The Weiler Psi

Parapsychology Journalism: The People, The Theory, The Science, The Skeptics

The Effect of Violent Rhetoric and Images


If you haven’t been living under a rock for this past week, you know about the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona by mentally ill loner Jared Loughner. (You can find the details on Wikipedia.) Part of the blame for this tragedy has been laid at the feet of Sarah Palin for the use of this now infamous image on her web page:

On this image are crosshairs over the district of Gabrielle Giffords.  What has made this more compelling was that prior to the shootings Rep. Giffords had specifically called out Palin over the violent images and rhetoric.

In March 2010, shortly after the map’s posting and her office’s subsequent vandalization, Giffords said: “We’re in Sarah Palin‘s ‘targeted’ list, but the thing is that the way she has it depicted, we’re in the crosshairs of a gun sight over our district. When people do that, they’ve got to realize that there are consequences to that action.”

This is hardly the first time a mentally ill person has acted out in this manner as a result of inflammatory speech.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum shooting was a shooting at that nation’s memorial to The Holocaust in Washington, D.C. on June 10, 2009, at 12:50 p.m.[1][4][5] Security guard Stephen Tyrone Johns, 39, was shot, and later died from his injuries.  Suspect James Wenneker von Brunn, 88, was charged in federal court on June 11, 2009, with first-degree murder and firearms violations.

Anti-Abortion related murder:

In the U.S., violence directed toward abortion providers has killed at least eight people, including four doctors, two clinic employees, a security guard, and a clinic escort.[6][7]

What all of these murders and shootings had in common (and this is by no means a complete list) was that they started with hate speech; they began with demonizing a group of people and narrowed down to acts of violence.  What started out as free speech ended up as capital crimes.

No one questions whether the individuals who committed these crimes were responsible for committing them, rather the debate surrounds the question of responsibility for the rest of society.  For instance:  Is this sign inflammatory? This sign, which is in Tuscon, Arizona by the way, has now entered the realm of the incredibly tacky at the very least. Is stuff like this encouraging mentally unbalanced people to become shooters?

Naturally, opinion is pretty much divided along ideological lines.

This is a complicated issue because the presence of symbols of violence alone are not sufficient to set these people off.  Violence, set in a realm of fantasy is not the same as when it is set in a politically charged arena, such as abortion, bigotry or political alignment in general.  World of Warcraft and Mafiawars do not carry over into actual violence or we would have descended into total anarchy about 10 years ago.  Somehow, violent imagery, when it is politicized, becomes more dangerous.  Why?  And why is the violence predominantly right wing?

If we look at consciousness as a group effort, and one that is defined primarily by emotion, not rational thoughts, a case can be made that hateful emotions are carrying over to mentally ill people who act on them.  I don’t know if there is any research on this, but my experience is that the mentally ill as a group are not especially strong willed; more the opposite.  They are also more likely to be attracted to thoughts of conflict and strife.  This is a bad combination for holding off the emotions of hate and fear that emanate from political wing nuts.

The political right is going to be far more vulnerable to mentally ill people acting out an extreme version of their politics because conservatism is ultimately based in fear.  I don’t make this claim lightly; look at any conservative social platform and you will find fear of homosexuals, loose women, strong women, minorities of pretty much any stripe; fear of different ideas and fear of exposing their children to those ideas; fear of science challenging their beliefs and fear of other people getting a better deal than they have.  Above all, never try or do anything new.

One of the best indicators of an ideology based in fear is the level of irrationality that is present.  Scratch the surface of the political right and this can be found everywhere.  The average right wing conservative is against nearly every social policy that they might benefit from, such as universal health care and higher wages and socially chooses policies that have often run for decades with no success and cause more problems than they solve.  (i.e. the war on drugs).  They want smaller government and fewer regulations even though this means having larger and more invasive and controlling corporations.  Their answer for every problem involves controlling behavior through punishment no matter how badly that works.  It’s why they love their guns and gun analogies.

The ability of conservatives to remain in denial about a wide range of issues when confronted with contrary evidence is nothing short of breathtaking.  This is only possible because they have tied their political opinions to their deep seated fears.

These attitudes are quite reason and fact resistant; it is extremely hard to change the mind and attitude of conservatives.  What this demonstrates is that the attitudes and beliefs are emotionally based rather than relying on fact and reason.  The normal form of argument for conservatives is not the rational, factual argument, but rather bullying, belittling and insults.  And the emotion that all this is based on is clearly fear.

It takes a lot of fear to be scared into irrationality and this fear is what bleeds into the consciousness of the mentally ill.  They become immersed in this fear and eventually lose their ability to distinguish between the blustery rhetoric of tough talk and the insanity of acting on it.

Given that conservatism itself is a mild form of mental instability, it should come as no surprise that that the truly mentally ill would be attracted to the political right where they are bombarded with the violent images and rhetoric that plays to the darkness that is already in their minds.  As they become immersed in this ideology, they merge with a group consciousness filled with fear and hate.  Is it any wonder that a few of them eventually act out with tragic consequences?

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4 comments on “The Effect of Violent Rhetoric and Images

  1. Rachel
    January 30, 2011

    I read something recently in Cosmos and Psych: “John Stuart Mill made a shrewd, and wise, observation about the nature of most philosophical debates. In his splendid essay on Coleridge, he pointed out that both sides in intellectual controversies tended to be ‘in the right in what they affirmed, though in the wrong in what they denied.'”
    The Conservatives in US might be minutely right about some aspects of their society, but wrong as to the reasons, which is why they never get anywhere.

    • craigweiler
      January 30, 2011

      That is an interesting and informative comment you’ve made Rachel, thank you. The example that comes to mind is that they are leery of big government, which I agree with, but they don’t understand that the reason for this is that it concentrates the power of big business. My missing this point, they give big business a free pass.

      What is so frustrating about conservatives to me is that their fear of this,that or the other thing routinely prevents them from seeing when they’re on the same side as the rest of us.

  2. Monica
    January 15, 2011

    Psychically, Republicans are red, not because they’re using that color, but because it represents wildfire to me. They’re dangerous. They destroy. They don’t think or recognize consequence. Yes, occasionally fire has its uses–they’re exactly whom I want in charge of our military–but there is no reason at all for our politics to be divided between ‘masochistic paranoid schizophrenic’ and ‘everyone else’. Or, even worse, for society to make you look stupid if you don’t act like them…

    • craigweiler
      January 15, 2011

      With regards to the military, they’re ok as soldiers, but you don’t want them as leaders. Their conservative attitude means that they don’t adapt quickly or well to new situations, aren’t particularly good at getting in the enemy’s head and lack creative responses. As far as war is concerned, you want everyone to be psychic; it is an ability particularly suited to life and death situations; leaders with charisma, (a psychic ability), foresight, (a psychic ability), telepathy, (a psychic ability), creativity (a byproduct of the psychic personality.) Terrible isn’t it?

      I give you Iraq as an example of the wrong people fighting the wrong war. It would have been over years ago if forward thinking people had been in charge. More likely, it never would have happened.

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