Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Violent Rhetoric in Protracted Group Conflicts: Experimental Evidence from Israel and India

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Violent Rhetoric in Protracted Group Conflicts: Experimental Evidence from Israel and India

Article excerpt

How do messages from political leaders interact with individual traits of citizens to spur intergroup aggression? Recent violence in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere has renewed questions about the impact of violent rhetoric on "real world" aggression. Does violent rhetoric provoke aggression against its targets? Under what conditions? And who aggresses? These questions have generated enduring attention in research on intergroup conflict, including classic works by Horowitz (1985) and Brass (2003) detailing effects of ethnic extremist rhetoric.

This article addresses these questions with experiments assessing the divergent effects of mild violent rhetoric on individual group members in protracted conflict in two distinct contexts: Israel and India. Drawing from social psychological research on intergroup animus and interpersonal aggression, we show how the impact of violent metaphors on policy aggression depends on the traits of individual citizens embedded in contexts of intense conflict.

We argue that in such contexts, violent language targeting an outgroup reminds individuals of the threat posed by the outgroup, which increases the accessibility of aggressive cognitive and emotional structures toward that group, particularly for individuals for whom these structures are not already accessible: those low in ethnocentrism and trait aggression. Thus, counter-intuitively, we predict that citizens who are normally less inclined to support policies that hurt outgroups will respond most aggressively to violent rhetoric, rather than those high in ethnocentrism and aggression who routinely support outgroup harm, as some previous research might suggest (e.g., Bushman 1995). The context of conflict intensifies the strength of aggressive language that would otherwise be weak in calmer contexts.1

We find support for our predictions in cross-national data from two original, nationally diverse survey experiments in Israel and India: the first exploring policy support that would help/harm Palestinian citizens of Israel (PCIs), and the second for policies that would help/harm Muslim citizens of India. We show that the use of violent rhetoric increases support for harm toward the outgroup among people usually less inclined to take such positions. Replicating these findings in two very different political contexts is especially telling for the breadth of these effects.

This work contributes to research on intergroup conflict, political communication effects, and personality in politics by demonstrating the conditional nature of elitelevel political communication effects: outcomes depend jointly on subtle features of the communication, the context in which it occurs, and on the individual traits of those receiving the message.

We begin by discussing violent metaphors in politics and the psychology of aggressive cues. Next, we describe traits that predispose citizens toward helpful or harmful outgroup policy attitudes. This leads to our theoretical discussion on the interaction between mild violent rhetoric and individual citizens' traits, yielding our predictions. The remaining sections present research designs for both studies and our evidence that citizens least predisposed to support positions harming outgroups do so more when primed with subtle violent rhetorical cues. We conclude by discussing the import of these findings for intergroup conflict and future research.

Violent Political Metaphors

"Fighting words" enable leaders to shape public attitudes, although leaders' intuitions about who responds to their appeals may be flawed. This is especially true when leaders use violent metaphors in calls to help, rather than harm, the outgroup, as leaders might reasonably expect these words to serve prosocial goals, particularly among audiences more generally favorable toward outgroups. We find otherwise.

From a universe of violent rhetoric that ranges from mild metaphors to literal violence, we focus on effects from subtle violent metaphors: figures of speech casting non-violent political behaviors in violent terms, portraying political leaders or groups as combatants, or depicting political objects as weapons. …

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