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When Free Speech Becomes Dangerous

This is the first article in a three-part series on Dangerous Speech. The next two articles will be published later this week.

By Amanda Dugan

When Donald Trump says that Muslims should be banned from entering the U.S. (or insert basically anything), his words are outrageous and the outcry is almost instantaneous.  But what happens when this becomes acceptable? When the reaction isn’t abject horror but thoughtful consideration? At that point will we be able to take a step back, or will we be explaining Muslim internment to our children’s children? Based on current poll numbers, we may be closer than we think to repeating history’s mistakes. 

In 2011, the World Policy Institute sponsored “Dangerous Speech: On the Path to Mass Violence,” a project that looked at the factors that distinguished speech that was offensive from speech that had a direct link to violence or harm against a particular group. In some cases, the connection between the two is obvious—there is a clear call to violence or creation of a dangerous situation. More often, though, the dangerousness of the speech is subtler and needs to be viewed in the totality of its context.

The standoff in Oregon between self-proclaimed militiamen, organized by Ammon Bundy, and the federal government over the sentencing of two ranchers seems absurd to many. What would posses 150 individuals—many of whom have no physical connection to the state or to the direct conflict—to make the trip to Oregon and occupy a federal building?

The framework of dangerous speech yields important insight into how this kind of issue occurs. In this framework, the factors used to appropriately assess the dangerousness of speech are:

The Speaker: a powerful speaker with a high degree of influence over the audience. In other words, is the speaker charismatic or in (or perceived to be in) a position of authority?

The Audience: has grievances and fear that the speaker can cultivate.

The Speech Act: did the speech assert that the audience faced serious danger from the victim group (i.e., the group that is the target of this speech)? Did the speech contain certain phrases, words, or coded language that has taken on a special loaded meaning, in the understanding of the speaker and audience?

Socio-Historical Context: a social or historical context that is propitious for violence, for any of a variety of reasons, including longstanding competition between groups for resources, lack of efforts to solve grievances, or previous episodes of violence.

Mode of Transmission: was the speech transmitted in a way that would reinforce its capacity to persuade, i.e., via a media outlet with particular influence.

Ammon Bundy fits the framework of a charismatic leader who seems authentically connected to the concerns and daily lives of his audience. He draws on a point of conflict where people’s livelihoods feel threatened by government overreach, and his delivery—including his personal website, Facebook page, and arrival in Oregon—appears very personal and engaging. His rhetoric, full of loaded terms like “now is the time to stand” and “your freedom is at risk,” is then echoed louder by politicians and other public figures with significant national visibility, cultivating their audiences’ primal fears about security and personal freedoms as weapons to create a political base or movement.

When Donald Trump uses images of migrants crossing the border in Morocco to bring a lasting (and misleading) image of the U.S.–Mexico border to his audience, he is not just commenting on immigration policies; he is telling his audience that they are not safe in America. Even when the campaign admits that the images were not of the U.S. border, its official statement claims that “Americans who want to protect their jobs and families” understand the purpose of the images because they understand that the dangers of illegal immigration are very real and frighteningly imminent.

Still, what is most dangerous about this rhetoric is not just perpetuating fear of physical insecurity but rather the audience being led to believe that they are not being heard because their opinions are drowned out by the so-called “mainstream media”—a group presented as monolithic and sympathetic to Ted Cruz’s concept of “New York values.” This coded language furthers the cycle of fear and mistrust that begs the question of the audience: What will you do to defend yourself and your way of life?

Where will America draw its line in the sand? In some cases this speech never evolves beyond rhetoric, so we tolerate it for the sake of free speech, but increasingly the threat of violence looms just past the propaganda. We shake our heads at Ammon Bundy, many quick to make light of a dangerous situation so long as it doesn’t spill over into a deadly one. But in doing so, we are implicitly condoning the segregation of certain groups within the country and allowing influential figures to paint targets on groups that ideologically stand in their way. Then, when our televisions and newspapers are plastered with events like the Planned Parenthood shooting in Colorado (in which the gunman allegedly said “no more baby parts,” a reference to the debunked narrative that the organization was selling baby parts for profit), we need to look in the mirror and ask: at what point must we step in to prevent the needless deaths of innocent citizens?

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Amanda Dugan is director of programs and administration at World Policy Institute.

[Photo courtesy of Flickr]

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