I’ve been rather disappointed by much of the media reporting of the riots in Ferguson, Missouri over the last few days. Many of the UK/US media outlets have framed the story according to two main narratives. The first story arc poses the question of why the people of Ferguson are turning to violence when so much progress in race relations has been made in the last 50 yrs, the stories then cite Obama as President etc.
The second, and far more worrying, story arc starts from the premise of whether the police were justified in shooting Michael Brown, and ergo whether the protesters are acting disproportionately.
Unfortunately the violence has overshadowed the efforts of the vast majority of peaceful protestors in Ferguson. I feel that violence always allows the media to focus on the behaviours of those opposing the state rather than looking at the actions of the state. However, this piece is not to condemn the violence, but rather to try to understand it beyond the usual media narratives.
The narrative coming from the progressive media, and many of those who claim to represent the protestors is one of structural stresses leading to an inevitable need for redress / rebalance. I don’t necessarily disagree with this, but feel that we could further enrich our understanding by adding to this narrative a more psycho-linguistic frame.
Benjamin Lee Whorf and Edward Sapir demonstrated that language defines the cognitive reality of our conceptualised world (The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis). It also limits our conceptualisation of that same world. I think that an understanding of the linguistic framework used around violence in N.America and W.Europe will now help us to further understand the violence in Ferguson.
I hear some commentators argue against the ‘strain theory’ of conflict (first conceptualised by Merton), they sensibly argue that poverty is not an explanation as the vast majority of poor people do not act violently. This argument is occam-like in it’s obvious, and simplistic, veracity. However, the direction of causation inherent to this argument needs questioning, I would argue that far from poverty leading to violence poverty is the violence. The poverty endured by those in USA is a violence visited upon them by the state, socio-cultural norms and blocked opportunities. This is not to disempower the poor, nor to posit them as passive victims. I think that the lack of violent reaction by the poor is, in itself, a form of empowerment. It is far harder to try to move forward in a positive manner when you are in a state of relative disadvantage than it is to act in a negative or detrimental manner. It’s the positive actions of so many who endure poverty that is a form of empowerment.
In order to understand the violence it’s important to acknowledge the coming together of the discourse of violence in the wider media with the development of an identity of ‘other’, or marginalised. The media & state in the N.America and W.Europe increasingly use a set of ‘desensitised’ terms to describe violence, famously Noam Chomsky identified the use of the term ‘collateral damage’ to describe civilian deaths during Operation Desert Storm in 1990, we have further marked examples such as ‘friendly fire’ and ‘blue on blue’. However, it is not these extreme re-labels which are salient in the re-configuration of self, I think that it’s the incidental everyday discourse of violence and marginalisation which is influential.
Let’s start with labels, Americans are divided by a language of labels: I hear ‘African American’, ‘Asian American’, ‘Native American’ and ‘White American’ being used. There are many other labels, but I think that these are the dominant labels. So, everyone gets labelled by their ‘pre-USA origins’ except for White Americans. I know ‘Italian American’, ‘Irish American’ etc are used, but these labels are not as commonly used as ‘White American’. The language sets up a discourse of ‘other’, the permitted and the permitter.
Then look at the discourse of violence surrounding the Middle East – apparently, we are told, Israel is ‘defending itself’, whilst Hamas are ‘terrorists’. The media also tells us that Isis are ‘butchers’, and the Govt of Iraq is ‘legitimate’, Iran is a ‘theocracy’, and any national Govt that the west don’t like is a ‘regime’. I could go on.
In a study of BBC television news coverage, the Glasgow Media Group documented differences in the language used by journalists for Israelis and Palestinians. The study found that terms such as “atrocity,” “brutal murder,” “mass murder,” “savage cold blooded killing,” “lynching” and “slaughter” were used describe the death of Israelis but not for the death of Palestinians. The word “terrorist” was often used to describe Palestinians. However, in reports of an Israeli group attempting to bomb a Palestinian school members of the Israeli group were referred to as “extremists” or “vigilantes” but not as “terrorists.”
Greg Philo & Mike Berry – Bad News from Israel
I think that we can further understand the riots in Ferguson by understanding the experience of violence suffered in everyday life by those marginalised, in conjunction with the formation of their identity in a linguistic environment which neutralises the violent actions of the state whilst routinely labelling the actions of those external to the state in emotive, negative and aggressive terms. In such a situation the self develops as an externalised other for whom violence may become an acceptable form of self expression, as best modeled by those we are told to respect.
I could add to this post a section on Neuro-linguistic Programming, and a section on mirror neurons, but I think it’s long enough already !