Welcome to Project Figleaf

Despite a great deal of attention in recent years to the rise of openly racist and conspiracist speech, little empirical attention has been paid to the specific linguistic mechanisms that may facilitate this. This project proposes to explore one important mechanism hypothesized to play a role in both racist and conspiracist speech: the figleaf. To do so, it will draw on the resources of both philosophy of language and social media studies.

What’s a Figleaf?

A figleaf is a bit of speech or an image that functions to reassure audiences about some other bit of speech which might otherwise have seemed too racist or too obviously false. For example, when Donald Trump announced his candidacy with comments suggesting that Mexicans are rapists, he added on the phrase “but some of them, I’m sure, are good people”. This phrase served as a figleaf, reassuring voters who might otherwise have been worried by Trump’s comments about Mexicans. Because Trump indicated that he assumed some Mexicans to be good people, these voters could insist to themselves that the comments didn’t indicate racism. Similarly, figleaves can aid in the dissemination of conspiracy theories, making it seem more acceptable to pass these on or to vote for someone who is discussing them. Here crucial figleaves are phrases like “lots of people are saying”, which indicate that one might not be endorsing the claims.

Figleaves are especially important because they are likely to be most effective with people who have not yet fully aligned themselves with one side or another. These are the people who can help a racist candidate to succeed where they otherwise might not have, or help a fringe conspiracy theory move to the mainstream. In addition, by providing cover for otherwise outrageous speech acts, figleaves can shift the boundaries of acceptable discourse and thus pave the way for worse, more inflammatory speech. 

No empirical studies have yet explored the roles that figleaves may play in the spread of racist and conspiracist thought. The current project proposes to explore the ways that they aid in the dissemination and uptake of messages of racial hatred and conspiracism online. Our predictions are that figleaves will be more common in mainstream venues than in racist and conspiracist ones, and that they will aid in the spread of such messages.

With the generous support of Logically, our goal to determine whether figleaves in fact play this role, and to explore which sorts of figleaves are most effective and in which venues. In so doing, we will come to a much greater understanding of what is potentially a very important method for the spread of racism and conspiracism. We hope that this understanding this will lay the groundwork for the exploration and development of effective techniques to combat the working of figleaves.