One Hypocrisy Charge that Won’t Seem to Stick

By: Jennifer Keohane

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“No Way to Prevent This Says Only Nation  Where This Regularly Happens,” satirical newspaper the Onion declares in the wake of the October 2017 shooting at a Las Vegas concert which killed over 50 people.

The Onion has famously posted the same headline with a different picture in the wake of previous mass shootings, including the December 2015 San Bernardino, California, and the June 2015 Charleston, South Carolina, church shootings.

Each time mass shootings occur in the United States, Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites feature a bevy of tweets that thoughts and prayers are with the victims, as Marco Rubio did below.

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Yet, this is typically where the discussion ends. Each shooting brings up these statements and a desire to end the senseless violence. Nonetheless, practically nothing is done to enact sensible gun control legislation in the United States. Instead, right-leaning politicians backed by intense supporters of the Second Amendment insist that this is not the time to “politicize” trauma.

Making the rounds on my admittedly left-leaning Facebook feed in the wake of the Las Vegas shooting was a chart originally published in various venues. The chart, compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research group, juxtaposed the sympathetic statements of politicians with the amount of money that they’ve taken from the NRA, a chief opponent of gun control legislation. The screenshot below is from a New York Times opinion piece that cites it. Leading the list is John McCain, who has received more than $7.5 million from the NRA.

nra chart

What’s the point of charts like these? They’re intended to show hypocrisy, a favored tactic of identity smearers. Politicians act outraged while “secretly” being funded by groups that won’t support a ban on military-style assault rifles.

As I mentioned in my last post, character is presumed to be a relatively stable part of a person’s identity. As a result, acting hypocritically shows an individual to have a morally questionable character.

So why do these types of attacks not seem to “stick” with their opponents? Why don’t these politicians get voted out of office for their hypocritical behavior? This is an incredibly tough question to answer. (Although some of my forthcoming research attempts to figure out on a broader level how to predict when character attacks will stick and when they will backfire. More on that in a future post.)

One hypothesis is structural, and points us to the need to analyze the context of a character attack. While debate is still out as to what has caused the polarization in American politics (gerrymandering, primary elections, like-minded sorting), polarization and “talking tough” is often rewarded in Congress.

I’d offer another suggestion, too. We’ve tied the gun control debate to a debate over mental illness. Someone who would shoot 600 people at a Las Vegas festival must be crazy, we assume. In fact, some politicians use the stigma of mental illness to take focus off gun control.

“One of the things we have learned from these things, we have learned from these shootings, is often a diagnosis of mental illness,”offered Speaker of the House Paul Ryan after the Las Vegas shooting.

Setting aside the fact that Ryan is wrong about the relationship between mental illness and shootings in the United States and that he’s perpetuating a harmful stigma about mental illness and violence, such a focus divorces shootings from the guns themselves. It primes us, I suggest, to see mass shootings as about mental health and not about the availability of guns.

Thus, if shootings aren’t about guns, politicians who express sympathy while still accepting donations from the NRA aren’t, in fact, acting hypocritically.

I don’t intend to suggest that this two-item list is exhaustive. But, thinking about when character attacks work, don’t work, and even backfire is important. Just two weeks ago, for instance, eight-term Congressman from Pennsylvania Tim Murphy announced he’ll resign after it became public that he encouraged his mistress to have an abortion. Murphy, of course, is on the record as being pro-life.

So it seems that at least for now, sexual hypocrisy will be punished, but firearm hypocrisy will not be.

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