I recently saw a t-shirt that shocked and horrified me. It was worn by a woman on a domestic U.S. flight. It was an advertisement for a website that sells rifles and pictured a view of targets as seen through a rifle scope. In the scope’s crosshairs were two men shown only in profile (all black figures, no features) at a distance. They were seated on camels, wore turbans, and held rifles. The imagery was unmistakable and the message was clear: The Middle Easterner, the Muslim, the Arab, sitting on his camel--that is our enemy. That is the personification of evil, and the appropriate response is simply to kill. How has our nation gotten to the point where people feel and express their hatred for “the other” so strongly and openly?
There are certainly precedents in history. Prior to the establishment of the National Socialist or Nazi Party, Germany was a free and open society. However, the national mood changed drastically as the Nazi propaganda machine convinced Germans that Jews and other groups were less than fully human. The case was made, and believed, that the perceived threat warranted extreme measures. These included secret prisons; the use of torture; surveillance of ordinary citizens; monitoring and infiltration of citizen groups; the subversion of the rule of law; waging war on other nation-states; and much more.
What was missing in Germany at the time was a sufficient number of people arguing against the establishment of the Jews and others as the enemy. There were not enough people willing to stand up and speak out against hate. The results were, as we know, devastating. However, there are parallels between what happened in Nazi Germany and what is happening in post-9/11 America.
In the 1930s and 1940s, a profession devoted to intercultural relations did not exist. Now the profession does exist; we identify ourselves as “interculturalists.” In addition to us, there are many others who agree in principle with the tenets and approach of our profession. Yet how many of us, and how many others who have been misinformed, have succumbed to the fever that has become so widespread since 9/11? How many in our nation have bought into the fear- and hate-mongering at least in some small way? Do we agree that the lives of “others” are not as valuable as American lives? Do we agree that the only correct response to a perceived threat is hate and violence?
The dangers of villain-izing a specific group of people are demonstrated with sparkling clarity throughout history.1 Yet clarity of thought and reasoning is missing in the stupor and fear of post-9/11 America. The idea that we are at war with an entire people is one that many Americans believe because we have been told by sources we trust.
How can we overcome this climate of fear and distrust? How can we make progress when the emotions are so strong, the lines so seemingly well drawn, and the stories so powerfully told? One way is to tell powerful stories of our own and to challenge what we are led to believe by the media and others. It is our duty, our moral and ethical imperative, to educate and inform people they do not have a reason to fear or hate people simply because they are different.
Most of us who call ourselves interculturalists work on a micro level. We help foster mutual understanding and improve interpersonal communication across cultural boundaries by working with individuals and small groups. As our profession develops, we must develop new skills at working on a macro level. We must find ways to share our body of knowledge, our experience and the collected wisdom of our field with a larger audience--to affect policy and public opinion. We must raise our profile in a way that makes us trusted sources of guidance and information for news media and decision makers.
As interculturalists, we have an ethical obligation to work for understanding and against hate--to foster open discussion and debate and demonstrate through our lives and our work, through our words and our actions, that we will not tolerate the expression or institutionalization of prejudice, hate, or bigotry. Of course we will each continue to do this on our various local levels. But we must learn to do so on national and global levels as well. For us to have this body of knowledge and wisdom--to have a passion and emotional connection to it that we feel to the core of our beings--and not have it be part of the public debate is an ethical tragedy. But it is one that we can and will make right.
1 It appears that we do not have a suitable word in English for the creation of an enemy. The meaning of the word “vilification” is limited to abusive, disparaging speech or writing and comes from a different Latin root than the word “villain.” Therefore, I use the made-up word “villain-izing.”