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Does Heated Rhetoric Lead to Hate Crimes?

The connection between speech and violence is not as simple as some say.

The recent spate of anti-Semitic hate crimes, the shooting of two Indian men in Kansas, and Trump’s rather low-energy response to all of it have generated much commentary and outrage. “A Murder in Trump’s America” at The Atlantic was a particularly strong piece suggesting a direct relationship between overheated political rhetoric and violence. But the phenomenon of hate crimes allegedly fueled by heated rhetoric cannot be explained or resolved as neatly as commentators think.

The claim is generally that incendiary language about things like immigrant crime or the erosion of U.S. sovereignty at the hands of “foreigners”—and the ideas that have become associated with such language—“activate” or “radicalize” a small portion of the population that is looking for a scapegoat.

Other supposed examples of this phenomenon have been the cop killings of 2014–2016 that began after a series of high-profile incidents of police brutality and Black Lives Matter protests, and the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood shooting in the wake of a questionable expose about the unlawful sale of tissue from aborted fetuses. The conclusion in this line of argument is that incendiary rhetoric constitutes a form of latent violence, and cannot possibly be used responsibly by our politicians or commentators.

What are we to do instead? We cannot deny out of hand, as conservatives often do, that incendiary language can actually provoke violence. But we must also not place legitimate political issues off-limits because of their potential to “stir up the crazies.” Talking about the real problem of illegal immigrants who commit violent crimes but remain in the country may indeed produce anti-immigrant sentiment, but that does not justify ignoring the crimes. When Trump suggests that the Jewish victims of hate crimes staged them to garner sympathy, that plays into foul anti-Semitic tropes. But it is also indisputable that a non-negligible number of hate crimes are indeed faked, either by the alleged victims or by political provocateurs. Talking frankly about police brutality may in fact endanger police through a web of psychological reactions on both sides that we do not fully understand. At the same time, this does not cause police brutality to vanish.

Unfortunately, our history of dog-whistle politics and ethnic and racial resentments cloaked in respectability has resulted in a situation where many ugly ideas are now associated with normal and important political issues. Decrying illegal immigration or questioning its costs has long been a way to signal broader disapproval of the “browning of America.” For some people, “standing with the police” really does mean turning a blind eye to brutality. What this means is that it is now virtually impossible to address a number of real problems without summoning, or appearing to summon, stereotypes, dog whistles, and even hatred against historically marginalized groups.

The environmental philosopher John Michael Greer, in a rather different context, has written about what he calls “problems and predicaments.” A problem, according to his framework, is something that can be solved; a predicament is a condition to which we must adapt. A broken handloom is a problem. The Industrial Revolution is a predicament (for the owner of the handloom).

In a country as large and diverse as ours—not only ethnically but culturally, religiously, geographically, and socioeconomically—it may be our predicament that there will always be someone, somewhere who, through a lens of poverty or despair or shamefully untreated mental illness, interprets heated political rhetoric as a call to pick up a gun.

This is exactly the kind of message that people—and particularly Americans—do not like to hear. It offends our can-do attitude, and it also suggests that our vast and multidimensional diversity makes politics messier, less manageable, and perhaps more volatile and dangerous. But sociology and political psychology are not interested in what we like or want. They present social dynamics to which we must adapt.

Of course, none of this is to give cover to rhetoric that is crafted to sow discord and resentment, of which we have seen all too much these last few months. Trump has indeed been an offender on this front, but so have the practitioners of identity politics. They have done nothing more than to render precarious the inter-cultural and inter-group exchange that we sorely need.

Heinrich Heine famously wrote, in an eerie prediction of the Holocaust, that when books are burned, eventually people will be too. We might adapt the thought to say that when decency and empathy are trampled underfoot, people will be too. No matter how coarse and deplorable political discourse becomes, we must never yield to the notion that decency and empathy are “soft” or “for losers.” That is a lesson for everyone.



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