This post was originally published on Tangents USA. You can find it here.
The Need for Media Literacy
To contextualize my thoughts on the way we form our perceptions of humanity at large, I have a confession to make. I tend to watch the people through the windows of the apartments across from mine. I know that’s pretty much the definition of voyeurism, but hear me out. I do it because their mundaneness is comforting. It reminds me that what I’m seeing is a far more accurate depiction of the daily goings-on of the people in my own world and beyond. It is a relief to know that the guy cooking a quick dinner and the couple watching television are perhaps more common occurrences than the overwhelming amount of horrific events that my TV, computer, radio, and social media accounts report as the norm.
It causes me to wonder whether our worldviews and the ways that we shape our understandings of humanity have become increasingly informed by the media rather than by the daily goings-on of our own communities. We spend so much time with our faces in our phones, our eyes glued to the computer or television screen, and surrounded by ads while in transit. These things have caused a shift, a disengagement from what’s around us in lieu of this larger machine of news media and advertising eating at our attention.
In a large way, we’ve been robbed of the sheer mundaneness of daily life. We are more accustomed to the never-ending need for stimulation. Our neuron sensors have lost the flavor for the simplicity of local life in exchange for stories about the extreme, catastrophic events presented over the news. Yet for most of us, not much changes from one day to the next, or at least not much that has anything to do with these stories.
We can only process so much, and when a growing fraction of our time is spent focusing on these messages, our perceptions begin to change. In place of the value judgments we make about the small scale daily events occurring around us, we are informed through the eye of the media, and this is increasingly dangerous. The pervasion of media into our lives is only getting more intimate. Therefore, we need to learn some media literacy skills. We aren’t as inclined to actively question what gets elevated into the limelight because there is so much coming our way all the time. It’s hard to separate fact from hyperbole and not to let the news and advertising do our thinking for us.
To break down the messages coming our way, we must consider who decides which stories are worth telling and how they are told. I am particularly concerned about this in the months following the terrorist attacks in Paris and the other major events involving terrorism that have shown up in the news since then.
This article is written from the perspective of an American, but it would be mistake for citizens from other nations to see themselves as exempt from these critiques. It would be erroneous to automatically assume that your politicians are more candid and that your news media outlets are innately less biased.
Politicizing the Term “Terrorism”
No one condones ‘terrorism,’ but what constitutes as terrorism in the first place, anyway? In other words, when do violent acts that terrorize people actually count as terrorism? We are bombarded with accounts of violence on the news so often that they begin to blend together. We are desensitized to some, but terrorized by others. That is because those charged with creating the vast majority of the media we consume use a tactic called framing. In the past month, we’ve seen this happen in multiple high profile news stories. Each of them illustrates the way that terrorism gets framed around social others to maintain existing hierarchies within society.
1. On New Year’s Eve, my hometown, Rochester, NY, made national headlines because of an alleged ISIS terror plot that had been foiled. We saw the perpetrator’s photo plastered on national news media outlets. Yet, upon further inspection outside the bounds of major news networks, it came to light that it was actually an FBI informant that bought the supplies for the man, who as it turns out was a mentally disturbed African American street peddler that could not afford the $40 purchase. What’s more is that, when the man began to have second thoughts about going through with the attack, the FBI informant convinced him to follow through.
This example illustrates that what is presented to us at face value is often actually sensationalized into inflammatory reporting. One reason for this is that much of the media we consume is produced with the intention of receiving as many “likes” and views as possible. Perhaps more sinister, these stories may be used to create fear in the masses in order to sway them in the direction of the agendas of those who own the media outlets.
Adam Johnson puts it eloquently in his article when he explains, “Since these cases necessarily inflate the perceived dangers of terrorism and have the ancillary impact of propping up a war effort, the burden should be stricter for editors deciding to run with the ‘terror plot’ narrative…. For the most part, however, it was simply copy-and-paste journalism that did nothing to challenge the overarching ISIS plot framing.”
2. Another event that occurred on New Years was the 500 coordinated sexual assaults in Cologne, Germany. A large part of the response was anti-refugee because it was reported that the many perpetrators were asylum seekers from Arabic countries. Many rightwing conservatives suddenly became concerned with women’s struggle against sexual assault.
It turns out the reason German conservatives took this pro-women stance was to unite liberal and conservative voters and politicians against a proposed common enemy, the Arab refugees. The rightwing was simply using a different angle to enact xenophobic tactics. Namely, to say “I told you so” in the face of Merkel’s choice to welcome refugees into the country. There was no emphasis put on the need to protect women by dismantling a culture of misogyny that, believe it or not, exists worldwide.
Laurie Penny puts it eloquently in her article, After Cologne We Can’t Let Bigots Steal Feminism: “It’d be great if we could take rape, sexual assault, and structural misogyny as seriously every day as we do when migrants and Muslims are involved as perpetrators. The attacks in Cologne were horrific. The responses — both by officials and by the armies of Islamophobes and xenophobes who have jumped at the chance to condemn Muslim and migrant men as savages — have also been horrific.” Let’s not forget that framing men of color as savage rapists is nothing new. Penny goes on to explain, “You know what has never yet prevented sexual violence? Unbridled racism.”
Conservatives in United States followed suit in their stances in blaming what happened in Cologne on the oppressive cultural norms of the Middle East. Yet, when a white man shot and killed three people at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado, we did not see conservatives aligning themselves with the rights and autonomy of women on our own soil. Instead, we saw the killer presented as a crazed lone wolf, and not the product of a broader culture of misogyny within our own borders. This is a trademark element of media framing. When a social other commits a violent act, the behavior is depicted as representative of the whole. When a member of the dominant faction of society, namely, white men, commit a violent act, they are portrayed as crazed lone wolves.
3. In early January, a militia began its occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. The members were gun-wielding protesters with extremist views. This was another clear instance of media framing where it became apparent that the term terrorist is not applied on an even keel. Specifically, we were not made to feel terrorized by the way mainstream news media covered the rebellion. As John McWhorter explains in his article, “Why We Don’t Call the Oregon Militia Members Terrorists,” language alone can be a powerful tool in creating fear of the other. For example, the very word terrorist is strongly linked to associations with Arab jihadists, not white men.
When mainstream media has the tendency to portray those who are not white Westerners as social others, it has a major impact on those who do identify as members of this dominant group. When we look at some of the most inflammatory American news outlets — Fox, for example — it is clear that the messages are intended to create the stirrings of fear in the hearts and minds of white America. In many cases, the intention is to create fear of social others, be it Arab, refugee, migrant worker, Mexican, African American or someone else. These messages are obviously speaking to whites, not to less advantaged groups who already experience violence and fear at the hands of the dominant groups at large.
Amidst all of this, we shouldn’t forget that state-induced violence occurs every day against marginalized members of our own population. We don’t feel as terrorized about it because it is normalized. Our empathy is fragmented along with our views about which kinds of people can commit valid acts of terror. We don’t see the same level of fear mongering from mainstream media outlets when atrocities are committed at the hands of white men. Nor did we see the National Guard mowing down the Oregon militia the way we see the police beat down Black Lives Matter protestors and rioters. Why? The Oregon militia does not call into question the foundations of the state the way that the latter does. Meanwhile, rioters protesting on behalf of the Black Lives Matter movement do get likened to terrorists.
To summarize, fear mongering at the hands of mainstream media has led society to heighten security at airports and normalize the harassment of individuals with Arab features. The same news platforms use inflammatory reporting to help justify weaponizing police against people of color in the wake of riots and so on.
In encouraging fear of ‘the other,’ the powerful can expand their reach into our lives under the guise of protection. They can chip away at our civil liberties and fragment populations who have more in common with one another than they have differences.
Today, the power-holding elites include media conglomerates, many mainstream politicians, Wall Street investors, and corporations. It is important to understand that powerful groups like these control the mainstream media. With this in mind, we can unearth the true reasoning behind such inflammatory journalism. Namely, that the power holding elites use it to manipulate the masses to fit their agendas.
What we can take away from these attempts to fill the masses with fear, however, is that these elites’ power is being threatened. In a discussion I had with sociology Professor Tom Hirschl from Cornell University, he had an interesting take on the so-called agendas of these elites and why ‘terrorism’ benefits them. He pointed out that we are reaching an increasingly pivotal point in the development of our economy. It is clear that free-market capitalism is not working, or at least that it’s working for fewer and fewer of us. In light of this, we have the potential to come together in the realization that our existing society is not functioning to its fullest, and collectively work toward reform. Those powerful few that are benefiting from the unequal status quo realize this potential and will use fear mongering to distract and divide us from a common goal.
More grimly, Hirschl thinks that the alternative to social reform is global economic depression and war. At a time where we are poised for social and multicultural movement towards a reformed society, we are simultaneously facing the realities of postindustrial capitalist society. There is growing inflation and impending lack of resources, along with jobs being replaced by automation and outsourcing. The preoccupation with the statistically unlikely event of a terrorist attack distracts us from more immediate economic threats that growing numbers of people face, such as poverty and homelessness for the middle class. In doing so, the powerful also obstruct our ability to band together and do something about it.
As for war, it is good for the economy. Specifically, our economy is significantly bound to the military. Governments need wars, and encouraging hysteria within the downtrodden populace serves that agenda beautifully. Not to mention the fact that there is oil in the Middle East, a part of the world that has long resisted Western control in the form of neoliberal capitalism.
If you really want to know what’s going on behind the smoke and mirrors, follow the money. Think about who is benefitting from the way things are being presented. We can certainly see the same occurring in other parts of the world. Arms stocks spiked in value following the Paris attacks. In France, many are now happy to forego their civil liberties in attempts to fight terrorism. It makes me wonder what will be the PATRIOT Act of this decade. Fear is a powerful tool that silences the mind in a way that makes it bend more easily. Fear keeps us from zooming out and being critical of the big picture. Not to mention that propaganda operates by appealing to our emotions.
In encouraging fear of ‘the other,’ the powerful can expand their reach into our lives under the guise of protection. They can chip away at our civil liberties and fragment populations who have more in common with one another than they have differences. In the past, poor whites turned on poor blacks during the Jim Crow era and beyond; the Germans used Jews as a scapegoat for economic chaos during WWII; and in recent times much of the Western world has turned against Muslims.
In times like these, it feels as though attempting to frame members of ISIS jihadists as anything but monsters would be an act of treason. Ironically, it would appear that shedding light on the humanity of those vulnerable to radicalization is what needs to happen in order to fight this ideological war. Fear, racism, and xenophobia on the other hand will only ensure its arrival on the horizon.
For this reason, if not for any other, I implore you to seek beyond that which is presented to you at face value. Find alternative portrayals of the Middle East and divest from mainstream media. Don’t forget to put the electronics down every once in a while and connect face-to-face with members of your own community. Engage in critical discussions and dig deeper when you find your mind muddled by fear.
For further reading, check out Judith Butler’s piece, “The Precariousness of Grievability — When Is Life Grievable?”
Cover Photo: Still Image from They Live, dir. John Carpenter (Universal, 1988),.