Can Speeches Provoke Violence?

Christopher Witt —  December 3, 2015

Can speeches provoke violence? In a word: yes.

The goal of a speech is to move people to action.

A speech may educate and inform, entertain and amuse audiences. But it does so as a means to an end. And that end is action.

The action inspired by a speech may be noble and ennobling.

Speeches have inspired people and nations to work on behalf of the abolition of slavery, women’s equality, the rights of labor, civil rights, resistance to tyranny, environmental protection, the peaceful resolution of disputes.

But the action inspired by a speech may be — and often has been — violent.

Speeches have roused audiences — en masse or as individuals — to riot, to rampage, to lynch, to bomb, to burn, to assault.

To provoke violence — either immediate and specific violence, or unspecified violence — a speech has to do three things:

  1. Demonize “Them”
    Violent-provoking speeches always identify an enemy: the cause of our suffering, the source of all that is wrong with this world. “They” are different from us: of a different race or ethnicity, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. They are threatening our way of life, our jobs, our rights and prerogatives.
  2. Rouse Passion
    Violent-provoking speeches justify and inflame an audience’s anger, rage, and resentment. Reason and logic incline people to think more than to act; they are to be avoided. Passion moves people to action. And the more intense the passion, the greater the potential for violence.
  3. Justify Violence
    Violent-provoking speeches make violence reasonable and righteous. “They” have attacked us and all that we hold dear. We are the victims. We have the right — even the obligation — to fight back.

To deny that speeches can provoke violence, you have to deny the evidence of history, all the times that speeches have directly and indirectly roused audiences to violence.

And to deny that speeches can provoke violence, you have to deny that they can set people to work for a worthy cause.

On a related but separate issue, you might want to read Is Violent Speech a Right?

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Christopher Witt

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Chris Witt was born in Los Angeles, California. He currently lives in San Diego. He works as a speech and presentations consultant, an executive speech coach, and an orals coach.

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  1. Can Speeches Provoke Violence? | Public Speakin... - December 5, 2015

    […] Speeches provoke people to action. Sometimes that action is noble and ennobling. Sometimes that action is violent. Violent-provoking speeches…  […]