"A Framework for Understanding Polarizing Language"
by Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess
September 65, 2022
Citation: William Donohue and Mark Hamilton, "A Framework for Understanding Polarizing Language" in The Routledge Handbook of Language and Persuasion. Routledge, 2022.
In this article, Donahue and Hamilton (D&H) provide a conceptual framework for understanding the nature of polarizing language and explain why it is so insidious and dangerous. They hope that by enabling scholars and practitioners to better detect polarization language, they might be in a better position to prevent it from escalating to violence.
Polarizing language, they explain, is driven by the need to reinforce intergroup identity, and as such, it plays an important role in reinforcing intergroup biases and social stereotypes. This matters, they point out several times, because, unchecked, it eventually leads to such horrific behaviors as the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide.
The goal is to not view them [the outgroup] as individual people, but as members of groups who share undesirable characteristics. Individuals from the in-group use these social categories or prototypes to depersonalize members of the out-group. ... Social categories or prototypes might include calling out-group members animals or arrogant jerks, or deplorables. Polarizing language becomes one of the primary tools to express this depersonalization, which serves as the rationale for taking action against the out-group. (p. 208)
Such depersonalization can then lead to dehumanization, when members of outgroups are characterized as less than human, as occurred in the Rwandan genocide, during which Tutsis were widely referred to as cockroaches, thereby legitimizing their extermination.
D&H next discuss how and why polarizing language promotes conflict and escalates violence. One reason is that it attacks people's identities. They cite van de Vliert's (1998) work on identity conflict, while we tend to think of John Burton's human needs theory. Both van de Vliert and Burton argue that attacks on identity tend to produce deep-rooted conflict that tends to escalate much more easily than it is resolved.
D&H also talk about the importance of "facework," which we more simply call "face" or "face-saving." This involves the almost ubiquitous human desire to present a positive view of oneself to the world. People want to be seen as competent and likable; they want to be respected. D&H distinguish between "negative face" — the desire to maintain personal autonomy, and "positive face," — the desire to earn approval from others by appearing competent, attractive, and interesting. Face relates to polarizing language because
when individuals formulate polarizing language they select a face-threatening strategy that will inflict the maximum sting to the out-group members while also motivating the in-group members to take action. Often, the more outrageous the identity attack is, the better for the in-group to justify its actions. Under these circumstances it is easy to understand how conspiracy theories of the most heinous forms are created and propagated. They serve to inflict maximum pain on the out-group members while appealing to the core values of the in-group members. (p. 210)
. . .
The goal of polarizing language is to attack the other’s positive and negative face, and in turn, stand firm against threats posed by the out-group by using language that supports and defends the in-group and its agenda. Repeated and escalating attacks create black-and-white thinking. As this thinking persists, the group promoting the attacks tends to expand the range of issues associated with the out-group crimes. When these issues expand, the need to control the out-group through violence also expands. (p. 210)
I found this particularly interesting because it explains why, for instance, QAnon persists in insisting that Democrats are "sex-trafficking pedophiles," when that charge is so clearly ridiculous. But it makes sense in the context of maximizing Republican fear of and hatred toward Democrats. Similarly, D&H describe Arabic documents created by al-Qaeda leader al-Zawahiri as making a case for the destruction of democracy by describing Westerners as "nonhuman, evil, and infidels. The goal of these language choices was to craft an identity that would energize believers to join the jihad." (p. 216)
D&H go on to discuss the importance of the credibility of the source of information. "Civil audiences" (by which they mean not angry) "are generous in their evaluation of sources, rating even incorrigible sources as having moderate credibility." (p. 212) When the audience is angry, however, they tend to view speakers more harshly, often changing their attitudes in the opposite way than the speaker is urging. This tendency is amplified if the source has been negatively stereotyped as a member of the hated, dehumanized out-group.
Other factors also influence the degree to which a speaker (or writer) can change another's attitudes. One is the amount of information the receiver has about the topic being discussed; the second, the more they are emotionally involved in the issue; and the third, the force with which a message is sent. All of these things tend to increase the resistance of the listener to changing their attitudes or their behaviors in response to the arguments being presented. Similarly, the more intense the language used by the speaker/writer, the more credible that source is considered by people who share the same attitudes; however when listeners do not share such attitudes, they tend to see strong language as extreme, and hence less credible. Put simply, language intensity and emotional expression are markers of polarizing language, as they bring the "in-group" closer to the speaker/writer, and drive members of the "outgroup" further away.
D&H then explore how polarizing language leads to violent outcomes. They start by looking at the language used by extremist Hutu media outlets to set the stage for the 1994 Rwandan genocide. They describe a study by Stanton (2004) that says that genocide is preceded by massive and fundamental social change that is accomplished in eight stages. The first three, D&H say, are the most critical, and rely most heavily on polarizing language:
- First is the "classification" stage which creates an us-versus-them identity frame by using positive words to describe the in-group and negative words to describe the out-group. This, they point out, is typical of any hard-fought political campaign. It certainly is evident in U.S. politics, we would add.
- The second stage is "symbolization" in which the classifications are given institutionalized and material form. They give the example of the yellow star that Jews were required to wear in Nazi-controlled Europe. Rwanda, they point out, issued ethnic identification cards, and people who had them were often brutalized.
- The third stage is dehumanization, characterizing members of a group as "something other than human, needing to be eliminated, cured, or exterminated." While we haven't called the other party cockroaches (to our knowledge) in the United States, many news and scholarly articles make it clear that dehumanization is being used extensively on both sides of the aisle. (See, for instance "Dehumanization Is Threatening Democracy" and The Consequences of Dehumanizing Language in Politics.)
These three stages smooth the way to the last five stages:
- Forming organizations to oppose the vilified group
- Assassinating moderates
- Exterminating "the enemy"
- Justifying these actions, and denying that a crime has been committed
It is telling that the U.S. is deeply into stages 1, 3, and 4. We haven't done stage 2 as much, except with respect to immigrants who either have green cards, and legitimate identification (such as drivers' licenses) or not. And if they don't, they are prevented from accessing many needed goods and services, and are subject to deportation at any time. And while we haven't physically assassinated moderates, we have politically, socially, and economically done so by voting moderates out of office (Liz Cheney, for instance), and canceling people who don't toe the party line.
D&H illustrate the similarities by reflecting on the January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. capitol:
The storming of the U.S. Capitol by an extremist group was ostensibly focused on the issue of election fraud with the chant “Stop the steal!” The issue served as the vehicle for the groups to use their polarizing language as a call to action. These calls often become violent as they did in the 2021 U.S. Capitol insurrection and in such extreme cases as the Tutsi and Nazi genocides.
. . .
The language promoting the violence repeats face attacks against the out-group members to continuously vilify them as enemies. The repeated publicizing of polarizing symbols typically accompanies these vilification efforts to reinforce the dangerous nature of the out-group’s position on the specific issue. For the U.S. Capitol insurrectionists, the symbols of QAnon (Q), White Supremacy, and Trump flags were visible during the riot (Garry et al. 2021). Dehumanization often follows these attacks which provides the rationale for violence against the out-groups. For the Capitol group, the growing conspiracy theory of QAnon calls Democrats pedophiles who need to be violently terminated.
Also important in D&H's analysis of polarizing language is counter-arguing. QAnon tries to reduce or eliminate counter-arguments to their narrative by making their statements very simple, hateful, and clear.
Less polarizing or more nuanced, equivocal language opens the door to uncertainty and potential counter-arguing. When trying to solidify in-group identity, it is important to eliminate ambiguity or any threat to solidarity on the issue at stake. Thus, the polarizing language works well to make counter-arguing disloyal or heretical. It promotes the black-and-white thinking that paints the enemy with a target since they are a threat to the in-group’s stance on the big lie about the issue at risk. This elimination of counter-arguing is particularly effective when delivered by a credible source, and the message is forceful and clear. When this intense, emotional, concrete language is repeated over time it gains a momentum that is difficult to refute and ultimately control. It gains a life of its own.
Emotionally-laden language, such as anxiety, fear, and anger. also drives polarization. These emotions are often used in social media with the goal of radicalizing users. They give the example of Jihadists' emotional attacks on Western democracy, calling it evil, and hence calling for its destruction. Social media is used world-wide, of course, to spread conspiracy theories against "the other." Media outlets encourage such narratives in order to increase viewership/readers/listeners, thereby driving hyper-polarization and conflict escalation further, eventually to violence.
The Rwandan and Nazi genocides are paradigmatic cases of how language and other symbolic actions fueled the fire of hate by at first vilifying the targeted outgroups and then dehumanizing them as a run up to violence. A consistent drumbeat of hate language in the context of political instability and social upheaval creates a cocktail of deceit and hate that resonates with the in-group members. It serves to eliminate counter-arguing and promotes black-and-white thinking while stirring emotions.
From a systems theory perspective, this kind of polarizing and hate language serves as positive feedback that escalates the ability of the system to spin out of control toward the destructive outcomes.
Drawing from the experience of hostage negotiations, however, they point out that such positive feedback dynamics can be blocked or reversed:
Hostage negotiators are trained to recognize polarizing language and keep it from escalating out of control toward violence against hostages. This goal is achieved by avoiding identity attacks aimed at hostage takers and working toward developing a relationship that would enable them to problem solve around substantive issues related to the situation peacefully by reducing the polarizing features of the language to their unifying alternative features.
They end by saying:
This chapter has shown how polarizing language demonstrates some specific features that are readily identifiable. This detection is important as an early warning signal that the social system is moving toward polarization, hate, and ultimately violence. The question is whether such warnings can be heard and action taken to create different communication frames that enable people to shift from violence to problem solving. It is hoped that this chapter will be instrumental in accomplishing this goal.
We would conclude by saying that it is clear that this kind of polarizing language is rampant in United States discourse; it is very common in many other places as well. So while we are not yet in Stanton's stage 5 of genocide (eliminating as many of the outgroup as possible), stages 1 (us-versus-them framing), 3 (dehumanization), and 4 (forming organizations to fight "the other) are firmly in place. It isn't hard to imagine stage 2 (institutionalization) occurring, and stage 5 (assassinating moderates) is happening politically, socially, and economically, if not physically.
So to those of our readers who say polarization isn't a problem—or isn't as big a problem as oppression, we ask: isn't this polarizing lanugage leading to and justifying oppression? And if it continues, isn't it going to lead to and justify much more?
Garry, A., Walther, S., Mohamed, R. & Mohammed, A. (2021). QAnon conspiracy theory: Examining
its evolution and mechanisms of radicalization. Journal for Deradicalization. Spring 2021, Nr.26. ISSN:
Stanton, G.H. (2004). Could the Rwandan genocide have been prevented? Journal of Genocide Research, 6, 211–228. DOI: 0.1080/1462352042000225958
van de Vliert, E. (1998). Conflict and conflict management. In J.D. Drenth, H. Thierry & C.J. DeWolff (Eds.), A handbook of work and organizational psychology: Volume 3 (pp. 351–369). East Sussex, UK: Psychology Press.