Menus Subscribe Search

Linking Uncivil Rhetoric With Violent Acts

• January 11, 2011 • 4:18 PM

Political scientists have long wondered if violent political speech can be linked to political violence, a question given urgency in the wake of the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords.

Partisans have been quick in the wake of Saturday’s shooting in Tucson, Ariz., to point fingers, and to point fingers at pointed fingers, alternately deploring and defending the heated political rhetoric that somehow seems tied — in perception if not reality — to the attempted assassination of a U.S. congresswoman.

Sarah Palin is to blame. Or maybe Sharron Angle is. Or it’s the president himself, who must deeply regret now his intemperate pledge to “bring a gun” to the opponent’s “knife fight.”

When the blame subsides, we’ll be left with a national discussion about where most of us draw the line between what’s civil in politics and what’s not, and what the consequences are of language that goes beyond that boundary. Does political rhetoric really matter — to average citizens, for our democracy, in the minds of unstable outliers?

Political scientists, at least, can help us set the stage for that dialog.

“This is not simply a concern of academics and certain pundits; many Americans are fretting about the way we do politics in America, and they’re anxious to move in a new direction,” said political scientist Daniel Shea. “So I think it’s incumbent upon political scientists in particular to better understand the issue and to begin to chart solutions.”

[class name="dont_print_this"]

Idea Lobby

THE IDEA LOBBY
Miller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

[/class] He reached that conclusion well before Saturday’s shooting. Shea is one of the researchers behind the Allegheny College Survey of Civility and Compromise in American Politics, a study released last spring that probed average American opinion about the tone of modern politics. Some 95 percent of people said they believe civility in politics is important for a healthy democracy — the good news, in Shea’s eyes. But nearly 50 percent said they believe civility has been on the decline since Barack Obama took office (and those paying close attention to politics were four times more likely to say this than those paying only moderate attention).

Most surprising are the responses when people were asked to define what should be out of bounds. “If you were able to create a rule book for civility in politics,” subjects were asked, “which of the following would not be OK — would be, that is, against the rules?” Overwhelming majorities opposed belittling or insulting someone (89 percent), questioning someone’s patriotism because they have a different opinion (73 percent), and personal attacks on someone they disagree with (87 percent).

Most Americans, in short, think entirely commonplace occurrences in politics today constitute political rhetoric that’s beyond the pale. We’re not even talking gun sights or “second-amendment remedies.”

“These things are common in politics for a particular group of citizens, they are not common in politics for a vast majority of Americans,” Shea said. “That’s the key part of this whole question: Who’s doing this, who’s involved in this dramatic transformation? I call it the ‘hot wings'” — the overcharged fringes of the political spectrum.

Nathan Kalmoe, a doctoral student at the University of Michigan, has looked more specifically at violent political language as part of his dissertation. In a particularly salient recent paper, “Does Violent Political Rhetoric Fuel Support for Political Violence?” he tested the effects on citizens of the mildest form of the genre.

Some subjects read the text of a political ad that included phrases like “I will always fight for America’s future” and “join me in this fight.” Others read a subtly tweaked version of the same text: “I will always work for America’s future … join me in this effort.”

Kalmoe then gauged support for political violence by asking subjects to rate their agreement with statements like “Sometimes the only way to stop bad government is with physical force,” or “Some of the problems citizens have with government could be fixed with a few well-aimed bullets.”

On the whole, those exposed to the more violent rhetoric were no more likely to support political violence. But then Kalmoe broke down the data. People predisposed to aggressive behavior in their everyday lives (as measured by a standard psychological screening) were in fact more responsive to the violent rhetoric. Low-aggression citizens reacted the opposite way.

Kalmoe borrows much of his theoretical framework from research that has linked violent media (from video games to movies to song lyrics) with violent attitudes and behavior. And he theorizes from that literature that if he were to ratchet up his mild political rhetoric — from, say, “fighting for your rights” to pointedly ambiguous calls to arms — the responses might ratchet up, too.

“There are other negative consequences that can come from violent rhetoric,” Kalmoe said. “The study I’ve undertaken is evidence of that. It’s not either ‘violent rhetoric is leading to political violence,’ or ‘it has no negative consequences for democracy’ — that’s what the debate has seemingly devolved to, which isn’t necessarily surprising. But I’m hoping that this work can show that there’s a middle ground.”

Some citizens are particularly susceptible — and on a level they may not consciously recognize — to even the mildest violent political language. But that’s not to say those people (who are equally likely to be Democrat or Republican, Kalmoe adds) will act on support for political violence. Kalmoe’s research can’t address that. But it does, he says, point to the power of words.

“And it’s important that leaders and citizens think carefully and reflect on the ways that they express themselves, because that has serious consequences for the kind of politics that we have, the kind of political environment that we have.”

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Emily Badger
Emily Badger is a freelance writer living in the Washington, D.C. area who has contributed to The New York Times, International Herald Tribune and The Christian Science Monitor. She previously covered college sports for the Orlando Sentinel and lived and reported in France.

More From Emily Badger

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 19 • 4:00 AM

The Danger of Dining With an Overweight Companion

There’s a good chance you’ll eat more unhealthy food.



September 18 • 4:00 PM

Racial Disparity in Imprisonment Inspires White People to Be Even More Tough on Crime

White Americans are more comfortable with punitive and harsh policing and sentencing when they imagine that the people being policed and put in prison are black.



September 18 • 2:00 PM

The Wages of Millions Are Being Seized to Pay Past Debts

A new study provides the first-ever tally of how many employees lose up to a quarter of their paychecks over debts like unpaid credit card or medical bills and student loans.


September 18 • 12:00 PM

When Counterfeit and Contaminated Drugs Are Deadly

The cost and the crackdown, worldwide.


September 18 • 10:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Molly Crabapple?

Noah Davis talks to Moly Crapabble about Michelangelo, the Medicis, and the tension between making art and making money.


September 18 • 9:00 AM

Um, Why Are These Professors Creeping on My Facebook Page?

The ethics of student-teacher “intimacy”—on campus and on social media.


September 18 • 8:00 AM

Welcome to the Economy Economy

With the recent introduction of Apple Pay, the Silicon Valley giant is promising to remake how we interact with money. Could iCoin be next?



September 18 • 6:09 AM

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.


September 18 • 6:00 AM

Homeless on Purpose

The latest entry in a series of interviews about subculture in America.


September 18 • 4:00 AM

Why Original Artworks Move Us More Than Reproductions

Researchers present evidence that hand-created artworks convey an almost magical sense of the artist’s essence.


September 17 • 4:00 PM

Why Gun Control Groups Have Moved Away From an Assault Weapons Ban

A decade after the ban expired, gun control groups say that focusing on other policies will save more American lives.


September 17 • 2:00 PM

Can You Make Two People Like Each Other Just By Telling Them That They Should?

OKCupid manipulates user data in an attempt to find out.


September 17 • 12:00 PM

Understanding ISIL Messaging Through Behavioral Science

By generating propaganda that taps into individuals’ emotional and cognitive states, ISIL is better able motivate people to join their jihad.


September 17 • 10:00 AM

Pulling Punches: Why Sports Leagues Treat Most Offenders With Leniency

There’s a psychological explanation for the weak punishment given to Ray Rice before a video surfaced that made a re-evaluation unavoidable.


September 17 • 9:44 AM

No Innovation Without Migration: Portlandia Is Dying

Build an emerald city. Attract the best and brightest with glorious amenities. They will come and do nothing.



September 17 • 8:00 AM

Why Don’t We Have Pay Toilets in America?

Forty years ago, thanks to an organization founded by four high school friends, human rights beat out the free market—and now we can all pee for free.


September 17 • 6:32 AM

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists’ appetites.


September 17 • 6:00 AM

The Grateful Dig: An Archaeologist Excavates a Tie-Dyed Modern Stereotype

What California’s senior state archaeologist discovered in the ruins of a hippie commune.


September 17 • 4:00 AM

The Strong Symbolic Power of Emptying Pockets

Researchers find the symbolic act of emptying a receptacle can impact our behavior, and not for the better.


September 16 • 4:00 PM

Why Is LiveJournal Helping Russia Block a Prominent Critic of Vladimir Putin?

The U.S. blogging company is showing an error message to users inside Russia who try to read the blog of Alexei Navalny, a prominent politician and critic of the Russian government.


September 16 • 2:00 PM

Man Up, Ladies! … But Not Too Much

Too often, women are asked to display masculine traits in order to be successful in the workplace.


Follow us


How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists' appetites.

3-D Movies Aren’t That Special

Psychologists find that 3-D doesn't have any extra emotional impact.

To Protect Against Meltdowns, Banks Must Map Financial Interconnections

A new model suggests looking beyond balance sheets, studying the network of investment as well.

Big Government, Happy Citizens?

You may like to talk about how much happier you'd be if the government didn't interfere with your life, but that's not what the research shows.

The Big One

One in three drivers in Brooklyn's Park Slope—at certain times of day—is just looking for parking. The same goes for drivers in Manhattan's SoHo. September/October 2014 new-big-one-3

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.