska, & Winiewski, 2015), participants’ levels of prejudice toward six minority groups—Jews, Ukrainians, the LGBTQ community, Roma, Africans, and Muslims—were assessed. Participants were also presented with a list of examples of hate speech, including derogatory group labels directed against the six minorities mentioned above, such as kike for Jews, Gypsy for Roma, and nigger for Africans. For each of these examples, participants reported their hate speech prohibition intentions. Correlational analyses reveal that higher levels of prejudice toward these minorities are associated with lower levels of hate speech prohibition intentions. The role of prejudice in promoting the use of derogatory group labels has also been investigated in the field of sexual prejudice. Findings reveal that individuals holding stronger sexual prejudice use homophobic epithets as insults more often (Burn, 2000; Poteat, DiGiovanni, & Scheer, 2013; Prati, 2012). Similarly, gender-biased labels, such as ladies and girls, trivialize and patronize women (National Council of Teachers of English, 2002). The use of more inclusive language is strongly encouraged across different domains. However, the usage of sexist language still persists and is fueled by users’ sexism. Indeed, Cralley and Ruscher (2005) found that participants who display higher levels of sexism are also those who use more gender-biased labels in a written text than participants who display lower levels of sexism.
Given the strong connection between group-directed slurs and prejudice toward that group, derogatory group label usage and prejudice expression are ruled by similar societal norms. O’Dea and Saucier (2016) claimed that the use of social slurs is regulated by the justification-suppression model, as is the public expression of prejudice (Crandall & Eshleman, 2003). This model suggests that in-group members have acquired genuine prejudices toward out-groups, and prejudice can either be expressed or suppressed as a function of contextual norms that either condemn or condone prejudicial claims, respectively. A key factor that jointly enhances the expression and levels the suppression of prejudicial responses is the perceived offensiveness of derogatory group labels. Indeed, O’Dea and Saucier (2016; see also O’ Dea et al., 2015) found that in contexts in which the usage of racial slurs lose their expressive, insulting function, their usage is more accepted as they are appraised as describing a group or a group member rather than denigrating these targets.
Derogatory group labels are not exclusively used with the clear intent of offending minority groups. In certain cases, users rely on these social slurs to communicate the “deviant” characteristics of the targets. For instance, during primary school, and in certain cases even at college (Hunt et al., 2016), the use of homophobic epithets does not necessarily encompass specific references to homophobic contents. Such labels can convey meanings associated with belated physical maturation, weakness, nonconformity to peer habits and norms, and a lack of masculinity (Plummer, 2001; Thorne, 1993).
In a similar vein, Kleinman, Ezzell, and Frost (2009) analyzed the use of a specific sexist slur (i.e., bitch) across several historical and social contexts. The authors reported that male rugby players call in-groupers bitch when fellow players fail to strongly perform in a masculine fashion or their playing is not antagonistic enough (Messner, 2002). In so doing, users patronize in-group members as their performance clashes against in-group prescriptive standards. Moreover, Kleinman and colleagues (2009) documented that John McCain was referred to as Sarah Palin’s bitch (LisaNova, 2008) during the 2008 primaries in the United States. Labeling McCain as Palin’s bitch allows communicators to portray him as a man dominated by a woman and ultimately question his ability to be a leader. These examples testify to the fact that the use of derogatory labels, although not explicitly connected to prejudice, is not used indiscriminately, as their contents map onto the semantic area in which intragroup deviances are entrenched (Carnaghi, Maass, & Fasoli, 2011).
Derogatory group labels might be additionally used for punitive scope. For instance, Rubini and colleagues (2017) demonstrated that derogatory sexist labels (i.e., labels addressing women exclusively and aimed at denigrating their morality) are more frequently directed to stigmatize minorities (i.e., sex workers) than non-stigmatized groups, especially when minority members violate social norms (i.e., crossing roads without paying attention).
Using homophobic epithets can additionally fulfil group-relevant expressive function (Herek, 1987). In general, group attitudes serve an expressive function when their contents match group-based needs, such as the members’ need to affirm their social identity and enhance their self-esteem (Herek & Capitanio, 1998). In this respect, slandering homosexuals can be framed as a psychological device aimed at affirming one’s own gender identity conformity and preserving one’s positive image (Carnaghi et al., 2011; Falomir-Pichastor & Mugny, 2009). Indeed, calling an individual a homophobic epithet helps to mark out the distinction between the prototypical masculine man and the counter-prototypical, non-masculine man (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005; Dollimore, 1991). In so doing, these labels provide users the very opportunity to take distance from the “deviant,” thus confirming users’ adherence to gender identity norms and fulfilling self-presentation needs (Burn, 2000; Falomir-Pichastor & Mugny, 2009). Evidence supporting this claim was described by Carnaghi et al. (2011). The authors primed heterosexual male participants with either a category label (e.g., gay) or a homophobic epithet (e.g., fag). After being selectively exposed to one or the other label, participants rated traditional beliefs about gender and gender identity scale (Dasgupta & Rivera, 2006). This scale distinctly assesses individuals’ need to stress their heterosexuality to relevant others and individuals’ endorsement of traditional perspective gender norms. Results indicate that participants enhance their need to show off their heterosexuality as well as their compliance with masculinity after being exposed to homophobic labels compared to their counterparts who were exposed to category labels. Significantly, these results were replicated in two studies using both explicit and implicit subliminal priming procedures. Hence, it seems that slandering homosexuals allows one to affirm one’s masculinity-based identity in a spontaneous, unintentional, automatic manner.
To sum up, the use of derogatory group labels likely stems from individuals’ endorsement of prejudicial and discriminative attitudes and is regulated by societal constraints (see Council of Europe Committee of Ministers, 1997). Notwithstanding the important role of social norms in suppressing the linguistic denigration of minority groups, the use of such labels is common in everyday language and mass-media (FRA, 2008). Indeed, as discussed above, additional factors promote the labeling of minority groups with social slurs, such as the need to punish the intragroup “deviants” and restore the group norms, the need to take distance from “deviance” and recognize the users as insiders, and the need to communicate the dominance of the users’ group over the target group.
The Audience Perspective
Already half a century ago, Allport (1954) argued that category labels (e.g., Portuguese, French, vegetarian) are cognitive devices that work as organizing and evaluative standards. The impact of such labels might be greatly increased when derogatory labels are used. In this section we explore the consequences of being incidentally exposed to or overhearing such labels. Specifically, we first address whether and how derogatory group labels compared to category labels activate similar or different category denotative and evaluative contents. We discuss the effects of such labels further, addressing whether derogatory group labels trigger more dehumanizing representation of the target groups. Moreover, we analyze whether derogatory group labels promote negative and hostile attitudes toward the group they address and in turn affect the perception of and the behavior toward individual members of this group. In so doing, we show consistent evidence suggesting that the incidental exposure to derogatory labels or overhearing of such labels dramatically tunes the audience’s attitudes and behaviors toward the group that has been insulted.
The Impact of Derogatory Group Labels on Cognitive Accessibility
Studies within the social cognition tradition (e.g., Banaji & Hardin, 1996; Wittenbrink, Judd, & Park, 1997, 2001) have repeatedly demonstrated that priming category labels such as “men” and “women” speed up perceivers’ processing of category- and label-consistent information, such as tie and lipstick, respectively. In other words, category labels activate category-related contents and evaluative responses that in turn facilitate the gathering and appraisal of subsequent consistent information. A way to assess the strength of association between the category label and the following attributes is the semantic priming procedure (see Neely, 1977; Posner & Snyder, 1975). This technique has been found useful in untangling whether specific category labels differentially activate denotative or evaluative contents. This linguistic distinction mirrors the theoretical and empirical difference between stereotypes and prejudices (see Amodio & Devine, 2006; Carnaghi, Silveri, & Rumiati, 2015), namely between the cognitive representation of culturally held beliefs about a category, that is the denotative contents, and the affective response toward that category, namely the evaluative contents.
The distinct effects of category labels on stereotypes and prejudice were addressed by Wittenbrink and colleagues (1997; see also Wittenbrink et al., 2001). In this study participants were first asked to categorize the ethnic group membership of a series of individuals on the basis of their first names. In order to do this they relied on black and white as category labels. The purpose of this task was to lead participants to associate black and white with the African American and the European American group, respectively. Subsequently, participants were presented with category labels as the primes (i.e., black and white), followed by a target stimulus that required a word/no-word response. Importantly, the targets were either stereotypical of African Americans or of European Americans and were either positive or negative. The authors reasoned that if the participants’ spontaneous reactions were mainly shaped by stereotypes, shorter latency should have been found to typically African American targets when preceded by a black than when preceded by a white prime, and vice versa. Contrariwise, spontaneous prejudice would be revealed by shorter latencies to negative targets and longer latencies to positive targets with black as a prime, compared to the same associations for white as a prime. Results suggest that for European American participants, the black prime makes negative attributes that are stereotypical of African Americans accessible, while the white prime triggers faster responses to positive targets that are stereotypical of European Americans. Hence, a category label pertaining to a stigmatized minority elicits spontaneous attitudes that reflect a combined function of stereotypes and prejudices (for a replication and extension of this work, see Wittenbrink et al., 2001).
Carnaghi and Maass (2007, 2008) applied the distinction between descriptive (stereotypes) and evaluative (prejudice) components to the issue of category vs. derogatory group labels. The authors put forward that since derogatory and neutral labels denote the same category, they should be equally powerful in activating the category-related stereotypes. Moreover, derogatory labels should activate negative content much more strongly than category labels, thus proving an enhanced negative affective reaction to derogatory rather than category primes. Otherwise, and supposing that most stereotypes comprise both positive and negative characteristics (Katz & Hass, 1988), category labels would equally activate positive and negative stereotypes, whereas derogatory labels could essentially activate negative stereotypical contents. To test this hypothesis the authors followed the same procedure outlined by Wittenbrink and collaborators (1997). Specifically, they relied on gay and homosexual as the category primes and on frocio (Italian for fag) and culattone (Italian for fairy) as derogatory primes. The stereotypicality and the valence of targets were experimentally varied in an orthogonal fashion. Results (Carnaghi & Maass, 2007, 2008) reveal that response latencies to stereotypical targets are shorter than to counter-stereotypical and irrelevant targets, thus confirming that both types of labels are effective in activating denotative contents. Importantly, derogatory labels inhibit the accessibility of positive targets compared to the category prime. Hence, homophobic epithets differ from category labels referring to homosexuals in their ability to strengthen the prejudicial reaction toward these groups.
The Impact of Derogatory Group Labels on Intergroup Attitude
Overhearing derogatory group labels does not only influence automatic, spontaneous reactions, such as those assessed via the semantic priming parading; they can even bolster explicit prejudice toward the group they target.
Studying the impact of gay-bashing labels on individuals who are neither the victims of homophobic hassles nor the users of these labels allows one to gain a better understanding of how derogatory labels can influence explicit attitudes, such as those recruited in a public survey or voting for issues pertaining to minority rights (e.g., the Irish referendum on same-sex marriage). Carnaghi and Maass (2008) addressed this issue by asking Italian participants to write down the first thoughts that came to their mind in reaction to either gay or to frocio (i.e., fag). Participants were then requested to go back to these thoughts and evaluate them along a negativity/positivity scale. This procedure (i.e., free association task) allows for priming participants with the category vs. homophobic label and gathers additional evidence on the evaluative reactions triggered by these primes. Participants were further requested to fill out a scale assessing their sexual prejudice. Results indicate that participants not only report less flattering associations after the prime fag, they also show more sexual prejudice after having processed such a label than gay. Hence, being exposed to a homophobic label enhances perceivers’ explicit sexual prejudice.
In a similar vein, Fasoli, Maass, and Carnaghi (2015) extended the analyses of the derogatory group labels to the intergroup bias, namely the tendency of group members to favour the in-group over the out-group (Sacchi et al., 2013; Tajfel & Turner, 1979). The authors relied on the same free-association task procedure outlined by Carnaghi et al. (2008, 2011) and exposed heterosexual Italian participants either to the word gay or fag. Participants were then asked to distribute a fixed amount of money to two different prevention programs, namely a program that is stereotypically understood as relevant to heterosexuals (i.e., sterility prevention) and a program that is stereotypically associated with homosexuals (i.e., HIV prevention; see Carnaghi, Trentin, Cadinu, & Piccoli, 2012; Hegarty & Pratto, 2001). To accomplish this task, participants were provided with matrices of resource allocations (Jetten, Spears, & Manstead, 1996; Tajfel, Billig, Bundy, & Flament, 1971) in which they select the amount of money they jointly give to each prevention program. The allocation matrices are built to detect whether and to what extent participants adopt either in-group–favorable and out-group–discriminatory strategies or more fair, equality-inspired strategies of financial distribution (see Castelli & Carraro, 2010; Franco & Maass, 1996). Results demonstrate a stronger preference for in-group–favoring strategies and less commitment in maximizing joint profit in the homophobic than in the category label condition. Hence, although the in-group/out-group categorization (i.e., United Kingdom vs. France) is a sufficient condition for the intergroup bias to emerge, the magnitude of the intergroup bias can be further enhanced when the out-group is referred to with a derogatory label (such as frogs).
Together, these findings testify to the fact that the overhearing of derogatory group labels dramatically worsens explicit attitudes toward minorities and has concrete, tangible effects on resource distribution, which perpetuates the discrimination toward the target of such slurs.
The Impact of Derogatory Group Labels on Dehumanization
Dehumanization occurs when perceivers deny human characteristics to an individual member or a group of persons (Haslam, 2006; Piccoli, Foroni, & Carnaghi, 2013; Vaes, Leyens, Paolo Paladino, & Pires Miranda, 2012). Dehumanization often takes place in intergroup settings and appears to be dissociated by valence-based intergroup processes, such as in-group favoritism and expressing negative evaluation of the out-group (Leyens, Demoulin, Vaes, Gaunt, & Paladino, 2007).
Among others forms, dehumanization can be achieved by segmenting out the targets and reducing the target to her or his body parts (i.e., objectification) or by assimilating the targets to the animal kingdom, thus perceiving the target as losing her or his human essence (i.e., animalistic dehumanization).
As far as dehumanizing language is concerned, dehumanization can take the form of figurative language, as in the synecdoche. A synecdoche is that form of speech in which a part stands for a larger whole. Examples of derogatory synecdoches are labels that point to a salient physical feature (e.g., big nose, for Jews) or to sexual-body parts (e.g., cunt, for women) to refer to a group as a whole. The derogatory nature of the synecdoche label is not conveyed by the evaluative tone of the specific, singular feature to which this figurative language points. On the contrary, synecdoche labels derogate by reducing the complexity of the individual or group representation to an ostensibly related aspect. For example, sexist-objectifying slurs, such as figa (Italian) and cunt (English), reduce women to their genitals. By assimilating the representation of women to a specific body part, sexist objectifying slurs downgrade women to objects for heterosexual men’s sexual desire (Fasoli, Carnaghi, & Paladino, 2015; Preston & Stanley, 1987; Swim, Hyers, Cohen, & Ferguson 2001; Van Oudenhoven et al., 2008). As far as the Italian context is concerned, and compared to other forms of sexist language, the content of objectifying sexist slurs is perceived as lightly offensive and slightly acceptable. Hence, the moderately social acceptability of the objectifying labels in turn promotes their use in everyday language (Fasoli et al., 2015).
Another form of figurative language that fulfills the aim of the individual and group dehumanization is the case of metaphors. Metaphors allow for the understanding of an abstract concept (e.g., immorality) by means of the direct experience of the concrete referent (e.g., pig). Relying on animal names (e.g., frogs) to describe individual and groups (e.g., the French) is one of the most common usages of metaphors (Andrighetto, Riva, Gabbiadini, & Volpato, 2016). Indeed, animal metaphors can be used to insult ethnic groups (Rice et al., 2010) and to literally equate a target group to the animal in question. Recently, Haslam, Loughnan, and Sun (2011) conducted an extensive research program on the use of animal metaphors to refer to individual or groups in Australia. In their content analyses, Haslam and colleagues (2011, Study 1) found that animal metaphors exert their derogating, offensive function by the aversion experienced regarding the animal (e.g., snake) and by the dehumanizing view of the target that the metaphor involves.
Recently, Fasoli and colleagues (2016) studied whether the exposure to derogatory group labels, compared to category labels, enhances the animalistic dehumanization of homosexuals as a group. The authors primed Italian (Study 1) and Australian (Study 2) participants with either homophobic labels, category labels, or a common slur which was unrelated to sexual orientation (e.g., coglione in Italy, and asshole in Australia). Significantly, the prime was presented in one study and subliminally in the other study. After the priming procedure, participants were provided with 20 name-stimuli: 10 pertaining to uniquely human characteristics (e.g., culture, citizenship) and 10 related to animal characteristics (e.g., paws, pedigree). Participants were requested to select at least 8 name-stimuli that they spontaneously associated with homosexuals and heterosexuals. The proportion of human words on the total selected words provides an index of dehumanization. Results of both studies indicated that the representation of homosexuals, but not of heterosexuals, is affected by the priming manipulation. In particular, homosexuals were dehumanized to a greater extent in the homophobic label condition compared to the category and the generic slur condition. Moreover, the level of dehumanization does not vary between participants exposed to a common slur and to the category label condition. Hence, being consciously or unconsciously exposed to a homophobic epithet leads the audience to dehumanize the insulted group.
The Impact of Derogatory Group Labels on Person Perception
Previous research (Carnaghi & Maass, 2007, 2008) has demonstrated that overhearing derogatory labels automatically activates negative feelings associated with the group in question. Said otherwise, category and derogatory labels make equally salient the group they refer to, but compared to category labels derogatory labels prompt negative contents to be more accessible. Greenberg and Pyszczynski (1985) were the first to assess whether changes in category-related contents, due to the exposure to derogatory group labels, may further affect person perception. In an attempt to address this issue, Greenberg and Pyszczynski (1985) conducted a study in which European American participants were shown a debate between a European American and an African American person who either won or lost a debate. Subsequently, participants overheard a comment from a confederate. The confederate criticizes the African American either by relying on a derogatory group label (i.e., there’s no way that nigger won the debate) or by using an ethnically neutral statement (i.e., there’s no way that pro debator won the debate). Then, participants were asked to evaluate the African American person involved in the debate. The African American person was perceived to be less skilled when participants overheard the ethnic slur and the target person had lost the debate. In contrast, the exposure to an ethnically neutral criticism did not alter the evaluation of the target.
In a subsequent study, Kirkland, Greenberg, and Paszczynski (1987) staged a jury trial in which the defendant was always a European American person while the defense attorney was either African American or European American. As in the previous study (Greenberg & Pyszczynski, 1985), the authors manipulated the exposure either to a derogatory ethnic criticism (i.e., God, Mike, I don’t believe it. That nigger doesn’t know shit) or to an ethnically neutral criticism referring to the defense attorney (i.e., God, Mike, I don’t believe it. That shyster doesn’t know shit). The derogatory ethnic criticism, but not the ethnically neutral criticism, led to a negative evaluation of the African American attorney. Importantly, the defendant received harsher verdicts when defended by the African American attorney who was insulted using derogatory ethnic labels.
Together, the results coming from these two studies suggest that derogatory group labels not only shape category accessibility but further affect category-content application to individual targets. Moreover, the negative evaluation triggered by the derogatory category label spreads to other people who are incidentally associated with the minority member who is the primary target of the racial slur.
The Impact of Derogatory Group Labels on Behavioral Reactions
Category knowledge not only guides attitudes toward individuals and groups, but it likely orients perceiver’s behaviors toward these targets. At the macro, sociological level of analysis, some evidence suggests that the way people speak and write about immigrant groups reflects the way these groups are cognitively represented as well as the manner in which dominant groups behave toward these minority groups (Leader et al., 2009; Mullen & Rice, 2003). Based on archival analyses carried out on a 150-year period of American history, Mullen and Rice (2003) reported that dominant groups’ tendencies to exclude immigrant groups from the receiving society are particularly enhanced with those ethnic immigrant groups that are defined by semantically similar and extremely negative racial slurs.
At the intergroup levels, Fasoli and colleagues (2015, Study 2) confirm that derogatory group labels promote minority exclusion and avoidance. Indeed, Fasoli and colleagues (2015, Study 2) subliminally primed participants with either homophobic labels or category labels and then told participants they were about to meet a gay man for a discussion on a socially relevant topic. Participants were asked to help the researcher to set up the room for the discussion and were requested to take two chairs and place them in the room. Previous research indicates that increasing the physical distance from a social target stems from the individual’s need to protect the self and avoid interaction with that target (Park, Faulkner, & Schaller, 2003; Sechrist & Stangor, 2001). Results from Fasoli and colleagues’ (2016) study indicate that the behavioral tendency to avoid a homosexual individual is further enhanced when participants were primed with derogatory group labels. Indeed, participants primed with derogatory labels set the two chairs at a further distance apart than participants who received the category prime. Similarly, Carnaghi and Maass (2006) relied on the approach avoidance task (see Chen & Bargh, 1999; Wentura, Rothermund, & Bak, 2000) and registered participants’ approach and avoidance behavioral tendencies toward homophobic and ethnic slurs, compared to the corresponding category labels. Findings reveal that participants are slower to approach derogatory group labels than the corresponding category group labels (e.g., gay, Southerner).
On the one hand, this evidence suggests that the linguistic representation of minority groups reflects how majority members behave toward minorities in terms of social exclusion. On the other hand, exposure to such derogatory labels form majority members’ behavioral reactions in terms of minority avoidance and exclusion. Hence, the rejection and segregation of minorities within a given society maps onto the language people use to address these minorities, and, conversely, overhearing or being exposed to such language accentuates the audience’s tendency to exclude and ultimately discriminate against the group in question.
The Target Perspective
In the previous paragraphs we have taken into consideration why and how people use derogatory terms against out-group members and the effects that being exposed to derogatory terms has on an audience. General reports indicate that derogatory labels targeting minority groups are used in a variety of intergroup contexts (e.g., ISTAT, 2012; Kosciw, Greytak, Palmer, & Boesen, 2013). Despite the fact that derogatory group labels are more frequently used when majority members talk about the minority than when they talk with members of these minorities (Graumann, 1995), minority members often overhear and read derogatory remarks referring to their in-group or targeting themselves by virtue of their membership. The current endeavor is primarily guided by the negative implications for mental health and well-being that this hate speech provokes in those who are directly or indirectly the target of such labels (D’Augelli, Pilkington, & Hershberger, 2002).
In this chapter we focus on the perspective of individuals who are members of groups targeted with derogatory labels. Specifically, we take into account how these individuals evaluate derogatory labels (e.g., frog for a French person), whether being the target of derogatory vs. category labels (e.g., fag vs. gay for a homosexual male) affects their evaluative and semantic appraisal, which are the potential negative outcomes of being exposed to such terms (e.g., fairy for a homosexual male), and the consequences for individuals who are targeted by derogatory terms not aimed at their in-group (e.g., pussy for a man). Finally, we outline a strategy individuals exposed to in-group stigmatizing labels (e.g., chink for an Asian American) may use to hinder and counteract their pejorative meaning.
Consequences of Verbal Harassment
Little research has directly investigated the consequences of being exposed to derogatory labels for individual adults being targeted by such labels. Studies on ethnic harassment at the workplace, conceptualized as both verbal harassment (e.g., being the target of ethnic slurs, derogatory comments and jokes directed to the target’s ethnic group) and exclusion from work-related interactions, indicate that the higher the frequency of reported incidents of verbal harassment, the lower the satisfaction with life (Schneider, Hitlan, & Radhakrishnan, 2000).
Also, studies with homosexual participants that tap into everyday discrimination (i.e., the experience of various forms of mistreatment in day-to-day life) provide insight into the possible consequences of being exposed to homophobic epithets. These studies show that the higher the levels of heterosexist hassles (i.e., comments or behaviors that reflect negative attitudes toward LGB individuals, including being exposed to homophobic epithets), the higher the levels of negative affect (e.g., increased anger and anxious mood; Swim, Johnston, & Pearson, 2009). Also, heterosexist hassles are associated with a higher fear of being the target of prejudice (Swim, Pearson, & Johnston, 2007) and with the tendency to avoid self-disclosure as an LGB individual (Burn, Kadlec, & Rexer, 2005).
Studies involving women on the perception of everyday sexism point in the same direction, suggesting that exposure to sexist language is detrimental for psychological well-being (Swim et al., 2001). Indeed, the higher the level of everyday sexism (including exposure to sexist slurs), the lower women’s self-esteem and the higher their feelings of anger and depression.
The impact of racial slurs on well-being in general and suicide rates within ethnic minorities in particular was addressed by Mullen and colleagues (Mullen & Smyth, 2004). Relying on archival data analyses, Mullen, Rozell, and Johnson (2001) proposed that cognitive representations of immigrant-directed derogatory labels (i.e., ethnophaulisms) can differ according to the degree of their complexity, that is, the number of semantic categories they can be classified into (e.g., beelgek and blemish for Belgians refer to one semantic category vs. spinach and josé for Spaniards refer to two semantic categories; Mullen, 2001), or according to their valence, that is, how negative they are (e.g., frog for the French is less negative than greaseball for Italians; Mullen, 2001). Moreover, the cognitive representations of ethnophaulism stem from the nature of intergroup relations between the target groups and the dominant, majority groups. Indeed, Mullen and colleagues (Mullen, 2001; Mullen & Johnson, 1993, 1995) documented that both the complexity and valence of representations of ethnophaulism vary as a function of the size and the familiarity of the groups to which they refer. As far as group size is concerned, smaller groups tend to be represented with derogatory labels that are lower in complexity and more negatively valenced (Mullen et al., 2001). As far as familiarity is concerned, less familiar groups tend to be represented with derogatory labels that are less complex and more negative (Mullen et al., 2001). This line of research points out that while the complexity of an ethnhophaulism seems to better predict the responses of individuals from the majority, for immigrants the valence of the ethnophaulism seems to be a better predictor of their responses. Tapping directly into the responses of immigrants targeted with hate speech, Mullen and Smyth (2004) analyzed historical records of hate speech in the United States toward European immigrants and the suicide rates of immigrants during the same time frame. Their results show that the suicide rates for European immigrant groups are predicted by the negativity of the derogatory labels used to refer to those ethnic immigrant groups. In a similar vein, a correlational study on the lifetime prevalence of suicide attempts among gays demonstrates that a risk factor in this respect is the extent to which respondents have repeatedly been the victims of anti-gay harassment, including being called names in early adolescence. Results demonstrate that, among other risk factors, being the target of verbal and behavioral harassment predicts the tendency to attempt suicide.
Evaluation and Appraisal of Derogatory Labels
Given the significance of the negativity of ethnic slurs in immigrants’ responses (Mullen & Smyth, 2004), Rice and colleagues (2010) examined whether people explicitly evaluate ethnic slurs targeting their in-group in a similar negative fashion to people who may be using these ethnic slurs to refer to out-groups. In a cross-national study, Rice et al. (2010) compared participants from 17 European countries with American participants on the valence of derogatory labels used to refer to European immigrants in the United States. They first assessed the valence of in-group–directed ethnophaulisms within European participants and then compared that to the ratings of U.S. participants assessing the same ethnophaulisms targeting immigrants from these countries. Results show that, overall, European participants rate the in-group–directed derogatory labels as negative and that European and American participants agree on the valence of these ethnophaulisms. These results are consistent with Carnaghi and Maass’s (2008) findings that show that both gay and heterosexuals in the Italian context agree on the offensive and negative connotations of homophobic epithets (e.g., fag) in comparison to category labels (e.g., gay).
As previously reported, both derogatory and category labels (e.g., fag vs. gay) seem to equally activate the stereotypical concepts related to the group to which they refer (e.g., homosexuals) in participants who are exposed to these labels (Carnaghi & Maass, 2007, 2008). However, differing from category labels, derogatory labels strengthen the prejudicial reaction toward the group to which they refer when participants are not members of such a group. In order to understand whether being the target of derogatory vs. category labels affects their evaluative and semantic appraisal in the same fashion as individuals who are not members of the targeted group, Carnaghi and Maass (2007) compared the automatic reactions of gay and heterosexual participants after being confronted with derogatory and category labels referring to gays. Using a semantic priming paradigm, participants were subliminally exposed to primes—two derogatory labels (i.e., fag and fairy) and two category labels (i.e., gay and homosexual)—and were asked to make a word/non-word decision to a target stimulus. The target words included traits that are stereotypically gay, counter-stereotypical, and irrelevant to gays. Half of the traits were positive, whereas the other half were negative. As far as heterosexual participants are concerned and replicating previous findings, both derogatory and category labels equally activate the stereotypical concepts related to gays. Also, derogatory vs. category labels activate less positive concepts. As far as homosexual participants are concerned, both types of labels automatically activated the stereotypical content associated to gays. However, derogatory and category labels did not affect the activation of positive versus negative traits in a different manner, positive traits being more activated than negative traits as a whole for these participants.
In summary, the studies outlined in this section point out that individuals explicitly recognize the negative and offensive undercurrents of derogatory labels targeting their in-group. This is not surprising considering that both members of the majority and members of minorities are exposed to offensive derogatory terms targeting groups in a given society. However, at a more automatic level of processing, while derogatory labels (vs. category labels) decrease the accessibility of positive semantic concepts in majority members, increasing their implicit prejudice, minority members react positively to both derogatory and category labels, suggesting positive automatic evaluations to both labels. Indeed, according to Social Identity Theory (Tajfel & Turner, 1979), individuals feel positively toward their in-group, so they may automatically assess any labels referring to the in-group in a favorable manner. Based on this rationale, members of stigmatized groups who feel positively about their membership would automatically associate a positive value to any in-group labels, even when they recognize the negative expressive function of these labels.
Outcomes of Being Exposed to Derogatory Labels
As previously reported, exposure to derogatory in comparison to category labels can strengthen the prejudice of answers (Carnaghi & Maass, 2008), increase dehumanization of the group they target (Fasoli et al., 2016), boost intergroup bias (Fasoli et al., 2015), and promote minority avoidance (Fasoli et al., 2015) in members of the majority. Few studies compare derogatory versus category labels and their effects on minority members. Recently, Bianchi, Piccoli, Fasoli, Zotti, and Carnaghi (2017) investigated the effects of being exposed to homophobic epithets in comparison to category labels in a sample of gay individuals. Relying on a similar procedure to that used in Carnaghi et al. (2011), after reporting their coming-out status, participants freely generated and evaluated their semantic associations to either homophobic epithets (i.e., fag and fairy) or category labels (i.e., gay and homosexual). Then, participants’ internalized homophobia (i.e., self-directed prejudice based on the acceptance of society’s negative evaluation of homosexuality) and body concerns were measured. Results indicate that gay participants appraise homophobic epithets differently than category labels and that the appraisal varies as a function of participants’ levels of coming-out. Specifically, participants with higher levels of coming-out reported higher levels of internalized homophobia when exposed to homophobic epithets rather than category labels. On the contrary, participants with lower levels of coming-out tended to report higher levels of internalized homophobia when exposed to category labels rather than homophobic epithets. Also, low–coming-out individuals reported more worries about the masculine body ideal when exposed to category labels rather than homophobic epithets. The authors speculate that homophobic and category labels pose different threats to individuals depending on their level of coming-out. On the one hand, individuals who have publically disclosed their sexual orientation and affirmed their membership (e.g., high–coming-out individuals) may experience homophobic epithets as a direct threat to the value of their in-group (Branscombe, Ellemers, Spears, & Doosje, 1999). On the other hand, individuals who are constantly worried about concealing their sexual orientation and not being recognized as gay (e.g., low–coming-out individuals) may experience category labels as a threat to the categorization of the self (Branscombe et al., 1999), more so than homophobic epithets. In fact, homophobic labels may be viewed as an insult to a group to which individuals who conceal their being gay do not acknowledge their belonging, while category labels indicate a membership these individuals try to dissociate from. When facing category labels individuals with lower levels of coming-out may then feel stronger concerns about appearing more masculine and rejecting the threatening undesirable gay membership.
As we have argued, having an out-group label imposed upon one can lead to a self-categorization threat and to defensive responses. This is also the case in which derogatory group labels addressing a specific minority group are applied to a majority group or to its members. For example, exposure to homophobic epithets such as fag increases heterosexual men’s need to reaffirm their masculinity (Carnaghi et al., 2011). In this respect, Saucier, Till, Miller, O’Dea, and Andres (2015) investigated how men respond to slurs that potentially challenge their masculinity. First, analyzing participants’ reports, these authors identified a taxonomy of slurs deemed offensive to men: homophobic slurs (e.g., faggot), feminine slurs (e.g., pussy), intelligence slurs (e.g., dumbass), bravery slurs (e.g., coward), physical slurs (e.g., fat ass), ethnic slurs (e.g., cracker), and general personality slurs (e.g., asshole). Subsequently, they demonstrated that men deem slurs against masculinity (such as homophobic, feminine, and bravery slurs) as more offensive than slurs that do not directly challenge masculinity (such as intelligence, physical, and general personality slurs). Slurs against masculinity trigger a higher intention to respond psychically after being targeted by such slurs in comparison to slurs that do not directly threaten masculinity (Study 3; Saucier et al., 2015).
In summary, research that has directly tested the outcomes of being targeted with derogatory labels suggests that when these labels are appraised as referring to one’s own group they can have a detrimental effect on self-directed prejudice as they may reinforce the stigmatization of the in-group (e.g., fag for a gay man who openly disclosed his sexual orientation). Additionally, being called an undesirable derogatory out-group label (e.g., pussy for a man) can trigger aggressive responses.
Reappropiation of Derogatory Labels
In-group and out-group speakers may differentially use derogatory labels, that is, differently from out-group speakers, derogatory labels are often used by the members of the targeted groups in a non-derogatory fashion (Croom, 2013)—for example, modern feminists’ reappropration of the slur bitch for denoting a strong-minded, assertive woman (“The BITCH Manifesto”; Freeman, 1969).
In this respect, Tajfel and Turner (1986) suggested that based on the motivation to belong to positive social groups, members of stigmatized minorities may use strategies based on social creativity in order to maintain a positive social identity. One strategy involves changing the negative values assigned to the group into more positive ones, for example, “black is beautiful” (Tajfel & Turner, 1986, p. 20).
Recently, Galinsky and colleagues (2013) proposed a model of reappropiation of in-group–stigmatizing labels based on the relationship between self-labeling and power. Central to Galinsky et al.’s reappropriation model is the idea that individuals who label themselves with an in-group–derogatory name are perceived as having power. Also, because of the close connection between self-labeling and social identity, the stigmatized group as a whole will be perceived as having more power. Consequently, through increased power perceptions, self-labeling will reduce the negativity of the derogatory label both for the individuals who label themselves with an in-group–derogatory name and for external observers. A series of experiments were undertaken to test the model. First, the link between self-labeling and power was tested with individuals who remember in-group–derogatory labels. Participants were asked to list stigmatizing labels used to refer to their in-group (e.g., responses included gook and chink for Asian American participants) and to rate either how likely they would use the in-group–derogatory label to refer to themselves (Experiments 1 and 2) or their feelings of power (Experiment 3). Results show that participants are more likely to employ self-labeling after remembering a time when their in-group had power versus a time when their in-group lacked power (Experiment 1) and after remembering a time when their in-group had power versus a time when they individually possessed power (Experiment 2). Also, participants reported that they feel more powerful after recalling a time when they used an in-group–derogatory label to refer to themselves versus a time when the label was used against them (Experiment 3). Second, the link between self-labeling and power was tested with individual observers. Participants who read a scenario in which individuals label themselves with an in-group–derogatory label (e.g., Bill saying “I’m queer”) versus participants who read a scenario in which individuals label someone else with the same derogatory label (e.g., Tom saying to Bill “You’re queer”) confer more power to the target of the label (e.g., Bill as more powerful; Experiment 4) and to the stigmatized group as a whole (Experiment 5). Finally, in a last set of studies, Galinsky et al. (2013) demonstrated that the act of self-labeling decreases the negativity of derogatory terms through perceptions of power for both self-labelers and observers. As far as individuals who are members of groups targeted with derogatory labels are concerned, participants’ sense of relative power increases and the negativity of the in-group–derogatory label decreases after recalling a time when they used an in-group–derogatory label to refer to themselves versus a time when others have used the label against them. Importantly, power mediates the effect of self-labeling on label evaluation (Experiment 7). As far as the observers are concerned, participants’ rating of the stigmatized group’s power increases and the negativity of the stigmatizing group label decreases after recalling a time when they have witnessed someone label him- or herself with a derogatory slur versus a time when someone has been labeled with a derogatory slur by a member of a majority out-group. Importantly, power mediates the effect of self-labeling on observers’ evaluation of the derogatory label (Experiment 8).
In summary, speakers of stigmatized minorities often label themselves with in-group slurs (e.g., a gay individual saying “I’m queer”). As opposed to being used as self-derogation, these acts of self-labeling can be seen as a creative social strategy to change the value of an externally imposed negative label (Tajfel & Turner, 1986). Indeed, self-labeling empowers minority speakers and increases their perceptions of the in-group’s power, consequently reducing the negativity associated with the in-group–derogatory label. Also, observers’ perceptions of the individual’s and the out-group’s power increase after self-labeling, leading to a re-evaluation of the derogatory label (Galinsky et al., 2013).
On the Relation Between Labeling and Intergroup Dynamics
Our review of the literature suggests that the whys, whats, and hows of derogatory group labels are deeply rooted within the intergroup context in which these social slurs are used. Indeed, it is our perspective that derogatory group labels reflect and in turn shape intergroup dynamics.
As for the conceptualization of derogatory group labels, the findings discussed in the section regarding audience perspective speak to the debate about whether derogatory group labels such as nigger have a primarily expressive function or additionally fulfil a descriptive function (e.g., O’Dea & Saucier, 2016). Some authors argue that at least certain derogatory group labels have lost their descriptive contents and mainly express negative affects toward the target they address, as in the case of racial slurs (see Hedger, 2012, 2013) or as in the case of homophobic epithets in the context of professional football (Cashmore & Cleland, 2011). In this study derogatory labels were found to be used as common slurs and can be assimilated with generic insults. Other authors put forward that derogatory group labels do play an expressive role and, in parallel, work as descriptors (e.g., Croom, 2014; O’Dea et al., 2015).
Carnaghi and Maass’s (2008) findings suggest that derogatory group and category labels operate as descriptors and do this in a very similar fashion, but they dramatically differ in their expressive function, which has been brought out to a greater extent by derogatory group labels than category labels. Moreover, the fact that only the homophobic epithets, but not the common slur (i.e., asshole), lead to the dehumanization of homosexuals (Fasoli et al., 2016) suggests that is not the valence-based, expressive function that can account for a dehumanizing appraisal of homosexuals. Furthermore, category labels work as descriptors of the group to which they point, while common slurs, by virtue of their nature, cannot denote any social category. Given that Fasoli and colleagues (2016) found a similar level of gay dehumanization in the category label and common slur condition, the descriptive function of these labels seems not to be crucial per se in triggering dehumanizing responses. Rather, it is the homophobic content of these slurs that provokes the dehumanization of homosexuals, beyond their descriptive and expressive function.
Together, this evidence demonstrates the need to reframe the definition of derogatory group labels within an intergroup theoretical perspective. Indeed, derogatory group labels likely have broader implications on the way the setting is construed. Derogatory group labels seem to have the power of switching the social setting from an interpersonal to an intergroup context in which actors are appraised on the basis of their group memberships rather than their idiosyncratic characteristics. Moreover, the fact that derogatory labels addressing minorities (more so than category labels) enhance majority members’ need to stress their group-based identity, foster intergroup bias, and bolster a dehumanizing and prejudicial view of these minorities leads one to suggest that these labels not only increase the salience of intergroup context but trigger psychological reactions that are typically recruited in conflict-ridden situations.
The intergroup nature of derogatory group labels is evidenced by the bidirectional link between such labels and the quality of intergroup dynamics. Indeed, not only do language in general and social slurs in particular contribute to determine the characteristics of the intergroup dynamics, as mentioned above, but the quality of intergroup relations also molds the language individuals rely on to address groups (Mullen, Driskell, & Salas, 1998). Indeed, the availability and the frequency of derogatory group labels targeting a given set of groups is a function of the actual discriminative conditions of those groups in a given context (Allen, 1983). Improving intergroup contact and enhancing the familiarity between intergroup members may contribute both to ameliorate intergroup attitudes and weaken the use of derogatory labels.
Deeply rooted in intergroup dynamics, derogatory group labels have pernicious consequences for the individuals targeted. The social costs associated with hate speech and verbal harassment involving derogatory group labels seem to be widespread in a variety of contexts. Recent U.S. data on victims of hate speech in schools (i.e., students between 12 and 18 years old) covering the period from 1999 to 2013 illustrate that being the target of hate speech can lead to avoidance of school, classes, and extracurricular activities (Child Trends Databank, 2015), suggesting direct financial costs for the families involved. Also, evidence on workplace bullying and mobbing (e.g., including being the victim of verbal harassment) points out that minority groups are more frequently victim of such acts than are European American workers in the United States (Workplace Bullying Institute, 2014). Moreover, bullying has been found to be associated with absenteeism, lower staff morale, and a decrease in productivity, which can eventually lead to resignations (Sloan, Matyók, Schmitz, & Short, 2010). The economic costs associated with workplace bullying including but not limited to verbal harassment are then self-evident. Indeed, in a report issued by the Royal & Sun Alliance (see BBC, November 7, 2007), it is claimed that bullying in the workplace has cost the business almost 18 billion pounds a year—approximately 8 to 10% of their profits. Everything being taken into account, the social and economic costs are broad ramifications of the consequences of being the victim of derogatory language.
The current review of the literature on the use and the effects of derogatory labels has shed a light on the debate regarding politically correct speech. At least two arguments are typically put forward against politically correct language. First, relying on politically correct labels to address a given target does not prevent the speaker from holding a genuine, prejudicial attitude toward that target. Hence, politically correct language is hypocritical as it leads to a change in the way one speaks publically about a target but not in the manner the speaker truly appraises the target. Second, insisting upon politically correct language in public speech, in media as well as in everyday life, is a restriction of freedom of speech.
The findings we have herewith presented reply, at least in part, to the first argument. Indeed, calling someone fag, kike, or nigger likely leads the audience to increase prejudice, dehumanization, and the avoidance of minority group members who are the targets of such labels. The detrimental effects of biased language use suggests that it may be crucial to implement political correctness norms that govern social speech, thus avoiding socially unfair, discriminative reactions in those who overhear or read such labels.
Moreover, the analyses of the consequence of social slurs on the victims of this biased language show how damaging and costly the derogatory group labels are, even for those who are not directly insulted but are potential targets of such labels. Hence, informing individuals about the harmful consequences of the derogatory group labels may help weaken their use, at least for speakers who assimilate derogatory group labels to common slurs (Cashmore & Cleland, 2011; Hunt et al., 2016).
Challenging Donald Trump’s statement, we conclude that not being politically correct is indeed a significant problem, as hate speech prevents social inclusion and negatively affects the social and economic facets of the country’s welfare.
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