Rhetoric and Violence

The shooting in Tucson and the commentary concerning the links between violent rhetoric and violent action has put me in a difficult situation. Since 1987 I have been the Chair of the Game Manufacturers Association’s Industry Watch committee. In short, whenever there is a claim that games—roleplaying, board or card—made someone commit suicide, murder, rape, assault or theft, I’ve been the person who got the call to deal with the problem. I advised the industry leader, Wizards of the Coast, when they were dealing with alleged (and non-existent) links between Dungeons and Dragons and the Columbine shooters. I’ve consulted on cases all over the United States and world, and I’ve even testified in court in a murder case. I authored a report—The Pulling Report—which is twenty-one years old, but still as effective as ever since the opposition to games have not changed their tactics or arguments in all this time.

Over and over again I have pointed out that not once, not in a single case, has anyone been able to establish a causal link between gaming and an act of violence or self-destruction. This is not to deny that there are gamers who have hurt or killed others. There are. That’s not to say there have not been gamers who haven’t killed themselves. That happens. It’s pretty easy to point out that violent acts are being performed by people who are mentally ill—and that something which attracts the mentally ill isn’t the cause of their illness. No one has suggested, to my knowledge, that deranged killers have had their insanity caused by The Catcher In The Rye, even though a frightening number of them have an affinity for it.

During my time defending gaming, I’ve collected lots of news stories that try to link games to murder and mayhem. I also collect stories that link the Bible to murder, and golf to murder. Of course, if two men are having an argument on a green, about whether or not one of them is cheating at golf, and the other beats him to death with a putter, no one even begins to suggest that golf caused the murder. Likewise if a mother murders her children because she believes they are possessed by the devil, and that God wants her to kill them, no one suggests that religion is the cause.

People don’t have a problem trying to make that linkage with gaming, however, because they don’t understand gaming. At least, they didn’t used to understand it. As gaming has become more accepted—there’s not a person in America who has not played or does not know someone who has played a roleplaying game—reports linking games with crime have all but vanished. The primary opposition to games now tends to be from the religious right, and their objections tend to be based on the fact that the games involve pretend-magic. That being said, there are also groups of Christian gamers who use games to teach players to cooperate in a Christian fashion. It balances out.

It might seem that all of the above is a preface to my saying that I don’t think we can blame hyperbolic rhetoric for the shooting. I dearly wish the situation were so simple. Let me offer a couple of observations, based on my years dealing with these sorts of situations.

1) I have learned that it generally takes thirty days for a clear picture of what has happened to emerge in any case. Headlines, written in the heat of the moment, seldom convey the whole truth.

I’ve already read reports linking Jared Loughner with hate groups and the Tucson Festival of the Book. Rush Limbaugh has reported the young man was into “the occult” and that he had an altar in his back yard with an animal skull on it. According to Rush he also listened to Heavy Metal music. (Since he apparently also read books, I can’t wait for the gaming connection to come in.) Despite the fact that Mr. Loughner registered to vote as an Independent in 2006 (making him at least 22 years old), Rush wonders where his parents were and why they shouldn’t be seen as responsible. A teacher from Pima Community College reported that the boy’s brains were “scrambled,” and the Army apparently didn’t want him because he failed a drug test.

About the only solid thing we do know is that he bought a gun, had at least three magazines for it, and planned to kill Representative Giffords. Aside from those three facts, I expect to learn that few of the other said about the assassin are true or, if true, are insignificant or causal.

2) Tragic events like this assassination are too complex to be explained away by a simple cause. If we were to assume three things to be true: that Mr. Loughner was mentally ill, that hate rhetoric had somehow wound him up/pointed him at his target, and that he had a gun; we wouldn’t have even begun to touch on all the variables that could have prevented the shooting. Pull any one of those three elements, and it probably would not have happened. Or if the cab had gotten into an accident, so he never made it; or if someone had seen him approach and pull the gun and shouted a warning; or if someone else, carrying a concealed weapon as is allowed in Arizona (and Vermont and Alaska) had seen him coming up, had drawn and shot him; things could have gone down completely differently.

Imagine, just for a second, what that latter scenario would have resulted in. A good Samaritan shoots a would-be assassin. He’d be a hero, lauded by gun advocates. Rush and everyone else would be exalting him, even though he saved a liberal’s life. Were he an illegal immigrant, the story would become a bit more complicated.

My point here, of course, is this: people in the business of news and in the business of being newsmakers, will spin this tragedy and everything associated with it for their own good. A list of his “favorite books” from an online profile is already being cherry-picked to prove that Loughner was a left-wing progressive lunatic. (I have my doubts that he’d actually read all those books, since most are boring as sin. Oddly, The Catcher in the Rye isn’t on the list. Asked to guess, the list was culled from class reading lists for the sake of appearances.) Speculation about the influence of such books without even knowing if he read them is pointless, yet this does not appear to have slowed speculation at all.

As the book list and other factors point out, this is an incredibly complex situation, and simple, knee-jerk reaction solutions aren’t going to fix it, nor will superficial analysis provide any reassurance that such a thing could not happen again. And, after all, that’s what the reportage right now comes down to: an attempt to fix causality and blame so we can prevent to prevent things from happening again; despite the fact that we all know that is impossible. We can make such actions less likely, but 100% prevention is never going to happen.

3) I do think rhetoric which advocates violence really does need to be looked at, and looked at closely. The folks who need to do the looking are the folks using it. My thinking runs this way: stirring speech, which is meant to engage people emotionally, can actually engage people emotionally! Because emotions tend to override logic, this is potentially explosive.

Misunderstanding or misinterpreting what another says, even with simple and unemotional things, is fair simple. Ask yourself this: “Have I ever said something which another person took the wrong way?”

I can think of at least two kinds of statements I make that fit the answer. One is a simple misunderstanding where the person just didn’t hear exactly what I said. This happens a lot when cell phones drop a word out. Lose the word “not” and it changes the meaning of a sentence. Entirely changes it.

The second example is the more important one, where the listener hears what she wants to hear, or what she fears she is hearing. For example, you get asked “How do I look in this dress?” Lovely dress, nice and tight in all the right places, so you’re thinking she looks uber-hot. You say, “Poured into it perfectly.”

Alas, she was thinking that the dress was a bit snug because she’d put on a pound or two over the holidays. She immediately snarls and says, “We’re going to be late. It’s your fault. Now I have to change.” And it wasn’t anything you said, or intended to say, but what she heard that made the difference.

Take a step back and consider the news-and-punditry industry. News is less about informing us than it is entertaining us. Commentators tend toward the hyperbolic because that excites viewers. It builds ratings. It causes their comments to be talked about around the water-cooler the next day, week and month. It allows them to sell a bazillion copies of books and collect huge fees giving talks to rooms full of highrollers who understand they’re being hyperbolic and enjoy an evening of caustic comedy at their enemies’ expense. We see/hear this sort of rhetoric during sports coverage and on sports-talk radio; but because it’s trash-talking teams, no one gets as tightly wound up. We know it’s an act, and we laugh accordingly.

But there are those who don’t get that it’s an act. We hear about them every day, too. Celebrities get stalked all the time—and are sometimes killed by their stalkers. These stalkers are folks who see things on a TV screen, figure they are real, develop relationships with fictional characters, and then want to interact with them. (It goes back before TV, too. Arthur Conan Doyle and Earl Stanley Gardner used to field letters to Sherlock Holmes and Perry Mason respectively, asking for help.) Many of these people are benign, but then they don’t have to deal with that added pressure of people being polarized by inflammatory political rhetoric. People may love Lindsey Lohan, or think she’s overdrawn at the bank of “Fifteen Minutes of Fame,” but there aren’t people screaming that there’s “a Second Amendment solution” to her particular problem.

This is where people can point out that I’m arguing against my defense of gaming, since I wouldn’t hold game companies responsible for the actions of mentally disturbed individuals. There are two differences between gaming and inflammatory punditry, however, and the differences are significant. Pundits and newsmakers, because of their place in the media or government, speak from authority. Gamemasters—as every gamer knows—have a hard enough time influencing a half a dozen people to order his favorite pizza toppings, much less stirring them to something outside the gaming realm. Second, and more important, gamemasters have one intent: to entertain their players by presenting a series of logic puzzles to be solved within the game.

Pundits use their rhetoric for entirely different reasons, and with a different vector into the mind. As I noted above, the real problem with hyperbolic and violent rhetoric is that it engages people on an emotional level and discourages logical discourse. For example, some of you reading these words will take my quoting of Rush Limbaugh as an attack on him. It wasn’t. I merely used his comments as examples and noted that I expected most of all the examples to be proven false or insignificant. I chose him because his comments were readily available and, as things move through the thirty day period, will be easily confirmed or falsified. As will the claim about his brain being scrambled, or his having failed an Army drug test.

Throughout this commentary I’ve been very careful not to impart motive to anyone making comments about the assassination. I’ve done this because inflammatory rhetoric occurs on all sides. I’ve been as guilty of it as anyone else, save that I’ve not called for nor suggested that violence is a solution to any problem. It stems from the fact that I’m very brain-proud and firmly believe that rational solutions to problems are superior to spontaneous, emotional responses.

This, ultimately, is what I believe we need: a rational look at what we say and suggest and encourage. A pundit might know he’s joking. A Congressman might know he’s being hyperbolic to make a point. But none of us can be sure that those listening will understand the true message. Telling someone that “This nation’s greatness stems from the ballot and the bullet,” might be a call to embrace the Revolutionary fervor of our Founding Fathers—that’s how I would hear it. But just as easily I can imagine someone like Mr. Loughner hearing “If you can’t defeat them at the polls, you’ll have to blow them away.”

That’s not to bolster the argument that gun laws are too lax, either. The assassin came out of a grocery store. If you cannot go into a store and find ten things that you could purchase for under $20 to fashion a weapon to kill someone, you just aren’t trying. Murder and assassination pre-date guns and bombs—if someone wishes to kill, they’ll do it. Advocating stricter gun laws is just an attempt to graft a simple solution to what is an extremely complex problem. Doing that merely trivializes a very tragic situation.

America is a country that prides itself in free speech. We have to understand, however, that free speech comes with a price. Most often we think of that price having been paid by the men and women who fight against the enemies who would deprive us of that freedom. Unfortunately, others pay as well. A bit of wisdom, and a bit of restraint, may prevent a future tragedy. Responsible speech will be the salvation of this nation.

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6 Responses to “Rhetoric and Violence”

  1. Very thoughtful piece. I too strive to be winsome in my dealings with others, but like you have also been known to be inflammatory on occasion.

    I’ve heard you be inflammatory in Second Life before, and I appreciate this approach much more. For a conservative like me, it makes it easier to consider the points you are making. This post is definitely worth the time to think about.

  2. Rick Smathers 11. Jan, 2011 at 1:36 pm


    Very well spoken. It is a complex situation and we can’t really know what is going on yet or what his motives were exactly, and while I don’t see any evidence so far that he was motivated by political pundits from either side (but apparently was following his own twisted vision), we should all take this as a graphic warning of what could happen if emotional rhetoric is placed ahead of sense and logic in political debate and commentary.

  3. Great points. I read your report some time ago and found myself agreeing with the points in it.

    What I find interesting, but not necessarily surprising, is how the politicians instantly jumped to defend themselves. After so much talk about locking and loading, second amendment solutions and even one with a gun-sight symbol on her page (which she defended and then took down anyway), why, it’s just outrageous to think that they encouraged or could have even unwittingly influenced anyone to actually pick up a gun and shoot someone.

    Many people on the right have suddenly had to defend themselves, and I suspect many on the left are going over past speeches and statements, preparing to defend themselves, as well. I think both sides are guilty of saying improper things, but it’s been especially blatant on the far-right since before the 2008 election.

    Games are games–they’re make-believe. A mentally ill person can take anything from a game to a television commercial to a simple dream and twist its meaning into something it’s not. These things simply can’t be held accountable for the actions of a few ill individuals.

    The difference is that politicians and their statements are not part of a make-believe scenario. They’re talking about serious and scary issues. Talking about recession and depression can make even the most stable person worry about hard times, foreclosure, not being able to afford gas or food. They, and by they I mean all of them in any political affiliation, essentially threaten us with these horrors if the country isn’t run by the right people.

    Someone talking about “death panels” that will decide who lives or dies, and stating it as if it’s a universal fact that will be immutable if a certain measure is passed, is vastly different than rolling a die in a game and losing all your powers of immortality.

    The politicians use inflammatory language intentionally to frighten people, anger them and sway them one way or another. The tone of many of the town hall meetings involving health care serve as a good example of just how effective politicians’ statements can be. BOTH sides of the debate acted in a shameful way that I found embarrassing even to watch. People were and are frightened, and that’s in part because that seed of fear has been planted there by those who know just how to do it with their words.

    Whether or not the atmosphere of politics over the last couple of years had anything to do with this tragic case has yet to be seen. He might have seen Tony the Tiger on a box of cereal telling him to do it for all we really know. But I do think now’s the right time for public servants to act in a more dignified way and stop using the type of language that some of us find shameful, and a few might take far too literally.

  4. You are absolutely right about the true price we pay for our freedom of speech. If only critical thinking wasn’t such a bygone exercise these days…

  5. Very well said, as usual!

    Even though I don’t think the inflammatory “second amendment solution” rhetoric had anything to do with causing recent tragic events, I don’t mind the spotlight being on the responsible pundits / politicos at all. If nothing else, maybe the negative attention will get one or two of them to rethink their violent words and move a bit more toward civility (as the President called for last night). I don’t really thing it will happen, but we can always hope.

    And because I can’t resist being flippant, 1) I hope I’ve only stalked you in the nicest way possible. 2) Every time I hear about the Pulling Report I can’t help but remember the awesome story about you being interviewed about it while on the phone in your parents’ basement. There’s just something so delightfully meta about that. 🙂

  6. Thanks for this interesting blog posting. I always fondly remember the Pullman report, as an avid gamer, I am forever indebted to you for it.

    Being from Europe, I can’t really comment on the rhetoric used, but I think hateful speeches and similar things just affect the choice of the target. If somebody is mentally deranged (I can only assume that in cases like this) he will look for a target. Be it a celebrity, a politician or a teacher.

    We have some hateful speakers in Europe too and I really would appreciate it if they just would shut up and crawled under the stone they came from. But I’d rather have them be able to voice there opinion, than to be unable to voice mine! To somewhat “quote” Voltaire : “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

    And I agree, if someone wants to kill, a stricter gun law won’t stop him.

    That said, I still think that gun regulations should be strict. Not because of incidents like this, but because of accidents, homicide and crime statistics.