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The truth about the Buffalo shooting Ignore hot takes until real analysis is produced

How are we supposed to make sense of this? (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

How are we supposed to make sense of this? (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)


May 21, 2022   5 mins

After the horrific racist mass shooting of 13 people — 11 of them black — in a Buffalo, New York supermarket, it is vital to ask what caused such violence. For some progressives, the answer is already clear: Republicans, notably Donald Trump and Tucker Carlson, have blood on their hands because they endorse the “Great Replacement” theory that the shooter, Payton Gendron, referenced in his 180-page manifesto. This is the same phrase used by the El Paso shooter, who targeted Latinos, and by Brenton Tarrant, the Christchurch killer whose victims were Muslim.

The Great Replacement theory argues that an elite cabal, often Jewish, sometimes Leftist, seeks to “replace” Western whites with minority immigrants. Like any conspiracy theory, it has is a kernel of truth upon which the fantastic elements are grafted. Many mainstream and liberal writers have drawn attention to the ethnic transformation of the West. The term “replacement population” has a long history of use by demographers and geographers. In Western countries, whites are a smaller share of the population than they were in 1960, and I suspect this is why many French or Americans think replacement is real.

On the other hand, there is no evidence that Jews have had much influence over such changes, and while the Left has sometimes celebrated demographic change or sought to capitalise on it electorally, the claim that Leftists orchestrated this change is not credible. Immigration policy in the US has long been driven by short-termist rather than long-termist considerations. Indeed, the Democratic architects of the transformational Hart-Celler Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 claimed it would not alter the ethnic composition of the United States. There is no evidence they believed otherwise.

Do Tucker and Trump bear responsibility for Buffalo? From a social scientific standpoint, this account is plausible, but so are several others. Vivid images and emotions often lead us to snap judgments that are highly prone to confirmation bias. In order to surmount such biases, the scientific method asks us to step back from emotive data points, entertain competing theories, and open our own explanations up to falsification.

Consider the following hypotheses on how media and political narratives might influence mass shootings like the one in Buffalo:

1. Tucker Carlson, Donald Trump and the Republicans are to blame.

Trump spoke of “fine people” among the Charlottesville rioters, and Carlson has said that “the Democratic Party is trying to replace the current electorate, the voters now casting ballots, with new people, more obedient voters from the Third World”. A number of others, including Representative Elise Stefanik of New York, have endorsed the theory that lax border enforcement is a deliberate Democratic policy to improve its electoral fortunes. These comments could have created the narrative mood music within which the shooter operated.

2. Michael Moore and other progressive pundits are guilty.

The 2020 US census showed that the absolute number of white people had declined for the first time in American history, a result that came mostly from a change in the census question. But mainstream papers failed to highlight this, Instead running sensationalist headlines such as: “Number of White people falls for first time”; “America’s White Population Shrank for the First Time”; or “Vast Stretches of America Are Shrinking. Almost All of Them Voted for Trump”.

The documentarian Michael Moore called the announcement of these census results “the best day ever in US history”, marking the end of “white supremacy”. “This is fabulous news”, added Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin. In a recent column for National Review, Rich Lowry cites a number of mainstream Left-wing voices arguing that liberal immigration policies would help the Democrats gain and hold power. Given that numerous psychological studies show that telling white Americans that they are going to become a minority makes them more conservative and populist, this progressive messaging could have created a cultural climate conducive to white anxiety.

3. Progressive commentators who have talked up the threat of white supremacy and division indirectly motivated Gendron.

The shooter apparently scrawled the name Virginia Sorensen on his weapon, referring to a woman killed in a racially-motivated attack by a black man on a parade in Waukesha, Wisconsin. There has been a sharp rise in the use of terms such as “white supremacy” and “racism” in the American media since 2014-15, despite growing interracial marriage, decreasing prejudice, and a marked decline in police killings of African-Americans since the Sixties. Like white liberals, most black Americans believe a young black man is more likely to be killed by police than in a car accident, even though the latter is six- to ten-times more likely. Could progressive media outlets have heightened the racial threat perceptions of the Waukesha killer, sparking Gendron’s tit-for-tat terrorism?

4. Trump, Carlson, and GOP populists are reducing the level of white nationalist terrorism by providing an outlet for ethnocultural fears.

Though I haven’t seen this thesis mentioned anywhere, it has a solid basis in the expert literature. On this view, political and cultural outlets for grievances, if blocked, can force sentiment into highly insulated extremist bubbles, increasing the risk of violence. Conversely, when terrorists participate in politics, they tend to moderate, as happened with the IRA and Sinn Fein.

Jacob Ravndal, a leading terrorism scholar, has shown that far-Right terrorism is lower where support for national populist parties is higher, and vice-versa. As Ravndal notes, “a predominantly pro-immigration elite perceived as hostile towards people with anti-immigration concerns might be exploited by the extreme Right to mobilize new followers and
 motivate terrorism and violence”. Gendron’s manifesto referenced far-Right underworld figures like Tarrant, but never cited mainstream Republican populists like Trump or pundits like Carlson. Gendron’s behaviour could have stemmed from an inability to openly discuss his anxieties, pushing him toward radicalisation.

5. Progressive politicians and media are reducing the level of white nationalist violence that would otherwise occur.

According to this theory, by enforcing taboos on racism and white supremacy, and spotlighting the threat of white nationalism, progressives reduce the appeal and respectability of racist beliefs, shrinking the potential pool of recruits from which extremists can draw. Likewise, white nationalist ideas, if rendered taboo, will have a harder time reaching a wider audience. If we think of white nationalist terrorism as an interaction between mental illness and ideology, a smaller universe of ideologically-sympathetic people makes it less likely that any one of them will carry the fatal combination of psychological instability and ideological motivation.

6. All the ideological stuff is beside the point.

Nearly 2,000 people were killed in mass shootings in the US between 1999 and 2020: around 100 per year. Many of these shootings were carried out by mentally unstable individuals like Gendron, who threatened to kill himself and his classmates before settling on a racist attack. Tighter gun laws or better tracking of potentially dangerous mentally ill people could ultimately ensure that events like these become less frequent.

***

All these hypotheses are falsifiable. One way to do so would be to design a study in which half a survey sample read a statement by a conservative or progressive pundit and half see innocuous text. Then those taking the survey answer a set of questions pertaining to their views of minorities and attitudes toward violence. If the group which read the offending passage expresses more hostile attitudes, this is evidence for a real effect. Alternatively, we could collect large-scale data on measures of each thesis and see which best correlates with terrorist outcomes. What is pointless is for partisans to cherry pick examples and ride their favoured horses.

Even more inexcusable is the tendency to use one’s cherished theory to censor opposing political views. On the Left, this typically involves smearing those who advocate reducing immigration or having more open conversations about white identity by accusing them of being complicit in white nationalist violence. On the Right, this can entail unsubstantiated claims about the danger of conservative Islam or criticising Israel.

I’m not a free speech absolutist. There is a point at which a proven risk of serious violence is a legitimate reason to restrict speech. However, the onus is on the censor to provide rigorous and overwhelming evidence. Hot takes from political opponents should be dismissed until serious analysis is produced. As with Covid-19 or speeding restrictions, liberal societies must accept some loss of safety to enjoy their freedom.


Eric Kaufmann is Professor at the University of Buckingham, and author of the upcoming Taboo: Why Making Race Sacred Led to a Cultural Revolution (Forum Press UK, June 6)/The Third Awokening: A 12-Point Plan for Rolling Back Progressive Extremism (Bombardier Books USA, May 14).

epkaufm

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Laura Creighton
Laura Creighton
2 years ago

The whole premise here: “Person does horrible thing X because he believes Y” needs to be questioned. Far too often a better way to look at things is “Person wants to do horrible thing X. He then finds a pretext, Y to justify doing it.” This is entirely well understood when the ‘horrible thing’ is to eat the piece of cake now, when and the pretext is one of ‘there won’t be enough to go around when the others arrive’, ‘because my blood sugar is low now’, ‘I deserve it after having to listen to that windbag drone on and on in that boring meeting I was forced to attend’ or ‘I skipped desert yesterday’. Playing whack-a-mole with the pretexts will not work because the human mind will always invent new ones. There will always be a new reason to do what you wanted to do anyway.
I do not know why this notion of man as rationalising agent rather than reasoning agent is so very difficult for large numbers of intellectuals to accept, when the thing wanted to do is truly horrific. So much of recorded history documents how common the impulse to this sort of behaviour is. Somehow their brains cannot grasp the concept of doing evil for its own sake, because somebody wants to do it.

Last edited 2 years ago by Laura Creighton
Julian Pellatt
Julian Pellatt
2 years ago

Constant anti-white rhetoric, not infrequently genocidal in expression, which is tolerated, even condoned (and therefore encouraged) by the woking-class is bound, ultimately, to influence unstable white people who are minded to view conspiracy theories as real.

Marcia McGrail
Marcia McGrail
2 years ago

..or ‘liberal societies must accept [some?!see WEF’s plans] loss of their freedom to enjoy their safety’? There are things liberality can stomach that I cannot: rights championed for anything and anybody, no matter how vile; responsibilities, – individual and corporate – not so much. As for me and my family, we pin our red lines on the 10 Commandments – a now widely scorned practicality – that has however (despite acknowledged abhorrent abuses) held the moral overtones for human behaviour for millennia. This present day anti-God culture produces a moral vacuum. And what does a vacuum prefer.

Crow T. Robot
Crow T. Robot
2 years ago

A society that will trade a little liberty for a little order will lose both, and deserve neither.
Attribution: Thomas Jefferson

Philip Tisdall
Philip Tisdall
2 years ago
Reply to  Crow T. Robot

It took me seconds to establish the original quote by Ben Franklin. I read Unherd for the quality of its Comments. Please do not degrade that.
‘Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

R Wright
R Wright
2 years ago

“political and cultural outlets for grievances, if blocked, can force sentiment into highly insulated extremist bubbles, increasing the risk of violence. Conversely, when terrorists participate in politics, they tend to moderate”
This is the most crucial point, in my view. Notice how there was a collapse of support for groups like the BNP when mass immigration began to be (briefly) discussed in the British political debate in the 2010s. Given the recent figures, the sure to be incendiary census results and increasingly anti-white rhetoric from large sections of the commentariat we’ll likely see a massive surge in political extremism, due to the inability of politicians to deal with the situation.

Brian Villanueva
Brian Villanueva
2 years ago
Reply to  R Wright

I had sliced that phrase out for pasting too before I saw your comment.

This is the problem with courts eliminating issues from the political process. The most significant of these in America was the 1857 Dredd Scott decision, which ruled that Congress could not regulate slavery. However the same dynamic is visible in abortion currently.

In America, we have 2 political parties that fundraise on maximal abortion positions (“zygote = baby” vs “abortion up to halfway out the birth canal”). Very few Americans believe either of these positions rigidly. Since the American Supreme Court made political solutions to abortion impossible in 1973 (just like Dredd Scott, by adopting one side’s essentially maximalist position as “law”) though, the pressure just builds without release.

(I recently started a discussion on Bari Weiss’ substack about abortion, and we found that despite putting different labels on ourselves — 70% lib / 30% cons, roughly — we were able to sketch out an abortion regulation regime that all 30-40 of us involved in the discussion said we could live with. But actually implementing such a regime is impossible right now in America.)

Contrast this to Europe, which never experienced this judicial usurpation of such a fundamental political issue. As a result, EU countries generally settled on 12 week abortion limits — democratically. Despite pro-life/pro-choice venom from across the Atlantic, my understanding is that abortion is largely a non-issue in Europe, because it was solved by political compromise instead of judicial fiat. France just modified their law to 14 weeks, and while some folks were certainly disappointed, I haven’t heard of any threats to storm the National Assembly over it. (Progressives are widely threatening to storm the American Supreme Court on this side of the pond, and many media pundits are cheering them on.)

Political violence only becomes thinkable when all other outlets for political expression are closed. Judicial usurpation is achieves that closure, but there are others, broad media censorship and social stigma both high on that list. Americans have experienced both in spades in the last 5 years. In the EU, the problem is unelected regulations at the trans-national, European level. Why is the National Front rallying? Because Le Pen talks about issues everyone else considers untouchable.
If you want less political violence, you have to allow more political debate. After all, politics is just war continued by other means.

Last edited 2 years ago by Brian Villanueva
hayden eastwood
hayden eastwood
1 year ago

What about the hypothesis that identity politics itself, pushed by a certain brand of the left since the 1960s, is what has caused the rise of white identity politics?
White nutters seeing the world through race is an entirely obvious end point of casting white people as the enemy. When white people are told that the world is a zero sum game of groups competing for power, why, as Jordan Peterson points out, would they not play to win? Why would a proportion of them not see it as a war when they are constantly told it’s a war?
Playing identity politics against white people works very well in a place like South Africa, where whites have no hope of leveraging their numbers to act as “the other”.
But in places where whites are a majority, playing identity politics is disastrous for minorities, who will inevitably bear the brunt of a population that comes to see them as the enemy and who can elect leaders to turn the tables on those same minorities.
The woke say they are helping minorities when in fact they are making their lives far more difficult.

Last edited 1 year ago by hayden eastwood
Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
2 years ago

Article dismissed. The writer trots out “fine people on both sides” as proof of Trump’s “racism” knowing full well the statement was mangled and regurgitated ever since. The issue on which Trump was commenting was the tearing down of historical monuments. He said there were fine people on both sides of the removal/keep argument, as there indeed were. That this writer ignores that simple fact exposes him as a purveyor of lies whose work cannot be trusted.

hayden eastwood
hayden eastwood
1 year ago

I don’t know if you’ve read the article properly – he offers Trump’s “racism” as a hypothesis of one particular camp of people, not his own personal view.

Last edited 1 year ago by hayden eastwood
David Kingsworthy
David Kingsworthy
1 year ago

Immigration policy in the US has long been driven by short-termist rather than long-termist considerations.
Isn’t this true of ALL policies at the federal level of American government?

Terry M
Terry M
2 years ago

“I’m not a free speech absolutist. There is a point at which a proven risk of serious violence is a legitimate reason to restrict speech.”
An enemy of free speech is an enemy of the people.

Adrian Maxwell
Adrian Maxwell
1 year ago
Reply to  Terry M

Im not sure if you condemning the author for accepting some limitation on free speech. My own view is that a society ought not to allow completely unrestrained speech, it obviously being dangerous to do so. I would replace the word ‘violence’ with ‘injury’. This follows the very simple English common law dictum that one cannot mischievously shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre. If one accepts the very good sense of that rule one accepts some limit on free speech. However, I do accept that once a concession is made to limit speech the floodgates open and erosion starts. That is the rub.

Last edited 1 year ago by Adrian Maxwell