11/05/2020 Kim O'Brien

A Timely Take on Dangerous Speech

When does speech cross the line between combative and dangerous?

Cathy Buerger, director of research at the Dangerous Speech Project (DSP), offered a timely perspective at Franklin & Marshall College’s Nov. 4 virtual Common Hour talk, “Fear and Loathing in Our Discourse: Dangerous Speech and What To Do About It.”  

Buerger’s Washington, D.C.-based non-governmental organization works to understand the relationship between speech and intergroup violence. Her DSP research focuses on civil society’s responses to dangerous and hateful speech online. 

Dangerous speech is any form of expression that can increase the risk that people will commit or condone violence against members of another group. 

“It displays remarkably similar patterns across languages, cultures, countries and historical periods,” Buerger said.

Common Hour - Fear and Loathing in Our Discourse: Dangerous Speech and What to Do About It

An obvious example is Nazi propaganda. But sometimes, dangerous speech is much more subtle, such as increases in anti-Chinese rhetoric during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Many of these incidents say these populations are spreading the disease or profiting from its existence,” Buerger said.

“This exists in many different places – including our own. Calling something the Chinese virus instead of calling it by other names is certainly a way to try and make people feel afraid of one particular population when there is not really evidence at all to justify that,” Buerger said.

Fear is a common driver behind dangerous speech. Its hallmarks include dehumanization, accusation in a mirror, assertion of attack on women or girls, and threat to purity. 

To identify dangerous speech, examine the message and circumstances – speaker, medium, audience, and context – in which it reaches people. 

Buerger cautioned against confusing dangerous speech with hate speech. While the two can overlap, there is a distinct difference. 

“Dangerous speech tends to play off ideas of fear; they’re describing groups of people as a threat,” she said. “It's that fear that ends up motivating the acceptance of violence." 

As its citizens await the result of a contentious U.S. presidential election, Buerger gleaned lessons from recent research.

“Dangerous speech abounds during elections,” Buerger said. 

“Using speech that encourages members of one’s party to hate members of another party can be an effective strategy for politicians,” she said.

In fact, research indicates that individuals who feel strongly partisan “are very willing to use dehumanizing language about members of the opposition and that this willingness increases if they are told about the misdeeds of members of the other party,” she said. “This happens on both sides of the aisle pretty evenly.”

“Dangerous speech abounds during elections... Using speech that encourages members of one’s party to hate members of another party can be an effective strategy for politicians.”
Cathy Buerger
Cathy Buerger, director of research at the Dangerous Speech Project
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