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Today’s Lethal Language MAG
Most writers in media forums seem to prize nothing more than the First Amendment. Even mentioning the word “censorship” will have them threatening legal action or referencing some type of press law center. Censorship is often associated with an extreme method of government control where “Big Brother” knows every thought and action, as in the dystopias portrayed in George Orwell's novel 1984, the 1999 film “The Matrix,” or the more recent “V for Vendetta.” But these extreme analogies are fallacies. I view freedom of speech as a valuable right; however, I also believe that the media should strive to use less inflammatory rhetoric.
There are appropriate times for certain kinds of language. One choses different vocabulary when speaking to a child, a boss, a parent, or a friend. In the same way, appropriate language must be used in media forums to show respect or promote safety. Just as casually mentioning a bomb is a bad idea around airport security, and yelling the word “fire” is not tolerated in a movie theater, certain language, when magnified through the media, can wreak havoc.
Let us take a step back and look at the rhetoric used in the media, and the consequences.
As an American with both Middle Eastern and Hispanic heritage, I know that I am viewed through the lens of certain stereotypes. When I was a child, people at times associated my Iranian background with terrorism or other extremism. Regardless of whether it was intended as a joke, I found this offensive, but I knew these ideas were media-influenced. A little more than a decade after 9/11, stereotypes about Muslims are still rampant. However, I always felt safe at school. Then an article in my high school newspaper turned my world upside down.
People often do not understand the power of words. The content of this article was not the issue; I respect everyone's right to express an opinion. However, the writer began by discussing nuclear power, quickly turning his piece into a rant of hate speech against Iranians. He compared them to Nazis, using hateful words, claiming the public should fear them. He referred to Iranians as terrorists hell-bent on an ideology of oppression and hate.
The article made my Iranian-American classmates and me very uncomfortable. It was akin to yelling “fire” in a theater when there is no fire. The use of words ignited panic, and people began to react. It only takes one person to believe that the “fire” exists for chaos to begin.
I saw students severing friendships because of the article. I saw people ripping the article out of the paper. I saw people feeling unsafe in their own high school. But this is not an isolated case of harassment created by ideas in the media.
Whether spoken or written, inflammatory rhetoric has the power to promote harassment, hostility, bullying,
and stereotyping against innocent people. I even saw a classmate driven to take his own life as a result of bullying and harassment about his sexual orientation.
Turn on the television. Read the newspaper. Go to any news source. Bullying and harassment in schools are tomorrow's tragedies. All of these crimes stem from the media. Senator Gabrielle Giffords' shooting in Tucson was linked to insensitivity in the media, as well as the fatal shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin in August 2012. Numerous hate crimes in the news were instigated by inflammatory media rhetoric. Heightened tolerance and sensitivity – especially within media – can prevent these catastrophes. There is no need for hate speech in media and news forums. There are many ways to make a point without igniting hostility and harassment against groups in our society.
I was able to create change in my high school's censorship policies by calling out the rhetoric and hate speech in our school paper. Of course, I faced resistance, and it took months before an official apology was issued. I first contacted those in charge of the publication. I used testimonies of students and the law, which was on my side. A school newspaper does not fall under the same First Amendment rights as regular publications. Unfortunately, for a while teachers were more concerned with protecting the First Amendment than shielding students from discrimination. Of course, this is not just a problem in schools; it affects the welfare of people everywhere.
Words are like seeds. A word can grow in a person's mind under the proper conditions, or it can remain dormant. Negative words can be cultivated into plants with thorns and spikes that cause innocent people pain and hardship. The media has the power and ability to plant seeds in large quantities, but with this power comes responsibility. Essentially, we reap what we sow.
No matter how different we are – in beliefs, sexual orientation, race, origin, religion, language, or values – we are all human beings. We all laugh, hurt, smile, and cry. And we all want respect. I am not asking you to alter your views and opinions, but when you write or speak, think carefully about the words you use.
Words alone do not make people commit horrible hate crimes. Inflammatory rhetoric will not always lead to negative actions. However, it only takes one person who misconstrues words to cause a disaster. Or one person to assume the minority is the majority. Or one person to take one statement or joke to an extreme. These are the kinds of tragedies we can prevent. Just because your words are protected by free speech, or you are speaking or writing without bad intent, does not make it acceptable to say something prejudicial or hateful.
It is critical to consider what type of words are appropriate depending on the audience. It comes down to a simple, logical rule that we have all heard before – and yes, it even applies to media forums: Treat others the way you want to be treated.
It's not about censorship. It's not about Big Brother. It's not about control. This is about being respectful to fellow human beings.