When The Guardian columnist Owen Jones stormed off a Sky News set earlier this week, the internet erupted in applause at his brave statement. Jones was infuriated that hosts would not define the Orlando massacre as an act of homophobia. He argued it would have been anti-sematic if it had occurred in a Synagogue. But the broadcasters refused to back down, claiming it was an attack on Western freedom. After all, the Paris attacks in November were not termed an assault on the French.
Jones was careful in selecting his words to describe the gunman. He refused to call him a Muslim extremist in order to avoid Islamophobia. And as news reports can now confirm, the shooter, Omar Mateen, was at the very least mentally ill. The attack had no relevance to ISIS. But in a paranoid and twisted era, it has become commonplace to lay blame for all hate crimes with Islamic fundamentalism.
Freedom of religion
The wider debate has aroused a sad observation of the mainstream media’s coverage of religion. People who follow religion are treated with suspicion that their minds are warped. Yet mental illness has absolutely nothing to do with belief systems. Extremists merely latch on to religion, or other ideologies, to excuse their behavior. It is never a reflection of the true values of that ideology.
It may be easy to find passages from the Bible or the Quran that incite violence. But most religious people are bound by their faith, which is distinct from religion. Faith is belief in a greater good and it evokes a certain humility whereby people accept their limitations. Often innate, faith is a way of making sense of the world – and a way of holding ourselves to account. It is usually expressed through religion. And religion is no explanation for violent lunacy.
There are no words
The crucial problem with reporting has always been the constraint of language. English, French, German, Arabic; it doesn’t matter. Words are insufficient to describe human behavior. In a scramble to explain the world, we rationalize atrocities through labels such as ‘homophobic’, ‘Muslim’, ‘extremism’. But labels are divisive. They serve only to create barriers; to suggest that human experiences cannot be shared because they only occur in tribal binaries. Yet although experiences do differ, the outcomes are ultimately the same: pain, grief, fear, joy, elation, and so on.
Language is our most powerful tool for communication. It is unavoidable. But it is also fundamental for manipulation. When Jones sought to define the Orlando shooting as homophobic, while rebuffing claims of Islamic extremism, he contradicted himself. Not in the point he was trying to make, but in the way he made it. His actions were evocative of Marshall McLuhan’s claim that “the medium is the message”. Jones was unable to make a cohesive argument because the only tools at his disposal were words. And words are inadequate to describe our world.
Unfortunately, atrocities like the Orlando massacre are giving US presidential nominee Donald Trump a huge help in his election campaign. This man is no idiot. He is a master of language, never missing an opportunity to turn a tragedy into an emotive speech. And those hate-filled speeches tap into many American’s most deep-rooted fears. They are enabling Trump to convince the electorate that he will be a strong, responsible leader. He knows the only power greater than office is words.
And a US led by Trump is a scary prospect for the rest of the world. The EU is already on the edge of destabilization. Brexit, the rise of far-right nationalism, and the migrant crisis, are all working against the survival of the bloc. And a weaker Europe will be less well-equipped to help refugees and developing countries reliant on aid. It will also strengthen Russia and China, which are testing the borders of surrounding regions.
As societies, voters, and individuals, we need to truly consider the effect our opinions have on policy. It is easy to sit back and claim politicians only act in their own interests. But if their real motive is to retain power, they must carry out the wishes of the largest group of voters. Hence why British prime minister David Cameron promised a referendum on EU membership despite his concerns. As electorates, we are accountable for our politicians’ actions.
We need to be mindful of the manipulation of the media, and of the inherent insufficiency of language. Remember that if we strip away cultural nuances, humans are very much the same the world over. People are not mere words or labels. They are blood and bones; the only reason for living. So when we vote, or fail to vote, we are – even on some small scale – taking their futures into our hands, as well as our own.
Thus, we must take time to formulate our opinions and not be blinded by emotive rationalism. If not for ourselves – for the people we love.