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Blame in Norway; or, If You Can’t Say Anything Nice (or Accurate), Media, Don’t Say Anything at All

July 27, 2011

There are a lot of areas in life where equal opportunity doesn’t exist—depending, of course, on your definitions of “equal” and “opportunity.” (And also “is.”) Well, the media descriptions of Anders Behring Breivik, charged with the recent bombing and shootings in Norway, should be making people wonder if their personal definitions of “terrorist” should be on that list, too.

It’s the psychological corollary of “Where were you when you first heard about the terrorist attacks in Norway?” In other words: “What kind of associations do you think of when someone says ‘terrorist’?” Osama bin Laden? Ku Klux Klan? Timothy McVeigh? How equal opportunity is your mental picture of a terrorist?

These associations matter because they influence how we talk and subsequently think about the people involved in these attacks, whether they’re perpetrators or direct or indirect victims. It’s the common associations of Islam and terrorism that many people have (at least in the West, perhaps especially in the United States) that led multiple media sources to blame jihadists and/or Al-Qaeda terrorists for the attacks in initial reports:

Quite the cross-section of media sources, isn’t it? Although stereotypes and prototypes can be helpful when making decisions (cf. Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking), one would think that the sensitive state of the international political climate would make someone think twice before calling someone a variation of jihadist, Muslim terrorist, or just terrorist, period.

(Unless you point out that the average person’s attention span is far shorter than the 24-hour news cycle, in which case, touché.)

Even without these media quotes, we can still reverse-engineer who was initially blamed for the attacks in Norway because of the way that the media are now describing Breivik. Anders Behring Breivik is now being described as a “Christian,” a “Christian fundamentalist,” a “domestic terrorist,” a “Christian terrorist,” a “non-Muslim terrorist,” and an “anti-Muslim terrorist.” Underneath these descriptions lie many of the same initial associations of Islam, terrorism, and foreignness that were voiced explicitly in The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. When was the last time you heard someone talk about an “international terrorist”?

With thanks to Kenneth Burke for writing Permanence and Change, it’s important to remember that a way of seeing is a way of not seeing. In this case, the way you see the world—and talk about it—means that you’re not seeing the world and talking about it in other ways and other words. Burke continues that “a focus upon object A involves a neglect of object B.” But that doesn’t mean that our focus on our own comfortable worldview needs to be absolute. Sticks and stones—and bombs and guns—may do far worse than break bones, and so can words… especially when the words we use turn out to be woefully inaccurate.


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