Is there a difference between the kind of violent rhetoric that is used by the “right” and “left”?
I don’t really think so. I think at different times one side predominates over the other. If you go back into the 1960s and you look at some of the rhetoric from the anti-war movement or the women’s liberation movement, it’s pretty extreme stuff.
And I suppose, as some commentators have pointed out, there was a lot of vitriol directed at President Bush.
Is this kind of violent political rhetoric particular to the United States? Or is it something you see in Europe, Britain, Australia, and in other democracies?
You do see some of it, although, I must say, Americans from the very beginning have tended to a more violent discourse. You can go all the way back into the eighteenth century and find all sorts of examples of the use of rhetoric. This is very deeply woven into the American culture and in the American experience. Violence permeates our culture in a way that it does not permeate some of the European cultures, especially the social democracies such as Sweden, Norway, and Finland.
Obviously, this whole discussion has arisen out of Saturday’s shooting of Congresswoman Giffords. Do you see any connection between the violence that occurred over the weekend and the violent political rhetoric we’ve been hearing in the past two years? And can those connections be found historically?
The question has always been: What is the nature of the connection? Is it a causal connection? We have over a half-century of research on violence and media for example and over a half-century of truly exhaustive research. And there has been almost no correlation between portrayals of violence in the media, whether it’s television or film, and the increase of violence in the people who view it.
I would say as far as we can tell there’s not a causal connection here. Now, is there a correlation between the amount of violent, emotional rhetoric in circulation and the propensity of people who are not quite all there to engage in violent action? Maybe, but I don’t know how you would ever prove it. It’s hard to know what is the cause and what is the effect.
Right. They might share an underlying cause without necessarily causing each other.
Yes. The one thing we do know that can be validated is the psychological condition of these people. The one thing that you see that holds constant is that these people have psychological problems. Whether it was the culture or the rhetoric or a particular statement or the time of day or what that actually set them off, we will probably never know. The fact of the matter is they have psychological problems. Normal people do not react to this kind of metaphorical violence in a violent way.
From what you’ve seen so far, do you think there’s value to be had in launching into this debate about rhetoric and tamping down inflammatory political speech, so soon after Saturday’s incident?
I think it’s always appropriate. To the degree that the rhetoric has been trained against government itself, I think that would be a very good thing to have happen. In point of fact, in a democracy, the government is us. And to the degree that we are dissatisfied with our government we need to look in the mirror.
What have you made of the reporting that you’ve seen so far?
What I’ve seen I thought has been pretty good. People are taking it seriously, they’re trying to ferret out the various aspects of the story, and I think some of the investigative journalism has been quite good for the first forty-eight hours or so.
Do you have advice or cautions for journalists who will be writing on political rhetoric in the wake of Saturday’s shooting?
Just to be cautious about jumping to what may be easy, but wrong, conclusions. And to look back into history and to try to understand how our current moment is part of a larger mosaic, rather than just fixate on this particular instance as though it is somehow abnormal.
In your view, what is the ultimate goal of political rhetoric?