Why hate speech predisposes our brains to hateful acts

Hate speeches are quite well defined linguistically – although later it is complex to articulate them legally and socially -, they have consequences and it is convenient to think about them.

The Council of Europe (Recommendation of October 20, 1997) defines hate speech as “all those expressions that propagate, incite, promote or justify racial hatred, xenophobia, anti-Semitism or other forms of hatred based on intolerance; including intolerance expressed by aggressive nationalism, ethnocentrism or discrimination and hostility towards minorities, migrants and people of immigrant origin ”.

In subsequent regulations and recommendations, the scope of discrimination through hate speech has been extended to sex, gender identity, disability, in other aspects. This, then, is a matter that has already been carried out for a long time, while at the same time open to debate.

It summons many spheres of knowledge: philosophy – how are the locutionary acts from incitement to hatred with the imperative of freedom of expression? -; the law – how is linguistic performativity transferred to positive legislation on human rights? -; psychology – what psychic function do the hate drives have and where do they come from?


They are also of interest to neuroscience and, of course, to linguistics, since when we talk about these discourses we refer, above all, to verbal expressions and their reflexes in cognition. I will refer to these last two visions (the insult is a form of verbal aggression, but that is another story).

Hate speech has illocutionary force

The hate speech It is a type of speech act, an intentional action executed through words, as he said JL Austin, and can be a stimulus that activates the sensory, motor and emotional systems of the brain.

Legally, hate speech is speech that encourages a negative view of certain vulnerable minorities, or non-minorities. Therefore, those who claim that certain imprecations and acts of homophobiaFor example, they are not related to discriminatory statements of the extreme right, or of anyone, they simply forget what is known or, perhaps, they disdain the knowledge and reasoned reflections of many disciplines, since the discourses that have intention and They seek effects, they are performative, they are actions.

So let’s start by looking at the matter from the perspective of speech acts and their illocutionary force. The hackneyed example of an act with illocutionary force is that when a person says that they accept someone as a husband or wife, they not only make a statement, but also carry out the act of marrying.

There is here, according to Austin and many others, with all the parallel debates that come to the case, three compositional elements:

  1. A locutionary act (the act of emitting a meaningful linguistic sequence).

  2. An illocutionary force (which corresponds to the intention of the speaker to carry out a certain action when he emits that locution).

  3. A perlocutionary effect (what the illocutionary act produces in the listener, if certain conditions of adequacy are satisfied).

There is a consensus among linguists and philosophers that statements with illocutionary force are in many cases, not all, performative or performative. That is, whoever orders, who sanctions as an authority, asks to obtain strategic information or, let us add, who encourages discrimination against human groups with certain characteristics is acting, not simply speaking.

Characteristics of performative acts of hate

There is much debate as to whether the perlocution effect is part or not of speech acts, but there are no stresses on the characteristics of the performative acts. Both linguists and philosophers agree that a central characteristic of acts ilocutivos performativos it is the intention to instigate potential actions – for example, accept a proposal that will have legal effect, proceed to clean your room if your mother orders you to do so, avoid being imprisoned or avoid an attack, if you respond to an interrogation, etc. -.

I eat well notes Cambridge philosopher Rae LangtonWhen a hate speech is minimized, psychologized, reduced to being a simple expression of unpopular or hurtful ideas for the sensitivity, it is good to remember that the damage is implied in its force as a speech act in its performativity.

Thus, when a person who has such authority as to be interviewed in television spaces says, regarding a violent homophobic action: “I condemn all violence … but violence has a direct cause in the massive entry of illegal immigrants”, no it is that it is something scattered and tortuous of someone who takes advantage of the fact that the Pisuerga passes through Valladolid to make a judgment of causality. It is carrying out an act of incitement to hatred towards immigrants, whom, without any proof and in all rolled, considers “direct cause” of acts of violence. Of all.

Verbal acts of hatred, which can be more or less implicit -as the previous one- or explicit -as when it is said that the way of life of immigrants causes contagion by covid-, are assaults on reason, distortions of logic and intuition, tortuously constructed propaganda, expressions that attack groups and individuals.

Hate acts are contagious

Another characteristic of verbal hateful acts is that they are dispersive, contagious, and emotionally effective; and they tend to be dehumanizing: the “other” becomes a thing. They are also echoic and agglutinate the like.

Some neuroscientist has designed experiments to see if words could be enough to activate “simulations” in the neuronal motor, perceptual and emotional systems. AND, according to your resultsHearing hateful expressions predisposes our brain to commit hateful acts.

This is all very interesting, but let’s not extrapolate or convert an experimental correlation into a causal relationship and an explanation. Hate speech is the emergence of a set of cognitive and socialization factors (surely with neural reflexes) that is difficult to simply list exhaustively.

What we have to look at and what we have to reflect on is the cognitive disposition to accept as better, and to give the role of explanation, to the simplest generalizations, if they correspond to our stereotypes and our biases; the influence of the social groups with which one lives; the tendency not to base our generalizations on evidence and data; the willingness to deceive ourselves if this confirms a belief and the persistence of hatred in new places of worship such as certain media and social networks.

Violeta Demonte, Emeritus Professor of Spanish Language, Autonomous University of Madrid

This article was originally published on The Conversation. read the original.


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