When Jesse Wexler ’24 was building his Emerson Project, he knew he wanted to study language — the words that classify and create but that also have the power to harm and destroy. In his project, “A Philosophical Investigation into Syntax, Semantics, and Pragmatics of Hate Speech,” Wexler will study these three domains of language to investigate what transforms words into a societal threat.
Under the UN definition, hate speech is “offensive discourse targeting a group or an individual based on inherent characteristics and that may threaten social peace.” In a country founded on the value of free speech, offensive and prejudiced language will hardly ever be regulated. But when we step into the realm of offensive and threatening language, hate speech takes on a definable shape.
“I’m interested in what makes hate speech, hate speech,” Wexler said, “and how we’re defining that because it’s important. People have a lot of nasty things to say, and some of them need to be silenced. But silencing people is dangerous because it’s us saying that your ideas are so detrimental that you can't even say them.”
Syntax (grammar), semantics (meaning), and pragmatics (context) all build on each other to establish our understanding of reality, including our feelings and beliefs about the world, Wexler said. Though the study of all three are important to his understanding of language, it is pragmatics that most directly determines when words become hate speech.
“Even if it’s the exact same speech, the context and place it’s said in is going to change its meaning,” Wexler said. “Context determines when it’s especially bad to say certain things because context can create an immediate threat. Hate speech works in that same way.”
After spending the first few weeks of summer reading various philosophers’ perspectives on linguistic theories and writing reflective papers on them, as advised by Associate Professor of Philosophy Russell Marcus, Wexler will switch to philosophical papers focused on hate speech, using his previous readings to better understand the latter. The past week, for example, he read about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which says that the specific language you speak influences how you think about reality. As he spoke about this hypothesis, Wexler began considering how English could affect our society’s views of reality and, as consequence, views of hate speech.
Jesse Wexler ’24
Major: Interdisciplinary Studies
Hometown: New York City
High School: The Master’s School
Wexler plans to finish his research by mid-August. As required per the Emerson grant, his research will culminate with a public presentation.
“This project is the dream,” Wexler said. “I’m in upstate New York. I roll out of bed, and I go lay on a field and read dense philosophy for eight hours. I’m never going to be able to do anything like this again in my whole life. It’s amazing.”