Jennifer Saul

Jennifer Saul 
Professor, Faculty of Arts 
> Waterloo Chair in Social and Political Philosophy of Language 

It wasn’t long ago that politicians could self-destruct by making a racist comment or supporting a conspiracy theory. But in recent years, Jennifer Saul has noticed two disturbing trends coinciding: the spread of hate and the rise of conspiracy theories in political discourse. 

An analytic philosopher and Waterloo Chair in Social and Political Philosophy of Language, Saul’s research brings together the tools of philosophy, psychology and linguistics to examine this increase in racism, sexism and misinformation. These social problems lie beyond the typical territory of philosophy, a field that is historically dominated by white men and focuses more on ideals and theory than social justice. 

“Philosophy is traditionally about uncovering timeless truths, but you can’t write about what it means to have a just society without addressing slavery and injustice and the real problems that keep us from achieving justice,” Saul says. “My work looks at questions like ‘How do people use words to get each other to do horrible things?’ Philosophy can help us make sense of the urgent and important things happening in the world around us.” 

Saul’s research impact covers a broad scope, focusing on the UK, US and Canada. She’s a consulting expert in identifying and addressing misleading statistics and a tireless advocate for increasing diversity in philosophy. Her collaborations both inside and outside academia, including a recent panel with the UN on the misuse of statistics, have earned her a place among Academic Influence’s 10 most influential living philosophers of the past 10 years

Shifting perceptions of what is acceptable 

Although it might be easy to recognize a racial slur or fact check a statistic, some linguistic devices are far more subtle — and no less damaging — in shaping how people think, Saul says. For instance, dog whistles such as the “okay” hand gesture may seem innocent enough to the general public but carry a different meaning (white power, in this case) to a select group. 

“The problem isn't just people using slurs that are obvious and easy to spot. You need to look at things in a much more sophisticated way and be aware of these other connotations,” Saul says. “Sometimes it’s intentional. Sometimes it isn’t. It's profoundly tricky because these devices are selected precisely because they're ambiguous and can transmit different messages to different groups.” 

Another deceptive tactic involves carefully positioning controversial comments or conspiracy theories to make people more comfortable. Prefacing inflammatory or misleading content with “Lots of people are saying,” “I'm just asking questions” or “I just think we should think about this” avoids a direct claim and makes it seem more acceptable to entertain what people might have dismissed otherwise.  

“We have a stereotype of what conspiracy theorists are like, but when it seems like a reasonable person is ‘just asking questions,’ then people may feel more comfortable reading some conspiratorial claim and passing it on to their friends,” Saul says. 

The stakes are even higher with world leaders. Saul’s work considers hate speech advanced during the Trump presidency for good reason. Donald Trump’s assertion that Mexican immigrants are dangerous criminals was softened by “And some, I assume, are good people.” Sometimes racism makes its way into public policy, such as banning travellers from certain countries entering the US under the guise of “just until we understand what’s happening.”   

Saul refers to these little additions devised to mask extremism as “fig leaves,” causing people who might otherwise have hesitated to go along with what’s being said. “People who might have said ‘wait, that sounds awfully racist’ then think ‘I guess it's okay.’” Saul says. “They're willing to at least consider taking somebody seriously who they would otherwise have written off. 

“Just because somebody added a comment designed to reassure or soften their statement doesn't mean it's okay now,” Saul says. “There’s potential to shift what we see as acceptable versus unacceptable, and I think this does a huge amount of damage.” 

Why automation won’t solve the problem 

Social media companies, the media and many industries are looking to stamp out harmful language, but Saul warns there are no short cuts. Simply blocking certain terms or creating blanket policies can miss the nuances of language, and risks preventing much-needed discussion about social justice. Critical thinking will be increasingly important for individuals and organizations alike. 

“This stuff can’t be automated. There’s no easy rule to formulate. It really needs to be thought through by humans,” Saul says. “You need to engage with the complexity and look at things in a much more sophisticated and careful way. Whether the harm is intentional or not, the effects might be the same but the way you want to respond to the person doing it is going to be different.” 

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