The easy demagoguery of explaining their violence

When James Hodgkinson engaged in both eliminationist and terroristic violence against Republicans, factionalized media outlets blamed his radicalizing on their outgroup (“liberals”). In 2008, when James Adkisson committed eliminationist and terroristic violence against liberals, actually citing in his manifesto things said by “conservative” talk show hosts (namechecking some of the ones who blamed liberals for Hodgkinson), those media outlets and pundits neither acknowledged responsibility nor altered their rhetoric.[1]

That’s fairly typical of rabidly factional media: if the violence is on the part of someone who can be characterized as them (the outgroup), then outgroup rhetoric obviously and necessarily led to that violence. That individual can be taken as typical of them. If, however, the assailant was ingroup, then factionalized media either simply claimed that the person was outgroup (as when various media tried to claim that a neo-Nazi was a socialist and therefore lefty), or they insisted this person be treated as an exception.

That’s how ingroup/outgroup thinking works. The example I always use with my classes is what happens if you get cut off by a car with bumper stickers on a particularly nasty highway in Austin (you can’t drive it without getting cut off by someone). If the bumper stickers show ingroup membership, you might think to yourself that the driver didn’t see you, or was in a rush, or is new to driving. If the bumper stickers show outgroup membership, you’ll think, “Typical.” Bad behavior is proof of the essentially bad nature of the outgroup, and bad behavior on the part of ingroup membership is not. That’s how factionalized media works.

So, it’s the same thing with ingroup/outgroup violence and factionalized media (and not all media is factionalized). For highly factionalized right-wing media, Hodgkinson’s actions were caused by and the responsibility of “liberal” rhetoric, but Adkisson’s were not the responsibility of “conservative” rhetoric. For highly factionalized lefty media, it was reversed.

That factionalizing of responsibility is an unhappy characteristic of our public discourse; it’s part of our culture of demagoguery in which the same actions are praised or condemned not on the basis of the actions, but on whether it’s the ingroup or outgroup that does it. If a white male conservative Christian commits an of terrorism, the conservative media won’t call it terrorism, never mentions his religion or politics, and generally talks about mental illness; if a someone even nominally Muslim does the same act, they call it terrorism and blame Islam. In some media enclaves, the narrative is flipped, and only conservatives are acting on political beliefs. In all factional media outlets, they will condemn the other for “politicizing” the incident.

While I agree that violent rhetoric makes violence more likely, the cause and effect is complicated, and the current calls for a more civil tone in our public discourse is precisely the wrong solution. We are in a situation when public discourse is entirely oriented toward strengthened our ingroup loyalty and our loathing of the outgroup. And that is why there is so much violence now. It isn’t because of tone. It isn’t because of how people are arguing; it’s because of what people are arguing.

To make our world less violent, we need to make different kinds of arguments, not make those arguments in different ways.

Our world is so factionalized that I can’t even make this argument with a real-world example, so I’ll make it with a hypothetical one. Imagine that we are in a world in which some media that insist all of our problems are caused by squirrels. Let’s call them the Anti-Squirrel Propaganda Machine (ASPM).They persistently connect the threat of squirrels to end-times prophecies in religious texts, and both kinds of media relentlessly connect squirrels to every bad thing that happens. Any time a squirrel (or anything that kind of looks like a squirrel to some people, like chipmunks) does something harmful it’s reported in these media, any good action is met with silence. These media never report any time that an anti-squirrel person does anything bad. They declare that the squirrels are engaged in a war on every aspect of their group’s identity. They regularly talk about the squirrels’ war on THIS! and THAT! Trivial incidents (some of which never happened) are piled up so that consumers of that media have the vague impression of being relentlessly victimized by a mass conspiracy of squirrels.

Any anti-squirrel political figure is praised; every political or cultural figure who criticizes the attack on squirrels is characterized as pro-squirrel. After a while, even simply refusing to say that squirrels are the most evil thing in the world and that we must engage in the most extreme policies to cleanse ourselves of them is showing that you are really a pro-squirrel person. So, in these media, there is anti-squirrel (which means the group that endorses the most extreme policies) and pro-squirrel. This situation isn’t just ingroup versus outgroup, because the ingroup must be fanatically ingroup, so the ingroup rhetoric demands constant performance of fanatical commitment to ingroup policy agendas and political candidates.

If you firmly believe that squirrels are evil (and chipmunks are probably part of it too0, but you doubt whether this policy being promoted by the ASPM is really the most effective policy, you will get demonized as someone trying to slow things down, not sufficiently loyal, and basically pro-squirrel. Even trying to question whether the most extreme measures are reasonable gets you marked as pro-squirrel. Trying to engage in policy deliberation makes you pro-squirrel.

We cannot have a reasonable argument about what policy we should adopt in regard to squirrels because even asking for an argument about policy means that you are pro-squirrel. That is profoundly anti-democratic. It is un-American insofar as the very principles of how the constitution is supposed to work show a valuing of disagreement and difference of opinion.

(It’s also easy to show that it’s a disaster, but that’s a different post.)

ASPM media will, in addition, insist on the victimization narrative, and also the “massive conspiracy against us” argument, but that isn’t really all that motivating. As George Orwell noted in 1984, hatred is more motivating when it’s against an individual, and so these narratives end up fixating on a scapegoat. (Right now, for the right it’s George Soros, and for the left it’s Trump.) There can be institutional scapegoats—Adkisson tried to kill everyone in a Unitarian Church because he’d believed demagoguery that said Unitarianism is evil.

Inevitably, the more that someone lives in an informational world in which they are presented as in a war of extermination against us, the more that person will feel justified in using violence against them. If it’s someone who typically uses violence to settle disagreement, and there is easy access to weapons, it will end in violence against whatever institution, group, or individual that person has been persuaded is the evil incubus behind all of our problems.

At this point, I’m sure most readers are thinking that my squirrel example was unnecessarily coy, and that it’s painfully clear that I’m not talking about some hypothetical example about squirrels but the very real examples of the antebellum argument for slavery and the Stalinist defenses of mass killings of kulaks, most of the military officer class, and people who got on the wrong side of someone slightly more powerful.

And, yes, I am.

The extraordinary level of violence used to protect slavery as an institution (or that Stalin used, or Pol Pot, or various other authoritarians) was made to seem ordinary through rhetoric. People were persuaded that violence was not only justified, but necessary, and so this is a question of rhetoric—how people were persuaded. But, notice that none of these defenses of violence have to do with tone. James Henry Hammond, who managed to enact the “gag rule” (that prohibited criticism of slavery in Congress) didn’t have a different “tone” from John Quincy Adams, who resisted slavery. They had different arguments.

Demagoguery—rhetoric that says that all questions should be reduced to us (good) versus them (evil)—if given time, necessarily ends up in purifying this community of them. How else could it end? And it doesn’t end there because of the tone of dominant rhetoric. It ends there because of the logic of the argument. If they are at war with us, and trying to exterminate us, then we shouldn’t reason with them.

It isn’t a tone problem. It’s an argument problem. It doesn’t matter if the argument for exterminating the outgroup is done with compliments toward them (Frank L. Baum’s arguments for exterminating Native Americans), bad numbers and the stance of a scientist (Harry Laughlin’s arguments for racist immigration quotas), or religious bigotry masked as rational argument (Samuel Huntington’s appalling argument that Mexicans don’t get democracy).

In fact, the most effective calls for violence allow the caller plausible deniability—will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?

Lots of rhetors call for violence in a way that enables them to claim they weren’t literally calling for violence, and I think the question of whether they really mean to call for violence isn’t interesting. People who rise to power are often really good at compartmentalizing their own intentions, or saying things when they have no particular intention other than garnering attention, deflecting criticism, or saying something clever. Sociopaths are very skilled at perfectly authentically saying something they cannot remember having said the next day. Major public figures get a limited number of “that wasn’t my intention” cards for the same kind of rhetoric—after that, it’s the consequences and not the intentions that matter.

What matters is that whether it’s individual or group violence, the people engaged in it feel justified, not because of tone, but because they have been living in a world in which every argument says that they are responsible for all our problems, that we are on the edge of extermination, that they are completely evil, and therefore any compromise with them is evil, that disagreement weakens a community, and that we would be a better and stronger group were we to purify ourselves of them.

It’s about the argument, not the tone.

[A note about the image at the beginning: this is one of the stained glass windows in a major church in Brussels celebrating the massacre of Jews. The entire incident was enabled by deliberately inflammatory us/them rhetoric, but was celebrated until the 1960s as a wonderful event.]

[1] For more on Adkisson’s rhetoric, and its sources, see Neiwert’s Eliminationists (https://www.amazon.com/Eliminationists-Hate-Radicalized-American-Right/dp/0981576982)

For more about demagoguery: https://theexperimentpublishing.com/catalogs/fall-2017/demagoguery-and-democracy/

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