Confronting the Power of Incendiary and Exclusionary Language

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Helio Fred Garcia

Around the world, and here at home, ideologically-driven opportunists are very good at using communication in ways that lead to oppression, exclusion, and violence. 

Communicators of good will have an opportunity to channel our gifts to counter this prevalent and dangerous trend. 

The Holocaust Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide defines “dangerous speech” as: 

“speech that increases the risk for violence targeting certain people because of their membership in a group, such as an ethnic, religious, or racial group. It includes both speech that qualifies as incitement and speech that makes incitement possible by conditioning its audience to accept, condone, and commit violence against people who belong to a targeted group.”

We see examples of such dangerous speech all around, here and abroad:

  • Fundamentalists of every stripe hijack the identity and vocabulary of religion to promote oppression, exclusion, and violence in the name of religious purity.
  • Nationalists hijack national identity and the vocabulary of patriotism in ways that lead to violence in the name of racial, ethnic, national, and ideological purity. 
  • Supremacists hijack the vocabulary of science and society to commit cruelty and violence against immigrants, religious and ethnic minorities, and those who support such groups. 
  • Even some American governors hijack the language of liberty and freedom in ways that put their citizens at risk of contracting a deadly disease. And they stand idly by as their hospitals overflow with unvaccinated patients and announce that they can no longer accept patients with other life-threatening conditions. Worse, citizens so mobilized commit violence and threats of violence against healthcare workers, school districts, restaurant owners, and others who are simply trying to protect themselves and the people in their care. 

There is much hand-wringing in the media and elsewhere about just how polarized American society has become. And with good reason. 

But engaged citizens can do something about it, here and elsewhere in the world. 

In particular, members of the communication profession can challenge the use of communication to divide and to oppress. We can model communication in ways that protect those at risk. We can call out the dangerous speech and its consequence when we hear it. We can hold leaders accountable when they persist in using such language. 

And we can help institutions to reclaim their identity and vocabulary to more fully fulfill their missions:

  • We can help religious organizations reclaim the identity and vocabulary of religion as a source for peace. We can highlight the deeply-held and widely-shared moral teaching of all faith traditions: kindness, reciprocity, and service to community.
  • We can help reclaim national identity and the vocabulary of patriotism to show that we are part of a common civic enterprise. We can show that not only are all created equal, but all are also equally deserving of respect and dignity.
  • We can help at-risk communities harness their power, and we can hold those who attack those communities accountable for the consequences.
  • And we can use the ballot box to hold accountable those political leaders who know better but who pander to an ideological agenda that puts their citizens at unnecessary risk of catching and succumbing to a deadly disease. 

Silence in the face of oppression always helps the oppressors.  If ever there was a time for communicators to up our game and deploy our gifts, it is now. 


Helio Fred Garcia discusses: Contrasts in Leadership: Cuomo v. TrumpAbout the Author: Helio Fred Garcia is immediate past board chair of Interfaith Alliance, which protects America’s religious pluralism and helps to protect at-risk religious communities. He is a former member of the Board of International Trustees, and currently an International Goodwill Ambassador, of Religions for Peace, the largest multi-religious organization in the world, that focuses on conflict transformation, sustainable development and protecting the earth. His most recent book is Words on Fire: The Power of Incendiary Language and How to Confront It. The views expressed are his own.