The following is an excerpt from a column on Daily Kos, originally published on March 2, 2020.
Soon after the Tree of Life attack I posted here about how the attacker and mail bomber both were triggered by Trump’s language.
I have since developed that into a book, due in June and available for pre-order now. I intend to blog weekly here about some of the issues I raise in the book, and that are still playing out with even more extreme language today. This is the introductory post.
Words on Fire: The Power of Incendiary Language and How to Confront It is about the power of communication to do great harm, and how civic leaders and engaged citizens can hold leaders accountable to prevent such harm. It focuses on the forms of communication that condition an audience to accept, condone, and commit violence against a targeted group, rival, or critic.
Sending Up a Flare
In my teaching and research, I study patterns: patterns that help leaders enhance competitive advantage, build trust and loyalty, and change the world for the better. I study the patterns of audience engagement and audience reaction. I study persuasion and influence, and the power of language to change people, mostly for the better.
But I’ve also been acutely aware of the use of communication to hurt, to harm, and to humiliate, and of how dehumanizing and demonizing language can lead some people to commit acts of violence. I typically don’t teach those things in a classroom, but I often send up a flare, warning students, former students, and others of the predictable, if unintended, consequences of speech that, under the right conditions, can influence people to accept, condone and commit violence against members of a group.
I found myself sending up many flares in recent years, but something changed in 2018. In the Fall of that year I posted persistent warnings about stochastic terrorism, the technical term for language that provokes some people to commit violence.
My concern grew into alarm as the 2018 mid-term elections approached and as President Trump’s language crossed a line. I worried that someone would be killed by Trump followers who embraced his increasingly incendiary rhetoric about immigrants, Mexicans, Muslims, and critics.
In a single week, about ten days before the mid-terms, two separate terror attacks took place: one killed eleven people at worship in a synagogue; one failed but had targeted a dozen Trump critics with mail bombs. In both cases the perpetrators justified their actions by quoting Trump language. One of them, the mail bomber, described his conversion from being apolitical to being 'a soldier in the war between right and left' that resulted from his several years in Trump’s orbit.
The following week I posted on Daily Kos describing the relationship between language and violence. That post was republished by CommPro.biz. Words on Fire is the continuation of that original blog post.
In reflecting on the President’s language, I noticed another pattern: the forms of his language were familiar. He realized that the president was using the very same rhetorical techniques that had preceded previous mass murders, including genocides. I worried that, left unchecked, the president would continue, with increasingly dire consequences.
For Words on Fire I explored the kinds of language that historically had preceded acts of mass violence. I also studied contemporary sources including the U.S. Holocaust Museum Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide. The center defines “dangerous speech” as:
“speech that increases the risk for violence targeting certain people because of their membership in a group, such as an ethnic, religious, or racial group. It includes both speech that qualifies as incitement and speech that makes incitement possible by conditioning its audience to accept, condone, and commit violence against people who belong to a targeted group.”
One of the key elements of creating such conditions is to dehumanize others. The Center’s handbook Defusing Hate notes that:
“Dangerous speech often dehumanizes the group it targets (e.g., by calling its members rats, dogs, or lice), accuses the target group of planning to harm the audience, and presents the target group’s existence as a dire threat to the audience.”
I also studied the work of Yale University philosopher Jason Stanley, who says that when leaders persistently dehumanize others they lessen the capacity of citizens to empathize.