The culture of incitement in America

Does it really matter whether Jared Loughner’s murderous rampage was a direct response to Sarah Palin’s exhortation to “rearm” instead of retreating, or Michele BachmannMichele Marie BachmannBachmann won't run for Franken's Senate seat because she did not hear a 'call from God' Billboard from ‘God’ tells Michele Bachmann not to run for Senate Pawlenty opts out of Senate run in Minnesota MORE’s appeal for “armed and dangerous” opponents of efforts to reduce global warming, or to Sharron Angle’s brandishing of “Second Amendment remedies”? Does it really matter whether Loughner actually saw Rep. Giffords in Palin’s crosshairs or heard Glenn Beck rhapsodize about murdering Michael Moore?

It’s all the worse if his heinous act was directly occasioned by these incitements, but neither they, nor we, are absolved of responsibility even if Loughner never heard of these heralds of the radical right or caught their savage rhetoric. I do not believe for a moment that any of these individuals intended to foment violence. However, causation and intention bear no necessary relationship.

Words are so powerful, the Bible explains, that they brought the world into being. Irrespective of speakers’ intentions, words at least help structure culture, which permeates society. A growing group of economic historians locate the rise of the West not in Protestant ethics, capital accumulation or the invention of gadgets, but in the power of economic rhetoric. Words, they say, caused the Industrial Revolution (which is not to say the Dutch burghers or English merchants consciously asked, “What can we say that will cause an industrial revolution?”). If changes in rhetoric powered the greatest economic transformation in world history, they could certainly shape a more or less violent culture.

Of course, to date, just one American seems to have acted on those impulses. But in defending themselves against charges of incitement, the purveyors of deadly discourse actually appear to be endorsing it. Even if Loughner was completely untouched, directly or indirectly, by the rhetoric of retaliation, this tragedy requires us all to ask whether we want our culture to move even slightly in the direction it points. 

At least three contemporary trends make reversing the slide more difficult. 

First, the lines of conflict in our politics have been drawn much more brightly, and etched much more deeply, than in the more harmonious recent past, because our allies and enemies have become more fixed. When I first came to Washington, I was taught an adage that is no longer operative — be careful, savvy operators said, because in politics, today’s opponent could easily be tomorrow’s ally on another issue. As our parties have become more ideologically coherent, such cross-cutting cleavages have been replaced by overlapping, consistent differences. Now, whatever the issue, each time we look across the divide we see the same faces, and those unchanging alliances transform occasional partners into dreaded enemies.

Second, technology has made it easier to seek out and find information that reinforces our pre-existing beliefs rather than challenging them, deepening the polarization. On any given night in the late 1960s, nearly six in 10 American households could be found watching one of three nearly identical network news broadcasts. Seeking to appeal to a broad swath of the public, each reported similar news in about the same way. Now, under one in six watch those homogenizing outlets, while millions tune into ideologically distinct cable channels and seek out “their kind of news” on the Web. It’s perfectly natural — studies show people are twice as likely to seek out information that confirms their existing beliefs rather than searching out evidence that could upend those thoughts — but in politics that tendency deepens divides.

And of course, rallying citizens by demonizing out-groups is not only psychologically fulfilling, it is also enormously profitable.

Resetting our cultural tolerances is no less important for being difficult, however. Three thousand years ago, King Solomon taught us the importance of words in Proverbs: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” The choice is ours.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.