The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This professor devotes her life to countering dangerous speech. She can’t ignore Donald Trump’s.

Susan Benesch, a law professor at American University who researches dangerous speech and how to prevent it from becoming violence, at her home in Washington. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

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.

Then-presidential nominee Donald Trump made a controversial comment about rival Hillary Clinton during a rally in Wilmington, N.C., on Aug. 9, 2016. (Video: The Washington Post)

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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.”

Still, that she’s getting the question so often is in itself stunning.

“I didn’t imagine that so soon after beginning this work I’d be asked to explain it to someone abroad who would want me to describe a case study,” she said, “and choose a case study in my own country.”

‘No one is born hating’

On an unseasonably warm fall afternoon, Benesch sat barefoot on the stone steps outside her townhouse on a tree-lined street in Washington’s popular Logan Circle neighborhood. Inside, a young researcher was hunched over a laptop at her kitchen table. Her home is also the headquarters for her Dangerous Speech Project, which was born out of research grants she received from the MacArthur Foundation.

Outside the kitchen window is a massive vegetable garden she built on the roof of her garage. Her home, an eclectic mix of mismatched furniture and art, doubles as an “eco-friendly community arts space” that features local musicians at a monthly dinner party she hosts.

Benesch, who was born and raised in New York City, said she comes from a lineage of “immigrants, refugees and people who were killed because other people had been taught to hate them,” but that’s all the personal detail she will divulge. She is eager to discuss her work, but, perhaps because she is an expert in speech, is precise in what she shares, careful not to make generalizations or overstatements.

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She credits spending much of her adult life immersed in the mass atrocities people commit against one another all over the world — first as a foreign correspondent for the Miami Herald in Latin America and then as a human rights lawyer — for her drive to understand why and how people turn to violence.

As a young lawyer, she did international work in the aftermath of the ethnic conflicts in Yugoslavia and Rwanda in the 1990s. As they pored over whom to prosecute for the terrible crimes, Benesch was drawn to the question of whether one could detect warning signs for genocide before one occurred. People do not wake up in the morning and simultaneously decide to kill their neighbors, she thought.

This question resurfaced several years later when she was teaching a clinic at Georgetown’s law school representing refugees in asylum cases. As she and her students worked to help people piece their shattered lives back together, she began thinking anew about whether there was a way to foresee the crises that created refugees.

It was around that time that two good friends asked her, in the course of casual conversations, what she would do if she had one full year to work on anything she wanted without any concern for finances. Her answer came easily: 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?

“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.”

Countering dangerous speech with comedy

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.

There’s no way to say definitively when speech led to genocide or mass atrocities, because there are many contributing factors, or conversely whether Benesch’s efforts to counter that speech has succeeded in quelling what would have otherwise been a mass violence situation. But she has anecdotal evidence that leads her to believe that both are significant factors.

After the results of the 2007 presidential election in Kenya were disputed, there were attacks that left more than 1,000 people dead and 500,000 displaced. In the lead-up to it, political leaders used incendiary language about other ethnic and tribal groups. One group, for example, said that those in another were like weeds that needed to be pulled out so “there would be only one tribe here,” Benesch wrote in a research paper.

Benesch did her first field study for the Dangerous Speech Project in Kenya leading up to its next presidential election, held in March 2013. While there she helped oversee several projects that sought to diminish the impact of dangerous speech, including one writing four episodes of a popular Kenyan courtroom comedy in which the actors discredited inflammatory statements. The 2013 election produced little violence.

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.

Her work has inspired others to take up the cause. This year the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum published a guidebook on countering dangerous speech, and its author credits Benesch as the inspiration for it.

Rob Faris, director of the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard, where Benesch is a faculty associate, described her work as “innovative” in how it attempts to delegitimize dangerous speech rather than try to stifle it, thus protecting freedom of speech.

Her framework is still intended to discourage large incidents of violence. While she has tested some theories on dangerous speech online, her strategies are unlikely to weed out lone mass shooters or even terrorist recruits because they’re too isolated.

“In any given time, in any society there is a subset of people who hold extreme views and are willing to resort to violence, and I don’t think one can suppress that or expect to wipe it out,” Benesch said. “What I’m more concerned about is the large mass of people who are malleable, who can be influenced.”

Despite seeing human viciousness up close, something she said she’ll never get used to, she is hopeful.

“Hatred and fear and even mass atrocities are not at all new in human history — it’s the widespread efforts to push back against them, that are new, and when we step back and take a longer view, we can see that these efforts are working in many contexts and many places,” she said. “Humans are now much less likely to die at the hands of another human than in the past. There is far more work to do, and the daily headlines are often distressing and discouraging, but I can also see, paraphrasing Dr. Martin Luther King, that the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward peace.”

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