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by Peter Moskos

November 29, 2015

Does rhetoric incite violence?

Why don’t anti-abortion politicians who say ‪#‎BlackLivesMatter‬-rhetoric endangers cops take responsibility for Officer Swasey's murder at Planned Parenthood?

If anti-abortion rhetoric doesn't have any relation to the murder of Officer Swasey and innocent women at Planned Parenthood, how could anti-cop rhetoric have any relation to people attacking cops? On the flip side, if anti-abortion rhetoric does incite violence against abortion clinics, why wouldn’t the same be true for anti-cop rhetoric and subsequent attacks on cops?

As to the question of rhetoric inciting violence, shouldn't we at least be consistent? It's frustrating when ideology and making political points seem more important than the murder of police officers and other innocent people.

Update: When I posted this idea on Twitter, I got one response saying that we shouldn't "jump to conclusions" that the attack on Planned Parenthood has anything to do with anti-abortion rhetoric. Of course not.

On the other side, somebody from the Left informed me that #BlackLivesMatter isn't anti-cop, "it is [just] against the abuse of law enforcement in taking of black lives." Besides, "violence in #BLM rhetoric is self-defense." Of course.... Just like pro-life people are really only against the abuse fetuses take when aborted.

So can rhetoric lead to violence? Sure, sometimes. But if so, do we just accept it as an unfortunately side-effect of free speech in a gun-loving society? I would say yes, at least up to a point. But regardless, we shouldn't say that only people on the other ideological side can be inspired into violent action by idiotic rhetoric.


Jason Taverner said...

The best comparison from the #BLM would be the mentally unhinged guy from Baltimore who killed the two cops in Brooklyn last December: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/21/nyregion/two-police-officers-shot-in-their-patrol-car-in-brooklyn.html?_r=0 I don't think that even your #BLM corespondent would consider that to be self-defense.

Thanks for making the point about the virtues of being intellectually honest. It seems to be a dying art.

David Woycechowsky said...

yeah, good post!

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Shane Taylor said...

Liberal democracy requires a modus vivendi, which is a way of living and arguing together without resorting to violence against political opponents. Ensuring this is the reality is not simply the job of law enforcement. The problem is not just direct incitement. It is also the wearing down the norm against political violence. Civil society is primarily responsible for dealing with the latter, whether on the anti-abortion right or the "social justice" left. The consequences of wearing down this norm are neither direct nor immediate, but I suspect the cumulative effect over time could be serious.

The concern I have is that many leaders in civil society - not just politicians, but opinion leaders as well - have been negligent. Too many have indulged, acquiesced, or tried to explain away the illiberal fanatics who brayed for riots or worse. It becomes harder to believe someone is not calling for violence if they are slow to condemn those who do - or glibly respond with some ass-covering claim of plausible deniability.

A good account of the problem on the anti-abortion right can be found here:


But the far left has been playing games with poorly-veiled threats for years. Here, for example, is a revealing exchange:


There are other examples (just search for "diversity of tactics" or "direct action"), but this one brings together several significant names in a public forum.

Concerned citizen said...

Does rhetoric incite violence?

Yes, without a doubt. I think everyone would agree that there is a frequency (quantity) and intensity (quality) of rhetoric that incites violence.

Personally, I believe that both the anti-abortion and BLM activists are guilty of exceeding the quantity and quality thresholds.

Bill Harshaw said...

My attorney will sue for an injunction against your reading my mind as an invasion of privacy. :-)

Andrew Laurence said...

I'm rabidly pro-choice, but if you firmly believe that abortion is murder, don't you not only have a right, but a duty, to stop it by any means necessary regardless of what the law says? Fortunately, most anti-abortion folks seem to think abortion is something short of murder, or are too cowardly to put their bodies and their guns where their mouths are. While I loathe the Colorado Springs shooter, I grudgingly admire his apparently consistent worldview.

Concerned citizen said...

"...if you firmly believe that abortion is murder, don't you not only have a right, but a duty, to stop it by any means necessary regardless of what the law says?"

Considering the attractiveness of this train of thought, it seems that anti-abortion activists who don't believe that homicide is a remedy have an even higher than usual duty to avoid rhetoric that can incite violence.

aNanyMouse said...

Peter: I’ll bet that, where you wrote in the Update, “… that attack on Planned Parenthood has anything to do with anti-abortion abortion”, you had a brain cramp with that last word.

Shane: very good indeed, esp. on “… cumulative effect… wearing down the norm against political violence…. glibly respond with some ass-covering claim of plausible deniability.” I want to suggest that this cumulative effect, and deniability, has some subtle forms.

Over this last month+, I’ve posted on Peter’s pages (mostly on "The most disturbing thing I've seen" page) about bad debating habits, e.g. over-reading what others write or say. In very well-educated circles, this is known as “straw man” misrepresentation, usually done with a slew of plausible deniability, and often with the aim of inciting hate against the victim of the straw man ploy.

The late syndicated columnist William Pfaff stewed about increases in such behavior, back in 1994, see http://articles.baltimoresun.com/1994-01-20/news/1994020037_1_killer-spirit-argument-television-and-press .

His conclusion was that, with such conduct, “we are substituting for debate, an attempt to DESTROY the standing or reputation of the person who disagrees with us. That way lies the destruction of civil society, and we already have taken several steps down the road.”

I quite suspect that this has gotten much worse in these last 20+ years.

Peter Moskos said...

[Yeah, corrected. Thanks.]

The straw man argument seems particularly out of control on the Right. Be it a "war on Christmas" or what one random idiot tweeted. Fox covers it to show the "true stripes" of everyone on the Left. It's not just about putting down the one idiot (who is a non-entity nobody has every heard of), it's meant to apply to everybody on the other side. People eat that shit up.

aNanyMouse said...

Yeah, while Pfaff didn’t specifically refer to Talk Radio agitators in this 1994 piece, I’ll bet that he had them much in mind, as this was already standard fare for them. (Fox News wasn’t launched ‘til a few years after Pfaff wrote this.)
However, if the recent film about the Buckley/Vidal TV debates is at all right, it was Vidal who was the first really high-profile, systematic wielder of this tactic to get away with it. (Tailgunner Joe paid quite dearly for this shit, largely courtesy of Ed Murrow).

Moreover, this straw man shit is creeping well into the mainstream. When Leslie Stahl interviewed Biden some weeks ago, she sat like a bump on a log when he tore into Trump for having claimed that all Mexicans were rapists. Any remotely fair reading of Trump’s words would concede that he was talking about Mexico “sending” its worst critters to the US, not that these critters were representative of Mexican society.

Now, it’s fine to scrutinize Trump’s idea that the Mexican gov’t is “sending” anyone here, and his claims about black on white killings (about which you showed his exact Tweet). But, damnit, let’s get him on the shit he actually says, instead of spinning his words unfairly, and thus helping him cry “victim”.

Stahl should’ve known better, and we need our reporters to set the right examples, e.g. to call big wheels (esp. POTUS, and VPs) on their misrepresentings of opponents, esp. on high-profile issues. My fear is that the MSM hardly gives a damn any more.

john mosby said...

Prof, how about the related criminal-justice question: does the "rhetoric" of police training/doctrine/culture increase excessive/improper use of force?

You have opined on this a bit in the past.

Regarding the Chicago 16-shot PO, you seem to have come to the conclusion that he used excessive force, probably to the level of some kind of criminal culpability. Assuming that arguendo, how much do you think he was "incited" by the "rhetoric" of his training and the culture around him throughout his career?


Peter Moskos said...

That's a good question, John. I think in general, yes, it does matter. Many bad shootings are based on fear and paranoia instilled in the academy (of course some life-saving good shootings could come from those teachings, too).
But in this specific case in Chicago, no, I don't think it matters. I say that because none of the other cops on scene shot. There wasn't even contagion shootings. Culture needs to be widespread if not universal. In this bad shooting, it seems to have been a culture of one.

aNanyMouse said...

I’ll bet that academy teachings have much less to do with this than street experiences. If I’d have served a decade or so on really shitty beats, I’d have ended up like Van Dyke, or worse.

I happened to be able to implicitly come clean to the brass that I didn’t have the super-quick mind, or the stones, for stuff like that. But of course, there’ll be youngsters with piss and vinegar, who can’t put their fingers on their limitations. But it’s worth trying to bring yourself to such major bouts of introspection, to end up evading shitstorms like what Van Dyke is going thru.