Words Matter

Words Matter December 2, 2015

Stochastic Terrorism

Libby Anne shared some examples of the different framing of events in the media. White survivors of hurricane Katrina were described as having “found bread,” while black survivors were described as “looters.” And while anyone with dark skin or who is a Muslim will be described as a thug or terrorist, Robert Dear is said by the New York Times to be a “gentle loner.”

The language the media uses matters. It doesn’t just express our own biases, but passes them on to others. It incites hatred and sometimes leads to acts of terrorism.

It intersected with the above image that came to my attention via Facebook, and which provides terminology to denote this very phenomenon.

Sometimes naming a phenomenon is itself important. “Stochastic terrorism” might not be clear to all, and may not be catchy. But sometimes just knowing that something “is a thing,” that there is a phenomenon with a term for it, that it isn’t isolated or vague, but clear and noticed, will lead people to pay more attention to something that they previously neglected.

Words matter.

See further Lauren Nelson’s post about how radicalization is brought about.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

TRENDING AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • “White survivors of hurricane Katrina were described as having “found bread,” while “black survivors were described as “looters.””

    -How do you know the descriptions aren’t accurate? And the plural of anecdote is not “data”.

    “And while anyone with dark skin or who is a Muslim will be described as a thug or terrorist,”

    -Last time I heard, there was much more media outrage about Dylann Storm Roof than Vester Lee Flanagan or that Muslim Chattanooga shooter.

    “Robert Dear is said by the New York Times to be a “gentle loner.””

    -Maybe it was because he was.

    “It incites hatred and sometimes leads to acts of terrorism.”

    -You know Roof became a militant racist due to the obvious ridiculousness of the whole Trayvon Martin brouhaha. Were the people covering that stoichastic terrorists? And by whom was Vester Lee Flanagan inspired by?

    And if people like Bill, Sean, Rush, Glenn, and Ann are stoichastic terrorists, you, James, are definitely a stoichastic terrorist, too (for revolutionary socialists). I remember it in several of your posts, but I have no time to Google (and it would be hard to search for, anyway, for multiple reasons). When did Bill, Sean, Rush, Glenn, and Ann call for terror to be used against their political opponents?

    • I look forward to you providing evidence for your claim that I have engaged in stochastic terrorism or any sort of incitement towards violence at any point.

      • And I await the same for Rush, Sean, Glenn, Ann, or Bill. I told you why I’d find finding that evidence for you difficult. You have no excuse.

          • Hmm…Limbaugh doesn’t know his history, because he wrote against other media commentators on the Pilgrims “I mean, it’s just… It’s near criminal the way these people have rewritten and maybe don’t even understand history in the first place. That paragraph is 150% wrong.”

            It appears that Limbaugh needs to take my American literature/history course:-)

            In some ways the Pilgrims and Syrian Muslim refugees are very similar–
            #1 Both in general don’t believe in freedom of religion, but are escaping from other Christian/Muslim leaders who also persecute others.
            #2 Both groups believe in predestination/hard determinism. The former were Calvinists, the latter Muslims. One of the key doctrines of Islam is “fate”/predestination.

            Both groups think that whatever happens is God’s will. (See hurricane Katrina was God/Allah’s punishment on sinners.) Shades of Cotton Mather…

            #3 Both in general follow forms of religious literalism. In the case of the Pilgrims, they punished heretical Christians; in the case of most Muslims they believe in punishing heretical Muslims or those who reject Islam.
            (A caution here from me. Some of the refugees may be secular Muslims like Assad, in which case they do have a ‘live and let live’ attitude).

            Strange as it may seem, Assad protected a small amount of religious freedom as long as no one rebelled against his dictatorship.

            Lastly, I don’t see where Limbaugh is calling lone wolves to commit “stochastic terrorism” in the url you cited.
            Please excuse me posting twice so soon, but, see, the commentators made me do it;-)

          • The first was a very thoughtful piece on Leftist rhetoric on Thanksgiving.

            I see no incitement to violence here.

            The second link is a contrast of Obama and McCain’s positions on abortion, with virulent (and sometimes misguided) criticism of Obama’s position, but no incitement to violence. This sort of stuff is basically the same as your quotes of some biblical prophets criticizing the rich or whatnot.

            BTW, Obama in office, especially in his second term, turned out to be just as evil as Rush painted him in that second link, amazingly enough. Prescience!

            Though McCain might have been just as bad, BTW. But I doubt it.

            The third link is exactly on target. If anything, it’s somewhat too generous to Obama. It’s a similar point Scott Alexander made on his Facebook friends and Thatcher v. Bin Laden. Most people don’t care about the Far Enemy. They focus on the Near Enemy. That link also makes perfectly reasonable points on immigration and vetting. It’s really good. Of course, Rush does make a misstatement on AQI/ISI/ISIS/IS -it did exist before Obama. It rose to prominence under Bush, due to his invasion of Iraq and desire to crush the Shiite insurgency. But it was also defeated under Bush and lost 100% of its territorial holdings that it gained during the first Iraqi Civil War (2006-2008). But there was no Islamic State on the Mediterranean under Bush. There was no Islamic State in Afghanistan under Bush. There was no Islamic State in Syria under Bush. At least, no territory ruled by it. It’s abundantly clear that each and every bit of this was planned by Obama and that the Islamic State as it exists today is an organization created and controlled by the Obama administration.
            Again, this link is really good. Of course, there’s stupid anti-Iranism, which is nonsense and results from inability to understand the subtleties of Obama’s strategy. Nixon did the same thing with the USSR Obama’s doing with Iran. Doesn’t mean Nixon was a Communist. I think Reagan did the same thing as well, IIRC.

            The “doesn’t care about who’s getting into the country” part is less justified and more speculative. It’s possible, but I’m more cynical than that. Rush probably correctly understands Obama believes in the Great Satan, but Rush’s wrong to implicitly snub that attitude; to suggest to his audience to not believe in the Great Satan himself, with Obama at its head. The last paragraph’s also pretty good, and ends on a sound note.

            BTW, James, what would you think about those exact same accusations if they were leveled at, say, GWB, if he were President today?

            The fourth link is incoherent and has no point, surely no incitement to violence. I do not know what you expect me to get out of it.

            The fifth link has a good point on the nature of truth in the leftist media and focuses on leftist rhetoric. It could be used for all kinds of media, of course. There’s nothing objectionable in it. If anything, it points out Andrea Mitchell had a problem with a sensible understanding of police relations. Is she a stoichastic terrorist? Sure, at least if Rush can be defined into being so by some hook or crook. Maybe even “sure” by reasonable standards. The rest of the piece is either perfectly sensible or boring and untrue boilerplate conservative rhetoric. No incitement to violence.

            The last link, again, focuses on Democratic rhetoric. It’s rather disingenuous, but makes a good point on Democrats lashing out because of desparation. The point on Muslim slavery in Black Africa’s solid, but not particularly great.

            Not a single incitement to violence anywhere in those links, except by leftists against Tea Partiers and the Pilgrims. So some Black Muslim, Andrea Mitchell, and you are stoichastic terrorists, do you desire to say?

          • Well, how far does one have to go in claiming that some other group is bent on killing you, before you would consider it incitement to someone to kill them first as a kind of preemptive self-defense? What about something like this? http://www.joemygod.com/2015/12/02/flip-benham-homosexuals-are-the-most-violent-community-there-is-and-they-want-christians-dead-video/

          • That’s ignoring 99% of my reply. Sure, that’s pretty heated rhetoric, but I’ve never heard of this guy, and he has nothing to do with the guys named in the original post. In any case, nothing he said is inconsistent with the Christian command of “love your enemies”, provided his heated misinterpretation is sincere (and it might be).

    • Ignatz

      “White survivors of hurricane Katrina were described as having “found
      bread,” while “black survivors were described as “looters.””-How do you know the descriptions aren’t accurate?>>>

      They’r’e characterizations. They’re describing the exact same thing. But using negative terms when done by black people, and positive terms when done by white people

      White people: “Two residents wade through chest deep water after finding bread and soda from a local grocery store.”

      Black people: “A young man walks through chest deep flood water after looting bread and soda from a local grocery store.”

      Link: http://www.snopes.com/katrina/graphics/looting.jpg

      “Robert Dear is said by the New York Times to be a “gentle loner.”-Maybe it was because he was.>>>>

      The Times full description was “gentle loner who occasionally unleashed violent acts toward neighbors and women he knew.” You’d think the second part kind of negates the first, wouldn’t you?

      Link: https://scontent.fphl1-1.fna.fbcdn.net/hphotos-xlf1/t31.0-8/s720x720/12314312_10156231038160290_3893888964690995737_o.jpg

      • “You’d think the
        second part kind of negates the first, wouldn’t you?”

        -No. But it does negate James’s point.

        And, as I’ve said, anecdote is not data.

  • I recalled being inflamed by the Professor’s rhetoric. After reading how he personally dealt with a persistent vermin, in which he was humane and kind; I however wanted to go postal. No bird seed thieving back yard squirrel was going to escape from my wrath! Could this be considered Stochastic terrorism too? No.

    • charlesburchfield

      have you ever seen those windup bird feeders that spin with the squirrels hanging on for dear life? so hideously funny to watch them
      get thrown off and wander around the yard like they’re drunks! search on youtube I think you mite enjoy it! */8•D

      • Now that would be funny! Dr. McGrath’s contraption didn’t spin the squirrels but it sure worked to keep them away.

        • charlesburchfield


  • Yes, “words matter.” That is why I’m going to disagree with you on this one.

    The poster states, “The use of mass communications to incite random lone wolves
    to carry out unpredictable violent acts.”

    As a literature teacher, it appears to me that this is an unfounded, and semantically confused, accusation.

    Keep in mind that I rarely if ever agree with right-wing commentators. I especially remember the very hateful false claims and personal attacks that Rush Limbaugh made back in the 1990’s. Totally disagree with his method of propaganda and manipulation.

    HOWEVER, based on my own meticulous study of the news over the last 55 years, I can’t think of one right-wing or left-wing commentator who has used the mass media “to incite random lone wolves
    to carry out unpredictable violent acts.” None.

    This appears to be more an attack on free speech than anything else. Notice that free speech of late is severely under attack, though usually by left wingers. Allegedly, according to a recent poll almost 40% of millennials think that free speech should be restricted! I realize that statistics are about as bad as semantics–full of misuse. Still…

    “Bill O’Reilly” is “certain that his inflammatory rhetoric will stir up violence.”

    I hate to be defending that guy. My father was a devotee of O’Reilly, so I’ve seen way more episodes of the “No Spin” Zone (what a semantic gaff) than I care to remember.
    BUT it is on the contrary “certain” at least to a high degree of probability that
    O’Reilly never used his TV show to “stir up violence.”

    The individual who wrote this poster needs to go back and study George Orwell.

    The poster is a misuse of language as well as untrue.

    And that’s the view of a literature teacher. I also majored in anthropology and one of our professors was a brilliant linguistic anthropologist.

    Merriam-Webster Dictionary:

    1 random; specifically : involving a random variable

    2: involving chance or probability : probabilistic

    • I believe NBC News tried to defame George Zimmerman by editing his 911 call by editing his words so that he seemed to be a hostile racist. They and President Obama fanned the flames of racial tensions in America and continue to do so. Black on white crimes go unreported in the media today.

      • I hadn’t heard this about NBC News.

        As for Black on White crimes going unemphasized by the media, this is the same sort of political correctness. Look at Chicago! One White police officer is alleged to have murdered a Black young man. Terrible wrong.

        But, Hell–that’s the place–Black young men shoot and sometimes murder other Blacks there by the hundreds every year!

        I hate all this political correctness.

  • John MacDonald

    Language is one of our most distinctive features as a species, one our most dangerous weapons, and one our most beautiful and intricate art forms.

  • Michael Wilson

    James, I agree with Wilcox here, the notion that these people cited are purposefully stirring up violence doesn’t hold up. it’s a hyperextension of culpability that seeks to tar any one that expresses a certain view as an accessory to murder. It is a very irresponsible way to energize supporters. As Wilcox noted, I can’t find an exhortation to violence in the Rush post you linked to and he is far more right wing and volatile than Bill O’Reilly. It seems that Jusset Research just says that any one they disagree with is a terrorist. Their rhetoric is no more inflammatory than that of Maddow, Maher, or Coates. The only difference is the ideology. All Muslims are not guilty of 9/11, all liberals are not guilty of the crimes of SLF or The Weathermen, and all those right of left are not guilty of Right Wing Terrorism.
    Regarding the abortion, most of the examples cited of right wing politicians endorsing terrorist incitement were just statements of the prolife position, that fetuses are human lives that must be protected. So is this whole debate illegitimate, any one that thinks of a fetus in the womb, expectant mothers and others, guilty of inciting terrorism? I admit their is a sort of logical conclusion that shooting abortionist is justified if you think fetuses are people to, but the fact is few pro-lifers think such anti-social steps should be taken. Abolitionist disagreed with slavers about the humanity of blacks, but it isn’t fair to say that all abolitionist are to blame for John Brown’s raid. And I think as a philosophical question, when a human organism is indeed a person deserving protection is not clear cut. I’m rather forgiving of infanticide, but others are not, I can understand that.
    If pro lifers saying that pro-choicers are abetting murder, then pro-choicers retorting that pro-lifers by saying this are abetting murder, they then become guilty of the same offence, they are inciting people that think murderers should stopped by any means to attack pro-lifers. We ought not to play this game with the extremist.
    On the media treatment of white and black villains, I agree with Harding that the belief that the media has different standards doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. It is based on selective viewing based on a biased mental filter. The New York times is hardy a bastion of right wing thinking, and I think their depiction of Deer is fair and accurate. Of course Deer is a terrorist, even Huckabee agrees, but is that all we want to know? his title as criminal? no we want to know what sorts of people do this and we had similar sympathetic coverage on the Boston Bomber, the Chattanooga shooter an D.C. Sniper. All the killers get this treatment. we wanna know what type of people they are. And why would we call him a thug? The term evokes mob enforcers and gangsters and street gangs. Now the left feels it is degrading to murders unlike calling them mass murders for some reason, but would we describe some guy living like a hermit and not a criminal by trade? It would be odd and confusing. John Wayne Gasey wasn’t a thug, he was a pedophile psycho killer, and that’s not a compliment. If we don’t dwell more on his terrorism, it is because we can’t find evidence of co-conspirators, except Libby Annes half of America that is pro-life. Their are radical right wing groups, but what nation do they control where heads are chopped off? How many thousands operated under orders from Dylan Roof? Right Wing Terrorist are dangerous but their potential to kill 2000 in single attack or cause million of refugees to flee to Europe are limited.

    • jekylldoc

      I believe you, and to some extent Daniel above, are correct in noting that some of the anecdotes presented are evidence of something else, such as that we want to know what kind of person the killer was.

      However, I think you neglect the larger point, that racism and hostility feed on differential perceptions and that these are real. I also don’t agree with James that these endorsements of differential perceptions amount to incitement to violence, but I do think we do ourselves a disservice if we insist on giving them legitimacy by crying about “political correctness” for example.

      It can look pretty odd to have Anders Brevik compared to the ISIS Paris attackers, and yet there is something to that. And because we are hard-wired to look at Brevik and conclude he is “one of us” and “on our side” while we look at dark-skinned terrorists and conclude they are threatening “us”, we can easily fall into the trap of considering him just an aberration and not a threat. It is easy to forget that terrorism is alive and well in the U.S., that the Timothy MacVeighs rack up a big body count too, and that we are not doing ourselves a favor to lump all of “them” (non-White) into the category of threats.

      So no, Anne Coulter is not doing “stochastic terrorism”, but she is definitely part of the overall problem that terrorism is sustained by, not part of the solution to it.

      • Would it be fair to say that someone’s words motivated the recent shootings in San Bernardino and Colorado Springs? I share the concern about free speech, but it is well established that free speech is not unlimited and one limit is when the lives of others are endangered. And so at what point does feeding the hatred of people become culpable? It may be hard to define, but surely that doesn’t mean that we can simply forego coming up with a legal definition, does it? Perhaps that definition will say that the right-wing figures mentioned in the image are not in the category. But the category itself will, I suspect, still be found to exist.

        • Michael Wilson

          James, I think the words the Feds will be investigating will be of the sort that exhort people to actually pick up arms and kill enemies of ISIS that sort of incitement is a crime. If they read some Noam Chomsky books or watched Rachel Maddow and concluded that America is full of racist that wage unjust war on Muslim nations for profit and decided to do something about it, That is not incitement. Free speech has nothing to do with morality, it protects ones right to express an opinion. We should be wary of deciding some opinions are too hateful to be allowed as some western nations do. Now one may be morally culpable for what they say. Trump’s demagoguery is dangerous and irresponsible. It’s immoral because it is based on untruth and disregards public good.

        • jekylldoc

          How about just calling out hate speech to dispute it, instead of pretending that others are not free agents who make up their own mind?

          Sorry, James, I was under time pressure. I think it might be much more effective to employ specialists, similar to those who talk to desperate criminals holding hostages, to dispute the hate speech in calm tones of voice. It is against our laws and our values to shut down speech, but not to disagree with it.

          Now if we could just figure out a way to get equal time for peacemakers at Donald Trump’s rallies . . .

  • Could you identify the source of the meme? I can’t seem to find anything on the Web about a Jusset Research Institute other than an unoccupied Facebook page for a company in Topeka KS.

  • charlesburchfield

    What is going on w the advent of automatic weapons is anyone or two can bc an army well equipt to deploy & catrry out a mini-massacre. This is bc the new nomal IMO.