The Power of Incendiary Language and How to Confront It
Words on Fire is about the power of communication to do great harm, and how civic leaders and engaged citizens can hold leaders accountable to prevent such harm. Author Helio Fred Garcia focuses on the language President Trump uses that conditions an audience to accept, condone, and commit violence against a targeted group, rival, or critics.
The book includes a history of such rhetoric, and identifies a playbook consisting of twelve forms of communication that typically precede genocides and other acts of mass violence. The Nazis used all twelve; the Rwandan Hutu used ten. Trump uses all twelve. The language triggers lone wolves to commit violence. Since 9/11 the use of rhetoric that provokes violence has been known as “stochastic terrorism,” a phrase that tends to confuse and that makes discussion difficult. The author suggests a more accessible name: lone-wolf whistle violence, on the model of “dog whistle” politics. The book draws on the most recent scholarship on lone wolves, their mindset, and what it takes to activate them to commit violence.
The book documents Trump’s increasingly dangerous rhetoric through his campaign and first term, and how some lone wolves were motivated by the rhetoric to commit violence. It also describes the changes in the nation’s political culture and media that led to Trump’s nomination and presidency. It profiles leaders who dialed back their rhetoric when it was shown to put people’s lives in danger. Words on Fire closes with a call to action: We can learn the lessons of today to prepare for tomorrow, to help civic leaders, engaged citizens, journalists, and public officials recognize the phenomenon and take steps to hold other leaders accountable in the future when they use such language.
Helio Fred Garcia (known as Fred) is founder and president of the crisis management firm Logos Consulting Group and also heads its research, publishing, and executive education arm, the Logos Institute for Crisis Management and Executive Leadership. Garcia is an adjunct associate professor in the Professional Development & Leadership department of Columbia University’s Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science, where he teaches MS and PhD students leadership, ethics, and crisis management. Garcia is in his 32nd year on the New York University faculty, where he has received numerous awards for teaching excellence. He is an adjunct professor of management in the Stern School of Business Executive MBA program. He is an adjunct associate professor of management and communication in the MS in Public Relations and Corporate Communication program. At NYU, Garcia teaches courses in crisis management, crisis communication, communication strategy, and communication ethics and law. Garcia has an active practice coaching and teaching senior executives on leadership communication. For more than 35 years, he has personally coached more than 400 Fortune 500 CEOs, plus thousands of other high-profile individuals in other complex fields. His corporate clients include the largest U.S. and European banks and investment firms, the largest insurance companies, the top pharmaceutical and life sciences companies, hospitals, food and beverage manufacturing and marketing companies, advertising and professional service firms, and technology and software companies. He is the author of four prior books on communication, language, reputation, and trust.