Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


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

October 24 • 4:00 PM

We Need to Normalize Drug Use in Our Society

After the disastrous misconceptions of the 20th century, we’re returning to the idea that drugs are an ordinary part of life experience and no more cause addiction than do other behaviors. This is rational and welcome.


October 24 • 2:00 PM

A Letter to the Next Attorney General: Fix Presidential Pardons

More than two years ago, a series showed that white applicants were far more likely to receive clemency than comparable applicants who were black. Since then, the government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a study, but the pardons system remains unchanged.


October 24 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Middle School Math Teacher?

Noah Davis talks to Vern Williams about what makes middle school—yes, middle school—so great.


October 24 • 10:00 AM

Why DNA Is One of Humanity’s Greatest Inventions

How we’ve co-opted our genetic material to change our world.


October 24 • 8:00 AM

What Do Clowns Think of Clowns?

Three major players weigh in on the current state of the clown.


October 24 • 7:13 AM

There Is No Surge in Illegal Immigration

The overall rate of illegal immigration has actually decreased significantly in the last 10 years. The time is ripe for immigration reform.


October 24 • 6:15 AM

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.


October 24 • 5:00 AM

Why We Gossip: It’s Really All About Ourselves

New research from the Netherlands finds stories we hear about others help us determine how we’re doing.


October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.


October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


Follow us


Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

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