Do Words Have Consequences?

Do Words Have Consequences?

By Jim Windell

           Do words matter? Do words have consequences?

           These are relevant questions these days – particularly after a mob attacked the U.S. Capitol. The question that the Senate will have to weigh – in an upcoming impeachment hearing – is whether the speech of President Trump caused his supporters to turn into an angry mob that attempted an insurrection inside the U.S. Capitol.

           According to Kurt Braddock, an Assistant Professor at the American University School of Communication, writing recently in The Conversation, an online opinion website, decades of research on social influence, persuasion and psychology show that the messages that people encounter heavily influence their decisions to engage in certain behaviors.

           The research, says Kurt Braddock, Ph.D., shows that the messages we consume affect our behaviors in three ways. “First, when a person encounters a message that advocates a behavior, that person is likely to believe that the behavior will have positive results,” writes Braddock. This is particularly true, he says, if the speaker of that message is liked or trusted by the target of the message. Second, “When these messages communicate positive beliefs or attitudes about a behavior – as when our friends told us that smoking was “cool” when we were teenagers – message targets come to believe that those they care about would approve of their engaging in the behavior or would engage in the behavior themselves.” Finally, “when those messages contain language that highlights the target’s ability to perform a behavior, as when a president tells raucous supporters that they have the power to overturn an election, they develop the belief that they can actually carry out that behavior.”

           Braddock contends that how Trump spurred his supporters to take action at the Capitol involved months of inundating his supporters with various lies about election fraud and a stolen election. But, Braddock says, Trump made two key beliefs acceptable to his followers. “First, that aggression against those accused of trying to undermine his 'victory' is an acceptable and useful means of political action. Second, that aggressive, possibly violent attitudes against Trump’s political adversaries are common among all his supporters.”

           Then, with these beliefs and attitudes in place, Trump’s January 6 speech down the street from the Capitol served as a key accelerant to the attack by sparking the raucous crowd to action. In his pre-attack speech, Braddock points out, Trump said that he and his followers should “fight like hell” against “bad people.” He said they would “walk down Pennsylvania Avenue” to give Republican legislators the boldness they needed to “take back the country.” Trump further emphasized to the crowd that “this is a time for strength” and that the crowd should go by “very different rules” than would normally be called for.

           And just to proof that words do matter and what a leader says has consequences, less than two hours after Trump’s words were spoken, violent insurrectionists and domestic terrorists attacked the Capitol.

           Braddock concludes by observing that the years of research have demonstrated that language affects our behaviors and that words, indeed, have consequences. Braddock finishes by remarking that “And when those words champion aggression, make violence acceptable and embolden audiences to action, incidents like the insurrection at the Capitol are the result.”

           To read the original article, click here.


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