I have hesitated thus far to comment directly on the murders in Colorado Springs because we have not had much information. In fact, I found the rush to make political points by those on the right and the left over this past weekend disturbing. But I'm crowding into the fray today at least partly because the debate is addressing an issue that has long troubled rhetoric scholars: Can speech incite violence?
At the extremes, of course, most everyone would acknowledge that when Don Corleone orders a hit, then speech leads to violence. Beyond that, we struggle often with these issues, including a wonderfully disturbing conference on symbolic violence at Texas A & M University a few years ago. As a rhetorician, I tend to focus on the particular and shy from the general. That is, I do not believe that speech always leads to violence or never does so. It's a terrible mistake to say that because all or nothing statements do little to illuminate our muddy communal life. So, how might we think about the particular?
First, I'd urge everyone to ask the right question for the right circumstance. In this case, abortion providers in general and Planned Parenthood in particular have long suffered violent attacks. So, in this case, it's not whether rhetoric has led to violence because the violence predates recent inflammatory statements and controversies (such as the faked videos). Rather, does the rhetoric enable and sustain a continuing campaign of violence against women's health workers?
Second, I'd argue that an answer requires a good deal of evidence and argument, certainly more than we have seen thus far. I say that because a "yes" implies (hell, says) that people ought to stop talking the way that they talk and that requires, to borrow a legal term, strict scrutiny. I'm no fan of social pressure against speech--quite the opposite--but I am a fan of honesty. For liberals to answer this question with a yes means that pro-life folks truly need to moderate their rhetoric and that, in fact, there's a strong case to be made that the common good requires it. To shy away from that conclusion, or to say yes, and then deny the obvious (oh, no, I don't mean THAT) is dishonest.
Third, what might such evidence look like? I think it has to be multivariate, again to borrow a term. We'd have to see violence and symbolic violence in a variety of ways at a variety of levels, always intertwined. Here's my case for that.
On a physical level, there have been 8 murders, 17 attempted murders, 42 bombings, 182 arsons, and literally hundreds upon thousands of stalkings, attacks, arrests, and so on and so forth since the late 1970s. On a daily discourse level, that is, in terms of everyday, consistent interaction, we know that harassment, fury, and violent language is unceasing for those who work at women's health centers and abortion providers. On an electoral and legislative level, we know abortion opponents (and, increasingly, birth control opponents) use language that dehumanizes and scapegoats health care providers. In particular, as Ed Kilgore argues in the link, Holocaust and slavery analogies facilitate violence. After all, the GOP candidates recently spent some time trading barbs about whether they would kill baby Hitler. Most, Jeb Bush in this link, would happily do so to prevent all of the deaths. So, it's not hard to follow the chain of logic that leads to the murder of health care providers.
I think, then, there's a considerable level of evidence to suggest that people ought to take some care. Too often, as Kenneth Burke has taught us, we try to take our language to the end of the line, to seek perfection, in the sense that humans wish their reality to match their words. When we call someone Hitler, a Nazi, a murdering whore, then this perfection principle suggests rather strongly the next action in the sequence. As conservative Christians understand, no one is perfect; we are all sinners. Such humility should characterize our public debate as well.