The Bullying Pulpit: The Audience Effects of a Partisan Character-Attacking Speaker

Amy Schumacher-Rutherford, Ashley Muddiman


Campus speakers, and the protests against them, have sparked debate in the U.S. about declining support for free speech. Yet, the content of such speeches has largely been ignored. Do audiences want to shut down a speaker because that speaker holds a disagreeable position, or is it the way in which that position is conveyed? That is, does disagreement generally or only difference delivered with animus—in this case, with character attacks—drive audiences toward retaliatory action? To answer, we draw from Kenneth Burke’s theory of identification to investigate how audiences react to political rhetoric when they encounter character attacks against the political party with which they affiliate. We propose that the very character attacks a speaker uses to achieve identification with a target audience can also cause disidentification that engenders an oppositional audience poised to act against the speaker – in this case, to restrict the speaker’s right to speak. We expect that espousing a different opinion absent character attacks will not have this effect, but we do anticipate differential effects based on the type of character attack. For this, we turn to Burke’s approach to framing to determine whether character attacks presenting one’s in-group party as foolish (comic frame) rather than traitorous (tragic frame) have distinct effects on the audience. We conduct an online survey experiment of U.S. residents to test whether the two types of attacks, compared to arguments that use identification strategies, decrease support for expressive rights in the context of a college campus speech. Our results indicate that character attacks increase the likelihood that participants attribute malevolence to the outgroup political party, which then decreases their support for a speaker’s right to speak. Both comic and tragic attacks lead to the same outcomes. Optimistically, civilly disagreeable speeches that use identification strategies prompt normatively beneficial outcomes, suggesting that not all disagreeable content decreases free speech support. Conversely, character attacks prompt disidentification that leads to retaliatory action. These findings indicate that audiences’ free speech support may be more dependent on a speaker’s use of character attacks than their issue content.


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ISSN: ISSN 2398-5836

Copyright (c) 2021 Amy Schumacher-Rutherfored, Ashley Muddiman