Language used, both by those working or featured in the media and individuals, has a huge but often unseen effect on our unconscious biases.
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, (but words can never hurt me)” is traditionally used to brush off insults but, whilst there is of course some benefit to boosting emotional resilience, the fact of the matter remains that we all know how damaging a ‘simple’ choice of words can be. In the world of the 24-hour news cycle and social media, language has become more impactful than ever, particularly when there may often be little historical context accompanying a word or phrase.
Every person is a product of their surroundings and is moulded by the entrenched norms and turns of phrase that become engrained in their minds. Language has played a particularly noticeable role in growing extremism and hate, which is precisely why the fight against extremism and hate necessitates a fight against harmful language.
For example, whilst ‘extremism’ technically refers to any generally dangerous viewpoint far from mainstream tolerant beliefs — indeed, this is how JAN Trust uses the term — research suggests that in recent years it has now evolved to carry strong connotations associated with Islam, reflective of the widespread Islamophobia in society. Only very recently has the threat of far-right extremism been truly recognised and incorporated into the idea of ‘extremism’, even though, realistically, it is hardly a new phenomenon.
An analysis of responses to violent or terrorist crimes also reflects this engrained bias. After the Atlanta shooting in which a White man murdered almost exclusively Asian women, the authorities stated that the relevance of race to the incident had not yet been determined and that the suspect “had a bad day”.
If someone says “terrorist”, the vast majority of people will likely conjure up the mental image of a brown-skinned male with facial hair. Whereas Muslims are often wrongly assumed to be a terrorist and Muslim terrorists receive a disproportionate amount of media attention, attacks committed by White individuals — particularly when on Muslim victims — that would by any other standard be a “terrorist attack” often escape that stigma and are instead referred to in terms such as “lone wolf attack”.
One way to recognise how bizarre and prejudiced popular discourse can be is to reverse the language used, by replacing majority characteristics with minority characteristics or vice versa. For example, imagine frequent misrepresentations of the Bible and Christianity, a Black police officer stopping a White person on the basis of their skin colour or subjecting them to police brutality, or suspects always being reported on — in headlines, in particular — as “White suspect” or “Christian terrorist”.
Such language, that perpetuates harmful false stereotypes, only serves to further the disinformation that fuels extremism and hate. All is, however, not lost. We can counter this disinformation with real information and tolerance. When we encounter someone repeating inappropriate language, we can gently correct and educate them in as civil a manner as can be managed. In our own daily lives, we can consciously choose open, tolerant, neutral language that does not imply any prejudice, and choose not to consume content or buy products from those that do use harmful language.
We may not have all the power, but we are not powerless against extremism and hate. Step by step, we can make society more peaceful and cohesive.
JAN Trust actively counters negative discourse against minorities, as we know all too well from the experiences of our beneficiaries — largely marginalised ethnic minority and Muslim women — that words can have devastating consequences, both in the long-term and in the short-term. Through our leading Another Way Programme™, we galvanise a whole generation of young women and girls against extremism and hate by educating them on the risks, empowering them with knowledge of the truth, and encouraging them to mount their own campaigns. To stand together in the fight against harmful discourse, please continue to follow us and donate to support our work.
Sticks and stones will break bones in the short-term, but words will hurt people for years to come.