The Psychology of Political Violence

Beware of anger, contempt, and disgust.

Posted Aug 30, 2017

Brian Lary/FreeImages
Source: Brian Lary/FreeImages

A gunman at a baseball field. A car in Charlottesville. A surge in death threats against D.C. lawmakers. New alt-right rallies planned. More violence expected. The President's tweets and speeches stir the pot, and across the country, contempt, disgust, and anger burn with righteous fervor. 

Writer Leon Wieseltier got double his wish. In the aftermath of the election, he wanted half of America to “stay angry.” He claimed this was the only way to uphold principles in Trump’s America. “Maintain [your] disgust,” he insisted, which apparently still sounds like a good idea to many on both sides of the political divide. Increased isolation from those with different political ideas combined with aggressive political rhetoric has created the sense in people, regardless of ideology, that “hostility directed at the opposition is acceptable, even appropriate,” according to political scientists, Iyengar and Westwood. Their research, along with current events, indicate that partisans are fairly uninhibited in engaging in discriminatory behavior and expressing animus toward opposing partisans.

But emotions not only impact the things we say and do, they also influence our judgment. Contrary to Wieseltier’s advice, being angry is a pretty reliable way to become less principled. (We need only recall the last thing we said in anger to recognize that it is a rare instance in which principles are more likely to be upheld with anger than with equanimity.) 

According to psychologists Yoel Inbar and David Pizarro, anger “seems to encourage the use of cognitive ‘shortcuts’ such as stereotypes,” so especially for those committed to combatting bigotry, anger is hardly the right tool. Adding disgust to the mix is even more destructive. Psychologists Buckels and Trapnell found that disgust “appears to have the unique capacity to foster the social-cognitive dehumanization of outgroup members,” and it is far easier to engage in violence when targets are dehumanized. History provides plenty of examples. To quote legal scholar, Geoffrey Stone, “We are capable of great ugliness and hatred. Let us not kid ourselves.”

With the advent of social media, there are more platforms than ever from which to dehumanize, and more people to target. Susan Benesch, founder of the Dangerous Speech Project, and faculty associate at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, worries about the “online disinhibition effect.” Online discourse norms have become coarser and more aggressive, and in 2016, Benesch predicted that behavior norms were likely not far behind. “When people think it’s increasingly O.K. to describe a group of people as subhuman or vermin, those same people are likely to think that it’s O.K. to hurt those people.” 

In examining speeches given by leaders of extreme political groups, psychologist David Matsumoto and his colleagues discovered that when leaders invoke anger plus contempt and disgust, their followers are more likely to devalue members of the out-group and respond with violence. White supremacists/nationalists have a long history of devaluing their out-group. As recent events remind us, anger, contempt, and disgust combined with racism, antisemitism, and the rejection of inclusive American ideals is a particularly dangerous and even deadly combination.

We must oppose these ideas together with one voice. But instead, in this moment of heightened polarization, we clash with those who, like us, embrace pluralistic ideals, but whose thinking differs from our own. ​In fact, political animosity in America now exceeds racial hostility, and we can tend to feel a combination of anger, contempt, and disgust for opposing partisans. Our ideological allies encourage these emotions, and before long, we have dehumanized those who are politically the "other." 

Unlike social norms regarding other forms of bigotry, there are no social norms or standards that restrain open hostility toward people whose political views we don't share. Unless this changes, it will not be long before we have no tolerance at all for anyone we say is wrong. And we can too easily come to believe that “man, when he is in error, has no rights of his own,” as Catholic philosopher, Jacques Maritain, warned in the 1950s.

This is not empty rhetoric. We have already seen calls for limiting the rights of people whose speech we despise. Maritain understood the impulse to “impose truth by coercion.” We have seen what that looks like on campuses when expressing the wrong views results in administrative action or mob rule, and in business, where now expressing the wrong views can result in being fired. On a vastly different scale, we see what this looks like when the (unsuitably named) “Antifa,” use “black bloc” tactics in attempts to impose their “truth” through violence.

The fundamental mistake we make is using tribal rather than civic norms in defining who counts as “us.” It is not that other people must be or think more like “us” to be less of a “them.” Instead, the more we expand our understanding of who counts as “us,” the less like “them” those other people appear. Unless we enlarge our sense of “us,” and engage peacefully with our fellow Americans across our many divides and disagreements, the demise of our country will not be a result of any President, policy, or election; we, ourselves, will do the job.

“If it were true that whoever knows or claims to know truth or justice cannot admit the possibility of a view different from his own, and is bound to impose his true view on other people by violence,” Maritain wrote, “then the rational animal would be the most dangerous of beasts.” 

Beware of righteous anger, contempt, and disgust. It is a combination that risks turning us into the very thing we hate—the most dangerous of beasts. ♦

Michelle Rau/FreeImages
Source: Michelle Rau/FreeImages

Note: The author's views are her own and should not be considered the official positions of FIRE or any other organization with which the author is associated.