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Good Question: How Does Violent Talk Lead To Violence?

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(credit: CBS) Jason DeRusha
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By Jason DeRusha, WCCO-TV

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Candidates shooting at the health care bill, comparing their opponents to terrorists and putting congressional districts in the crosshairs. It’s a volatile political dialogue in America, and with the shooting attack in Tucson, Ariz., targeted at a Representative, many are asking about the violent rhetoric. How does violent talk lead to violent action?

“Metaphors matter,” said Edward Schiappa, professor and chair of the Communications Studies Department at the University of Minnesota.

Not that someone’s going to buy a mug with a crosshairs over a Democratic donkey and that triggers the idea to go shoot a Democrat, he said.

“This participates in a climate of political rhetoric right now that’s really volatile,” said Schiappa.

Because of the rarity that politicians are murdered in this country, Schiappa said that’s not really an easy thing to research.

“There’s a lot of research that has been done on the smaller steps that lead you there,” he said. “The disruption of town hall meetings, the breaking of windows over the vote on the health care bill last year, we see a pattern emerging of opposition so strong it’s led to violence,” he said

So what happens to someone who takes this kind of talk and turns it into violent behavior?

“We call it literalizing a metaphor,” said Schiappa.

Most of us never have problems with literalizing a metaphor; we get that the imagery of a call to arms is a call to political action.

But during the 2008 election, as the anti-Barack Obama rhetoric ratcheted up, so did the number of death threats.

“We do know ratcheting does provoke stronger emotions, stronger attitudes and we do know attitudes lead to actions,” said Schiappa.

While we’ve always had angry talk and violent imagery, things are different today, according to Schiappa. The internet allows people to spread their thoughts and publish them quickly.

National leaders and political talk show hosts are echoing this imagery, as well.

“There are a number of commentators, almost all on the right wing, who are declaring the situation as tantamount to a rebellion situation,” said Schiappa.

It’s highly unlikely that Sarah Palin’s crosshair graphic, which appeared in March of last year, had something to do with an attack over the weekend. You can’t blame the level of political discourse for murder. You blame the killer.

But, the number of right-wing hate groups is at a historic high, as the same time the imagery is getting increasingly violent, according to Schiappa.

As the Pima County, Arizona Sheriff said, “I think it’s time we do the soul searching.”

WCCO-TV’s Jason DeRusha Reports

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