Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Stopping the Violence at Home and Abroad: The Power of our Words in Today’s Media-Driven World

Over the summer of 2014, even a passing glance at news outlets would reveal the particularly troubling state of today’s world. The media portrait that has been constructed is one of fast-growing monstrosity, whether it is based in Gaza, Iraq, Syria, or as close to home as Ferguson, Missouri. Countless politicians and political analysts have appeared on CNN and elsewhere, either calling for the President to act more forcefully in navigating these complex situations, or heralding his political strategies as brilliant and preservative of everything we the people hold dear.

I by no means intend to spend my words proffering yet another assertion about what is right in any of these current crises, for as with any binarized statement, the process of heralding one faction as right while the other as completely wrong collapses under any amount of pressure. I am also unwilling to again assert the White House as a scapegoat for the violence unfolding in the world today. Rather, I intend to highlight a troubling tendency I have found not just on the news, but also among my own conversations with friends and formidable opponents concerning the progression of these various events. There is a part each of us can play in stopping the violence at home and abroad, awareness and a desire to understand rather than retaliate crucial to the healing of this broken world in which we live.  

This morning on CNN, Republican congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida appeared on News Room to discuss and analyze the role of the President and Congress in the current conflict with ISIS. While her interview was frustrating on numerous levels, what I found most unnerving was her repetitive use of the word “cancer” to describe this radical organization, asserting that excessive force must be unleashed as soon as possible in order to eradicate this disease from the world. The image of a detrimental and violent plague spreading to infiltrate our own country was accomplished fully by juxtaposing her interview with a story about the San Diego native revealed to be a sympathizer of ISIS. Thus, thousands of humans are dehumanized and equated with a disease to be eradicated, and yet another person of color is portrayed as a violent threat on national media. Two birds, one stone.

The repetition of her phrase was obviously planned, as nobody repeats a phrase 6+ times unless they meant to say it. My question is why she felt it would be so powerful to make this parallel, and so important that people remember it that she repeat it as many times as she did. I think the answer is rather obvious, and is similar to the reason the host of the program referred to ISIS as savage at the beginning of the hour. These words function as a means of dehumanizing the Other, placing blanket assertions of inhumanity and evil over large groups of disadvantaged people as a means of justifying more and more retaliatory violence.

I want to be clear. I am not in any way attempting to justify brutal murder, threats of terrorist action, or compulsory religious compliance. I do however want to be sure we all realize what we are doing when we use the language we do, and the effect it has on the people towards which we direct it.

I recently learned of an initiative through the EU to deport individuals particularly of Iraqi or Afghani origin, titled the European Return Platform for Unaccompanied Minors. This legislation, masked in rhetoric of family reunion and reaffirming asylum programs in countries like Norway, Sweden, the UK, and the Netherlands,  has been examined by many academics who argue that its true intentions are much more sinister. Though the programs mandates shelter for those that are sent home, and professes to find their families when they arrive, the implementation of these goals is much easier said than done, and many children and young adults find themselves forced into militant groups when they are forced to return home and their families are nowhere to be found.  Are these people evil, equitable to a cancer we must eradicate with any force necessary? Certainly if they are, it is a cancer of our own making. The very people we send away, who become too much of an economic burden to help, those are the ones who later appear on our news programs and who must be destroyed.

My point is simple, though sometimes, easier said than done. The nameless individuals towards whom we are directing our blind hatred are humans too, and the popular narrative of dehumanization and mass criminalization are just as detrimental to the well-being of these people as the bombs we are dropping on their homes. When we equate people to diseases and monsters, it makes it that much easier for us to forget to be empathetic, to harden our hearts to the very thing that binds us all together in the first place. It makes it easy for us to deport children back the violent countries they fought so hard to escape, to assume just because they share the brown skin of the extremist leaders we so fear that they must also be evil. Yet every time we do this, we put another life at risk.

Luckily for us, the world is changing. Social media provides the opportunity for an alternate narrative to surface. Movements like Humans of New York, and the countless news outlets that publish the images and stories of the people caught in the middle of distant political power struggles, do the hard work of illuminating the faces and the stories that populate the stereotypes to which we cling, revealing the way their stories contrast with the popular narrative.

It is up to each of us as members of the world community to consider the impact of the things we say about others before we voice them. It is up to us to let go of fear and anger and remember our common humanity, understanding that disadvantaged and desperate people are often driven to great and sometimes terrible acts of desperation. It is up to us to do the hard work of understanding others, of learning their stories and perhaps acknowledging our implicit part in them before we condemn them to death.

One act of violence does not justify another, and suppressing the anger of the world with more violence is a temporary solution that will not lead to long-term healing.


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