In our current climate of sometimes intense vitriol, reappropriation — by which a group of people reclaims words or artifacts that were previously used in a way disparaging of that group — can tame uncivil discourse, finds a new study by political scientists and a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis.
“The purpose of this research is to test several hypotheses related to the process of reappropriation, using ‘The Slants’ controversy as our general context,” said Lee Epstein, the Ethan A.H. Shepley Distinguished University Professor and a co-author of “Taming Uncivil Discourse,” published Oct. 17 in the journal Political Psychology.
“Based on a survey-experiment of a representative sample of the American population, our analysis examines how people who are and are not members of the targeted group evaluate reappropriation,” she said.
In 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court found that members of the Asian-American punk rock band The Slants had the right to call themselves a disparaging name. The band has said it wanted to reclaim what is often considered a slur against Asians.
Using data from The American Panel Survey, Epstein and co-authors James L. Gibson, the Sidney W. Souers Professor of Government in Arts & Sciences, and Gregory Magarian, the Thomas and Karole Green Professor of Law in the School of Law, found that, under some circumstances, words that seem to insult a group can be disarmed and neutralized.
“When a group is seen as taking control of a historically disparaging term, it can indeed neutralize the insulting content of the term,” Gibson said. “And it does so among the group that is the target of the insult, as well as among members of the majority group. Reappropriation does seem to work in the sense of defusing insults, rendering them less disparaging and harmful.”
Said Epstein: “Our analysis also connects to more general conclusions about uncivil discourse and intergroup conflict.
“First, context matters,” she said. “In one of the Supreme Court’s seminal free speech rulings, the case turned on whether calling someone — a police officer — a ‘goddamn racketeer’ constitutes ‘fighting words.’ Such an epithet seems quaint in the context of contemporary American politics. The power of words is undoubtedly context dependent.”
Second, the researchers found it unlikely that disparaging slurs ever will be effectively removed from political discourse.
“Bad words exist in every society, whether they are spoken or not,” Gibson said. “What seems more important is that such words are allowed to contaminate discourse as little as possible, just as true fighting words make further debate improbable.
“Reappropriation is a strategy for neutralizing the sting of insults, perhaps allowing political arguments to proceed,” Gibson said. “To the extent that minorities can armor themselves against insults, via reappropriation or other tools, the marketplace of ideas is more likely to be effective. And, the bad words need not be banned.”
The researchers found that learning more about reappropriation processes — among majorities and minorities — seems essential for understanding political discourse and conflict in these politicized times.
“Reappropriation may not always work and may not always work for all,” Epstein said. “But political discourse is too important in a democratic society to allow it to be shut down because insults may wound minority groups. Because it is unlikely that the views of those who wish to issue insults can be easily changed, developing strategies to protect against group disparagement seems crucial for taming uncivil discourse.
“Reappropriation may be one such strategy for achieving that end,” Epstein said.