Political Violence, rhetoric examined at USD forum

Dr. Donald Pryce, Dr. Gerard Jacobs and Dr. Mark Yockey take part in an international forum entitled, America: Are Bullets Ballots? The forum was held Wednesday in Farber Hall at the University of South Dakota. (Photo by David Lias)

While extreme political rhetoric may have had something to do with the mass shooting in Arizona last month, it was by no means the incidents only cause.

This was one of the ideas put forth at an international forum called, America: Are Bullets Ballots?, which was held Wednesday, Jan. 26 in Farber Hall at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion.

Dr. Donald Pryce, emeritus professor of history, said that while a hypothesis could be made that Arizona shooting suspect Jared Loughner may have had political intentions because he opened fire at a political meeting, the reality is probably more complicated.

The typical person who commits an act of violence against a famous subject is not so much making a political declaration … as a personal one, he said. A person has taken political ideas and made them extremely personal, made them a fixation.

Psychology professor Dr. Gerard Jacobs said Loughners alleged mental state at the time of the shooting which left six people dead and 13 wounded, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords must be taken into account.

A lot of people have said, Gee, if only somebody had talked to him, this wouldnt have happened. And I find that pretty unlikely. This is an individual who appears to have some pretty serious psychological disorders, he said.

While Jacobs added that those disorders would not necessarily predetermine violent behavior in the afflicted party, extreme rhetoric could play a role in pushing that person into action.

Associate professor of management Dr. Mark Yockey said this is something Americans should think about, given the changing nature of political discourse in this country.

We dont listen to normal rhetoric. We dont listen to basic arguments anymore, he said. The political rhetoric goes to extremes because that is what people will listen to. …

My point of view is to point the fingers back at us a little bit and ask, Are we, in our own little small way, contributors to this situation? he said.

Yockey said that in this environment, a disturbed individual may feel they need to do something that shocks and awes the world in order to be heard.

That might be a bit ridiculous to come of us, to think we would go to that extreme, to have our point of view made, he said. Most people are pretty rational and interpret information in a logical enough way to realize that actions such as happened in Arizona are inappropriate ways to express that, no matter how upset we are.

But Pryce pointed out there is one difference between the rational person and the psychotic: Fixation.

The person who tries to assassinate somebody gets fixated on an idea and tries to explain the whole world in those terms, he said.

The widening gap in the political spectrum and the use of outright falsehoods in public debate can exacerbate that fixation, Jacobs said.

The research tends to show that the more often you hear something, the more likely you are to believe it, he said. So if I say to you 100,000 times, This person is a bigot, and do that over and over and over again, even if you have evidence to the contrary, even if you know that person, you will begin to suspect they are a bigot.

A dehumanization of opposing viewpoints plays a role, as well.

If you can push people toward the extremes, then you are more likely to prevent them from changing sides, Jacobs said. So, the more we can dehumanize the other side, the more we will make sure you will stay with us.

Pryce also spoke out against the classification of Loughner by left-and right-wing pundits as a lone nut job.

Theyre not lone, Pryce said. They breathe the atmosphere physical, intellectual and social that nurtures and pollutes everybody. Nut jobs who place abstractions above human life are all around us, and to an extent, within us. …

You can understand them because this is the scary thought we think the way they do, Pryce said. We understand their thinking because we are both thinking people.

Jacobs said society could benefit from returning to the fundamental principles of the Red Cross.

The very first fundamental principle that guides the Red Cross around the world is the principle of humanity, that every single individual deserves our respect as human beings, he said. I would really encourage thinking about that and trying to ignore some of the extremist rhetoric that is coming out in what stands for journalism these days.

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