Words as Weapons—When Do They Wound? Investigations of Harmful Speech

Authors

  • LAURA LEETS,

    Corresponding author
    1. Laura Leets is an assistant professor at Stanford University and Howard Giles is a professor and chair of Communication at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
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  • HOWARD GILES

    1. Laura Leets is an assistant professor at Stanford University and Howard Giles is a professor and chair of Communication at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
    Search for more papers by this author

  • This article is part of the first author's PhD dissertation, which was completed under the direction of the second author. Both authors are grateful to James Bradac, Ed Donnerstein, Dan Linz, Steve Chaffee, and Peggy Bowers for their helpful feedback during various phases of this study, as well as to Pam Gibbons and Helen Chen's assistance in data collection. In addition, we thank the editor, Cindy Gallois, and two anonymous reviewers for their useful suggestions that improved this article.

Laura Leets, Department of Communication, McClatchy Hall, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305-2050.

Abstract

The following investigations juxtapose jurisprudence and communication literatures to examine under what conditions racist speech is perceived as harmful. Specifically, one theory of legal liability, the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress, and one intergroup approach, social identity theory, guided three empirical studies investigating verbally disturbing communication targeted at Asian Americans. The studies examined how the attribution of harm was influenced by variables such as group membership, message severity, message explicitness and the medium ofpresentation. One finding in particular, an interaction between group membership and message explicitness (direct vs. indirect), emerged across the three studies. Results revealed that as “objective” evaluators of deprecating speech, out-group members attributed the direct messages of racism to be more harmful than in-group members did, but, conversely, in-group members evaluated the indirect messages of racism to be more harmful than the out-group members did. Theoretical explanations for this finding and its resulting legal implications are discussed.

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