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Violent rhetoric and violent behavior

Understanding Sociology:

Much of the debate since the Tucson shootings has focused on what seems like the wrong question*: was there a direct influence from the extremist rhetoric of the past two years to the violent actions of this particular assailant? Sometimes the answer to this kind of question is "yes" -- Timothy McVeigh was directly inspired by the violent ideas and passions associated with the right-wing militia movement. But the harder question is that of indirect and diffused influence: is it possible for a pattern of virulent media communications to create a culture of violent attitudes that leads through indirect mechanisms to political violence directed against individuals and institutions?

Ding! The answer?

It doesn't appear that direct psychological research has yet been done on this question.  But there is a related question that has been very extensively studied, and that is the effect of dramatized television violence on children's propensity for aggression.  It appears that there is fairly strong evidence in the social psychology and developmental psychology literatures for a causal link between exposure to television violence in children and increased aggression.  Here is a paper in Developmental Psychology by L. Rowell Huesmann, Jessica Moise-Titus, Cheryl-Lynn Podolski, and Leonard Eron (link), where the authors find a significant link between childhood exposure to TV violence and adult aggression.

The conclusion:

So these seem to be fairly strong empirical reasons for being very concerned about the inflammatory language that has become increasingly common in political discourse and media rants. The issue isn't simply the value of political civility; it is the very real possibility that extremist rants can influence a small number of listeners to be more prone to engage in acts of political violence, and even people who aren't listeners can be influenced by those who are.

NOTE * Actually, if your (trollish) goal is to defend the purveyors of violent rhetoric, this is exactly the right question.

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madamab's picture
Submitted by madamab on

Can't we comfortably say that using words that suggest your political opponents should be assassinated is morally wrong?

It's really beside the point for me whether you can draw a direct line between Sarah Palin and Loughner's actions, or between any violent rhetoric and any violent actions. I simply don't think it's possible to do so. And? Does that mean that it's right and correct for people to suggest "Second Amendment" remedies to our peaceful political process?

I believe this type of nonsense should be quashed, not through a government process, but rather, with the kind of universal disapproval reserved for "the 'n' word." For example, does using that word lead to hate crimes? Who knows. We just know that it's a racist, derogatory term that shouldn't be used in polite society. It's WRONG.

I think we could fall into a rhetorical trap if we try to prove causation and/or correlation between violent rhetoric and violent actions. A moral argument is on much steadier ground, IMNSHO. (That is, unless your idea of morality includes a blond, blue-eyed Jesus holding an AK-47, riding a dinosaur and inveighing daily against abortion and gay marriage.)

Submitted by lambert on

... is exactly the argument that RD made, and I support it 100%.

Nevertheless, the empirical issue is still important, and this post speaks to that.

cwaltz's picture
Submitted by cwaltz on

was the fact her political opponent used shooting an automatic m-16 to "target Giffords." I mean seriously there wasn't enough "meat" in political discourse that this guy had to resort to the opportunity to shoot an automatic weapon seemingly at his political opponent? Geez. Even if it wasn't contributory shouldn't there be some sort of category that allows for moral repugnancy at the idea that a human being should ever be used for target practice? There are so many people on the right that I don't like and yet I'd never for a moment insist it might be fun to poison them or put them in scope of a weapon. Doing so would just be sick.

danps's picture
Submitted by danps on

or at least muddying of the water, is conflating uncivil and eliminationist language. Calling someone a dumbass isn't the same as saying s/he will have to be shot in the head. That is perhaps the key component in the false "both sides do it" line. It might even be more important than conflating of Glenn Beck's violent exhortations with that of Random Protest March Dude Carrying a Sign That's Got A Picture of Bush With a Gun Pointed At His Head.

Submitted by lambert on

... at a related blog that shall remain nameless, and was ultimately overwhelmed (at least on that thread!) by the forces of "Don't blame Sarah Palin!" -- which is an off-point response! Although, apparently, the effects of that thread and others were ultimately beneficial...

However, your framing -- eliminationist vs. uncivil -- is much better than mine was. Worth a piece....