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How Language Oppresses

Project description

Understanding oppressive speech

Language is a powerful tool. It can build or destroy. It can inform, influence, mobilise, manipulate, comfort and hurt. Language can also oppress but little is known about how language oppresses and the motivation behind it. The EU-funded HaLO project aims to fill this knowledge gap. It will take a multidisciplinary approach that combines and complements the strengths of game theory and theories of social norms and social injustice. The project will use game theory to explain how oppressive speech impacts a conversation and how people are motivated to oppress others through speech. It will also examine the role that speech plays in preserving social injustice.


Oppressive speech is speech that harms and disempowers its targets. It also seeks to influence third parties, changing their behaviour and attitudes towards targets, legitimating discrimination, creating implicit bias, and inciting to hatred and violence. The purpose is ultimately to change society: it’s not just doing unjust things with words, but it’s creating and maintaining unjust structures of social power. Oppressive speech is thus one of the most urgent social and political issues of our time.

There is currently no simple, unifying framework that models oppressive speech or explains its many effects. The proposed research project seeks to address this gap through a multidisciplinary approach that combines the complementary strengths of game theory, and theories of social norms and social injustice. The core idea is that conversational games are embedded within a larger social game such that oppressive conversational games focus on the acquisition of power in the larger social game to achieve later payoffs. I hypothesise that game theory can be used to explain fundamental phenomena of interest in the context of oppressive speech: (i) the effects of oppressive speech within a conversation; (ii) the shifting of conversational and social norms that govern the conversational and social games; (iii) the motivation of some people to oppress others through speech and the role that speech plays in maintaining social injustice.

The research objectives are three interlinked parts of a new model of oppressive speech:
RO1 Deliver an initial model of oppressive speech as a conversational game that alters power.
RO2 Deliver an extension of the model from RO1 that explains the harmful social effects on targets, by explaining how oppressive speech sets up unjust social norms.
RO3 Deliver a model extending RO1 and RO2 that explains how unjust social structures affect speech, what motivates agents in a group to oppressive acts, and what is needed to change harmful norms.


Net EU contribution
€ 174 806,40
Schutzenstrasse 18
10117 Berlin

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Berlin Berlin Berlin
Activity type
Research Organisations
Other funding
€ 0,00