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April 23, 2012 | by  | in Features |
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Hate is in the Air

How the media gives bigots a voice.

Let’s play pretend for a little bit. I am a racist. I am in a racist club and do a racist job and go out with my racist family on the weekend to be racist. Sometime I like to sit in a dark room with no windows and just think racist thoughts and smile to myself. One day, I decide that I am going to write an article in a national newspaper about how people that don’t look like me are not as great as I am.

Something in the system, however, will stop me. It might be a preventative law, or the policy of the newspaper, or it might just be someone saying “hey bro. Stop being so racist.” In New Zealand many of us assume that we have a mass media which do their job in the appropriate way. After all, we aren’t Americans. When we look at America we see the crazies on FOX, with their unsavoury fixation on female genitalia and with how you’re having sex, and their fondness for crinkly old white men, we think how much better things are over here. Is that true, though?

When someone does express an overtly nasty opinion in the media here, we are usually quick to pounce. For example, let’s look at Rosemary McLeod’s essay, ‘Why I feel for the kids of the ego-trippers’ published in the Dominion Post in February. It doesn’t really bear summarizing, but the gist is that McLeod just really doesn’t like transgender people and thinks that she has the right to talk about it like her opinion is somehow sacred.

If I was completely unaware of her subject matter, I would imagine that transgender people were unhinged psychopaths who would mince into my living room and eat my babies. Rosemary McLeod is, of course, not an awfully influential or important person (she also apparently reeeally likes Paul Henry, but hey, no judgment. (See that, Rosemary!?)) Instead, McLeod, and those like her, are a symptom of the much more serious nastiness that pervades the media.

Think about it: what is it about that article that makes it so shocking? It’s because
it’s so obviously designed to do just that.

Its only purpose is to provoke one of two hyperbolic actions; either (1) you’re filled with righteous fury, or (2) you agree and think you’re better than transgender people and give your genitals a reassuring pat, because hey, you’re lovely and normal. As soon as people get upset, she’s done her job. McLeod writes under the feeble canopy of ‘opinion’ journalism, which is an important part of public discourse but here seems tragically anachronistic. It’s not hard to tell that she bizarrely thinks that she’s writing what her readers must feel. She is giving a voice to all those people who find transgender people and anyone not quite like themselves dreadfully anxiety-inducing. It’s like she’s writing for a time when bigoted vitriol was acceptable because it’s the ‘50s and hey, them there transgender folk are weird, y’all and them blacks should get back on the plantation.

Even if McLeod herself isn’t worth the time of day, her writing is. Wellington-based rights activist group The Queer Avengers, who staged a delightfully raucous protest in the Fairfax building, hold that “the editors of any privately-owned journal choose what to publish and what not to publish. And that in choosing to publish oppressive and hate ideology they give that ideology a certain
level of respectability and validity,” which is a succinct way of understanding why people like McLeod have to be taken seriously even if they are really completely ridiculous and have silly haircuts.

Victoria University Associate Professor of Media Studies, Tony Schirato, explains that the “way people understand the world is predicated on the way they interact with the media.” Which rings with eerie truthfulness; in many ways, the media is what teaches us how to associate with those we have no immediate experience with. “So, if there’s something in the media that naturalises a certain condition, or worse, denaturalises a certain condition, or…makes a condition seem to be less than normal and, therefore, less than valuable, then that will basically affect the way people understand the world and behave towards people.” Thanks, Tony. Way to undermine my faith in everyone.

When it comes to McLeod specifically, he is quick to point out that even if her writing were to be read by only a small number of people in Wellington, “it … is a symptom of a much larger problem, which is the way in which the media at large normalises certain gender identities and in doing so suggests that people who don’t fit into these categories are somehow lesser. So yes, this is important.”

Also an important consideration to make is that in many ways, there is almost no incentive for the media to encourage public debate because they have so many tools at their disposal if they want to push an agenda influenced by, say, pressure groups or corporate interests. It’s all very insidious. For instance, one group of researchers at Stanford University, headed by Professor Lera Boroditsk, performed an experiment where two groups of people were given a communal problem to solve, presented in the same way, but with the descriptive metaphors changed slightly for each one. The first described the problem as a ‘beast’ ravaging a town whilst the other described it as a ‘virus’. The ‘beast’ group instituted increased police presence and detention centres and other hard security measures whilst the other group opted for after-school care programs and community- oriented things.

Essentially, you have almost exactly none of the control over the way you interpret things as you probably think you do (well, sort of). Spooky. This is obviously dangerous in many ways. McLeod’s article, for instance, drips with language which divorces transgender people from normality. Her sneering use of double pronouns (she/he) says to the reader; these people are not like you. They are different, and difference is scary.

McLeod’s piece is best described as a trembling boil on the surface of the media. An apologist would find this regrettable and argue that the media at large is probably fine, right? Bound by the knowledge that they’re performing an important public service they strive for the ideals of a free and fair press. Schirato argues something altogether more depressing; “the media now more or less occupies the place of the public sphere—where questions, issues and ideas are explored and discussed. What society sees as right and wrong. The media now is the only real game in town, so if anyone wants to push an issue or idea then they basically have to do it in the media. Secondly, the media is driven by… the logic of spectacle. Its foremost consideration is… how they can get people’s attention by running something. So in some ways there’s no motivation for the media to engage with the complexities of, say, gender politics. So stupidity, violence and prejudice are often the preferred sensibilities simply because more people are likely to pay attention to that.” Putting together these things basically make for a volatile cocktail of overall crapness. Because of the way the system is organised, the media can’t care about what it reports on.

It’s hard to know if there’s a happy way out of this; it seems like a completely barren and hopeless situation. Mass suicide is probably the only option. Schirato offers a slightly sunnier position, that if we observe the changes made at the legal level, rather than just in the media we can identify that progress can be made. Outright hate speech is illegal, for instance. He opines that the expansion of these issues away from purely a critique of the media towards a much more general context can see changes that regulate and protect those that need it.

Maybe, one day, we will weed out the Rosemary McLeods of the world and rejoice. Change is not going to come about because of the media because that, as a general rule, works against their own vested interests. Even a news network with a reputation for having liberal views is not functionally any different from, say, the Fuck The Poor News Network. They’re still just after numbers, because they have to be. I hate people, sometimes.

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