Sunday, January 23, 2011

Stephen Walt on incitement to violence

Stephen Walt last has a thoughtful take on incitement to violence by political leaders in Following the trail of political rhetoric to violence: Can we deny that words matter? Foreign Policy 01/13/2011:

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. ...

And here's the central point to remember: Violent language and hateful political rhetoric don't make most of the people who hear it run out and kill. Rather, the problem is that it makes it more likely that a handful of more fervent, less stable, more susceptible, less socially connected individuals will hear the message and take it to heart. And in a world where guns are cheap and plentiful, all it takes is one.

The solution, needless to say, is not censorship. The solution is to view those who favor violence as a way of dealing with one's political opponents with contempt, and to treat entertainers who use such language and tropes as moneymaking devices as beneath even that. I don't want the government telling Glenn Beck, Bill O'Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, or any other xenophobic whack job what not to say; I just want sensible Americans to switch the channel and confine them to the obscurity that they deserve. [my emphasis]
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