In the aftermath of the New Zealand massacre of Muslims at worship, American pundits have wondered: While the perpetrator alone is responsible for the slaughter, do the expressed attitudes of nationalist, anti-immigrant world leaders increase White nationalism—and thus the risk of such violence?
Consider Donald Trump’s rhetoric against supposed rapist, drug-dealing immigrants; his retweeting of anti-Muslim rhetoric; his saying that the Charlottesville White nationalists included some “very fine people”; or his condoning violence at his rallies and against the media. Do these actions serve to normalize such attitudes and behavior? Is the Southern Poverty Law Center right to suppose that hatemongering is “emboldened [and] energized” by such rhetoric? Is the New Zealand gunman’s reportedly lauding Trump as “a symbol of White supremacy” something more than a murderer’s misguided rantings?
In response, many people—particularly those close to Trump—attributed responsibility to the gunman. The President’s acting chief of staff argued that the shooter was a “disturbed individual” and that it is “absurd” to link one national leader’s rhetoric to an “evil person’s” behavior. We social psychologists call this a “dispositional attribution” rather than a “situational attribution.”
As I noted in a 2017 essay, two recent surveys and an experiment show that dispositions are shaped by social contexts. Hate speech (surprised?) feeds hate. Those frequently exposed to hate speech become desensitized to it, and then to lower evaluations of, and greater prejudice toward, its targets. Prejudice begets prejudice.
To be sure, leaders’ words are not a direct cause of individuals’ dastardly actions. Yet presidents, prime ministers, and celebrities do voice and amplify social norms. To paraphrase social psychologists Chris Crandall and Mark White, people express prejudices that are socially acceptable and suppress those that are not. When prejudice toward a particular group seems socially sanctioned, acts of prejudice—from insults to vandalism to violence—increase as well. Norms matter.
The FBI reports a 5 percent increase in hate crimes during 2016, and a further 17 percent increase during 2017--and reportedly more than doubled in counties hosting a Trump rally. The Anti-Defamation League reports that 2018 “was a particularly active year for right-wing extremist murders: Every single extremist killing—from Pittsburgh to Parkland—had a link to right-wing extremism.” Again, we ask: Coincidence? Or is there something more at work? If so, is there a mirror-image benevolent effect of New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern’s saying of her nation’s Muslim immigrants, “They are us”?