Wednesday, September 26, 2012

In Which I Write About Those Posters...

Some of you might have heard about those ads that have appeared recently across the New York subway system. After originally declining to post the ads, the MTA was forced by a court order to accept the ads and display them across the subway network earlier this week. Almost immediately the same ads were countered with stickers that marked them as “racist”. Egyptian-American activist Mona Eltahawy was subsequently arrested after an altercation with a pro-poster activist that involved a camera and spray paint.

I’m not blogging, though, about the poster, its contents, Islam, Islamophobia, or the Israel / Palestine question. I’m not even going to talk about the strategies employed by the poster posters, or the anti-poster protesters. This post, though, is about something much simpler: the language used by the protesters to counter the messages of the ads. I despise the language of the ads as much as they do – by speaking in terms of “civilised” vs. “savage” humans, the poster lobby displayed  their appallingly essentialist view that the conflicts in question can be painted very clearly in terms of a (clearly identified as Western Judeo-Christian) cultural entity as being superior to that of its more “savage” (also clearly identified as Eastern Islamic) opponents.

Notwithstanding the sheer arrogance and hubris that such cultural imperialism demonstrates, which I would hope are clearly apparent to most intelligent, rational and critical adults not living in the 18th or 19th centuries, the response to the ads are just as problematic. Posters were defaced with stickers carrying the words, “Hate Speech” and “Racism”. On Twitter, anti-poster protesters are using the hashtag ‘#ProudSavage’ to tag their tweets and register their opposition to the messaging.

But these words themselves are inadequate to address the posters, and for a number of reasons. I have no issues with the phrase, “Hate Speech” – while most provisions for the freedom of speech do not carry the guarantee that audiences of said speech have a right to not be offended, they also do not guarantee that speech that is incendiary, reactionary or designed to promote and promulgate hatred, bigotry and exclusion will not be called out.

However, tagging such hate speech as “racism” is not so straightforward, because by doing so, it makes the simple mistake of conflating religion with race, and this is a fundamental error when referring to globally prevalent faith systems like Islam that are truly multi-racial and multi-ethnic. Implying that Muslims are savages is one thing; to call it discrimination based on race is not accurate. Call it out as “anti-Muslim”, “anti-Islam”, or simply “bigotry”. But racism it is not.

There is an argument that some make – that in modern discourse, “Muslim” is often shorthand for Arab/Middle Eastern/South Asian people who are discriminated against on the basis of their colour. As a single South Asian male born in Pakistan, I have been equally subjected to the “random security checks” at US airports, and also spent a few years on a “special database” that required me to go through secondary screening every time I flew to the US, so I am sympathetic to this argument (thankfully, that changed a couple of years ago, so it’s far less traumatic to fly to New York for work these days.) However, if the point to be made is that the posters misinterpret the concept of “jihad” in Islam and reduce it to the narrow and misguided espousal of violence that terrorist groups advocate, then conflating Islam with “Arab/Middle Eastern” etc only ensures that similar errors of analysis and understanding are being made by the protesters.

Which then brings me to the hashtag, ‘#ProudSavage’, which can easily be understood as a way of appropriating the vocabulary and labels of the pro-poster lobby as a way to subvert it. Twitter is particularly good at this (only last week a similar exercise took place with the hashtag ‘#MuslimRage’, in reaction to a more than slightly ridiculous Newsweek magazine tweet.)

There is a difference, however, between the two. In the latter case, Newsweek made a sweeping generalisation, that was countered with satire (an excellent collection of which can be found here.) In the former, to refer to oneself as a ‘Proud Savage’ is akin to the appropriation of the pejorative “nigger” by the African American community and worn as a badge of pride, rather than one held with irony or sarcasm.

My problem, here, is that appropriation of the language of the “oppressor” only makes sense when the oppressed have limited resources or cultural space to develop, formulate or embrace their own. So if we were in a different century, when both sides of the poster debate did not have similar levels of access to education, media space or other communication tools, to co-opt labels would be a rational (and often only available) strategy. In today’s day, however, to do so is limiting on the part of the anti-poster lobby, because it allows the pro-poster crowd to set the parameters and framework of the debate. A far more powerful and independent response to being called “savage”, in my mind, would be to create an opposing narrative, without letting the perpetrator establish the narrative, language or tone of engagement.

So, to conclude what is probably a fairly rambling post, protest, by all means. Just be sensitive to language, vocabulary and labels. Because even though, unlike sticks and stones that will break your bones, words can enslave your mind.