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When is a speech "dangerous"?

A recent article in the Washington Post has taken aim at President Trump’s political rhetoric and in particular referenced the work of American University professor Susan Benesch.

Benesch has spent much of the the last decade of academic research developing a framework to identify what she calls “dangerous speech,” or speech that can lead to violence. To qualify at the level of dangerous speech, she suggests, 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 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.

While these may well be very useful guides to understanding what might be an inflammatory speech, a number of these points would also cover some of the most famous speeches in history. Consider Shakespeare’s Henry V “St Crispin’s Day” speech:


“If we are mark'd to die, we are enough

To do our country loss; and if to live,

The fewer men, the greater share of honour.

God's will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.

By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,

Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;

It yearns me not if men my garments wear;

Such outward things dwell not in my desires.

But if it be a sin to covet honour,

I am the most offending soul alive.

No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England.

God's peace! I would not lose so great an honour

As one man more methinks would share from me

For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!

Rather proclaim it, Westmorland, through my host,

That he which hath no stomach to this fight,

Let him depart; his passport shall be made,

And crowns for convoy put into his purse;

We would not die in that man's company

That fears his fellowship to die with us.

This day is call'd the feast of Crispian.

He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,

Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam'd,

And rouse him at the name of Crispian.

He that shall live this day, and see old age,

Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,

And say "To-morrow is Saint Crispian."

Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,

And say "These wounds I had on Crispin's day."

Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,

But he'll remember, with advantages,

What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,

Familiar in his mouth as household words—

Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,

Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester—

Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb'red.

This story shall the good man teach his son;

And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,

From this day to the ending of the world,

But we in it shall be rememberèd—

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

For he to-day that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,

This day shall gentle his condition;

And gentlemen in England now a-bed

Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,

And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks

That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.”

That would qualify as a dangerous speech on several of the above criteria. So too would many more modern speeches, from Winston Churchill to Malcolm X.

The point is that general guidelines are always an enticing short cut to assessing a speech; they are quick and easy to apply and judge by. But nothing actually beats taking the time to analyse the individual speech itself: its setting, the language, the intent, the audience and so on. Trump might be blamed for his speaking style and ,if so, then far more for his cheap shots – think of “Crooked Hillary” – than for creating a new era of dangerous rhetoric. The danger of a speech is always in the specific intent and language, not its formula.

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