Escalating Linguistic Violence: From Microaggressions to Hate Speech

In Lauren Freeman & Jeanine Weekes Schroer (eds.), Microaggressions and Philosophy. New York: Routeledge. pp. 121-145 (2020)
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At first glance, hate speech and microaggressions seem to have little overlap beyond being communicated verbally or in written form. Hate speech seems clearly macro-aggressive: an intentional, obviously harmful act lacking the ambiguity (and plausible deniability) of microaggressions. If we look back at historical discussions of hate speech, however, many of these assumed differences turn out to be points of similarity. The harmfulness of hate speech only became widely acknowledged after a concerted effort by critical race theorists, feminists, and other activists. Before the 1990s, slurs were widely considered socially acceptable behavior: mere jokes that weren’t intended to be harmful. Authors like Richard Delgado, Mari Matsuda, and Charles Lawrence pushed back against this dismissal. In this chapter, I show that their arguments for the serious harmfulness of hate speech prefigure and provide support for current debates about the serious harmfulness of microaggressions. Exploring resonances with the 1980s hate speech debate will allow us to explain why microaggressions fall below the cutoff for legal liability but remain apt targets for moral blame.
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