When Susan Benesch began looking at how speech could incite mass violence, her research took her to far-flung places like Kenya and Burma.
Lately, she’s been unable to ignore a case study at home in the United States.
The American University law professor and Harvard University faculty associate has grappled for months with whether Donald Trump’s rhetoric constitutes dangerous speech as she has come to define it. She has examined election-year speech before, but only abroad where the risks of mass atrocities were great.
But in the past week, with Trump claiming that the election system and the media are rigged against him, his messages have the type of undertone that increases the risk of violence between groups, she said.
Benesch, 52, has dedicated the past six years of her life to developing and testing a framework for identifying dangerous speech. To rise to that level, 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.
“Trump’s speech is very difficult in the sense that he is so often slippery with it,” Benesch said in a recent interview. “The meaning is so often ambiguous.”
But when Trump said his supporters could use the Second Amendment against Hillary Clinton, “it seems to me impossible that people didn’t understand that as a reference to violence,” she said. Or when he suggested that Clinton and President Obama were founders of the Islamic State, something he alluded to again at Wednesday’s final debate, that was a “hallmark of dangerous speech to describe an in-group member as the enemy,” she said.
And now, with Trump trafficking in the conspiracy theory that if he loses the election it will be because of a rigged system against him, he’s definitely laying the groundwork for potential unrest after the balloting. Direct incitement of violence is illegal, but Trump falls short of actually calling for any kind of civil disobedience.
Because of that, it’s still a gray area that surrounds whether Trump does use dangerous speech.
“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.”