How Vicious Rhetoric Leads to Violence and Murder

by Chip Berlet

The leaders of organized political or social movements sometimes tell their followers that a specific group of ‘Others’ is plotting to destroy civilized society. History tells us that if this message is repeated vividly enough, loudly enough, often enough, and long enough—it is only a matter of time before the bodies from the named scapegoated groups start to turn up.

Levin persuasively argues that both culture and self-interest shape prejudiced ideas and acts of discrimination or violence, which are ‘in many cases, quite rational’. According to Levin, respect for ‘differences can be so costly in a psychologically and material sense that it may actually require rebellious or deviant behavior’, in contrast to the existing norms of a society.

Social science since World War II and the Nazi genocide has shown that under specific conditions, virulent demonization and scapegoating can—and does—create milieus in which the potential for violence is increased. What social science cannot do is predict which individual upon hearing the rhetoric of clear or coded incitement and turn to violence.

In approaching some of these questions, we need to unpack the concepts of ‘constitutive rhetoric’; the vilification, demonization, and scapegoating of a named ‘Other’; coded rhetorical incitement by demagogues; the relationship between conspiracism and apocalyptic aggression; and the process of scripted violence by which a leader need not directly exhort violence to create a constituency that hears a call to take action against the named enemy.

I argue that these processes can and do motivate some individuals to adopt a ‘superhero complex’ which justifies their pre-emptive acts of violence or terrorism to ‘save society’ from imminent threats by named enemies ‘before it is too late’.

In the United States, following the 1995 Oklahoma City terrorist bombing by a small cell of right-wing militants, there were calls by Democrats and liberals to show restraint in the rhetoric used in electoral campaigns. A handful of principled conservatives also joined in this call. Overwhelmingly, however, the response by Republicans and conservatives (and a few liberals) was to denounce such concerns as falsely linking media rhetoric to violent action and thus endangering First Amendment free speech guarantees. A few of the more macho voices declared such concerns to be a sign of political weakness. Actually, such claims rebutting the link between rhetoric and violence are based on a misunderstanding or misrepresentations of existing social science.

A vivid example of this can be found in the statistics chronicling ethno-violence compiled by the US Justice Department. Following the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the US World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon (the military headquarters outside the US capital city of Washington, DC. ), assaults, the defacements of buildings, the murders of people perceived by attackers to be Muslims in the United States, showed a ghastly upwards spike. This is not just a convoluted turn of phrase. From the first days after the 9\11 terror attacks by militant Islamic supremacists, adherents to the Sikh religion were attacked because the truly ignorant xenophobic attackers assumed that anyone with a swarthy skin and a ‘rag-head’ had to be a Muslim enemy of America.

In their study of how media manipulation for political ends can help incite genocide, Frohardt and Temin looked at ‘content intended to instill fear in a population’, or ‘intended to create a sense among the population that conflict is inevitable’. They point out that ‘media content helps shape an individual’s view of the world and helps form the lens through which all issues are viewed’. They found two patterns: content creating fear and content creating a sense of inevitability and resignation that violence was about to occur.


Adapted from Chip Berlet, 2014. “Heroes Know Which Villains to Kill: How Coded Rhetoric Incites Scripted Violence,” in Matthew Feldman and Paul Jackson (eds), Doublespeak: Rhetoric of the Far-Right Since 1945, Stuttgart: ibidem-Verlag.
Online at:  https://www.academia.edu/26640115/

Notes:

The majority of this larger published study is a literature review and sketch of concepts with an expanded set of cites devised to support the underlying premise of the conference and the resulting articles. Portions of this study have been adapted from previously published work as noted in the endnotes of the published version as appropriate.

Jack Levin, The Violence of Hate: Confronting Racism, Anti-Semitism, and Other Forms of Bigotry (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2002),

Mark Frohardt and Jonathan Temin, Use and Abuse of Media in Vulnerable Societies, Special Report 110, Washington, DC, United States Institute of Peace. October 2003, http://permanent. access. gpo. gov/websites/usip/www. usip. org/pubs/specialreports/sr110.pdf, (accessed 26/9/2012). Although an excellent study, the report is flawed by the failure to include a single footnote.

See also Kofi A. Annan, Allan Thompson, and International Development Research Centre of Canada, The Media and the Rwanda Genocide (Ottawa: International Development Research Centre, 2007).