What Are You Saying? How language influences feelings of empathy


One quiet morning in the coffee shop where I work, I found myself talking to a regular customer. After telling him why I had chosen to study in Glasgow (‘I found out that studying in Scotland is free for EU-citizens, and then I fell in love with the city’), he started airing his views on everything from SNP policies to Brexit to immigration. Quite uncomfortably, those were exactly opposite to my own points of view.

‘I don’t have anything against you personally, but I think it’s disgraceful how the SNP is spending taxpayers money on paying for the education for you lot.’

Without pointing out that I was serving him at this moment, earning money and thus also paying taxes, as well as spending money that keeps services in his area running, as well as supporting a vibrant and creative community in Glasgow, I would like to focus on this argument that I have heard time and again. ‘My friend/colleague/family member is Muslim, and he or she is great. I just don’t want any more Muslims getting into the country.’ You can swap ‘Muslim’ for ‘foreign’, ‘black’ or ‘migrant’ to your heart’s delight. While people, like this customer, have no problem seeing the personality and all the great qualities of an individual, they are unable to realize or understand that a group is made up of tens, hundreds or thousands of individuals, humans just like them.

Language plays an important part in our ability to empathise with people. It is predictable that the next deadly attack by a person of colour will be labelled a ‘terrorist attack’, the perpetrator seen as a paragon of their community and their religion or ethnicity a great influence on their actions. Yet a white person will be called a ‘gunman’, a ‘lone wolf’ who is mentally ill or suffering from an addiction, the fact they are white or Christian never mentioned. This constant connection of the language of terrorism, fear and danger to people of colour, with no mention of their psychological wellbeing or personal history, leads to the extremely harmful attitudes that we see all around Europe and in the US.

Similarly, it was no surprise to see that, in July 2015, the then-Prime Minister David Cameron referred to migrants trying to reach Britain as a ‘swarm of people’, a swarm being the word for a large, often dangerous amount of flying insects. It is obvious how language like this dehumanizes. How can the individual qualities, hopes, fears and talents of men, women, kids and young adults in such a large group be imagined, when their humanity is undermined? Yet this undermining is favourable for right-wing and/or conservative politicians, as a lack of empathy for groups such as refugees will create support for their discriminating and inhumane policies.

While Cameron defended his word choice, claiming he was merely referring to a large number of people (of course, David), a recent study has found to what extent the language used to talk about groups actually influences our perception of them having a mind or not, thus of being human or not. Psychologist Kurt Gray and his colleagues discovered that saying “people in a group” rather than “a group of people” made the participants of the study view those people as having the same amount of agency (the ability to think) and experience (the ability to feel) as they ascribed to individuals. In contrast, the “group of people” was seen as having a lot less capacity to think and feel. Highlighting the individuals in a group, rather than the group, thus results in others viewing them as fully human.

By implication, bigotry can thus be caused by the inability of bigots to empathise with large groups, rather than something inertly evil, racist or intolerant at the core of their humanity. Not being able to imagine a member of a group as having the same rich human experience, the same capacity to feel joy and pain, makes it a lot easier to hunt all those individuals down and let them suffer, or be in favour of social inequality and segregation. Similarly, viewing those other than you as not having the same positive qualities as you underlines your own humanity.

Yet I believe newspapers, public figures and bigots are already well aware of the effect of their language, and were before this study proved it. Using offensive language is a useful tool to dehumanize certain people and influence others in their opinions. Yet we can also use it to combat prejudice. The language we use to describe people matters. I wish it wasn’t necessary and people would empathise with others nonetheless, but at least we know that emphasizing the individual at all times has a huge impact on others’ attitudes.

[Aike Jansen]

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