I’m bookmarking this Washington Post profile of Professor Susan Benesch, whose research looks at ‘dangerous speech’—that is, speech that can incite mass violence.
For Benesch, it’s important that people understand that the type of speech she wants to counter is different from hate speech, which she says is a broad category for which there is no agreed-upon definition. An advocate for free speech, she does not believe that hate speech can or should be silenced. In fact, it’s one of the central reasons she sought to differentiate dangerous speech.
Benesch has identified certain characteristics of speech that could lead to the incitement of violence. These include: the presence of a powerful speaker; the existence of grievances and fears that the speaker can cultivate; speech acts that are understood as a call to violence; long-standing competition and animosity between groups or tribes; and a lack of media diversity that means dissent and criticism to the speech is not heard. Her work has taken her to places like Rwanda, Kenya and the former Yugoslavia, but the Washington Post points out that much of Donald Trump’s speech fits the bill too.
This work strikes me as incredibly important. Answering the conundrum of what to do when people engage in incitement and hate speech is surely the toughest challenge facing anyone who is serious about defending and promoting free speech.
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. In other words, could genocide be thwarted by simply drawing attention to the “dangerous speech” that precedes it?