Does Violent Speech Cause Violence?

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Daniel Jay Sonkin, Ph.D. is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in an independent practice in Sausalito, California. Since 1981, his work has focused ...Read More

As politicians, media, commenters and experts begin the ear-deafening process of analyzing the tragic events in Tucson, we will no doubt hear many attributions as what contributed to Mr. Loughner’s horrific actions. Already filling the airwaves and blogosphere are discussions of how much violent language contributes to this behavior; whether or not gun control laws are strict enough; and should there be greater security at lawmaker public events.

At the forefront of these discussions is the question about what role the upswing in violent speech and imagery made by politicians recently actually caused these shootings? Phrases like, second amendment remedies, reloading not retreating, and the pictures of gun crosshairs over U.S. Representative Gabrielle Gifford’s district, all beg the question, can words and pictures actually incite violence. I think former President Clinton did make a good point recently, when he suggested that we all have a responsibility to measure the impact our words have on both those who understand nuance or their symbolism, and those whose inner demons will be reinforced or even activated by our language.


However, what leads a person to violence is actually a very complicated process that rarely is driven by one thing, such as political speech. Rather than thinking of any one thing having a direct effect on someone’s behavior, it is better to think of it in terms of risk factors; that there will be a variety of contributing forces or characteristics that come together to create the perfect storm (or worse-case scenario), that may eventually lead to violence. Although social scientists have studied dangerousness for many decades, one thing they can agree on is that it is almost impossible to predict who will and will not be violent. However, there are things that may influence a person towards violence, but still there are no guarantees that violence will eventually occur. Therefore we must caution lawmakers about being too enthusiastic about drafting legislation that will impinge on many people’s freedoms for the sake of a few who might ultimately act out.

So what are these factors that contribute to violence? The most common are history of child abuse, current substance abuse problems and psychiatric disorders (particularly when medication is indicated and not being taken by the individual). Although the vast majority of people, who were abused as children, or who have substance abuse problems or other psychological problems don’t act violent, let alone murder people, when we look at the small number of people who do perpetrate these horrific acts, these themes do come up, over and over again. However, there other reasons why people become violent.

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It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to realize that the easier it becomes to access firearms the more likely they can be used in a fit of rage or impulse. In countries with strict control laws, the murder rate is much lower. Some killings are done with lots of thought and premeditation, but many are done impulsively. When guns are easily available at Kmart down the street or in the garage, the impulsive person is more likely to act out their desire to hurt others. Obviously, when there is lots of planning and organizing a violent act, accessibility is less of an issue.

Peer pressure can also be a factor in someone committing an act of extreme violence. One doesn’t have to look far back to our history of lynching in this country. People who might not have a history of violence could get caught up in the emotion of the moment and either become directly violent towards others, or by participating in the violence indirectly by watching and cheering on others. We have also seen illustrations of this in the media. Take for example the murderers in Truman Capote’s book, In Cold Blood. Individually, neither person might have committed the gruesome crime, but together their interpersonal dynamic created a deadly force. The contagious distorted desires and emotions between two individuals or within a crowd could lead some people to act in ways they might otherwise not have done alone.

Stress that builds over time is another factor that may push someone over the brink of desperation. It may be one extreme stressor, such as a death, but it could also be the result of several less-extreme, but significant, stressors; such as unemployment, homelessness, or an unexpected personal rejection. As details become available, it looks like Loughner had multiple stressors, expulsion from school, rejection by the army, alienation from friends retreating, and maybe too much addiction to Internet sites.

Researchers in the field of dangerousness, pretty much agree, that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. Therefore, if a person has an already established pattern of violence, they are more likely to perpetrate violence in the future. Can the exact date and time be predicted? No. But one can say with reasonable certainty, that if there is no interventions that reduce the possibility of its occurrence (such as therapy or medication), it is more likely to occur at some point in the future.

When I conduct social histories on individuals facing the death penalty, I have found that many of these factors, and more, are individual threads that help to fill in the picture of how someone can go from an innocent child to a gruesome murderer. There are events or situations that push someone either towards or away from violence. The evidence suggests, that once violence and aggression becomes a part of someone’s personality, it is one of the most stable personality characteristics, which means it is not easy to change. However, change is possible. Therapy is the best way we know how to address violence and aggressive. It doesn’t always work, but it is definitely better than doing nothing.

It is ironic at the same time we are talking about the causes of violence; congress is contemplating repealing healthcare reform. One might ask the same question that I pose at the start of this article; “Would repealing healthcare reduce accessibility to services, which in turn contribute to another senseless killing? The answer to that question will depend on whether someone is trying to score political points or have a serious discussion about the contributing factors and prevention of violence. Although we can’t say with a certainty that this killing would have been prevented if he had been forced into therapy or gone on his own accord, but it would have given another person the opportunity to intervene and possibly change the outcome.

Like the causes of violence, social issues, such as gun control, accessibility to mental health services and other insurance reforms, are all part of the interwoven fabric of life. The social context that we live in does have a profound affect on us. Therefore, we can draw connections simply because each thread (e.g., economic, psychological or social) contributes to the whole and therefore relationships do exist. But we need to carefully look at the strength of those relationships, otherwise we will fall into the “causal” trap in our attempt to find answers or make sense out of senseless acts of violence. By appreciating and holding the true complexity of human behavior, we can generate creative solutions that may not only help us heal from the trauma of violence, but possibly prevent senseless killings in the future.

Keep Reading By Author Daniel Sonkin, Ph.D.
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