Scripted Violence

“Heroes Know Which Villains to Kill: How Coded Rhetoric Incites Scripted Violence,”

Extracted from: Chip Berlet. 2014. “Heroes Know Which Villains to Kill: How Coded Rhetoric Incites Scripted Violence,” in Matthew Feldman and Paul Jackson (eds), Doublespeak: Rhetoric of the Far-Right Since 1945, Stuttgart: ibidem-Verlag.

Online at:


The term "Scripted Violence" emerged at least by early 2000s as a way to describe incitement to violence--even when not intentional--where the perpetrators have no direct connection to the demagogue. See for example, 

Hamamoto, Darrell Y. 2002. "Empire of Death: Militarized Society and the Rise of Serial Killing and Mass Murder". New Political Science. 24 (1): 105-120.

Boyle, Michael J. 2012. "Revenge and Reprisal in Kosovo". The Peace in between : Post-War Violence and Peacebuilding. 95-116. Heroes Know Which Villains to Kill

How Coded Rhetoric Incites
Scripted Violence

By Chip Berlet

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While scholarly research exists on its own intellectual merits, we need to recognize that helping unravel the complexity of bigotry and xenophobia assists those working to extend human rights. The leaders of organized political or social movements sometimes tell their followers that a specific group of ‘Others’ is plotting to destroy civilized society. History tells us that if this message is repeated vividly enough, loudly enough, often enough, and long enough—it is only a matter of time before the bodies from the named scapegoated groups start to turn up. [2]


Social science since World War II and the Nazi genocide has shown that under specific conditions, virulent demonization and scapegoating can—and does—create milieus in which the potential for violence is increased. What social science cannot do is predict which individual upon hearing the rhetoric of clear or coded incitement and turn to violence.

In approaching some of these questions, this concluding study will unpack the concepts of ‘constitutive rhetoric’; the vilification, demonization, and scapegoating of a named ‘Other’; coded rhetorical incitement by demagogues; the relationship between conspiracism and apocalyptic aggression; and the process of scripted violence by which a leader need not directly exhort violence to create a constituency that hears a call to take action against the named enemy. It will argue that these processes can and do motivate some individuals to adopt a ‘superhero complex’ which justifies their pre-emptive acts of violence or terrorism to ‘save society’ from imminent threats by named enemies ‘before it is too late’.

In the United States, following the 1995 Oklahoma City terrorist bombing by a small cell of right-wing militants, there were calls by Democrats and liberals to show restraint in the rhetoric used in electoral campaigns. A handful of principled conservatives also joined in this call. Overwhelmingly, however, the response by Republicans and conservatives (and a few liberals) was to denounce such concerns as falsely linking media rhetoric to violent action and thus endangering First Amendment free speech guarantees. A few of the more macho voices declared such concerns to be a sign of political weakness. Actually, such claims rebutting the link between rhetoric and violence are based on a misunderstanding or misrepresentations of existing social science.

A vivid example of this can be found in the statistics chronicling ethno-violence compiled by the US Justice Department. Following the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the US World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon (the military headquarters outside the US capital city of Washington, DC. ), assaults, the defacements of buildings, the murders of people perceived by attackers to be Muslims in the United States, showed a ghastly upwards spike. This is not just a convoluted turn of phrase. From the first days after the 911 terror attacks by militant Islamic supremacists, adherents to the Sikh religion were attacked because the truly ignorant xenophobic attackers assumed that anyone with a swarthy skin and a ‘rag-head’ had to be a Muslim enemy of America.

In their study of how media manipulation for political ends can help incite genocide, Frohardt and Temin looked at ‘content intended to instill fear in a population’, or ‘intended to create a sense among the population that conflict is inevitable’. [4]


According to the authors:

>>>In Rwanda prior to the genocide a private radio station tried to instill fear of an imminent attack on Hutus by a Tutsi militia.

>>>In the months before [conflicts] in Serbia, state television attempted to create the impression that a World War II–style ethnic cleansing initiative against Serbs was in the works.

>>>Throughout the 1990s Georgian media outlets sought to portray ethnic minorities as threats to Georgia’s hardfought independence.


When such reporting creates widespread fear, people are more amenable to the notion of taking preemptive action, which is how the actions later taken were characterized. Media were used to make people believe that ‘we must strike first in order to save ourselves’. By creating fear the foundation for taking violent action through ‘self-defense’ is laid.


According to Hannah Arendt, this process is clearly observable in totalitarian movements of the right and left. Arendt, comparing Hitlerism and Stalinism, linked it to the elevated status of the totalitarian leader and the elite cadre of followers:

Their superiority consists in their ability to dissolve every statement of fact into a declaration of purpose. In distinction to the mass membership which, for instance, needs some demonstration of the inferiority of the Jewish race before it can safely be asked to kill Jews, the elite formations understand that the statement, all Jews are inferior, means, all Jews should be killed. [6]

This example illustrates the most extreme case. Few would dispute that the rhetoric of Hitler and his propagandists had a connection to the murder of Jews and other ‘enemies’ of the Thousand Year Reich. What is disputed is whether or not this process can be extended to less obvious forms of provocative rhetoric.


Conspiracy theories attached to apocalyptic timetables are especially effective in building a constituency for aggression against the evil plotters. The history of the United States is replete with episodic widespread panic about subversion have created a mass countersubversive movement whose bigoted charges became part of the public conversation about politics:

Freemasons (1798– 1844); Catholic immigrants (1834–60); Jews (1919– 35); Italian and Russian immigrants, with some deported as anarchists and Bolsheviks (1919–35); Communists and their ‘fellow travelers’ (1932–60); Communist and Jewish control of the Civil Rights Movement (1958–68), secular humanists, feminists and the ‘homosexual agenda’ (1975– ); the ‘New World Order’ (1990– ); Islamic menace and Sharia law (post 9/11). That’s the short list. [8]

The potential for violence in a society increases when the mass media carries rhetorical vilification by high profile and respected figures who scapegoat a named ‘Other’. This dangerous ‘constitutive rhetoric’ can build an actual constituency of persons feeling threatened or displaced. Or to put it another way, when rhetorical fecal matter hits the spinning verbal blades of a bigoted demagogue’s exhortations, bad stuff happens.

The resulting violence can incite a mob, a mass movement, a war, or an individual actor. Individual actors who engage in violence can emerge in three ways. They can be assigned the task of violence by an existing organizational leadership; they can be members or participants in an existing organization, yet decide to act on their own; or they can be unconnected to an existing organization and act on their own.



Following the Research Trail

Social Science Responds to WWII


The most influential early studies were sponsored by the American Jewish Committee as part of a series that began publishing before the US entry into WWII but after the trajectory of Nazi Party antisemitism became clear. [11] Titles included:


>>>Frustration and Aggression (1939),

>>>The Dynamics of Prejudice, (1950),

>>>Anti-Semitism and Emotional Disorder, a Psychoanalytic Interpretation. (1950),

>>>The Authoritarian Personality (1950),

>>>The Nature of Prejudice (1954).

Of these, The Dynamics of Prejudice, Frustration and Aggression, and The Nature of Prejudice have stood up relatively well to the test of time. [12]

The Authoritarian Personality has received substantial criticism, but social scientists have made adjustments that keep it salient as a theory. The most obvious revisions include the harsh reality that authoritarians can appear anywhere on the political spectrum; and that authoritarian followers are in a symbiotic relationship with those who enjoy the psychic tingle of being an authoritarian leader. The submissive can enjoy the whip of the dominant. There will be more discussion of this later.

A benchmark 1951 study is Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, which had three major parts: ‘Antisemitism’, ‘Imperialism’, and ‘Totalitarianism’. [13] Other works that also played a role in establishing the post-war liberal consensus include Hoffer, The True Believer, and Rokeach, The Open and Closed Mind. [14]

Pluralist or Classical School Emerges


New Paradigm: Social Movement Theories

Nothing in the previous discussions should be read to imply that social movements are all dangerous, or that only right-wing movements are dangerous.


People who join social movements tend to be average people with grievances. They join with others to resolve their grievances. To accomplish this they mobilize resources, exploit opportunities that open up in the political system, develop their own internal culture, and create perceptual frames, clever slogans, and parable-like stories to achieve their aims. [23]


Authoritarianism Revisited


Altemeyer discusses how the most socially-destructive individuals combine authoritarianism and social dominance with ethnocentric prejudice.[27] In 2010 he revisited his research to detail its relevance to understanding the right-wing populist Tea Party movement in the United States. [28]

Betz has studied similar right-wing populist movements in Europe which attract support by using radically xenophobic and authoritarian rhetoric.”[29] According to Taras, the ‘rise of xenophobia is nearly synonymous with the anti–immigrant backlash’ in Western Europe, ‘especially against non–Europeans and ‘people who are not racially Caucasian or religiously Judeo–Christian.’[30]


The Tools of Fear: A Catalog of Ingredients and Processes




Today the terms Manichaeism and dualism are sometimes used interchangeably. Dualism plays a central role in ‘a totalist movement with an idealized charismatic leader and an absolutist apocalyptic outlook’, write Anthony and Robbins’. Participants ‘engage in the ‘projection of negativity and rejected elements of self onto ideologically designated scapegoats’, and this helps create ‘a basis for affirming a pure, heroic self’. [33] Anthony and Robbins call this ‘exemplary dualism’. [34]

Hofstadter, in turn, noted that the ‘fundamentalist mind…is essentially Manichaean’. [35] The United States has a significant presence of politically active fundamentalist Christian conservatives, many of whom are caught up in social and political movements that employ exemplary dualism. [36] In Europe this worldview is found among anti-immigrant and xenophobic movements in addition to organized white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups.

Demagoguery and Constitutive Rhetoric


A clearer view of the demagogic process that can lead to ‘scripted violence’ is made visible when combining the contemporary sociological understanding of frames and narratives in mass movements with the concept of constitutive rhetoric from the fields of speech, communication theory, and media criticism. The early theorizing in this arena built a firm foundation for studying the societal role of rhetorical content in mass media, from Lippmann’s agenda-setting theory (1922);[38] through Bernays’ public opinion and propaganda theories (1923 and 1928);[39] to cultivation theory and other theories by Gerbner and his fellow thinkers in more recent decades. [40]

Much of the newer theorizing is prompted in one way or another by the work of Althusser, which influences a wide range of authors far beyond the original small audience of theoretical Marxists. [41] Charland writes that central to his analysis of constitutive rhetoric is ‘Althusser’s category of the subject’ in which the collectivized identity of the constituency is actually created through a ‘series of narrative ideological effects’. [42]


Thus when Hitler’s favorite journalist Julius Streicher, in his newspaper Der Stürmer, railed against the Jews using a particular narrative rhetoric, a constituency was created which moved from being individual passive antisemites into being active Jew haters in a collectivity with a shared identity.


An example of constitutive rhetoric is explored in a study of e-mail forwarded round online right wing groups. Duffy, Page, and Young analyzed messages that ‘ranged from anti-liberal or anti-Obama polemics to blatantly racist communications’. The content of these e-mails ranged from claims that Obama was ‘incompetent’ to those that claimed ‘he’s plotting the downfall of America’[46]


Right-wing movements in the United States have long used the rhetoric of fear mongering linked to scapegoating and conspiracy theories in ways that demonize a subversive ‘Other’ hiding inside progressive political movements. [49]



The word scapegoat has evolved to mean a person or group wrongfully blamed for some problem, especially for other people’s misdeeds’.


A certain level of scapegoating is endemic in most societies, but it more readily becomes an important political force in times of social competition or upheaval. At such times, especially, scapegoating can be an effective way to mobilize mass support and activism during a struggle for power. [54]


Scapegoating of persons with high status can serve the status quo and protect those in power from criticism. [60] This can happen when a faction of elites holding political power targets another elite faction seeking electoral victories. Sometimes scapegoating targets at the same time both socially disempowered or marginalized groups as well as the powerful or privileged, in a form of populism called ‘producerism’. [61]

Producerism is the idea that a hard-working and ‘productive’ middle class is being robbed by parasites above and below them on the socio-economic ladder.[62] For example, conservative activists Gary

Vilification and Demonization of an ‘Enemy’

Vilification in the societal sense is the use of vicious rhetoric to denounce and portray a target group as disgusting and to be avoided. Demonization is the process through which a group of people target other groups of people as the embodiment of evil. [66]


Typically, proponents claim that the target is plotting against the public good. [67] Demonization generally involves demagogic appeals. The demonization of an adversary involves well-established psychological processes.[68]


According to Aho, even when it is unconscious, the objectification of evil through scapegoating has this wondrous outcome: ‘The casting out of evil onto you not only renders you my enemy; it also accomplishes my own innocence. To paraphrase [Nietzsche]. . . In manufacturing an evil one against whom to battle heroically, I fabricate a good one, myself’. [73]

...Girard argues, ‘the effect of the scapegoat is to reverse the relationship between persecutors and their victims’. [74] When persons in scapegoated groups are attacked, they are often described as having brought on the attack themselves because of the wretched behaviour ascribed to them as part of the enemy group. [75] They deserved what they got.


Apocalyptic Aggression


Members of apocalyptic movements believe that time is running out. The term millenarianism describes apocalyptic movements built around a theme involving a one thousand year span (or some other lengthy period). Robert J. Lifton observes that ‘historically the apocalyptic imagination has usually been nonviolent in nature’, but such beliefs also can generate indiscriminate violence. [79]




Conspiracism can appear as a particular narrative form of scapegoating that frames demonized enemies as part of a vast insidious plot against the common good, while it valorizes the scapegoater as a hero for sounding the alarm. [84]

Conspiracist thinking has appeared in mainstream popular discourse as well as in various subcultures in the United States and Europe. [85] In contemporary examples we can see conspiracy theories built around fears of liberal subversion by President Obama;[86] fears of government attempts to merge the United States, Canada, and Mexico into a North American Union; [87]and fears that Muslims living in the United States are plotting treachery and terrorism.[88]


From Paranoid Style to Apocalyptic Frame


Hofstadter identified ‘the central preconception’ of the paranoid style as a belief in the ‘existence of a vast, insidious, preternaturally effective international conspiratorial network designed to perpetrate acts of the most fiendish character’. According to Hofstadter, this style was common in certain figures in the US political right, and was accompanied with a ‘sense that his political passions are unselfish and patriotic’ which ‘goes far to intensify his feeling of righteousness and his moral indignation’. [90] According to Hofstadter:

…the feeling of persecution is central, and it is indeed systematized in grandiose theories of conspiracy. But there is a vital difference between the paranoid spokesman in politics and the clinical paranoiac: although they both tend to be overheated, oversuspicious, overaggressive, grandiose, and apocalyptic in expression, the clinical paranoid sees the hostile and conspiratorial world in which he feels himself to be living as directed specifically against him; whereas the spokesman of the paranoid style finds it directed against a nation, a culture, a way of life whose fate affects not himself alone but millions of others. [91]

Damian Thompson, a journalist and scholar of religion, suggests Hofstadter was right to articulate the ‘startling affinities between the paranoid style and apocalyptic belief’, especially the demonization of opponents and ‘the sense of time running out’. Thompson, however, argues Hofstadter should have made a more direct connection by considering ‘the possibility that the paranoia he identified actually derived from apocalyptic belief; that the people who spread scare stories about Catholics, Masons, Illuminati, and Communists’ were, in fact, extrapolating from widespread Protestant End Times beliefs. Furthermore, the persistence of End Times belief ‘in the United States rather than Europe surely explains why the paranoid style seems so quintessentially American’, concludes Thompson, who has also written extensively on apocalyptic millennialism. [92]

Scripted Violence and the Superhero Complex


Breivik’s Manifesto

The role of gender panic in shaping an identity of the Superhero warrior is analyzed by Gibson in his book Warrior Dreams.[101] In a similar line of analysis, Julie Ingersoll found in Breivik’s Manifesto ‘evidence of his profoundly sexist view of the world, where women are naive and lacking in rationality, but are useful for sex and reproduction’. She called it ‘emasculation paranoia’. Ingersoll also highlighted Breivik’s claim that ‘feminism is to blame for what he asserts is the success of a supposed Muslim plan for world domination’. Breivik ‘wants to set the culture clock back ‘to the ‘50s—because we know it works’. This mythic nostalgia, according to Ingersoll, ‘is a central feature …of how Breivik’s analysis could well have been lifted from the talking points of the religious right’.[102] Behind this is a long history in the United States of seeing the country being emasculated by liberal treachery. [103]


If we assemble the ingredients and processes in this study, we arrive at the following list which traces the linkages from words to violence:

>>>Pre-existing prejudice or tensions in the society that can be tapped into.

>>>Intensity of the vilifying language, its distribution to a wide audience, and repetition of message.

>>>Dualistic division: The world is divided into a good ‘Us’ and a bad ‘Them’.

>>>Respected status of speaker or writer, at least within the target audience. A constituency is molded.

>>>Vilification and Demonizing rhetoric: Our opponents are dangerous, subversive, probably evil, maybe even subhuman.

>>>Targeting scapegoats: ‘They’ are causing all our troubles—we are blameless.

>>>The employment of conspiracy theories about the ‘Other’.

>>>Apocalyptic aggression: Time is running out, and we must act immediately to stave off a cataclysmic event.

>>>Violence against the named scapegoats by self-invented Superheroes.

Hannah Arendt, in Eichmann in Jerusalem concluded that evil was banal, and that if there was one clear universal truth, it is that ordinary people have a moral obligation to not look away from individual or institutional acts of cruelty or oppression. We recognize the processes that lead from words to violence, they are well-studied, and the theories and proofs are readily available. Silence is consent. Denial is simply evil.


Endnotes here