And the two things we should consider before condemning public figures
On a Sunday morning in Illinois, June 2017, an unidentified man walked into a congressional baseball match and shot Republican congressman Steve Scalise, along with three other victims. The man was a radical Bernie Sanders supporter. He was later identified as James T. Hodgkinson, a man who had posted frequently online about his passion for liberal politics and the fact that he despised conservatism, Republicans, and Donald Trump. James T. Hodgkinson was fatally shot by police on the scene, but one question remains after his death: was Bernie Sanders partially to blame for what happened?
Despite making a statement to condemn the shooting, Sanders was ripped by conservative media. The American Spectatorwrote, “At minimum, this should be the end of Sander’s political career.” Describing Democratic rhetoric as “fuelling the fire”, Republican Representative Chris Collins said, “I can only hope that Democrats tone down the rhetoric. The rhetoric has been outrageous, the finger pointing, just the tone and the angst and the anger directed at Donald Trump.”
What does this have to do with professional athletes? When a San Francisco Giants fan was taken to hospital in a coma, paramedics and police found that he had been beaten by two LA Dodgers fans in the stadium parking lot after a baseball game between the two teams. And the response from the general public was hugely different. Disgruntled San Francisco supporters didn’t try to “hold the LA Dodgers to account”; of course the Dodgers baseball team aren’t responsible for the actions of anyone else. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find a single person in all of Los Angeles county who thought the LA Dodgers shared any blame. And yet politicians never seem to get this kind of treatment when a radical supporter of theirs goes rogue: instead, they’re crucified by the other side of the political aisle and those who claim they are resposible.
The takeaway here isn’t just that violence always seems to involve baseball matches — although they’re apparently running theme — it’s that the general public is a lot quicker to blame politicians for violence compared to other figures, like sports players. Donald Trump was criticised when one of his supporters sent mail packages with bombs to prominent Democratic politicians; the Democrats were condemned when a British man tried to kill Donald Trump; and the GOP as a whole consistently receive heat in general from accusations that they spur hate crimes.
The difference is that politicians, unlike baseball players, engage in ideological rhetoric. Their job is basically to make people feel strongly about things that actually matter, which means they’re hardly going to gain support by silently batting baseballs across bleachers and astroturf. It also means that sometimes, their rhetoric will go overboard and lead to impassioned supporters engaging in acts of violence. An influential figure doesn’t have to buy an AK-47 and pull the trigger themselves to cause another person’s death: all they have to do is use a certain rhetoric, with a certain tone and a certain edge, knowing that it will rile up supporters in a way that increases the probability of violence.
Crucially, the metric for judging wrongdoing from politicians here should be twofold: firstly, how necessary it is to say a particular thing, and secondly, how likely it is to lead to harm.
Rhetoric in itself is necessary, since politicians have to actually talk about thing to garner voters. Advocates and campaigners are aware that simply by advocating for their ideas, they carry the small risk of causing an extremist hundreds of miles away to feel emboldened enough to take up a weapon and hurt someone. There is no way to completely eradicate political extremism, just as sports players have no method of stopping the fact that their rivalry with other teams could, in rare cases, cause violence between fans. But what isn’t always necessary is the extent of how charged political rhetoric can become. Heated rhetoric exists on a spectrum, from incendiary tones to character attacks, all the way up to actually calling supporters to violence. After a certain point, you don’t need to shout things to get your point across: you’re just inflaming an already highly precarious and highly flammable mob.
But the necessity of saying something doesn’t matter on its own. Politicians also need to pay attention to the second criterion: how likely it is that their words will lead to violence. We’ve already established that there will always be a small risk of harm, but for a certain kind of political rhetoric to be wrong, there needs to be an increased likelihood of violence occurring. This is why insults, smears and name-calling are so toxic: they can drive an already extreme and unstable person to committing acts of harm in the name of their ideology. This is also why careless or bigoted speech is so particularly damaging when it comes from politicians: aside from bigotry being wrong in general, when it comes from influential figures, it often commands a chain of events that results in an increase in expressions of hate. When Boris Johnson compared niqab-wearing Muslim women to letterboxes, it came as no shock to economists that reported hate crimes against Muslims rose by 375%.
When determining wrongdoing on a politician’s part — or “fuelling the fire”, as Chris Collins put it — it’s crucial to consider both criteria. That’s why simply being passionate about massive injustices — and using charged rhetoric to reflect that — isn’t immoral: it may carry a slightly higher risk of extremism, but in the face of America, a nation with, to put it mildly, structural problems, it’s precisely this kind of rhetoric that’s needed to effect change. The stakes in politics are high, no matter what you do.
If you think Bernie Sanders is to blame for the Congressional baseball shooting, then you should also think that the LA Dodgers are also responsible for the attack against the San Francisco Bears supporter. Despite the fevered imaginations of some, Bernie Sanders didn’t instruct anyone to bestow a wrath upon Republicans, just like how most baseball players don’t go around telling their fans to beat opposing supporters senselessly. And not only that, but Bernie’s rhetoric in the months before had also been peaceful, straying away from stoking hatred or unnecessary tension. Not dissimilarly to an unfortunate LA Dodgers player, the Vermont senator couldn’t reasonably have done anything differently to prevent a man several states away from engaging in violence in his name — aside from never touching politics in the first place.
And yet in other cases, politicians aren’t so similar to baseball players. Red Sox players typically don’t go around hurling insults at Yankees, and Texas Rangers can rarely be found trying to convince large crowds that fans of the Kansas City Royals are the reason why you can’t get a job in this country. This is where politics gets muddy. Was it fully necessary, for example, for Donald Trump to describe Robert De Niro as “a very low IQ individual” who had “received too many shots to the head”? Or to tell Maxine Waters, another “extraordinarily low IQ person”, to “be careful what you wish for” on Twitter? Probably not. And can we say with certainty that this is why both of those individuals were targeted by the same mail bomber in the coming weeks? Who knows, but one thing’s for sure: being a politician’s a tricky job, and you have to juggle a lot of factors to ensure that just the right message gets out there. And that’s an unskippable step. Running through the nation’s veins, the lifeblood of public discourse flows from the mouths of public servants. When you have the eyes and ears of the whole country in your palm, it’s all the more important that you get it right.