Posted in Communicating for Social Change, Communication, Political communication

Inoculation & Injection: More Examples of Counterspeech

In an earlier post this week, I explained “dangerous speech” (Benesch, 2014) in the context of Donald Trump’s calls to ban Muslims from entering America and other comments he has made. Dangerous speech is significant because it increases the risk of violent acts against members of the target group. In fact, today, Lipton (2015) provided an historical example of how speech was related to acts of violence against Medieval Jews. As she concluded:

Today’s purveyors of anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, anti-police and anti-abortion rhetoric and imagery may not for a moment intend to provoke violence against Muslims, immigrants, police officers and health care providers. But in the light of history, they should not be shocked when that violence comes to pass.

In other words, speech is not inconsequential. Political speech, in particular, is made with the intention of having consequences, of changing people’s beliefs and behaviors. It is illogical that speakers can take credit for speech that has the political effects they desire, but then claim that their words have no relation to logical negative consequences with which they do not wish to be identified. Still, real personal accountability seems rare in the political realm. In the absence of apologies or clarifications by the speaker for dangerous speech, it is often left to others to counter the effects of dangerous speech.  So, in the same post earlier this week, I discussed how we can counter dangerous speech using the strategies of inoculating the audience (by encouraging critical thinking and empathy) and injecting positive counterspeech into the discussion (Benesch, 2014). I also provided examples of people who were doing just that. By the next morning, even more examples of both strategies were apparent in the media, and (I am happy to say) they keep coming. I want to highlight some of them here.

Timothy Egan (2015) made a point of identifying the groups that are aligning in support of Donald Trump:

Well, he’s got the Hitler vote. The neo-Nazi website, Daily Stormer, was out and proud earlier this week: “Heil Donald Trump — the Ultimate Savior.” After endorsing the Republican presidential front-runner earlier this year for his call to deport 11 million Mexican immigrants, the fomenters of American fascism have now added an apt twist to his slogan, one not far from the truth of the campaign: “Make America White Again.”

Egan’s approach is effective inoculation because it spurs critical thinking. It asks the audience, is this a group with which you want to be identified? Likewise, Dee Snider, lead singer for Twisted Sister, is rethinking his decision to allow Trump to use one of his songs in the campaign because:

… what’s going on now has me questioning whether allowing the song to continue to be used. And it’s very upsetting to me because I strongly don’t agree with his extremist positions, and it’s not so much, I know the man’s not a racist, he’s a friend of mine, but when you’ve got white supremacy groups aligning themselves with you and you don’t denounce them,” Snider said in an interview with Shad of CBC’s radio show “Q” on Thursday. “That’s a problem for me. (Diaz, 2015)

Holan (2015) provided another example of inoculation by encouraging critical thinking. She discussed, in an opinion piece for The New York Times, her experience as a fact-checker for PolitiFact:

Donald J. Trump’s record on truth and accuracy is astonishingly poor. So far, we’ve fact-checked more than 70 Trump statements and rated fully three-quarters of them as Mostly False, False or “Pants on Fire” (we reserve this last designation for a claim that is not only inaccurate but also ridiculous).

Even though we’re in the midst of a presidential campaign full of falsehoods and misstatements, I see cause for optimism. Some politicians have responded to fact-checking journalism by vetting their prepared comments more carefully and giving their campaign ads extra scrutiny.

More important, I see accurate information becoming more available and easier for voters to find. By that measure, things are pretty good.

Mr. Trump’s inaccurate statements, for example, have garnered masses of coverage. His claim that he saw “thousands of people” in New Jersey cheering the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, grabbed headlines but the stories were about the rebuttals.

If Mr. Trump and his fans saw video of thousands of people cheering in New Jersey, why has no one brought it forward yet? Because it doesn’t exist.

Muhammad Ali, former heavyweight champion of the world, also used the strategy of inoculation by encouraging critical thinking. He defended the nature of his religion and also criticized “Presidential Candidates Proposing to Ban Muslim Immigration to the United States” (Johnson, 2015):

“We as Muslims have to stand up to those who use Islam to advance their own personal agenda,” Ali said. “They have alienated many from learning about Islam. True Muslims know or should know that it goes against our religion to try and force Islam on anybody.”

Perhaps the most powerful counterspeech yet was offered by Chris Herbert, a British soldier who lost his leg in a blast while serving in Iraq (Masters, 2015). Herbert’s comments, which demonstrated the strategies of both injection and inoculation, were made in a Facebook post that went viral:

Getting frustrated by some people expecting racism from me, because I got blown up. Here it is:

Yes. A Muslim man blew me up, and I lost my leg.

A Muslim man also lost his arm that day wearing a British Uniform.
 A Muslim medic was in the helicopter that took me from the field
 A Muslim surgeon performed the surgery that saved my life 
A Muslim Nurse was part of the team that helped me when I returned to the UK
 A Muslim Healthcare Assistant was part of the team that sorted out my day to day needs in rehabilitation when I was learning to walk 
A Muslim taxi driver gave me a free ride the first time I went for a beer with my Dad after I came home.
 A Muslim doctor offered my Dad comfort and advice in a pub, when he didnt know how to deal with my medicines and side effects.

Blaming all Muslims for the actions of groups like Daeshe and the Taliban, is like blaming all Christians for the actions of the KKK or Westboro Baptist Church. 
Get a grip of your lives, hug your family and get back to work.

Each of these individual speech acts is powerful in itself. From diverse perspectives, they demonstrate empathy, critical thinking, the ability to distinguish the acts of individuals from group identity, and courage. Together, these speech acts demonstrate “counterspeech in unison” (Benesch, 2014). Voices in unison strengthen and amplify each message and demonstrate that the dangerous speech is not normative. By reporting on the counterspeech, the media  magnify those effects and take the messages to a broader audience. It is heartening to see so many individual voices raised against dangerous speech and that the media are giving these voices space and time. A groundswell of such voices could stop the rising tide of hate.


Benesch, S. (2014, Feb. 11). Countering dangerous speech: New ideas for genocide prevention. Working Paper for U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Retrieved from

Diaz, D. (2015, Dec. 10). Dee Snider to Trump: I may not take it anymore. CNN. Retrieved from

Egan, T. (2015, Dec. 11). Goose-steppers in the GOP. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Holan, A. D. (2015, Dec. 11). All politicians lie. Some lie more than others. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Johnson, M. A. (2015, Dec. 9). Muhammad Ali hits at Trump and “misguided murderers” sabotaging Islam. NBC News. Retrieved from

Lipton, S. (2015, Dec. 11). The words that killed Medieval Jews. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Masters, J. (2015, Dec.10). Amputee soldier’s heartfelt Muslim Facebook post goes viral. CNN. Retrieved from


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