Words Matter

Steve Walt at Foreign Policy makes his case:

One problem, of course, is that causality in a case like this is always murky. When someone arrives at a public event and starts shooting people, how do we determine the relative weight of mental illness, personal experience, opportunity, lax gun-control laws, and the toxic soup of violent rhetoric to which he had been exposed, when we try to figure out how something like this could have happened? Granting that Rep. Giffords’s assailant was by all the evidence a deeply disturbed individual, it is still true that his madness manifested itself as an attack on a politician. He didn’t shoot up his workplace, or a school, or even a random shopping mall: He chose a political target. And whatever his personal motives or internal dialogues may have been, he did this at a moment in our history when self-interested hatemongers have combined violent rhetoric and political polarization to an unprecedented degree. Yet for the American right, the violent, and frequently Manichaean, rhetoric that has been the stock in trade of some of their most prominent spokespeople (including Sarah Palin) is totally irrelevant, and anyone who says differently is just playing partisan politics.

Needless to say, there’s a striking dearth of consistency in a lot of these arguments. If you believe that Palestinian “incitement” is a powerful impediment to peace in the Middle East, then you think words matter in that context and you ought to acknowledge that they probably matter back here too. If you’re worried about the dangers of nationalist rhetoric in the Chinese media, then you recognize that what elites and major media figures say can affect what masses perceive and what some individuals do. If you are one of those people who think that what madrasas in Pakistan teach is a source of terrorist violence, then you understand that violence sometimes arises because of what other people have written or said (sometimes over and over and over). If you believe that Mein Kampf had something to do with convincing Germans to commit genocide, then you’ve acknowledged that words do matter and sometimes they pave the way to unspeakable acts. So why deny it in this most recent case?

34 Responses to “Words Matter”

  1. Tom C says:

    Mr. Kloor –

    Is this Steve “the Jews Run Everything” Walt?  Figures.

    The idea that politcal rhetoric and violence are “unprecedented” is laughable.  The 60s-70s were far more heated and violent, complete with real political assassinations, not fake ones.

  2. Dean says:

    I agree that political rhetoric is not at all unprecedented. The 1960’s notwithstanding, I think it was awfully bad pre-Civil War as well.
    Nonetheless it ebbs and flows, and it is at a relative peak now compared to recent years.
    Words do matter. But I also think that anger is a valid emotion to bring to politics. It’s a question of what you do with it and where you let it take you. I don’t want conservatives to be less passionate for fear of how crazies will take it. But everybody should think about how they characterize issues.

  3. JD Ohio says:

    “If you believe that Mein Kampf had something to do with convincing Germans to commit genocide, then you’ve acknowledged that words do matter and sometimes they pave the way to unspeakable acts. So why deny it in this most recent case?”
    How stupid can someone get.  The killer was registered as an independent.  Other evidence is that the killer’s politics were left wing and that he didn’t read newspapers or listen to talk radio.  You can deny that rhetoric mattered in this case because there appears to be no to little evidence that it actually affected the killer.  On top of Walt’s ridiculous failure of facts and logic, he then brings in Mein Kampf to smear conservatives.  If anything, Walt is the one guilty of using dangerous and despicab;e rhetoric.

  4. HugeDifference says:

    I don’t get this argument at all.
    Who here believes words don’t matter?  Who here believes political speeches don’t carry a call to action for a reason?
    I don’t have any problems with anyone saying, “Palin has every right to use a gunsight for her political metaphors or “He pulled the trigger, he was responsible!” — I believe in the first and second amendment!”
    I don’t understand how anyone can say, “Words don’t matter!” OR “IT WASN’T A GUNSIGHT IT WAS A SURVEYOR’s MARK”.
    Suddenly, I am surrounded by lawyers, pundits, journalists all telling me that words don’t matter.

  5. JD Ohio says:

    Words do matter otherwise no one would write anything.  However, in this case the rhetoric that Democrats complain of did not have anything to do with the Congresswomen’s shooting.  Why is that so hard to understand and why is the discussion taking place in the context of her shooting, which had nothing to do with the rhetoric claimed to be offensive?

  6. HugeDifference says:

    “However, in this case the rhetoric that Democrats complain of did not have anything to do with the Congresswomen’s shooting.”

    My understanding is that Loughner is not cooperating with authorities in their investigation.  What you are going on is third hand reports from a girlfriend, and other friends. I’d agree we don’t know why he attacked her, but I think you’re jumping to conclusions to claim there were no political motivations.

    And the entire atmosphere is poison going beyond Loughner.  Palin/Beck/Limbaugh and especially Savage have many times made dehumanizing vicious statements about opponents and liberals.  With many statements about treason and communism and socialism.  With many calls to actions implicit and explicit.

    That is the stew that Loughner cooked in and that others are broiling in right now.  Did you not see Kloor’s other video (at the Atlantic IIRC) about the threats made against the Jewish congressman?

    Ya know, I think you should proudly stand up for and defend that rhetoric, not make some weak defensive argument that words, pamphlets, radio, websites, books, demonstrations have no lasting effect.

    “I believe that Michael Savage has every right as an American to jew bait, to make anti-semitic comments, to red bait, and call liberals communist traitors. And even when he does so, and when Palin places gunsights on other politicians and they do the same in return, it does not make them responsible for Loughner’s acts. They are not inciting violence.  They are not shouting ready, aim, fire in a crowded political theater.”

    Say it, it’s not that hard, and you’ll be proudly defending the first amendment.

  7. Bob Koss says:

    What was the rhetoric the nine year old girl used which resulted in her being killed?

  8. JD Ohio says:

    Huge Difference for atmosphere of poison.  See Mike Roddy 14 most heinous climate villains.  Here is link  http://www.buffalobeast.com/?p=1237
    The tunnel vision on the left is amazing.  Also, you stereotype me.  I disagree with about 90% of what Savage says.  However, the left has equally offensive rhetoric if you would take the blinders off, which you are apparently unable to do.

  9. Keith Kloor says:

    JD (8)

    Nobody I know is saying that the Left doesn’t produce its share of offensive rhetoric, least of all me. And I’ve been all over this related to the climate beat when I’m made aware of it.

    But as I’ve said on other threads, I agree with Krugman and Budiansky that there is a false equivalence here. The fact is, the Buffalo Beast is as marginal as they come. Whereas, Limbaugh, Beck, and Palin to a lesser extent, are uber-popular and reflective of a wider intolerant strain within the GOP.

    So, no comparison. Not even close.

  10. JD Ohio says:

    KK #9
    You are incorrect.  As I pointed out before Krugman called those opposed to CO2 controls “traitors.”  Hansen and others who use the “denier” innuendo equate those opposed to carbon controls to Nazis.  The attacks on Bush (who I strongly opposed for his international adventurism.)  were vicious.   Keith Olbermann had the Worst Person in the World segment to spew his hate.   There definitely is equivalence; the left is simply cynically using this episode to gain political ground.
    Huge Difference said it all “we don’t know why he attacked her”.  If that is the case then why is her killing a focal point of the discussion?

  11. JD Ohio says:

    #10.  Should have said why is the Congresswoman’s shooting the focal point of the discussion.

  12. Keith Kloor says:

    JD (11) asks: “why is the Congresswoman’s shooting the focal point of the discussion.”

    Because the Congresswoman was the intended target, not a school or workplace, but her–and also for the reasons I laid out here.

  13. Matt B says:

    NPR had a segment this morning reporting on a psychologist for the Secret Service who did a study on the motivation of political assassins; very few did it for political reasons.


    “Family Snapshot” by Peter Gabriel hits the nail on the head……… 

  14. BenSix says:

    …sometimes they pave the way to unspeakable acts. So why deny it in this most recent case?
    I think I see the important word here.

  15. JD Ohio says:

    #12  Why is the Congresswoman’s shooting the focal point of the discussion?  KK “Because the Congresswoman was the intended target, not a school or workplace, but her?
    This is totally illogical.  If he thought he was killing a bear or the devil (he was deranged), then her shooting is not relevant.  We don’t know why he picked her, and the best supposition is that it would be unrelated to political considerations.  For instance, he could have picked her because she was a prominent person.  If a deranged person killed a doctor, a bus driver, a nurse, would we say that it was because it was due to rhetoric concerning their work when there is absolutely no evidence that that deranged person had those feelings.




  16. HugeDifference says:

    JD, Paul Krugman is someone I really admire, but I haven’t agreed with his take and rhetoric on global warming, and I’ve said so, here and in the comments at his blog.
    But have you seen Jon Stewart’s video regarding Glenn Beck and Hitler? Or Lewis Black’s?  I think you’ll enjoy them.

  17. kdk33 says:

    The political tactic of pinning this tragedy on conservatives is really rather repugnant (the irony, though, is just soooo rich).  But politics is a dirty game.  Who knows, it might work.

    On the other hand, I’m thinking there’s significant backfire potential here – you’ve no idea what a crazy person is eventually gonna say, and it might not fit your narrative – so I’d not walk forward any further than you’re willing to walk back.

    I’d point out that political rhetoric had not one damn thing to do with this tragedy, but you already know that, and it’s irrelevant to what you’re trying to accomplish.

  18. lucia says:

    If you believe that Mein Kampf had something to do with convincing Germans to commit genocide, then you’ve acknowledged that words do matter and sometimes they pave the way to unspeakable acts. So why deny it in this most recent case?
    The difficulty is that the ‘Palin ->Lougher kills congress woman ‘causality seems to  closer to believing ‘Mein Kampf -> shoots Archduke Ferdinand’ connection.
    Of course rhetoric can, hypothetically, influence people to do bad things. But it’s rather scurrilous to make unfounded and implausible cause and effect accusations, and then defend them on the grounds that it is not impossible for words to affect individual actions.
    Continuing to defend the unfounded accusations against the tea party and Palin despite  evidence that the deranged killer Loughner, had it in for his victim owing to her  non-response to a ridiculous question he presented her in 2007 is perverse.
    If you want to make a case that Beck, Limbaugh and Palin herself are creating a hostile climate–ok. I think they are. If you think that sometimes, rhetoric can result in violence– yes, It can and does.
    But this particular murder doesn’t seem to provide much evidence for the theory that their rhetoric increases the probability of any murders.

  19. Bob Koss says:

    What was the point of carrying multiple magazines of ammunition if only Giffords was the focus of his rage?

  20. Keith Kloor says:

    Are you kidding me with that? I think it’s safe to say that Giffords was the intended target, whatever the reason was.

  21. JD Ohio says:

    #18 Lucia

  22. lucia says:

    I think it’s safe to say that Giffords was the intended target, whatever the reason was.
    Absolutely.  Why did he have lots of ammunition? Who knows. He’s not a sharp shooter,  maybe he was worried he’d miss.

  23. laursaurus says:

    The irony of the Left pinning this tragedy on hateful political rhetoric is very revealing. Now we know they are willing to lie. Other than the congresswoman being a moderate Democrat, there has been absolutely zero evidence that political rhetoric has anything to do with it.

    We have his YouTube video of burning the flag. His friends and family said the internet movies, “Zeitgeist” and “Loose Change” had the most profound influence over his thinking. If you read the stuff he wrote and watch his YouTube channel, his delusional preception of governmental conspiracy theories mirror the warped views presented by these 2 films. He is an atheist, he registered as an Independent, didn’t vote in the past election, save a letter from this politician thanking him for attending a similar townhall-type event back in 2007, that he jotted “Die Bitch!” in his own hand-writing. The Tea Party did not exist until 4/15/09. Sarah Palin was pretty much unknown to anybody outside of Alaska until August of 2008.

    The hateful rhetoric of the Left that would instantly try to blame Sarah Palin or Rush Limbaugh is so unfounded and unwarranted.

    That sheriff is a disgrace. It’s his fault this guy slipped through the cracks and never investigated despite making death threats and getting himself kicked off campus at Pima Community College.

    I can’t believe that it’s been almost a week and every fact that has been revealed has nothing to do with partisan politics.
    Why are Leftist journalists still making these completely false allegations?

    Yes words matter. So why continue to announce bald faced lies? The public sees right through this ugly, dishonest, slimey campaign the Leftists are asserting. This is outright libel and Palin ought to take legal action.

  24. BobN says:

    I have no problem with the tragic event of the assasination attempt and mass murder in AZ being a catalyst for discussion of how we can tone down the virulence of the current political climate.  However, as Lucia and others have pointed out, it seems that there is no way to connect specific rhetoric, such as that of Sarah Palin or the Tea Party, as being in any way an influence on the shooter. 

    As to which “side” is currently espousing more offensive rhetoric, it is hard for me to say since I avoid pundits such as Beck, Limbough, Olberman, etc. since I find they offer very little in the way of useful dialogue.  For a common of example of offensive language from the left is the oft-use term “tea-bagger” to refer to tea partiers.  If you don’t know what the slang term “tea-bagging” means, check the urban dictionary.  My guess is that the degree of animosity/vitriol/etc. sways from one group to the next depending on which group is in power.  The group out of power will tend to be the vitriolic.

    I think Charles Krauthammers and George Will’s takes on the violent  rhetoric lead to shooting meme are good reads.



  25. Keith Kloor says:

    Laursaurus, yes Sarah Palin has more than revealed herself with her “blood libel” video, painting herself as a victim.

    Her speech is quite a contrast to President Obama’s, who best as I can tell, did not follow in the direction of the legion of “leftists” you allude to. (Do not, I beg of you, allow yourself to be afflicted with Jeff Id syndrome.)

    I would say that indeed the public saw something quite important in watching those two speeches.

  26. laursaurus says:

    I just need to add that President Obama has evolved into a true leader. When he first took office, he was a completely partisan politician. Every problem was created by Bush. Now he had to deal with Gitmo, the War, warrantless wiretapping, enhanced interrogation, etc. 2 years later, and turns out that he discovered that these were effective policies that he continues to support. Had this trajedy happened 18 months earlier, no doubt Obama would have tried to pin it on Bush. But now he has risen above the ugliness of scoring political points. I couldn’t stand him at first. But he has risen to the occasion several times now. I never would have believed that my opinion of him would have changed so profoundly.
    Big deal what Laura thinks, right?
    When Keith blogged about believers who became skeptics, I thought about how my attitude about Obama has completely changed in 2 years. Open minds definitely still exist.

  27. Bob Koss says:

    KK #20
    My view is he was consumed with rage by what he perceived as his mistreatment by society in general.  That his intent was to kill as many people as possible. His idea being to begin with a high profile person in a crowd drawing situation, affecting as many as possible  with his display of the magnitude of his rage. If Giffords was to be the sole intended target he could certainly have found a less crowded time and place to act.
    Was she a focus of his rage? Absolutely. The only focus? Not in my book.

  28. Tom C says:

    Mr. Kloor –

    Sarah Palin was in quite a different position than Obama.  She was being accused of being complicit in murder by persons like Paul Krugman.  It is not fair to compare the two speeches.

    As far as left vs. right violence, persons on the left have simply become blind.  Let’s compare the last two years of protests in the US and Europe.  Whenever the left protests there are smashed windows, tear gas, incendiary bombs, overturned and burned cars, etc.  And what are they protesting about?  Fascism?  Hardly.  Usually its over trade deals, changing retirement age by two years, cutting back on public union salaries and so forth.  The left is inherently violent.

    Now how did the whipped-into-a-frenzy by Sarah-Palin Tea Party protest?  Literally hundreds of thousands of people took to the street as Tea Partiers last year.  Not one broken window.  Not one fight.  Not one incident of vandalism.  Not one arrest.  Not even any trash left behind. 

    Actually, I forgot – one person did get beat up.  If was a black man who organized a tea party protest.  He was beaten up and called a racial epithet by union thugs.  Not much coverage of that by your brethren Mr. Kloor.

    So, please.  Don’t give me us this “no comparison, the right is worse” stuff. 

  29. JD Ohio says:

    Additional Response to KK #9
    Keith in 9 you minimized the reach and acceptance of the Beast, and by implication, Mike Roddy, one of the writers of the extreme speech.  Just stumbled on a column where he was featured by Andy Revkin.  See Girding for a Republican Gavel.–http://community.nytimes.com/comments/dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/11/02/girding-for-a-republican-gavel-at-climate-hearings/?sort=recommended&offset=3   Roddy has been a very frequent commenter on Dotearth and to my memory has never been reined in there or at other sites where he frequently comments.  It seems that his rhetoric is acceptable to environmentalists.  Should also add that onetime Roddy stated at Dotearth that his goal was to “humiliate” realists.  (who he undoubtedly called “deniers”)
    To show

  30. JD Ohio says:

    Huge Difference 16
    Too cheap for cable so I don’t watch Stewart or Black (never heard of him, assume he is on cable.)  Did notice where Stewart really speared James Cramer though.  Also, I waste enough time on blogs.  Watch little TV and hate it when a blog asks me to watch a videotape on Youtube.
    Best wishes,

  31. Huge Difference says:

    The Lewis Black video will leave you on the floor, gasping, crying.

  32. Jim Owen says:

    He didn’t shoot a “political target”, he shot a “personal” target.  Only the wilfully blind don’t see that. 

  33. JD Ohio says:

    In this column and others, you have argued that extreme rhetoric (potentially leading to violence) is more prevalent on the right rather than the left.  Lee Stranahan in a Huff Post column discusses how the mainstream media is ignoring death threats against the Wisconsin politicians who are attempting to limit union rights.  In addition to the article I would suggest reading the comments, many of which are unapologetically vitriolic and excuse the death threats.  See link  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lee-stranahan/shame-ignoring-death-thre_b_835805.html

  34. Jeff Norris says:

    Bill Maher said last night
     And before you accuse me of equating the Casey Anthony verdict with Republican thinking, save your breath. I am,” Bill Maher said on Friday. “I am. I’m saying if you’re a working class American who still votes Republican, then you don’t get to bitch about that verdict.”
    Looks like the pledge of civility has been thrown out the window because of the budget/debit ceiling impasse.
    People throwing around terms like Hostage Taker, Suicide Bomber, Terrorists, and Holding a Gun to the Head, I thought we all agreed to stop that.  I thought the use of gun imagery was a strict no no.  Who would dare use gun imagery?
    The debt ceiling should not be something that is used as a gun against the heads of the American people to extract tax breaks for corporate jet owners or oil and gas companies that are making billions of dollars because the price of gasoline has gone up so high.
    President Obama 7-6-11
    My how things have changed since he said this speech.
     “At a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized, at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do,” he said, “it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.”
    President Obama 1-13-11
    Maybe a journalist should step and remind us all before it is too late.

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