Can Vitriolic Vilification Provoke Violence?
Chip Berlet printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Tue Jan 18, 2011 at 09:08:34 AM EST

The idea that vitriolic political rhetoric can lead some people to carry out acts of political aggression or violence against the demonized targets is hardly controversial among social science scholars. The first step is to identify an enemy “Other.” That's the function of the becking of America on radio and television by right-wing demagogues.

My colleague Dan Brook, a sociologist at San Jose State University, told me that “It's been said that the media don't tell us what to think, but they do tell us what to think about. In setting the agenda, and then framing the debate, Beck and others without a doubt form opinions for others, thereby shifting people in a regressive direction.”

My post today reviews a number of recent articles where this process of targeting through villification and demonization is discussed in a sensible manner.
Zeev Sternhell is decribed as a “prominent Israeli academic and peace activist” in one press dispatch where Zernhell suggested the shooter's mental state was immaterial. "The argument that someone is not entirely sane does not absolve those whose incitement created the atmosphere for someone less stable to pull the trigger," Sternhell told the Associated Press.

According to the AP story:

Sternhell, who was lightly wounded in a 2008 pipe bomb attack, said he thinks the attack at a Tucson shopping mall where Giffords was meeting with constituents is related to radical conservative incitement against the Obama administration's health care reform law, which Giffords backed.  

Like the U.S., Israel is a relatively prosperous democracy, but one riven by political and cultural divisions that at times breed violence, including the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.  

Sterhell is also known in academia for his theories of the roots of fascism. Read more in one of the few U.S. papers to carry the entire AP story:  

Greg Sargent at the Washington Post wrote "Mental illness expert: We should be asking whether political climate helped trigger shooting."

A leading expert in mental illness tells me that asking whether the Arizona shooter's violent behavior might have been partly triggered by the nation's political climate is a wholly appropriate line of inquiry -- even if the shooter is found to be insane.  

"It's a reasonable question to ask," Dr. Marvin Swartz, a psychiatry professor at Duke University who specializes in how environment impacts the behavior of the mentally ill, said in an interview this morning. "The nature of someone's delusions is affected by culture. It's a reasonable line of inquiry to ask, ‘How does a political culture affect the content of people's delusions?’"  

Dr. Swartz's assessment goes directly to the heart of the raging debate over the shooting between right and left. Conservatives have pointed out that Jared Loughner is deeply disturbed, and that there's no connection between his violent behavior and the current political climate -- whether it be violent imagery, eliminationist rhetoric, references to armed revolution or secession, or hints that the political opposition is illegitimate.  

Dr. Swartz cautioned that there's still much we don't know about Loughner or more generally about the impact of the political climate on the mentally ill. But he asserted that asking how our politics might have impacted Loughner's behavior was an entirely natural line of questioning.  

According to Dr. Swartz "We know the manifestation of mental illness is affected by cultural factors....One's cultural context does effect people's thinking and particularly their delusions. It gives some content and shape to their delusions. While we don't know whether there was a specific relationship between the political climate that he was exposed to and his thinking, it's a reasonable line of inquiry to explore." The article continued:

Asked whether Loughner's mental illness invalidated questions as to whether his behavior might have been partly caused by the political climate or by violent rhetoric and imagery, Dr. Swartz said it shouldn't.

"Studying the cultural influences on people's delusions or persecutory thinking, and looking at different aspects of culture and how they effect people's behavior, is a legitimate area of inquiry," Dr. Swartz said.

In other words, even if the shooter is a complete nut, we should be asking whether the tone of our political discourse might also have played a role in triggering the shooting -- and if so, whether such a thing could happen again.  

Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) was among the first to point out possible right-wing sources of snippets of Loughner’s online posts. His comments were carried in the New York Times:

The position, for instance, that currency not backed by a gold or silver standard is worthless is a hallmark of the far right and the militia movement, said Mark Potok, who directs research on hate groups for the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“That idea is linked closely to the belief among militia supporters that the Federal Reserve is a completely private entity engaged in ripping off the American people,” Mr. Potok said.

But Mr. Loughner also posits in his Web postings the idea that the government is seeking to control people through rules and structure of grammar and language.

This is similar to the position of David Wynn Miller, 62, a former tool-and-die welder from Milwaukee who describes himself as a “Plenipotentiary-judge” seeking to correct, through a mathematical formula, what he sees as the erroneous and manipulative use of grammar and language worldwide. The Southern Poverty Law Center considers Mr. Miller a conspiracy theorist, some of whose positions have been adopted by militias in general.

Read the whole article.

Potok also wrote a post "Is Jared Loughner a Right-Wing Extremist?," which concluded that while it's hard to say, there were some clues to Loughner's worldview in his writings:

At one point, Loughner refers disparagingly to “currency that’s not backed by gold or silver.” The idea that silver and gold are the only “constitutional” money is widespread in the antigovernment “Patriot” movement that produced so much violence in the 1990s. It’s linked to the core Patriot theory that the Federal Reserve is actually a private corporation run for the benefit of unnamed international bankers. So-called Patriots say paper money — what they refer to with a sneer as “Federal Reserve notes” — is not lawful.

At another, Loughner makes extraordinarily obscure comments about language and grammar, suggesting that the government engages in “mind control on the people by controlling grammar.” That’s not the kind of idea that’s very common out there, even on the Internet. In fact, I think it’s pretty clear that Loughner is taking ideas from Patriot conspiracy theorist David Wynn Miller of Milwaukee. Miller claims that the government uses grammar to “enslave” Americans and offers up his truly weird “Truth-language” as an antidote. For example, he says that if you add colons and hyphens to your name in a certain way, you are no longer taxable. Miller may be mad as a hatter, but he has a real following on the right.

Richard Cohen, president of SPLC backed up this theme::

We may never get a clear picture of what was going through the confused mind of the Tucson gunman. But as my colleague Mark Potok explained on NPR this morning, with all the vitriol on the airwaves, it's not surprising that someone has taken deadly aim at an elected official.

Tea Party darlings like Sharron Angle talk about using "second amendment remedies" to change the course of the country. The shameless Glenn Beck feeds the lunatic fringe with talk of the government herding Americans into FEMA concentration camps and of imminent violence from mysterious forces "from the left." Sarah Palin uses phrases like "don't retreat, reload" and shows the districts of various Democrats in Congress, including that of Tucson's Gabrielle Giffords, in the crosshairs.

The problem isn't so much a lack of politeness. We should expect sharp elbows and a healthy degree of ridicule to be thrown around by those in the political arena. The problem is the incendiary rhetoric, with its violence-laced metaphors, and the spinning of paranoid fantasies. The problem is the non-stop demonization one hears from political opportunists trolling for votes and their media allies trolling for ratings.

More here.

The Jerusalem Post ran a story “Loughner “influenced by Internet’s political extremism,” by Hilary Leila Krieger

 “It’s clear he’s crazy,” Heidi Beirich, told the Jerusalem Post. Beirchich is the director of research for the Southern Poverty Law Center. But Beirich also said Loughner clearly “imbibed the ideas from the radical right.”

The Jerusalem Post reported:

Beirich pointed to themes like the unconstitutionality of certain elected officials, particularly from law enforcement, and his focus on currency as tropes that right-wing extremists have introduced.

=While these groups might not have caused his actions, she said, they could inform the target of his angry rampage.

“Clearly he was very... influenced by the rhetoric on the Internet,” Deborah Lauter, who overseas the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, said of Loughner’s computer postings and activities. “We believe he certainly was influenced to act out on his distress by the general tenor.”

Lauter said that historically as extremist rhetoric increases, so do violent acts, even if it’s hard to trace the origins of specific incidents. “From experience and looking at history, in the rhetoric that individuals and groups use about certain issues, when you see the level of vitriol and angst rise, you get the sense that someone somewhere is going to act on it,” she said.

Though there hasn’t been an increase in political murders by right-wing groups as tracked by the ADL in the last few years, Lauter said the activity of these groups and their “chatter” has increased tremendously.

Beirich mentioned that today the nation faces the destabilization created by the alarming growth of organized supremacist groups between 2008 and 2009 from 149 to 511. “We think that words have consequences,” Beirich told the Jerusalem Post, “When you demonize people or certain types of groups, you tend to get violence.”

The article added:

[Beirich ] pointed to the use of violent imagery even in the mainstream media and from politicians, almost entirely on the right side of the spectrum, as an indication that this practice is growing.

Lauter attributed the increased agitation, which began to skyrocket in early 2009, to the election of an African-American president, tensions over immigration and the downturn in the economy.

Read the whole article here

Perhaps the most lucid and complete discussion of these issues was in a lengthy article, In Hate’s Wake: The Tucson massacre has sparked a discussion of whether overheated political rhetoric contributes to political violence, by Michael Hirsh

The Tucson massacre has sparked a discussion of whether overheated political rhetoric contributes to political violence.” Hirsh suggests we should not “deceive ourselves”:

When it comes to political violence and assassination, the times do count for something. No assassin is an island, no matter how “nuts.” And although historical and sociological data are scant, a number of historians, sociologists, and psychologists believe that a correlation exists between periods of angry or intense political divisions in American history and political violence, particularly killings. “

Hirsh quotes Jack Levin, a sociologist and criminologist at Northeastern University who studies violence. According to Levin, “Most of our violence in America comes from psychopathology, not politics,” says Levin. “But when political violence does occur, it does seem to happen during periods of economic and political tension, controversy, and intense debate when people feel threatened, when they feel they must defend economic interests, their culture, or religion.”

The Hirsh article continued:

The difference between would-be political assassins or perpetrators of violence and ordinary sociopathic killers who have no conscience at all, Levin says, is that “not only do the former have a conscience but they believe sincerely they are doing something entirely justified morally.” And those views are often encouraged by “nasty, dehumanizing rhetoric that justifies in the mind of the shooter that he is the victim, not the perpetrator.”

…common sense suggests that it can’t be mere coincidence that Giffords’s 8th District was among the most politically polarized places in the United States at the moment that Jared Loughner set out for that Safeway. Or that it was only an accident that Arizona itself had become the nation’s “mecca for prejudice and bigotry,” in the controversial words of Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik. Or that it means little that Loughner and other Arizonans were ingesting a daily diet of fear and loathing over the state’s red-hot immigration issue and over Giffords’s support of “Obamacare.” The lawmaker had herself fretted over a sense of increasing threat at home; 10 months before the shooting, the window on the front door of her district office had been broken.

Hirsh pointed to historian Richard Hofstadter, author of the a famous essay later incorporated into a book on The Paranoid Style in American Politics

Hofstadter wrote:

…the paranoid is a militant leader. He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated–if not from the world, at least from the theatre of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention. This demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals, and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s sense of frustration.

The Hirsh article continued:

“In times of overheated political rhetoric, we see people emerging who may not be part of an organized political movement, but it may be influencing them, particularly in a world of Internet correspondence and talk radio,” says David Bennett of Syracuse University, the author of The Party of Fear: The American Far Right From Nativism to the Militia Movement. “During more-stable periods, say the height of the Cold War or World War II, when the government is viewed in a more benign light, the anti-government activity dies down.”

Hirsh then quoted Michael Barkun, author of A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America. Barkun: “The Internet can give a false sense of support and legitimacy to people who have views of the world that are several standard deviations out….They gain a sense that they’re not the only ones out there who are thinking like this. That’s new.… That’s something that wasn’t there before.”

Read an interview with Barkun on conspiracism here.

Read my 2009 report published by Political Research Associates that predicted the spread of demonizing conspiracy theories could provoke violence: Toxic to Democracy: Conspiracy Theories, Demonization, and Scapegoating.

A Collection of Selected Links

Let's Get This Straight: There Is No Progressive Equivalent to the Right's Violent Rhetoric by Melissa McEwan on Alternet
The shooting in Tucson was not an anomaly. It was an inevitability, and as long as we play this foolish game of "both sides are just as bad," it will be inevitable again.

Loughner Influenced by Conspiracy Movie "Zietgeist": How Fearmongers and Conspiracy Theorists on the Right Encourage Violence by Digby on Alternet
Conspiracy theories have always been around. The difference is their mainstreaming by politicians and pundits on the right.

Climate of Hate by Paul Krugman, The New York Times

The Cult Web Film that Inspired Loughner by Michelle Goldberg, Daily Beast

Jared Lee Loughner and the 'Sovereign Citizen' Movement, by Diane Vera

Who is Jared Lee Loughner? by Mark Potok

Dog Whistle for Prayer Warriors - Palin as Victim of Blood Libel, by Rachel Tabachnick

Glenn Beck's Anti-Semitic Attacks, by Michelle Goldberg

Delusuions of Grandeur & the New American Paranoia… by Chad Nance.

Right-Wing Rhetoric

"How the Right's Rhetoric Fueled the Actions of Arizona's Mass Murderer," By Adele M. Stan on Alternet
It's too soon to say what motivated the man apprehended for the shooting. But the Tea Party culture of political intimidation affirmed his violent impulses.

Reportage you'll never see on Fox: MSNBC's Contessa Brewer explores extremist rhetoric and right-wing violence by David Neiwert on Crooks and Liars

In the Wake of the Arizona Tragedy, Are Right Wing Pundits Telling the Truth? By Mitchell Bard on Huffington Post

"When Violence Comes From the Right, Media Hear No Evil," by Joseph Palermo on LA Progressive

"Violence, threats not political tools," by Travis McAdam of the Montana Human Rights Network in the Great Fall Tribune (Montana).

Earlier Warnings of Bigotry or Violence Stemming From Right-Wing Rhetoric

Toxic to Democracy: Conspiracy Theories, Demonization, and Scapegoating, by Chip Berlet, Political Research Associates.

Extremism, Conspiracy Theory And Murder, Chip Berlet interviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air, NPR, June 18, 2009

“'Who Will Rid Me of This Troublesome Doctor?': Bill O’Reilly, King Henry II, and George Tiller," by Chip Berlet on Religion Dispatches, June 24, 2009.

Does hateful rhetoric really lead to violence? History gives us the clear answer: yes by David Neiwert on Crooks and Liars, September 20, 2009

Right-wing violence, threats are on the rise -- and getting a wink and a nudge"> by David Neiwert on Crooks and Liars, October 29, 2010

Tea party in the Sonora: For the future of G.O.P. governance, look to Arizona, by Ken Silverstein, Harper's, July 2010.

Outlandish Right-Wing Rhetoric

Multiple Reports on Media Matters for America

The National Coalition for the Homeless ( ) has documented the connection between laws against the homeless and violence against the homeless.  Their report in 2006 "Hate, Violence, and Death on Main Street USA" states this fact.  Their site has other documentation related to this fact: that hate speech and demonizing a group leads to violence against the individuals in that group.  

I'll see if I can find other research on the connection.  I've read it.

by ArchaeoBob on Tue Jan 18, 2011 at 10:07:32 AM EST

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Chip Berlet: Research for Progress - Building Human Rights
by Chip Berlet on Tue Jan 18, 2011 at 11:03:37 AM EST

Thanks for an excellent overview of the dangers of vitriolic vilification.  It is so important that a distinction be made between passionate political rhetoric and the literal demonization of "the other" that is taking place, much of it through the popularization of conspiracy theory narratives.

I fear that current well-intentioned calls to simply tone down rhetoric do not address the real problem.  We need more, not less American participation in the political process.  The danger lies in dehumanizing conspiratorial narratives about "the other," not in passionate political disagreement over issues.

by Rachel Tabachnick on Tue Jan 18, 2011 at 11:21:10 AM EST

I fear that current well-intentioned calls to simply tone down rhetoric do not address the real problem. We need more, not less American participation in the political process.

by upinson on Tue Jan 18, 2011 at 11:55:26 AM EST
For an excellent example of the way in which issues are moving from fact-based discussion to vilification based on conspiracy narratives (even in the mainstream of the Religious Right), see this video produced by the Cornwall Alliance titled "Resisting the Green Dragon."   In this short video several major Religious Right leaders redefine environmentalism as the deadly cult of the "green dragon" and the enemy of Christianity! edded#!

by Rachel Tabachnick on Tue Jan 18, 2011 at 12:26:25 PM EST

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Chip Berlet: Research for Progress - Building Human Rights
by Chip Berlet on Tue Jan 18, 2011 at 03:32:13 PM EST
While this group of major leaders markets this propaganda video, another tier of leaders including "end times prophecy experts" are claiming that the Illuminati are behind the environmental "plot."  Some are marketing media claiming that Illuminati are having new limbs grown for themselves in underground laboratories while simultaneously planning for the eradication of 1/3 of the world's population. Supposedly the purpose of the phony environmental scare is to justify decreasing the population.

I think the major leaders in the Cornwall Alliance open the door to the next tier of paranoid conspiracy fantasies through campaigns like "Resisting the Green Dragon."

by Rachel Tabachnick on Tue Jan 18, 2011 at 04:13:52 PM EST

On the theory that even the most serious research can benefit from an occasional light-hearted aside, I offer the following: In Lancaster County, PA, The Green Dragon can only refer to the huge farmers market and auction which takes place every Friday just north of Ephrata. Offering everything from tomatoes to tractors, discount electronics to dairy equipment, The Green Dragon is both a location and an experience. See if you are curious. And on a serious note, the video is absolutely appalling. Thanks again for all the work that you do to expose such threats.

by MLouise on Tue Jan 18, 2011 at 06:01:02 PM EST

I do think Rachel has it parsed very neatly.
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Chip Berlet: Research for Progress - Building Human Rights
by Chip Berlet on Tue Jan 18, 2011 at 03:33:19 PM EST

I just now wrote another relevant post here on Talk to Action:  More about Jared Loughner's politics, plus some conspiracy debunking resources.

by Diane Vera on Tue Jan 18, 2011 at 05:17:59 PM EST

To Chip Berlet:  Please see the comments underneath your January 14 post Loughner, "Zeitgeist - The Movie," and Right-Wing Antisemitic Conspiracism, including a recent comment by ernie1241, titled "Correction," containing some possibly very important information about the John Birch Society.

by Diane Vera on Tue Jan 18, 2011 at 05:56:20 PM EST
Matt Lyons and I in our book Right-Wing Populism in America devote a number of pages to parsing the rhetoric of the JBS regarding who is behind the conspiracy (pp. 177-185); and comparing it to the more overtly but still coded antisemitic references found in the writings of the Liberty Lobby (pp. 185-192). We then explore the "Permutations (pp. 192-196). I don't argue that the term "Insiders" replaced the basic anticommunist motif; but AFTER the publication of the Gary Allen book the use of the term "international bankers" and mentions of the Rothschilds diminished through the 1970s. The more common term within official JBS publications became the "Insiders."
In recent years, on the JBS website, it is easy to find the term "international bankers," but almost always (it's hard to trace every incident) it appears in blog posts and comments, not in the official text posted or published by the JBS.
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Chip Berlet: Research for Progress - Building Human Rights
by Chip Berlet on Wed Jan 19, 2011 at 07:17:49 PM EST

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