Friday, February 12, 2010

Language and mindsets, religion and terrorism

I've been thinking recently about the kind of traps in thinking that we can get infected with due to the nature of our modern, short-attention-span driven media and politics and the language that is used by broadcast and newspaper journalists, commentators and politicians.

I wish, for example, that people would stop using the term 'Islamist' in the context of terrorist activities. Using the word 'Islamist' as a pseudonym for 'terrorist' creates a disproportionate, tension-inducing and misleading mindset, connecting the extreme activities/beliefs of the few with a particular set of religious beliefs of a large number of people, in this case Muslims.

The meme:

Islamist = Terrorist

is a significantly destabilizing one in our society. Demonising over a billion people because of the actions of a few extremists - and statistically speaking the proportion of terrorists in the world is absolutely tiny - gets innocent people hurt. And remember if those tiny number of terrorists succeed, with the unintended aid of the media and politicians, of causing the non muslim population of the world to fear the muslim community, then the terrorists are winning. Because that is what terrorism is all about - spreading fear and consequent instability.

In the late 1980s or early 1990s, I can't remember exactly when, I was once asked by a work colleague in the aerospace industry, at a time when the 'Irish' = 'Terrorist' meme was still infecting people (and I quote):

"Why do you Irish people kill our British soldiers?"

I had known the guy, or thought I did, for several years and clearly this question had been nagging him for some time. I was sufficiently shocked and irritated that I told him that perhaps the question he should be asking, since the people of Northern Ireland were British citizens*, was "Why do British people kill British soldiers?" That wasn't at all well received but then I still proceeded to attempt to explain something of the historical tensions between Ireland and Britain and within Ireland and Northern Ireland; and that when you create a society where there are internecine tensions and fears and you provide various opposing factions with arms, then all kinds of innocent people get hurt, even by those nominally on their own side, as in the case of so called 'friendly fire'.

My questioner had absolutely no interest at all in the history lesson and got extremely angry at my complete slur on the army - how dare I suggest British soldiers would hurt each other, even by accident. He demanded that I name the names of every British soldier that had fired on or hurt a colleague. When I said that wasn't the kind of information I carried around in my head, he concluded that not only had I grossly slandered the UK's fighting forces but that I was lying and clearly an active supporter of terrorists determined to continue killing soldiers. (As it turned out there had been an incident between a couple of soldiers on the streets of Northern Ireland a few weeks prior to our conversation but I don't recall if the name of either party was released.)

Neither one of us came out of the encounter either too happy or with much credit and I don't suppose our friendship was ever the same again but when the 'certain community' = 'terrorist' meme takes hold then it can lead to all kinds of corrosive effects.

Now I generally oppose censorship and to a large degree buy into the US founding fathers concept underlying the first amendment to their constitution (gauranteeing freedom of expression) that I might disagree with what you say but nevertheless defend your right to say it. Heaven knows I've been on the receiving end of enough censorship from software filters over the past 8 years which label my blog a sex site because of the triple x in the title and the url.  But the kind of nuanced public debate envisaged by the founding fathers where 'bad' speech would be tackled head on and overcome by 'good' speech seems, sadly, not to be possible in today's world. 'Bad' simplistic memes, like 'Islamist' = 'terrorist' have just as much and sometimes more staying power than 'good' memes, such as 'most people regardless of creed, race or religion' = 'decent'.  As Deborah Lipstadt has said:

"Reasoned dialogue has a limited ability to withstand an assault by the mythic power of falsehood."

I made a hash of attempting a reasoned dialogue with my friend but we never got past his complete belief in the false idea that 'Irish people' wanted to kill British soldiers.

Much deeper dialogue is possible and indeed happens on the Internet than through conventional news and broadcast media. Witness, for example, Jack Balkin's amazing blog where, freely available, we get the kind of contempory analysis of US politics and law from the top legal scholars of the day that no news organisation in the world produces. Simplistic memes, however, also often spread more widely and faster on the Net.

Where does that leave us in the context of my specific concern over the current 'Islamist' = 'terrorist' false meme?  Well we could make a small start by simply asking responsible news organisations to stop using the word 'Islamist' as a pseudonym for 'terrorist'.  Is this censorship?  Possibly (but I don't really want to get the political correctness police on the case as that tends to lead to counterproductive backlash).  Or is it a suggestion to encourage better, more neutral, news reporting language? Is encouraging the use of better language censorship?  Perhaps but if that's what it takes to impede the spread of and begin to cure the infection of the noxious 'Islamist' = 'terrorist' meme then in this limited and very specific instance I'm for it.

* Just to clarify, people of Northern Ireland are also entitled to Irish citizenship and to hold an Irish passport.

No comments: