After the horrible tragedy in Tucson, many are rightly criticizing Sarah Palin’s use of crosshairs on a campaign map showing the districts represented by members of Congress she wanted to oust in 2010, including that of Gabrielle Giffords. It isn’t the only example of Palin’s penchant for inflammatory imagery or language. A prime example, of course, is the “death panels” fiasco, when Palin suggested health care reform would allow Obama’s “bureaucrats” to “decide, based on a subjective judgment of their ‘level of productivity in society,’ whether they [everyday people] are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil.” And Palin is far from the only politician or pundit who has, in the last two years or so, deemed it acceptable to engage, however overtly or subtly, in such dishonest or otherwise troubling talk. Talk that, in turn, has incited ire, paranoia, and political hysteria among many people.
It’s this trend, in the wake of Tucson, that has led to a broad discussion about our political climate and whether it has become too incendiary. Many pundits, on the right and the left, have taken to their various media outlets to dismiss the notion that words spur violence. But I believe they are ignoring the empirical information we have about the way that words and images make impressions and, in some cases, lead to action.
No less an esteemed fellow than my friend Jonathan Chait made this case:
I don't believe that analogizing politics to combat encourages anybody, even the mentally ill, to take up violence. People use metaphors like this in all aspects of daily life—sports, business, dating, and on and on.
And David Brooks, in today’s New York Times, built on the same idea:
Other themes from Loughner’s life fit the rampage-killer profile. ... In short, the evidence before us suggests that Loughner was locked in a world far removed from politics as we normally understand it.
Yet the early coverage and commentary of the Tucson massacre suppressed this evidence. The coverage and commentary shifted to an entirely different explanation: Loughner unleashed his rampage because he was incited by the violent rhetoric of the Tea Party, the anti-immigrant movement and Sarah Palin.
These accusations—that political actors contributed to the murder of 6 people, including a 9-year-old girl—are extremely grave. … They were made despite the fact that the link between political rhetoric and actual violence is extremely murky.
But Chait and Brooks both err in their arguments. While the connection between “political rhetoric and actual violence may be murky,” as Brooks says, the connection between what the media portray and action is not. Certainly, the media cannot eliminate will or responsibility—we are all responsible for our actions—but they can spur action.
A landmark study published in 2003 in Psychological Science by Iowa State Professor Craig Anderson and other academics, which surveyed significant research on the topic up until that point, found “unequivocal evidence” that violent television and films, video games, and music, along with other forms of media violence, increase the likelihood of aggressive and violent behavior in both immediate and long-term contexts. The effects appear more profound when it comes to milder forms of aggression, but they exist for severe forms, too. For example, one study in Anderson’s survey revealed that violent TV exposure at age 14 significantly predicted assault and fighting behavior at 16 or 22 years of age, even after controlling for a host of variables such as family income, parental education, verbal intelligence, and neighborhood characteristics. Anderson’s research also found that large-scale longitudinal studies provide converging evidence linking frequent exposure to violent media in childhood with aggression later in life, including physical assaults and spousal abuse.
When you think about it, this is all pretty intuitive. After all, why would any company spend so much on advertising if it didn’t think it had the ability to influence our behavior? And, from what we know about the media and violence, it isn’t any sort of leap to say that political language and imagery also carry with them the potential to affect people’s aggression.
At the end of the day, Jared Loughner is entirely responsible for what he did. And there are few ways to know what or whom influenced him, whether in the media or in politics, if either. But leadership means discouraging such behavior, both by condemning it directly and by not engaging in the sort of talk, action, or image-making that could influence someone—particularly someone who is mentally unstable—to act violently. It’s wrong to ignore the ways in which this sort of rhetoric can lead to tragedy. Despite arguments to the contrary, it matters what you say.
Neera Tanden is the chief operating officer of the Center for American Progress. She served in the Obama and Clinton administrations.