The Truth About Political Rhetoric and the Planned Parenthood Shooting

December 1st 2015

Over the weekend, a man opened fire at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado, killing three people and injuring nine others. In our search for answers to the senseless violence, we've learned that 57-year-old Robert Dear, the alleged shooter, said something to effect of "no more baby parts," as investigators arrested him on Friday.

This has led many to conclude that the shooting was motivated by an anti-abortion agenda, and there's precedent for that assumption. The New York Times reports that at least 11 people have been killed in attacks on U.S. abortion clinics since 1993. Some have wondered out loud: is violent political rhetoric to blame?

We spoke to an expert to explain.

RELATED: Ted Cruz Blames Multiple Groups For Planned Parenthood Shooting

A 2014 study from the University of Michigan found that violent rhetoric can, in fact, influence political violence. That is, violent metaphors (declaring a "war on X," vowing to "fight X," and promising to "combat X") can affect the attitudes of those who are absorbing the message. The study's lead author, Nathan Kalmoe, conducted three experiments that looked at the effects of divisive language, and he determined that "the evidence might be sufficient to make political leaders think twice before infusing violent language into speeches and ads, particularly in situations when their audiences are already boiling over with hostility."

Kalmoe concluded:

"I found that citizens with aggressive personality traits expressed significantly greater support for political violence, and their support doubled when they were exposed to political messages infused with violent metaphors. Younger adults—the demographic most likely to engage in aggressive behavior—showed even stronger reactions to metaphors... Given the representativeness of the tests, these studies also show that violent metaphors affect tens of millions of Americans, not just a handful of unstable individuals."

ATTN: caught up with Kalmoe recently and asked, among other things, what he thought about the current political climate in terms of violent rhetoric.

ATTN: What trends have you observed in terms of violent rhetoric in the 2016 presidential election so far?

Nathan Kalmoe: I have not systematically analyzed 2016 rhetoric, but I can say anecdotally that the violent metaphors used in this election cycle are similar to previous years. This is especially true of the mild language I focused on in this study. So, for example, Ted Cruz has talked about 'leading the fight' on several conservative causes, Hillary Clinton has described 'fighting' for kids, women, and families 'to even the odds,' Donald Trump says of his movement 'We will fight. We will win,' and Jeb Bush says he wants to 'fight for the American people.' This language is mild in its common forms, but it is also potent among more aggressive citizens.

ATTN: The recent shooting at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado has raised questions about political rhetoric surrounding abortion. Do you think it's fair to draw connections between the recent shooting and the way that politicians discuss the issue?

NK: Violence and rhetoric have a thorny relationship across the political spectrum. Obviously, the vast majority of people do not engage in politicized violent behavior. My studies focus on violent attitudes, but they suggest rhetoric can make some Americans feel more favorable toward political violence even if they don't act themselves.

Beyond violent language, psychologists identify 'mechanisms of moral disengagement' that make it easier for people to rationalize violence with 'ends-justify-the-means' logic and vilification of targets. Political rhetoric can play a role in that process across many inflammatory issues, including abortion, race, and immigration. The challenge for democracy is that citizens must be able to express their policy differences freely. Politics has always been contentious, angry, and vilifying, and there seems to be no way of avoiding conflict at the heart of all politics.

ATTN: If you were the speech coach for a presidential candidate this election season, what advice would you give them to avoid inflaming voters?

NK: Given the negative consequences from even mild violent metaphors, I'd recommend political leaders avoid using them altogether. But doing so means forgoing some advantages that can accrue from the strategic use of violent metaphors. In ongoing research with Joshua Gubler and David Wood, we find that violent metaphors reinforce partisan views on a host of policy issues among more aggressive audiences. So, for example, when President Harry Truman used 'fighting' metaphors in his 1948 Labor Day address to union men in Detroit—an audience more aggressive than most—he was probably boosting their support for shared policy goals in labor organizing and beyond. You could find similar effects in other audiences that are predominantly male, working-class, and young. I think politicians intuitively sense this dynamic and use it to their advantage.

More broadly, I would counsel against us-versus-them rhetoric for similar reasons, whether against other candidates, parties, or social groups. But that language can be useful for engaging, reinforcing, and mobilizing fellow partisans as well. Like many aspects of politics, rhetoric is often a double-edged sword.

You can read Kalmoe's full report, "Fueling the Fire: Violent Metaphors, Trait Aggression, and Support for Political Violence," here.

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