Offensive generalisations which are becoming normalised with the increasing amount of public advert campaigns must be challenged
Even though I’m just the wrong side of 30, I clearly remember being told, when I was younger, that religion and politics were personal matters and not to be discussed in polite company as all it ever did was offer grounds for debate and bias. Such subjects were considered taboo, and steering clear of them would leave most meetings more civil.
I cannot for the life of me remember adverts of a hugely political nature (save for election campaign items) working their way onto television let alone into the public space. Whether the memories are simply hazy, or it’s because I was too ignorant to notice, I was under the illusion that most people agreed with the ‘it’s a private matter’ point of view. The last decade has truly shown that is no longer the case.
The recent San Francisco bus ads implying every Muslim is a ‘savage’ and Israelis are ‘civilized‘ – and yes it does, for some reason, split the implication on religion versus nationality – is the latest in a long line of bus adverts to discuss things that were once taboo: the Dawkins inspired atheism ads, ‘There probably is no God, so stop worrying and enjoy your life’; the Ahmadiya’s Islamic ads, ‘Muslims for loyalty, freedom and peace’, and Stonewall’s, ‘Some people are gay, get over it.’
While all the latter mentioned adopt an explanatory position, having such things in the public eye creates a space for someone to take things further, as anti-Muslim writer Pamela Geller has done. Her advert on San Francisco buses is not simply attempting to stand for her chosen political stance – it also needlessly demeans an entire religion of 1.5 billion people globally. Now the bar has been raised to this level I can only imagine… what next? From the vicious to the ridiculous, various groups all over will start displaying whatever they like, wherever they like, simply because they can afford to.
One might argue such action is within our rights, as part of our ‘freedom of speech’, but I struggle to see the social benefit in an increasingly multi-cultural world for such obvious racism. Items such as this were generally reserved for placards on marches or secret societies – permanent, full-on, public admission was far from the norm, except of course for times when we were in official or ideological ‘wars’, such as anti-Nazi items in Britain in WW2 and vice versa, and anti-American propaganda during the Cold War in Russia and vice versa. So are we to take it then that such items come about because individuals may see themselves being at ‘war’ with certain items of their choosing?
Geller’s writing would indicate so, but I believe the real reason for such measures is the ever-growing sense of ‘rights’ that we have. Prior to the internet we would only voice such opinions in a public space and would have to debate them to give them any traction. Nowadays when one Facebook post for a cause can have hundreds of positive responses in seconds and blogs where a person can air whatever they like and find a following of strangers in minutes, ideas can gain traction at a rate never before witnessed. What follows becomes the natural affirmation of some ideas simply because they exist and are supported, not necessarily because they have any moral standing – but in our postmodern world, the idea of what is morally agreed upon is nowhere near as widely accepted as it once was.
A bigger problem with all adverts of such nature is that they take huge complex, personal, far-reaching issues and boil them down into permanent slogans that can never represent any more than a sliver of the issue at hand and yet pass themselves off as some kind of conclusion. Debate, discussion and critique, the cornerstones of so much of what we pride ourselves of in a democracy, becomes as irrelevant as the taboos they once discussed and we end up with tweet-like-truths, canonized into our culture’s public sphere by the simple fact that someone was willing to put money into publishing them.
We should champion causes for sure, but if we resort to racism (and Geller could easily have championed Israel without insulting Muslims), and allow it to become acceptable in adverts, we could simply be following in the steps of what ultimately caused the vilification of so many groups throughout time: Jews, Muslims, Protestants, gays, Tutsis, Sikhs, women, Catholics, Aboriginals, blacks and Japanese. This one is also coming to us under the guise of ‘freedom of speech’.
The only thing history has taught us about this hate is that while we may be in the position to hate and discriminate now, all it does is eventually bring the hate back on us. Indeed, Martin Niemoller’s words are as relevant now as when he said them in the face of intellectual apathy toward the vilification of the Jews in the infant Nazi state:
‘First they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.
Then they came for the unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak out for me.’
If we leave such adverts unchallenged and allow what history has shown us to follow, we can substitute any of the groups mentioned for ‘Muslims’ and have a 2020 version of this poem; and if we continue to ignore what follows, we can sit back and watch history wind its way round to a version of the poem including whatever it is we hold dear – and all we’ll have done is prove we’ve learnt nothing from the endless lessons on offer, and ultimately leave our children to suffer from our apathy.
Image from: http://spencerwatch.com/
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