Talk is one of the most concrete manifestations of how adherents of an extremist movement communicate their culture to each other and the general public.1
The words extremists speak and write is often understood as a proxy for behavior. The content of violent talk, however, can be highly misleading, especially if there is an assumption that a straightforward one-to-one relationship exists between words and action or even between words and meaning. In some cases, talk involves “figures of speech” (Drew and Holt 1998
), where extremists rely on dramatic phrases to express emotions or a general frame of mind. The figurative dimension of talk highlights the degree to which words are symbolic and stand in contrast to viewing talk as a transparent indicator of future behavior. However, there has been little effort to use symbolic interactionism to examine the potential disjuncture between talk and action among extremists (for exception see Mitchell 2003
). Moreover, although a large literature examines the structure and content of fascist discourse (Billig 1978
; Falasca-Zamponi 1997
; Wodak and Richardson 2013
), informal conversations among extremists have received only episodic attention especially since most studies of extremism does not include this type of data. Considering this, we ask the following: what is the relationship between violent talk and extremist culture? More specifically, we focus on the contemporary US white supremacist movement (WSM) to explore how members express violent talk across different spatial locations.
The goal of this study is to emphasize the importance of “violent talk” as a form of action that provides actors with a sense of doing (Berger and Luckmann 1966
) and an opportunity to express the frustrations and anger that typically characterize an extremist identity. By violent talk, we refer to utterances by extremists who express an ideology and invoke the use of violence as part of those expressions. Violent talk can occur during informal face-to-face discussions as well as through virtual conversations on platforms like Facebook
and, more recently, Telegram
. We view violent talk as part of a performance that provides actors with an opportunity to achieve consistency between ideas and behavior (Blumer 1969
; Goffman 1959
). In this sense, the effects of violent talk are indeterminate. In one sense, violent talk can reinforce the value of violence and its importance as a cultural and political practice. From this perspective, violent talk is central to the subculture of violence which increases the likelihood of its use. In another sense, however, violent talk can serve as a “stand in” or substitute for violent behavior. The indeterminacy of violent talk is one of the most important findings of this study.
Our analysis is grounded primarily in the ethnographic data we collected on a variety of white supremacist activists since 1997. Theoretically, the analysis draws from a tradition of symbolic interactionist research focused on the interactive qualities of talk (Garfinkel 1967
). In particular, we employ theoretical and empirical insights from interactionist research that distinguishes between “sentiments and acts” (Deutscher et al. 1993
; Festinger 1964
) as well as “identity talk” (Hunt and Benford 1994
; Lichterman 1999
; Snow and Anderson 1987
), which is devoted to understanding how actors use talk to communicate a particular worldview and manage different aspects of their identity. Identity talk is especially crucial for actors managing a stigmatized identity. In the next sections, we provide an overview of contemporary right-wing extremism with specific focus on white supremacist extremism in the US, followed by an examination of the relationship between talk and violence.
Our analysis is grounded primarily in the ethnographic data we collected on a variety of white supremacist activists and groups between 1997 and present. We used a multi-method approach (Snow and Anderson 1993
), which included participant observation in a variety of settings and one to three hour in-depth face-to-face and telephone interviews with 56 WSM activists. Of the 56 interviewees, 40 were with male activists, and 16 were with female activists. The activists’ ages ranged from 15–25 years (n = 7), 26–35 years (n = 26), 36–45 years (n = 8), 46–55 years (n = 9), and 55 and over (n = 6). Of those, 14 were movement leaders, and 42 were rank-and-file activists. We conducted 39 follow-up interviews with the primary movement contacts, for a total of 95 interviews. We also performed a content analysis of WSM texts such as newsletters, websites, Internet discussion groups, and radio broadcasts.
We conducted ethnographic fieldwork with Christian Identity members in Utah and Arizona, Aryan Nations members in Idaho, and a variety of white supremacists in Southern California, including significant leaders such as Tom Metzger (founder of White Aryan Resistance). The range of events observed in Utah and Arizona included 23 house visits lasting from one to three days and various social gatherings such as parties, music concerts, court hearings, and leisure activities (e.g., hikes). We also conducted fieldwork at Aryan Nations’ former headquarters on four different occasions for three to five days in length, which provided opportunities to observe three Aryan Nations World Congresses and more informal gatherings (e.g., a wedding, prayer services, press conferences). Finally, fieldwork in Southern California included observations of various social gatherings and 22 visits in white supremacists’ homes ranging from two days to five weeks. Participant observation in these settings allowed for, among other things, an examination into the structure and content of violent talk exchanged during informal conversations among extremists and the role violent talk plays in terms of constructing and sustaining collective identity.
We selected interview subjects through snowball and purposive sampling strategies, which enabled us to access a wide range of activists, networks, and groups within the WSM. The sample included members of networks active in 18 states.2
Specific organizations represented include White Aryan Resistance, Aryan Nations (AN), and local branches of AN, Hammerskins, National Alliance, Ku Klux Klan, and various smaller white supremacist groups.3
Our interviews focused on the types of activism individuals had engaged in, the movement strategies advocated within and across the groups, and the meanings activists attached to various types of movement participation. Participant observation and interviewing allowed for the close examination of a wide range of political activism, which is not available through sole reliance on secondary sources and movement propaganda (Blee 1996
). We also analyzed secondary sources for evidence that would either corroborate or contradict the insights about the movement we gleaned through primary interviews and observational data. Our multi-method approach allowed for triangulation across an array of data (Denzin 1978
We analyzed the ethnographic data gathered through our content analysis using a modified grounded theory approach (Charmaz 2006
; see also Berg 2007
), which allows researchers to combine a more open-ended, inductive approach while also relying on existing literature and frameworks to guide the research. The initial data coding began by reading entire interview transcripts line-by-line to determine differences and similarities within and across the sample. Inductive codes emerged from the initial phase of line by line analysis (Lofland et al. 2006
). Deductive codes were extracted from scholarly literature on talk, identity, violence, and related topics. After the initial codes were developed, we compared and contrasted themes, noting relations between first-level data and more general categories (Glaser and Strauss 1967
; Miles and Huberman 1994
Several limitations of this study are important to mention. First, we encountered methodological difficulties that we mainly attribute to WSM members’ preference for secrecy and, at times, for illegal activity. We relied on non-probability sampling due to the hidden character of the population (see Heckathorn 1997
). Entry into the movement’s groups is difficult, and we obtained many of our interviewees through an introduction by our initial movement contacts. Also, as the WSM appears to be diversely structured with multiple centers and levels of activism, generalizations about the movement will remain modest and tentative.
The current study relied on ethnographic fieldwork with North American-based white supremacists to better understand the culture of violent talk. Overall, our investigation reveals that violent talk is pervasive across all types of white supremacist free spaces and functions as a rhetorical device that provides individuals with a sense of doing and an opportunity to express their frustrations and anger. While offensive and disturbing, these discussions do not necessarily involve a direct correspondence between a person’s words and future behavior. Rather, violent talk often involved “figures of speech” (Drew and Holt 1998
), where individuals relied on fantasy-driven narratives and dramatic phrases to express emotions and achieve consistency between their personal and collective identities.
Based on our ethnographic evidence, the pervasiveness of violent talk is substantial, but what does this pervasiveness signal in terms of its importance? Some observers might contend that the ubiquity of violent talk suggests it is irrelevant and that all this talk amounts to is nothing more than hyperbole. Another quite different perspective offers that violent talk is important because it provides a clear indication of threat potential. Both perspectives are problematic and suffer from a lack of nuance. Violent talk is an important window into a person or group’s worldview (Blumer 1969
) and can enhance the likelihood and success of implementation. Violent talk helps enculturate individuals through socialization processes by communicating values and norms. In turn, these values and norms are part of a process where in-group and out-group boundaries are established, potential targets for violence are identified and dehumanized, violent tactics are shared, and violent individuals and groups are designated as sacred (e.g., referring to individuals like Tim McVeigh, who committed the Oklahoma City bombing as a “martyr” or bestowing other violent perpetrators with titles such as “Saint” or “Sir”). In short, violent talk clearly plays an important role in terms of fomenting actual violence, but there is, nonetheless, an important distinction between talking and doing that can be overlooked when the words are as offensive as the ones we have described in this paper.
While talk provides actors with a cultural roadmap and observers with important cultural traces (Geertz 1973
), talk cannot always be taken literally. For example, Goffman
) distinction between “frontstage” and “backstage” behavior suggests that an inconsistency between what people say and what people do is a defining feature of various social roles and institutional spheres. Since extremism, like all social roles, is a performance (Goffman 1959
), successfully accomplishing the role of extremist may require the actor to engage in certain levels of violent talk. As such, talk becomes part of the performance as actors exchange extreme statements with an invisible “wink and nod,” signifying that the words are not always meant as literal expressions of future behavior. In this way, talk is strategic in an interactive sense but not necessarily a clear indication of plans for future violence. If a person defines violent talk as performance, then talk may provide consistency between thought and action often desired. In other words, if an actor views talk as a form of action, this may provide the necessary satisfaction to make further action unnecessary (i.e., talk is enough).
In addition to the performative nature of violent talk, these exchanges reveal important “therapeutic” markers useful for understanding the mindset and social landscape of the WSM and extremism more broadly. Paradoxically, in some cases, violent talk may decrease the likelihood of violence by providing extremists an opportunity to vent grievances. In some instances, the response to violent talk among white supremacists resembles a form of catharsis (Da Cunha and Orlikowski 2008
Although violent talk may not be therapeutic in the clinical sense, in certain situations (and for certain individuals), violent talk may generate responses such as laughter, which provide a sense of relief. As such, violent talk may act as a “stand-in” or substitute that allows white supremacists to express frustrations among themselves rather than through overt acts of violence against their perceived enemies. The moderating impact of violent talk, however, begs a related question: how long does violent talk as a cathartic release satisfy an extremist? There may exist a threshold in which people no longer feel satisfied and begin to redefine venting as “inaction” or not enough action. In this sense, the extremist may begin to feel that “talk is cheap” and it is time to “walk the walk” and, thus, align his/her behavior in a way that is consistent with violent talk.
While our findings emphasized similarities in violent talk across different social-spatial locations, future research should attend to differences that may be present in the nature of violent talk over time. This is especially relevant to the type of violent talk found on various social media platforms such as 4Chan and Telegram and whether the violent talk on these platforms differs from earlier platforms like White Revolution and Stormfront. Much of the violent talk on these earlier platforms possessed a fantasy-driven quality, and, thus, it is important for additional studies to examine whether violent talk on newer digital platforms has retained this quality or assumed a more literal and practical quality.
The final point raises an interesting question: Are relatively higher levels of violent talk an indication of a lower level of threat as opposed to a higher one? There is precedent in the threat assessment literature that lends support to this possibility. For example, there is a common distinction between “hunters” and “howlers,” where the former includes individuals who intend to harm other people while the latter applies to individuals seeking attention (Calhoun and Weston 2008
). In addition, a Secret Service study conducted by Borum et al.
) suggests individuals who make threats are not necessarily the individuals who pose the greatest risk and, in some cases, individuals who resort to violence do so without previously making direct threats. From this perspective, less talk may suggest the person is more comfortable with their role as an extremist and thus more inclined toward planned acts of violence. Interestingly, this hypothesis echoes the common folk wisdom that it is “always the quiet ones.”
The distinction between violent talk and action has important implications for homeland security and threat assessment professionals. Specifically, there is an important distinction between understanding the cultural significance of violent talk and using violent talk as a reliable indicator of threat. The idea of evaluating and predicting threats is an age-old consideration. From an evolutionary perspective, human survival demands the assessment of threat (Flannelly et al. 2007
). In an age where terrorism generates the level of concern that it does today, threat assessment considerations have taken on an even greater prominence (Clemmow et al. 2020
; Logan and Lloyd 2019
). In the United States, for example, an entire industry of threat assessment offers advice to employers, schools, and a variety of other social institutions about detecting potential perpetrators (Mueller 2010
). In response to 9/11 and concerns over homegrown violent jihadis, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other law enforcement agencies have aggressively monitored and searched for indicators of threat among “splinter cells” and “lone wolves.” Violent talk observed or reported either in person or online is used, in some cases, as “red flags” and receives additional scrutiny from law enforcement authorities. When violent talk is perceived to constitute an indication of an ongoing threat to commit violence, law enforcement may approach the person(s) and attempt to entice further radicalization by offering explosives or weapons and suggesting plots to commit violence.
In some cases, the “agent provocateurs” (Marx 1974
) walk a fine line between legal investigation and entrapment. What is more clear, however, is that agent provocateurs have wide latitude in performing their role and use this discretion to interpret violent talk in ways that confirm investigative assumptions regarding potential threats as well as engage in radical behavior designed to accelerate the threat of suspects who are under investigation (Aaronson 2013
; McCulloch and Wilson 2016
). When talk is used as a threat indicator, however, the spontaneity of talk is often glossed over. The dynamic emergence of violent talk challenges the logic of prediction which underscores its limit as a reliable marker of threat. At the same time, while violent talk may erode civic discourse, repressive responses to violent talk threaten civil liberties and undermine American constitutional protections.