International Mediators Community of Practice

The Rise of Dangerous Speech in the U.S

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In these times of heightened political tension, the IMCP Hill Working Group invited experts [1] in the field of dangerous speech to help us understand the context in which our country’s political dysfunction is evolving.


Focused on the outcome it produces rather than the motivation behind it, researchers define dangerous speech (DS) as speech that inspires people to commit or condone violence. Five factors can increase one’s propensity for violence:

  • Speaker: does the speaker have qualities (ex: charisma, force…) that make the message more persuasive?
  • Audience: is the audience primed (ex: grievances, trauma, isolation…) in some way?
  • Content: are words (ex: cockroach, demon, weeds…) being used that dehumanizes the other?
  • Dissemination: are people exposed to only one source of information? Is the language being used one that resonates?
  • Social/historical context: is there a history of violence between the two groups? Or are there norms that would prevent violence?



“Us” versus “them” cleavages can happen based on ethnicity, religion, national identity and even political affiliation. These divisions are as much about creating an “us,” as they are about creating a “them.” DS takes advantage of a natural neurological response that is useful for in-group formation, such as:

  • Empathy: critical for helping other, empathy is often unequally distributed and expressed more easily toward the in-group that towards outsiders. The size of the differential between these two responses can determine the vulnerability of a group to commit violence to protect the in-group. Narratives that build up in-group empathy at the expense of the "other" are particularly dangerous and important to monitor.
  • Fear: is a natural emotion that helps keep us alive and increases our need to belong. However, when manipulated by DS it is a core factor for triggering violence.
  • In-group norms: help social cohesion and create a sense of belonging, but can shift rapidly when affected by DS. The “you’re with us or you’re against us” mentality deepens fault lines. Combined with empathy and fear, polarization with out-groups can exert pressure on those inside the group who may not be as comfortable with DS to stay quiet, it can drive some to single-out in-group moderates as traitors if they raise doubt about divisions, or justify meta-dehumanization raising the risk of reciprocal violence.


Currently, the U.S. is experiencing high levels of dehumanization in both liberal and conservative circles, each thinking the other is dehumanizing the other. Even more worrisome is that identities are becoming singular and rigid.




There is certain content within speech [2] that can help transform its audience’s thought process, helping them rationalize and justify violence against a group, especially if other factors that increase one’s propensity for violence are present.

  • Dehumanization: characterizing people as animals or machines. Once you are convinced that the “other” is less than human, it makes violence seem acceptable and even necessary (ex: for self-defense).
  • Guilt attribution or collective blame: framing an entire group as responsible for a problem the in-group is having.
  • Future bias: describing violence a necessary step to achieve a better future.
  • Virtualization: attributing negative connotation to peace or kindness and seeing ruthlessness as positive and even needed to protect oneself.
  • Threat construction: describing the other group as inherently different from “us” and presenting an existential threat.
  • Destruction of alternatives: giving people the sense that there are no other options (except for violence, a ban, a wall…). Coupled with threat construction, tunnel vision can have dire consequences.


The American experience with DS isn’t knew and politicians have for years used it to foment fear around racial, ethnic and religious identities [3]. Shifting from blatant racism to coded racialized language and now back to explicit dehumanization, such language is used in political campaigns to pick up votes, legitimize voter anxiety, and stoke resentment against the federal government.




From talk radio in the 90s, to cable news and now social media, today’s echo chambers of information is characterized by highly partisan news and strategic racism. The internet offers hate groups anonymity, not just for organizers but also for followers to find each other online. Hate groups were well-positioned for the Trump era because they were already organized in online communities before the start of his election campaign.


Hate has since become a profit model reinforced by the inter-connectedness of media sources and the cross-promotion of information on one another’s platforms.


For people who learn about other people through the media and rarely come into contact with the “other”, the news is very influential on their belief system. Local news is one of the most trusted sources of information for viewers, according to a Pew research, and when politicians, media pundits, and some educators spin facts, it amplifies the impact of DS heard in other places.




The U.S. has a long history of backlash to progressive changes on race. Our history is one that has systematically tried to suppress the black vote [4] by creating a legal and institutional architecture to maintain white supremacy and stop the ascension of black political power.


Each major federal reform that sought to broaden the rights of African-Americans, has given way to a violent backlash. Reconstruction following the Civil War, brought on a backlash so severe that Southern blacks had to fear lynching, sexual assault and violence. The 1920s Harlem Renaissance coincided with the second major era of the KKK [5]. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s would ultimately bring major legislative and social change protecting African-Americans’ right to vote. But once again the growth of liberal economic policies and embrace of civil rights shifted with President Nixon’s Southern strategy which moved the South back into hands of GOP, triggering attacks on bussing, affirmative action, etc. Reagan followed suit by kicking off his run for the presidency in counties where assassinations of African-Americans had taken place.


The election of President Obama represented a culmination of a half a century of progress and the rise of Trump a racialized backlash against President Obama. Trump is thus the culmination, not the originator, of this strategy.




The American experience with dangerous speech (DS) is nothing new. Today’s political discourse is happening in a context rife with racial trauma and received by deeply divided and susceptible audiences. What is new are the modes of dissemination and the return to an explicit vitriol used by our political leaders, with chilling repercussions in our families and communities. This has amplified the impact of DS and made it an urgent crisis to address before it evolves into mass atrocities.


Conflict resolution practitioners have an opportunity to help communities face these divides and challenge our politicians to lead the way. To counteract dangerous speech one must educate speakers and counteract its impact on society. Technology has increased our connectivity and people’s ability to organize for violence and for social justice, so we need to match our understanding of human behavior with the platforms that are available.


Creating opportunities to build bridging spaces where Americans can debate what it means to be an American (ex: civic vs. ethnic national identity) has become as necessary in this moment as protecting credible voices across the political spectrum. We must resist this becoming a battle between conservatives and liberals and protect the tools of our democracy, our institutions, while changing structural forms of injustice that keep us divided and unequal in front of the law.


America’s experience with diversity is at a critical juncture. Whites’ ability to accept and respect the humanity and rights of black, brown and native people is a story still being written. Historically, mass social justice movements have been essential for fighting the backlash.


Resolving how we speak and feel about one another is urgent because the psychological impact of DS can take generations to change.





[1] Speakers: Lucas Wright, Researcher at the Dangerous Speech Project; Rachel Brown, Executive Director of Over Zero; Jessica Gonzalez, Deputy Director and Senior Counsel at Free Press; Henry Fernandez, CEO of Fernandez Advisors and Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. The event was hosted by PeaceTech Lab and organized by Communities in Transition.

[2] see Jonathan Leader Maynard's six justificatory mechanisms in "Rethinking the Role of Ideology in Mass Atrocities" (p. 821-841) in the Journal of Terrorism and Political Violence (Volume 26, 2014 - Issue 5)

[3] Ian Haney López. “Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism & Wrecked the Middle Class.” Oxford University Press (2014).

[4] For examples during the 1787 U.S. Constitutional Convention, slaves were counted as 3/5 of a man to determine congressional representation; the creating of the Electoral College served to give an advantage to southern white slave owners.

[5] In the 20th Century, the KKK’s rise in popularity attracted over 4 million members, with some able to get elected as governors.