January 11, 2011


Linking Uncivil Rhetoric With Violent Acts: Political scientists have long wondered if violent political speech can be liked to political violence, a question given urgency in the wake of the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords. (Emily Badger, 1/11/11, Miller McCune)

“This is not simply a concern of academics and certain pundits; many Americans are fretting about the way we do politics in America, and they’re anxious to move in a new direction,” said political scientist Daniel Shea. “So I think it’s incumbent upon political scientists in particular to better understand the issue and to begin to chart solutions.”

He reached that conclusion well before Saturday’s shooting. Shea is one of the researchers behind the Allegheny College Survey of Civility and Compromise in American Politics, a study released last spring that probed average American opinion about the tone of modern politics. Some 95 percent of people said they believe civility in politics is important for a healthy democracy — the good news, in Shea’s eyes. But nearly 50 percent said they believe civility has been on the decline since Barack Obama took office (and those paying close attention to politics were four times more likely to say this than those paying only moderate attention).

Most surprising are the responses when people were asked to define what should be out of bounds. “If you were able to create a rule book for civility in politics,” subjects were asked, “which of the following would not be OK — would be, that is, against the rules?” Overwhelming majorities opposed belittling or insulting someone (89 percent), questioning someone’s patriotism because they have a different opinion (73 percent), and personal attacks on someone they disagree with (87 percent).

Most Americans, in short, think entirely commonplace occurrences in politics today constitute political rhetoric that’s beyond the pale. We’re not even talking gun sights or “second-amendment remedies.”

“These things are common in politics for a particular group of citizens, they are not common in politics for a vast majority of Americans,” Shea said. “That’s the key part of this whole question: Who’s doing this, who’s involved in this dramatic transformation? I call it the ‘hot wings’” — the overcharged fringes of the political spectrum.

...and proclaim, "Ta da, we weren't the proximate cause of this shooting!," they're missing the point entirely. We are responsible for the political climate and it is their defense of it that is at issue.

Environmental Influence on Violent Psychotics, Part II (Massimo Calabresi, January 11, 2011, TIME: Swampland)

Now to the studies on environmental influence on people with violent psychosis:

The first study from the University Hospital of Vienna, Austria, compared delusions among schizophrenics in Austria and Pakistan. Its purpose was to try and identify core elements of schizophrenia by finding what elements of the disease seemed merely the result of cultural influences. For the purposes of our discussion, they discover that delusions of grandeur, guilt and religious delusions are apparently fueled by environment and they conclude, “cultural factors seem to have a decisive influence on shaping the contents of delusion.”

The second study by the Tokyo Metropolitan College of Allied Medical Sciences compares schizophrenic delusions among patients in Tokyo, Vienna and Tübingen and finds the European patients tended toward delusions of poisoning and religious themes of guilt and sin, while the Japanese had more amorphous delusions of “reference” such as being “slandered,” which the authors surmise “may derive from the group-oriented self in Japanese ‘shame culture.'”

The third study from the GKT School of Medicine and Institute of Psychiatry, King's College, London, UK, argues that “religious rituals and expectations of the family play a major role in the genesis and maintenance of delusions” and concludes that “The real clinical significance of religious delusions varies from violence to others to self-harm.” In other words, it concludes that religious rituals can contribute to violent delusions in schizophrenics.

The last study, in the American Journal of Public Health, by Swanson, Swartz et al. (the authors of yesterday's study) looks at the “socio-environmental context of violent behavior in persons treated for severe mental illness.” It finds that in schizophrenics “Variables found to be associated with violent behavior in the previous year included homelessness, experiencing or witnessing violence in the surrounding environment, substance abuse, mood disorder, PTSD,” and other factors.

If one supposes that political discourse can play as much of a role as religious rituals or other environmental factors in the content of delusions, then together these articles would suggest that the national political environment could have played a role in Loughner's violence. Greg Sargeant interviews one of the authors of the study I cited yesterday and he supports this idea. Swanson, the lead author on one of the studies discussed, says, “We're talking about people with disordered thoughts, so they could blow a distortion or caricature way out of proportion.”

However, I'm still very ambivalent about drawing any conclusions at this point. I think it is perfectly possible that Loughner could have been influenced by the political environment, but I don't know if he was.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 11, 2011 7:31 PM
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