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Investigator Calls For An "Epidemiology Of Toxic Speech"

A Thought-Provoking Interview With The University of Connecticut’s Lynne Tirrell

“Toxic speech, like any toxin, is a threat to the well-being and even the very lives of those against who it is deployed…Thinking in epidemiological terms highlights that toxic speech is a community problem in need of social solutions.”

These are among the points made by the University of Connecticut’s Lynne Tirrell in a paper published in 2017 entitled “Toxic Speech: Toward an Epidemiology of Discursive Harm.” In her paper, Tirrell calls for an “epidemiology of discursive toxicity”.

The Epidemiology Monitor is always on the lookout for original ways of using epidemiology to share these with our readers. We interviewed Tirrell to learn more about her ideas and proposal. Whether you are skeptical or not, read on for an eye-opening perspective about the potential health impact of the words we use to talk to one another, and why epidemiologists should get involved.

EM:  How did you get interested in the impact of toxic speech, what led you to this? 

Tirrell: It is said that Gandhi held that a language is a reflection of the health of a society. How we talk to and about each other speaks volumes about us, and has a deep effect on our health and well-being. In my research, I started out looking at the power of derogatory terms (racist and sexist epithets) to inflict harm. Not just hurt someone’s feelings, but truly harm them even when their feelings might not be hurt at all. Later, research took me to Rwanda to learn about the role of divisive discourse, especially derogatory terms for others, in preparing ordinary citizens to participate in killing their neighbors. I developed an account to explain the linguistic mechanisms involved. That got me thinking about background conditions, and the ways that a culture can be “seeded” with toxic concepts that can weaken some people and then eventually kill them. Words alone didn’t kill the Tutsi—their Hutu neighbors did that—but ongoing changing linguistic practices were a necessary part of making it happen. Words are never alone. That project led to thinking about how we might track those changes, or how to assess the linguistic health of a  society or community. If we can spot the harms and the patterns of their distribution, maybe we can prevent greater harms. I’m focused on assessment of risk.


EM: What is the toxic speech you are interested in? Which one not?


Tirrell: I look at toxic speech practices, not one-off cruelties or damaging remarks. These practices reveal the ways that people use harmful language as a systemic form of control. Such speech may promote discrimination or deprive people of important powers of self-determination and social and civic participation. Racist, sexist, homophobic slurs count as systemic toxic speech that generally serve to lower the baseline well-being of the people targeted. This is now well studied. It’s easy to identify the epithet that’s thrown one-on-one; it’s like a punch in the nose. Certain speech practices are more subtle and insidious, and I think their capacity to harm us can be devastating and yet hard to prove.


It’s also important to think about how the position of the speaker and the relationship between speaker, hearer, or target, can enhance or diminish the power of the speech act. Parents have more power to harm their child in certain ways than a stranger, and peers have yet different powers over the child. Tracking the relationships within which certain kinds of harms are delivered would be informative, and might help us see ways to foster changes. The results of such surveillance might be surprising.

EM: How does toxic speech as a topic or subject differ from other concerns of epidemiologists like disease, accidents, and other conditions?

Tirrell: Many harms are the same. Perhaps the mechanisms of delivery vary, but the result is poor health, physical, cognitive, and emotional dysfunction.  Epidemiology could contribute to an empirical understanding of the power of speech to help or harm people. I’ve scoped out an overall argument that speech can be toxic, but the empirical research would address these questions: Which populations are harmed? How is their well-being damaged? What triggers the toxic effect? Are there inoculating protections? Are there antidotes?

It’s my view that toxic speech plays a significant role in a variety of physical and mental health problems. My work so far has been urging philosophers who think about the harmful power of language to investigate the usefulness of toxicity for understanding harms that are delivered in more subtle or diffuse ways. An epidemiology of toxic speech could help us make clearer what counts as a “chilly climate” or progresses to a toxic one.


If you start from the harm and work backward, the harms of speech often get categorized in some other way. Why is this child depressed and anxious? I’m saying caregivers should examine the child’s expressive environment in addition to the things they ordinarily consider. It would be easiest to start with mental disorders, but many physical disorders could be launching pads too, particularly those connected to stress.

EM: Is it more difficult to define the harms than other topics epidemiologists work on?
Lots of public health issues may be like toxic speech such as bullying, or poor parenting, or other suggested public health issues. Presumably, making toxic speech a public health issue would equate to getting epidemiologists involved since epidemiology is the basic science of public health.


Tirrell: Let’s think about how speech is the key mechanism of bullying. No one doubts that bullying is harmful, so we can study what bullies actually say, as a mechanism for delivering harm. (Similarly, poor parenting often involves barraging disparaging remarks upon the child.) In these social problems, we need to attend to the power of the speech used, how it effects those targeted, and the kinds of licenses it issues to everyone who hears it. Those licenses are something I would like to see tracked. We could track the increase of frequency of use, the contexts in which it is used, for what purpose, and track the outcomes. When is bullying effective at damaging, and when does the target have the wherewithal to resist? What exactly is that “wherewithal”? That’s just one explicit example. As the studies continue, we can move to more subtle cases.


EM: So, what would the epidemiology of toxic speech look like to you, or what info would an epidemiologic profile or approach provide you with that is useful?

Tirrell: It would be important to look at the prevalence of toxic speech in a population, the who, what, when, where, why of it.  How frequent is it, how ubiquitous is it, what kinds of damage does it inflict? Suppose you have a community in which there is a spike in suicide rates amongst teens. An epidemiologist could look at what those teens are saying to and about each other, and track the frequency of linguistic disparagement in all degrees. Not only the direct attacks, but third-person uses that others hear and take up. And not only negative messages, but glorifications of suicides, practices of urging people to do it and so on. Are they sponsoring each other, through speech?  I would also look at what they are reading, watching, and taking in from various sources: what’s their expressive diet?  Eliminating the toxins might not be possible or even desirable, but strengthening their resistance or immunity might be well within reach once you know what’s going on.

To assess civic health, it would be worth tracking the kinds of derogatory terms people use against and about each other, how much polarization those uses bring about, to what degree it leads to individual and group isolation, and then evaluate the health of the polarized groups. It would be enlightening to get a handle on the frequency of occurrence of these terms and how they are used.


In language, we look at speaker, hearers—some of whom might be targets of the speech and some might be bystanders. On my view, we look at the ways that saying something can change what others think they have permission to say. This fits with a viral conception—the form of speech spreads through contact. One person slams another with a slur, and then someone hearing it might pick it up and use it. Not everyone will take it up, but still, the usage spreads, person to person, like a contagion.

EM: What preventive measures can we imagine being practical to implement that would not violate free speech? Opinions might differ on this point. Presumably we have confronted these issues before by regulating movie content for children, TV watching time, and so forth. 


Tirrell: I don’t want to advocate for a language-police. In the US, we have taken the first amendment to apply well beyond its initial scope (only what the government cannot restrict), and this is a double-edged sword. We do need to protect expression, because that is also important to the health and well-being of the person, but we also need to protect each other from linguistic violence. Philosophers and jurists are working on balancing these concerns. An epidemiologist could help by showing where the balance tilts in one way or another.


If we learn more about how some forms of speech create toxic environments, or how others deliver a heavy dose of harm at once, then we can find ways to mitigate those harms. Susceptibility surely varies across populations, so tracking resilience would be very helpful. Where resilience is impossible, then restricting the speech would seem well justified. This isn’t always going to be a matter of law. It will often be about instituting new social norms. It isn’t a law that parents wait 24 hours after their child is fever-free to return to school. It is a demand of the public health departments of most towns, and once parents know, they can comply or not. In my trips to Rwanda, I learned ways to speak to avoid triggering the PTSD from which many survivors suffer. Social norms do tremendous work to protect the vulnerable.

EM: What is the best evidence we can find for the negative effects of toxic speech? Clear cut examples?

Tirrell: Wherever you see propaganda emerge, especially propaganda that targets a segment of the population, it should be possible to track the effects of that propaganda on both the in-group and the out-group. In the US and across the EU we have seen increasing use of “terrorist” as a synonym for “Muslim”, so what can we discover about the effects of this on the well-being of Muslims in these regions? The easiest thing would be to track direct physical attacks, clear cases of discrimination, and so on, but there is more work to do. Those visible signs are the tip of the ice-berg. For example, in a community with high prevalence of derogatory language about Muslims, it would also be important to look at the frequency of school truancy in Muslim youth, health issues reported in the schools, job loss and job changes in adults, and so on. These are measures of insecurity, which can lead to physical and mental health issues.  Maybe an epidemiologist could also track the rate of access to health care in these areas, comparing Muslims to non-Muslims.

EM: Can we put together a short description of the case you are making---why an enterprising young epidemiologist or other investigator might want to undertake something like this?

Tirrell: If we want to promote the health and well-being of our society, we need to promote both physical and mental health. Each of us is caught up in complex identities, and these have different values to our communities. The ways that we talk to and about each other actually open and close possibilities in our social interactions, in our capacity to live the lives we choose.

For other toxins, epidemiologists track the incidence of harm, routes of exposure, frequency, avoidability or inavoidability, and more. We should do the same for toxic speech. Some toxic speech becomes woven into the fabric of society; such cases are easier to see when social change occurs.


For another example, the prevalence of pro-heterosexual and anti-homosexual discourse has been part and parcel of the discrimination imposed on gay men and lesbians. Casual comments and value-laden remarks, tossed off matter-of-factly as socially accepted, served to keep 10% of the population in the closet, hiding their desires, and often taking risks that led to mental and physical harms. The CDC reports that that LGBT teens have significantly higher rates of suicidal ideation (3x) and much higher rates of suicide (5x) than their heterosexual counterparts.  American culture has been toxic for gay men and lesbians, a toxicity delivered by speech, sometimes enforced by violent actions. Whether this improves is something to track with changes in law and social norms. The CDC tracks teen suicide rates, has made the connection between bullying and LGBT suicide prevalence, so my suggestion is to deepen the study to to examine the discourse practices in the schools with high prevalence, for example. It would be great to hear what an epidemiologist could envision tracking.


An epidemiologist who includes the concept of toxic speech in his or her work and tracks the speech practices associated with diseases they are tracking, may well have a better

chance of nipping the outbreak in the bud. Considering the teen suicide example, if an epidemiologist could discern toxic speech practices in one outbreak, and then the next, a pattern might emerge that might help us to keep teens alive long enough to grow up to thrive. These patterns might turn out to be very local, but broader patterns and lessons might emerge over time.

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