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The Role of Language in Bias, Prejudice, and Violence

Language has the power to hurt, but it also has the power to heal.

Source: ArtemisDiana

There are three aspects of language that deserve mention in the context of bias, prejudice, and violence. The first two are seen at the individual level while the third one is seen in groups.

In Individuals

The first involves written and spoken language as a weapon—sometimes a deadly weapon—the wounding, hurtful, potentially destructive aspect of certain words, e.g., racial and ethnic slurs. Language can be potentially destructive in terms of undermining a child’s development and sense of self —by eliciting distress, fear, shame, self-disgust, and rage in the context of bias and prejudice. In children and adults, language can be used to elicit both negative and positive affects in the name of bias and prejudice to motivate groups toward violence and great destructiveness.

Second, written and spoken language can be of use in counteracting bias and prejudice and enhancing empathy and healing; the pen can be mightier than the sword. Fictionalized, as well as research-driven and personal, accounts, have had a profound impact on the public’s understanding of bias and prejudice. Stand-out examples include Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Harriet Beecher Stowe), Frederick Douglass’ three autobiographies (including Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave), Night (Elie Wiesel), Black Like Me (John Howard Griffin), The Nazi Doctors (Robert Jay Lifton), and the books by two ex-white supremacists, Derek Black (Rising Out of Hatred) and Yvonne Hubbard (White Sheets to Brown Babies).

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