A new USA Today/Gallup poll finds Americans dubious that the heated language used in politics today was a major factor that influenced the alleged gunman in last week’s shootings in Tucson, Ariz. Twenty percent say such rhetoric was a major factor in the shootings, while 22% cite it as a minor factor; 42% say it was not a factor at all. Democrats are more likely than independents or Republicans to believe political debate played a role.
The poll was conducted Jan. 11, three days after Jared Loughner allegedly shot and killed six people in Tucson, Ariz., and seriously injured numerous others including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Some of the early news coverage of the shootings discussed whether the increasingly inflammatory language used in political debate today could have motivated the shooter to attack the Democratic member of Congress. That theory was put forth by the sheriff of Pima County, Ariz., who argued that conservative thought leaders like Sarah Palin use language that may encourage their supporters to commit acts of violence against their opponents.
Most Americans reject that theory, with 53% agreeing that commentators who allege conservative rhetoric was responsible were mostly attempting to use the tragedy to make conservatives look bad. Roughly one in three, 35%, say the commentators were making a legitimate point about how dangerous the language used by conservatives can be.
If the connection between violent rhetoric and violence is so obvious, why aren’t more people blaming Sarah Palin and other conservative leaders for what happened in Arizona?
One reason is the lack of a causal connection. Regardless of what one might think of right wing rhetoric, there is no evidence that Jared Loughner was familiar with it, let alone influenced by it.
But another reason might be that for at least fifty years we have been hearing that the high rates of violence in this country are caused by violent cartoons, television shows, Rock and Roll, Hip-Hop/Rap and video games.
There are well-conducted studies — notably by the social psychologist Brad Bushman and his colleagues — that show that, for example, exposing a child to a violent videogame, leads to an increased likelihood of aggressive behaviors. Craig Anderson, Bushman, and their colleagues conducted a meta-analysis of this research and concluded that
The evidence strongly suggests that exposure to violent video games is a causal risk factor for increased aggressive behavior, aggressive cognition, and aggressive affect and for decreased empathy and prosocial behavior.
Which suggests that if we had a large increase in the consumption of violent videogames, we’d see a large increase in violence, right? However, we don’t seem to see this. The Figure to the right (below) plots the rates of assaults in the US as reported in the Bureau of Justice Statistics Victimization Survey. When the survey started, there were no such things as violent videogames. But the rates of assaults have steadily decreased. Just for fun, I put in the date when the first version of Grand Theft Auto was released. If anything, the decline in assaults seems to have accelerated during the violent videogame era.
Sometimes you hear that “correlation is not causation.” But we have here is a “negative correlation.” The fact is that despite the rhetoric coming from the right wing in this country political violence is pretty rare in the United States. And despite all the violent imagery in our culture, murder and other violent crimes have been declining since 1993.
This is not to say that violent political rhetoric is a good thing or even harmless. But the problem in this most recent case is that the media and the progressive blogosphere jumped the gun and went off half-cocked. They assumed that they had found a smoking gun but when the evidence began to emerge it revealed that the shooting in Tucson was not a political assassination attempt but something that is unfortunately far more common – a mentally ill spree killer.
As a result, continuing to focus on the issue of violent political rhetoric comes across to the public as trying to politicize a tragedy.
It’s time to stop beating a dead horse.