In the aftermath of the terrible shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and others at a constituent event in Tucson this weekend, there’s been a great deal of heated rhetoric about … well, heated rhetoric.

What do we actually know about whether incendiary political rhetoric can inspire violent acts?

Even before anything was known about the shooter, many people reacted to the news by arguing that whatever the motives of this particular shooter, the tone of our political discourse is at least partly to blame. Those making this argument cite the extreme and polarizing tone used by many politicians and media commentators; the especially troubling use of  the rhetoric of violence in some quarters; and the heated tone invoked to discuss certain topics that Rep. Giffords was prominently involved in, including immigration and health care reform.

Advocates of this view note, for instance, that Giffords’ Tucson office was vandalized last year, apparently in response to her support of health care reform, and her stance on immigration had drawn threats of violence. Meanwhile, during a Saturday press conference, Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik went so far as to blame the attack on political “vitriol” and call Arizona “a mecca for prejudice and bigotry.” This view has gained increasing attention over the last two days, being offered by both traditional media commentators and widely-read bloggers.

Yet others have suggested, not unreasonably, that it may not be possible to blame isolated acts by violent individuals on inflammatory political rhetoric.

Who’s right?

Those in political science have been circulating a paper by Nathan Kalmoe, a doctoral student at the University of Michigan. In this paper, entitled “Does Violent Political Rhetoric Fuel Support for Political Violence?“, Kalmoe reports on a national survey that suggests even mildly violent rhetoric can increase support for violence among those who are predisposed to aggression.

Kalmoe exposed survey participants to political discourse, with or without rhetorical references to violence drawn from Senator John McCain’s 2008 speech at the Republican National Convention. These references include the words “fight” and “battle,” and variants like “fighting.” The survey then sought to gauge support for political violence through a series of questions about attitudes towards the use of threats or violent acts against politicians or the government.

The survey showed that, overall, residents of the United States are not more likely to be supportive of political violence after exposure to violent political rhetoric—at least in this very mild form.

However, Kalmoe went further. He asked a series of questions designed to determine which respondents displayed “trait aggression,” or the stable tendency to engage in aggression with others. “Trait aggression” has been proven in the psychology literature to be useful in predicting aggressive behavior.

Kalmoe found that those who were classified as having aggressive tendencies were, in fact, more likely to demonstrate support for political violence after being exposed to the mild metaphors for violence used in the survey. This effect was especially pronounced for younger adults (those under 40).

These are the results of just one study, but other research supports the general idea that violence in the media can trigger aggression in individuals. Certainly this research suggests that even mildly violent political discourse may well trigger aggression in those individuals who are predisposed towards violence.

2 Responses to “Does political rhetoric cause violent acts?”

  1. Jim Perry says:

    James, I lived in Massachusetts at a time when there was violent rhetoric about abortion. Eventually a young man decided that God had appointed him to walk into an abortion clinic and shoot everybody in sight. I was very disappointed that the then Cardinal Archbishop of Boston did not use the opportunity to make a strong statement condemning violence.

    Saturday I was delighted that people like Sen. John McCain and Speaker John Boehner strongly condemned the assassination attempt on Gabby Giffords. The following public figures, however, managed to issue public condolences Saturday without strong statements condemning the violent act: Sarah Palin, AZ Senator John Kyl, AZ Gov. Jan Brewer, and AZ State Senate President Russell Means, sponsor of the infamous AZ anti-immigrant legislation. Very disappointing.

  2. mario says:

    Let’s not forget evident historic facts such as the Nazi’s rethoric against jews…or communist call “death to the
    american imperialists” and more recently the stands against
    undocumented immigrants bt the “minute men “…

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