Violence and Motivation
As I was prepping blog posts on Saturday, I joked that this was going to be the week Jim argues with everybody. It’s made for some interesting conversations so far. (And very thought-provoking in some cases.)
I think my favorite snippy response is the author who answered my fact-checking of the e-publishing cheerleaders by blogging, “Jim C. Hines, however, is picking nits off the dead monkey, apparently feasting.”
Anyway, on with today’s post, in which I move away from publishing…
I’ve come across two stories I wanted to share regarding the Tuscon shooting and the debate that followed.
The first is from NPR, about a Secret Service study of 83 attempted and completed assassination attempts against various public figures. (Full study here.) “Perhaps the most interesting finding is that according to Fein and Vossekuil, assassinations of political figures were almost never for political reasons.” (Emphasis added.)
Instead, the primary motivation was simply … to be noticed. To get attention and see your name plastered all over the front page. Who to kill is almost an afterthought to the decision to commit murder. The target is whoever will generate the most attention.
We don’t know why Loughner chose to kill those people and tried to murder Congresswoman Giffords. But this study seems to undercut the automatic assumption that he acted for or was influenced primarily by political reasons.
The study also examines the widespread belief that such murderers are mentally ill. While Loughner may indeed be mentally ill, a fair number of the initial responses I read were almost tautological: “Only a crazy person would do this, so he must be crazy!” which struck me as problematic for a number of reasons.
The study found that fewer than half of the subjects were delusional at the time of the attack. “Almost all had psychological problems. But relatively few suffered from serious mental illness that directly affected their assassination behaviors.”
Boing Boing linked to a 2010 study of violent political rhetoric, and the effects it can have.
“Although the net effect of violent political rhetoric is nil, citizens with the greatest propensity to commit and encourage acts of aggression could well be pushed past a tipping point by violent political rhetoric. This point is emphasized further by the significantly-greater responsiveness of young adults – the population most likely to engage in all forms of aggression.”
In other words, the relatively mild violent metaphors and rhetoric used in the study had no significant effect on most subjects. But a small minority of people (described as “trait-aggressive”) do respond to such rhetoric, and are more likely to support political violence.
Does this contradict the first study? Could a trait-aggressive person, in theory, be moved by violent rhetoric to commit political violence, even assassination? The author suggests this as a possibility, but the research showed only changes in approval of political violence — changes which were significant only for a small minority. It does not show whether people are more likely to commit such violence.
This study got me thinking about the incident where Rand Paul supporters threw a protester to the ground and stomped on her head: not an assassination attempt, but violence in the heat of the moment. I’d love to know whether those people assaulting the protester were in that trait-aggressive group.
I don’t know what caused Jared Loughner to murder those people on Saturday. Two studies aren’t enough to draw any sweeping conclusions, and they don’t necessarily tell us anything about a specific individual.
Toxic and flat-out nasty political bickering can be damaging, as suggested in the second study. And I stand by my disgust at those who would use such tragedy as a rallying cry or a metaphor to rile supporters and win elections. But I find both studies informative in the face of the wave of accusations that followed last Saturday’s tragedy.
What do you think?
January 19, 2011 @ 10:13 am
I think aggressive speech is like video games. For most of the population, playing a violent video game has no impact other than watching blood splatter on the screen. For a small percentage, those games get them even more violent. I think that same percentage also used D&D or heavy metal as a gateway violence in the past. It isn’t a matter of those things are corrupting the youth but more of triggering a trait-aggressive individual. If it wasn’t that event, it may have been something else.
As for the accusations, I think the above link is a pretty good reason. I think Boing Boing got is spot on when they brought it back up and the essay really is timeless when it comes to these things.
Steve - Kestrel's Aerie
January 19, 2011 @ 11:27 am
I think Bill O’Reilly and Keith Olberman are different sides of the same coin, and Rush Limbaugh and Bill Maher are likewise. I can’t characterize any of those four as a “nice person,” from what I’ve observed of their public personae. (There are other commentators one could use as examples; these four should suffice.)
Spend enough time listening to any of them, and those who may susceptible to the power of suggestion to an extreme degree, may eventually resort to extreme measures.
Now, am I blaming them specifically for any particular act? Not at all. To be honest, I haven’t followed the brouhaha very closely, because I see almost zero purely objective reporting, and a lot of emotional rhetoric. If emotional rhetoric is my bag, I can listen to the aforementioned individuals.
What this country is in dire need of, instead, is rational, considerate, courteous, and objective debate.
January 19, 2011 @ 1:04 pm
I find almost everything in politics to be toxic and destructive to our society. While I don’t think politics led directly to this shooting, it isn’t hard to see how the road we are on is going to lead to more of this happening.
We have a profit-driven media who get a better market share by being more outlandish and vitriolic than anyone else because it is more interesting and entertaining to the audience, and so populate the air waves preaching hate and ignorance instead of reasoned discourse. We self-select our news according to which source we already know agrees with us. This makes us look at people who think differently as evil and somehow alien to our beliefs and values. We look on the TV and we see that the person on TV isn’t just disagreeing with our opinion, he is jumping up and down red-faced and calling us stupid and/or evil, and that is the lasting impression we have of the opposite point of view.
Were I mentally ill, I think I would find it much easier to inflict harm on those I am convinced are evil and inhuman. I might not be prone to random murder, but I’m ill enough to believe that a person just needs killing. I might feel justified, and I might even feel like some people are intimating that they would approve of it. I might even go to jail knowing that while the talking heads are publicly condemning me, they are privately applauding that someone finally had the courage to stand up and do what needs to be done. That might feed my need for celebrity. To know that my actions are secretly approved of by those I look up to and see as my moral compass.
I hold neither side blameless here. I hope some day we return to politics being a game for gentlemen. Human nature being what it is, I don’t think we can close that Pandora’s box.
January 21, 2011 @ 5:32 pm
I don’t think it’s a matter of one person’s violent rhetoric. I think it’s the aggregate of large amounts of violent rhetoric, which feeds into the idea of a conspiracy that will need to be overcome by force, which gets people to drop their discomfort at the idea of enforcing their ideals and beliefs on others by force, especially if they think their neighbors will be trying to do it to them. And not fictional rhetoric in songs, movies, books, but actual people speaking and claiming a factual need for violence against one’s neighbors — we will need to shoot them. This can feed into some people’s mental issues or illnesses and may make them think that the end of the world is about to come and/or that a war has started in which they need to take action. The “trigger” for those who become violent is not usually one event, but a series — romantic rejection, getting fired, going off medications, etc., that lead to increasing despair and a feeling that the world is against them and action needs to be taken to show the world what they are made of. My other theory on the mentally disturbed who attempt mass shootings specifically is that the media has made simple suicide too low a bar to get on the news. To make a statement, these disturbed indviduals feel you have to kill a lot of people before killing yourself — we see that pattern again and again. But with that pattern is the idea that the world is out to get them, and that’s what the violent rhetoric feeds.
As horrible as they are and as scarily unpredictable, mass shootings by individuals scare me less than the wider effect of violent rhetoric which is cultural hostility. It’s neighbors saying threatening things to other neighbors, brandishing their firearms at them, tearing up their front lawns and violent vandalism, trying to intimidate them, burning mosques and book burnings, Rand Paul’s supporters taking it upon themselves, when event security refused to run off a legitimate protester, to wrestle her to the ground and stomp on her head to keep her from speaking. They are not mentally disturbed people, but they’ve become comfortable with the language of violence and with the concept that their neighbors are threats to them that may require violence because media figures, politicians, cultural leaders, etc., tell them that this is the case. (And I’m sorry, but beyond bloggers, this rhetoric from actual leaders and media figures with broad access is coming almost entirely from the far right, which talks about hunting liberals and calls their opponents traitors, all Muslims terrorists who are trying to invade, etc.) And then we have politicians taking that one step further, like the immigration law in Arizona, which is not only unconstitutional and impossible to enforce, but is a free-for-all to intimidate Latin-American voters — voters who tend to prefer the Democrats to the Republicans making the law. For me, the violent rhetoric is a political tool, meant to stir up agitation, distrust and fear and play on old prejudices and stereotypes concerning new changes in the population. The language being used is not very different from the language that used to be used for things like keeping Jews out of swimming pools and blacks from certain parts of town. It’s “we’re watching you and we’ll take you out.” So it’s not surprising that someone very disturbed, perhaps hallucinating, might react either by being terrified (which many mentally ill people do,) or by seeing himself as an avatar for justice against a threatening figurehead.