On a societal level, it’s easy to dismiss words, especially these days, in an age when we are faced with sources we don’t know or can’t easily check, “alternative facts,” and “fake news.” In a way, words seem cheaper than ever. For a long time, we have heard it said, “That’s just rhetoric,” especially when it comes to politics. But, in fact, words matter. Whether the U.S. President and Congress call some group in another country “freedom fighters,” “rebels” or “terrorists” suggests what our policy toward them ought to be. In other words, we need to be careful when we try to define who others are.
Even more importantly, all wars begin with words — barbs almost always precede bombs. A few examples from history can serve to remind us when we may forget the tragic roles that words and images have played:
• Attacks on Native Americans were justified with a phrase that became popular with European-Americans at the end of the 19th Century to describe Native Americans, including children: “nits make lice.”
• Nazi Germany from 1933-1945 made use of a propaganda machine cranked up to demonize Jews, gypsies, gays and other groups. But this didn’t happen instantly, and it developed with the repetition of words and images of rats until the ideas of elimination of targeted groups seemed “natural.”
• Rwanda, 1994, was where the Hutu majority slaughtered the Tutsi minority and moderate Hutus in attacks that killed 800,000 people in three months. What is less often discussed is the fact that talk radio helped to fuel the genocide by denigrating the Tutsi as “cockroaches” that needed to be exterminated.
• Jump to Iraq, 2003, where the invasion was justified by “weapons of mass destruction” that were later found not to exist. Despite the questionable evidence, it became common to denounce Iraq as well as its then-leader Saddam Hussein. The real complexity of the situation, and the fact that there were no Iraqis among the 9/11 hijackers got lost in the use of inflammatory terms.
• Today: a National Public Radio report that some older South Koreans even to this day wonder whether North Koreans might actually have horns on their heads like monsters, as some South Korean children were taught in elementary school.
Externalizing blame comes too easily to us as humans. It’s harder for us to see the moral complexities of other people or nations. It FEELS better to think: “They’re either for or against us,” “Evil or Good,” etc. Labels are tempting, and all the better if they are applied to everyone in a group without hesitation or qualification. The 1987 documentary “Faces of the Enemy” shows vividly how words and images have been used to make the unthinkable possible — expelling or destroying another group of people, that is, genocide. First, the Others are called “opponents;” then “enemies;” then less-than-human threats that must be destroyed.
Now, this does not mean that every time a message goes out into the world referring to “bad people” that great harm will be done. It’s not just the individual message, although that’s important. Even more important is that patterns of messages affect people’s psyches and shape culture, whether in a workplace, a neighborhood, a community, or a society.
An individual message, like an individual ad, may not impact us. People often respond to specific ads in surveys saying, “Well, just because I watched that ad about the latest electronic device doesn’t mean I will run out and buy one.” Certainly that’s true. But, as the 1996 documentary “The Ad and The Ego” illustrates powerfully, seeing thousands of ads can make us feel dissatisfied, like we want more, like we need something else to make our lives better. As we absorb the feeling that “we are not okay” from the sea of messages that surrounds us we learn that consumer products will make us whole.
So, what about patterns of messages about blaming other groups? If we see lots of images and hear lots of words that associate people of color with criminal behavior, as has been done over the years in some political TV ads and some TV programs in the U.S., it might not lead us to think on the street that “Hey, this person who looks different from me must be a criminal.” But a pattern of messages can cultivate fear and hate where they were not as present in our hearts and minds before. Messages of blame, fear, hate or simple distrust can multiply, making hateful policies and mass actions more imaginable, then more tolerable, and then even favorable. There can be tipping points that we might not see coming. After all, genocide and ethnic cleansing don’t just appear out of thin air.
Still, we have the enshrined right of free speech. Protecting free speech, even when any of us think the messages are unpleasant or offensive or just plain wrong, is essential to maintaining a free society. We need to protect rights of expression, including things we find reprehensible, although within the limits of reason and safety. But the issues go beyond free speech for healthy debate and civility to flourish. It takes more, especially constructive and honest speech, even about tough topics. Dialogue is hard when emotions are running high and disagreements seem impossible to bridge, but we must rise to the challenge. It doesn’t bode well when we stop talking to one another and instead just talk about one another or start throwing stones.
We must also watch for the danger signs. We may be starting down the slippery slope when opponents are seen as mad or bad or both rather than as people who are well intentioned but legitimately disagree with us. As illustrated in the historical examples, we should be alert to messages that describe The Other (who looks, acts, or speaks differently) as weird, then as potentially threatening, and then as The Enemy. It is a warning sign when groups of people or segments of the population — here or elsewhere — are seen to blame for our problems and therefore need to be stopped one way or another. When we start to wonder, even metaphorically, if other human beings have horns, we may be going down that road.
Short of demonizing other people, we should also be alarmed when positions that oppose our own are dismissed immediately as partisan or unfounded. When people stop listening to others because they’re either too sure of their own views or threatened by hearing those of others, there is no foundation for conflict resolution and cooperation, not to mention sheer co-existence.
George Cheney and Sally Planalp are residents of Moab and part-time professors of Communication at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs.