Does Violent Rhetoric Give Rise to Violent Actions?

violent rhetoric

BACK IN SEPTEMBER, I wrote a piece in which I argued that the terms “pro-choice” and “pro-life” are too polarizing to foster a constructive conversation around abortion.

I expressed a concern that extreme characterizations on either side could lead to extreme legislation, using the recent headway made toward defunding Planned Parenthood on both state and national levels as a prime example. The issue now being pushed to the fore is the possible connection between political rhetoric and political violence.

Since the Center for Medical Progress began releasing a wave of heavily-edited, highly spurious “sting videos” portraying Planned Parenthood as a heartless organization that murders babies in order to sell their body parts, nearly every Republican presidential candidate has jumped on the outrage, whether from genuine feeling or for the sake of political expediency.

Ben Carson compares legalized abortion to the atrocity of slavery, making an analogy between abolitionists and those working to end legalized abortion. Carly Fiorina employed gruesome imagery to describe what Planned Parenthood supposedly does to fetuses (none of which is true, by the way) in the September GOP debate. Ted Cruz, in his pitch to defund Planned Parenthood, referred to legal abortion as an “ongoing Holocaust.” Donald Trump reneged on one of his only decent qualities early in the race — standing up, in part, for Planned Parenthood — becoming yet another candidate throwing around inflammatory rhetoric against the organization, referring to it as an “abortion factory,” claiming that it sells baby parts as cavalierly as if they were automobile parts.

And politicians aren’t the only ones perpetuating such extreme comparisons. Bill O’Reilly, whose program on Fox consistently rates number-one for cable news programs, compared the supposed fetal tissue harvesting methods of Planned Parenthood to the grotesque, inhuman medical experiments conducted by the Third Reich.

Words have power. An example of just how much may be the recent acts of violence perpetrated against reproductive health clinics across the country coinciding with the release of the Center for Medical Progress’s videos and the now-common barbaric rhetoric they inspired.

It is impossible to know for sure what drove Robert Lewis Dear to enter a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs last month, murder three people, and injure nine others. His past is peppered with accusations of domestic abuse, animal abuse, and neighbor harassment, along with sporadic expressions of various right-wing sympathies. It’s pretty clear that anti-abortion sentiment had something to do with this attack, as Dear reportedly stated “No more baby parts” to one of his investigators. Since research suggests a link between a history of domestic violence and later violent acts against others, Dear’s shooting spree can’t reasonably be attributed in full to the recent demonization of Planned Parenthood. But we shouldn’t ignore the question of whether such vilification incited a man already prone to violence to perpetrate it at this time and in this heightened manner.

Dear’s shooting spree was one of several recent acts of violence against reproductive health care facilities, the incidence of which has increased since the Center for Medical Progress began releasing its videos. Four acts of arson, several threats, and cyber attacks join Dear’s spree in the recent uptick of hostile acts.

Three recent studies out of the University of Michigan support the theory that violent political rhetoric inspires greater acceptance of political violence. Researchers compared the impacts of different forms of rhetoric used in two political ads – one mildly “violent,” using the words “fight for” repeatedly, and the other using gentler words, such as “struggle for” and “work for” – on participants’ willingness to express support for acts of political violence. In one study, participants who exhibited aggressive tendencies in general were three times more likely to support statements advocating political violence (i.e. throwing bricks through politicians’ windows, sending threats, and solving government problems with “a few well-aimed bullets”) than baseline non-aggressive participants when viewing milder ads; when shown near-identical ads with more “violent” language, aggressive participants’ acceptance of violent statements nearly doubled. The other two studies conducted supported these findings.

This series of studies focused on attitudinal acceptance of hypothetical violence, not actual participation in acts of violence, and its target was political figures, not organizations like Planned Parenthood. However, it’s reasonable to assume that an increased acceptance of political violence is associated, at least for some, with an increased likelihood of committing acts thereof, whether against an individual or a demonized organization.

What is more, the “violent” language used in these studies was rather mild. Comparatively, the rhetorical assault on Planned Parenthood is much more hostile. If a word like “fight” can inspire those predisposed to aggression to condone acts of violence, then what can we expect to occur when an organization is portrayed as the monolithic slave owner and those opposed to its actions are framed as the heroic abolitionists who right the wrongs of history? When Planned Parenthood is spoken of — frequently and by high-profile politicians — as the second coming of the Third Reich, and those opposed to its heinous acts, the noble Allied Forces saving the world from another Holocaust?

This rhetoric invokes war. It incites violence. Aside from being a gross distortion of reality, it is highly irresponsible.

For more information on the spuriousness of the Center for Medical Progress videos, see here. To learn more about what Planned Parenthood actually does, see here.