How to Identify and Combat Dangerous Speech

After spending time as a foreign correspondent in Latin America and doing international work as a lawyer in the aftermath of violent conflicts in Yugoslavia and Rwanda, American University law professor and Harvard University faculty associate Susan Benesch decided to study how dangerous speech could incite mass violence.

She wanted to figure out whether someone could identify the kind of rhetoric that brought about social conflicts, and then whether someone could interfere with it without suppressing freedom of speech.

It is important to keep in mind that Benecsh draws a distinction between “hate speech” and “dangerous speech.” She has identified a framework to capture the latter in which at least two of these five indicators must be true:

* A powerful speaker with a high degree of influence over the audience.

* The audience has grievances and fears that the speaker can cultivate.

* A speech act that is clearly understood as a call to violence.

* A social or historical context that is propitious for violence, for any of a variety of reasons, including long-standing competition between groups for resources, lack of efforts to solve grievances or previous episodes of violence.

* A means of dissemination that is influential in itself, for example because it is the sole or primary source of news for the relevant audience.

Of course this work is now especially pertinent in the United States with the elevation of Donald Trump as the Republican presidential nominee. But Benesch qualifies what she sees in this context.

“Trump may well be undermining the extent to which his supporters trust the essential institutions and practices of U.S. democracy,” Benesch said. “Some of them — those who are most susceptible to being inflamed by such messages — may therefore be more likely to commit violence. However, the United States is not in danger of mass intergroup violence, in my view. It is deeply irresponsible, though, since it can undermine some Americans’ belief in our own democratic institutions, which can make them more susceptible to dangerous speech going forward.”

What I find most interesting are the conclusions she has reached so far and the possibility of what she’ll learn going forward.

“I’ve learned a few specific things about humanity,” Benesch said. “First, people do not hate spontaneously. No one is born hating, or wanting to see or do violence. Also, no particular group — religious, ethnic, cultural or national — has a monopoly on dangerous speech. It isn’t that there is something wrong with one group or another, as some have alleged. All people are capable of producing and being influenced by dangerous speech. I see that as an opportunity.”…

She is continuing to study how to effectively respond to dangerous speech. Right now, she’s looking at the impact that shaming the speakers or using humor to minimize them may have.

Both shaming and humor are ways to belittle the importance of the person engaging in dangerous speech and marginalize them in the eyes of their audience. Michelle Obama demonstrated on a couple of occasions how to very effectively employ the shaming response to Donald Trump. Beyond the way she called out his failings as a mother who was scolding a child, she wouldn’t even say his name. On the humor side, it has been difficult for political figures to employ that technique given the danger a Trump presidency would pose to the country. But time and again our prophetic comedians has stepped up to the plate and done a magnificent job.

Perhaps one of the reasons Benesch doesn’t think that the United States is in danger of mass intergroup violence – even with a figure like Donald Trump in the spotlight – is because we have these powerful antibodies in place to dull his impact. If that is true, it’s certainly something worth noticing and celebrating.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.