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Juan Williams

Image by Fairfax County Public Library via Flickr

It has become politically incorrect to voice one’s fears and anxieties publicly. Any insecurities one might have around a group of people are a social weakness and must be left unvoiced.  At least this is my take on recent events in the news.  The most glaring example is the firing of Juan Williams from NPR over expressing momentary personal anxieties he experiences when he gets on a plane with others overtly dressed as Muslims.

Keeping our fears and insecurities silent is precisely part of our problem. Where is the public forum to express openly and talk honestly about the experiences that frighten us?  When is there an opportunity to have a civil discussion about what are or are not rational fears public fears?  Dismissing and glossing over them only causes greater paranoia, I believe.

As a parent, when my children express a fear – rational or not – I want to talk with them about it. A healthy discussion with them helps me to address the difference between reality and perception.  Some fears are healthy and some are not, but telling my child they are “phobic” or dismissing them as immature will not help them.  Yet, it seems to me this is precisely the way those in government and media are attempting to treat the American people.

Anyone who expresses an anxiety or fear is labeled “phobic” – islamaphobe, homophobe, xenophobe, etc. This is intended to silence us and make us bury those fears deep within our psyche.  There is no public place to express them.  So, we do not talk about them.  We do not acknowledge our insecurities over those differences.  Instead, like the good stoic Northern Europeans we are, we are expected to get over them, move on and embrace everyone in every place regardless of how we really feel.  Don’t talk about “it.”  Don’t deal with “it.”  Hide “it.”

I do not think this is a long-term workable solution for peace and unity among humankind. Sooner or later, these unspoken fears will come out.  Precisely because they were not dealt with in a suitable manner today, their dormancy will give way to hatred towards those we fear in some tomorrow; especially in times of greater turmoil.  Consider past human actions against one another: Rwanda, European-Jewish history, American treatment of Japanese Americans during WWII, Sunnis and Muslims, Muslims and Hindus in Pakistan-India, South African Apartheid, and the Jim Crow laws of 20th century America.  The list is as endless as human history.

Our silent fears will not lie unspoken for very long. Human history has taught us that when it comes to conflict of any kind, we will bunch into “tribes” that will attack one another.  These “tribes” might not necessarily have their identity around ethnic or social affinities.  Today they are just as likely to form around ideological affinities: conservatives, liberals, socialists, capitalists, religionist, non-religionists and on the list goes into “pro-this” and “pro-that” or “anti-this” and “anti-that.”

Waterfall Above Hyas Lake, Washington State, September 2010

Waterfall Above Hyas Lake, Washington State, September 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

The greatest idea of founding American democracy was, I believe, the creation of a society where an open market place of ideas can be shared by everyone. This means that we must give voice to our differences and fears as well as our commonalities and passions.  Sure, we may even have to listen to people we disagree with on the most visceral level.  However, allowing their voices to be heard is much better for society overall than demanding it be silenced and relegated to the underground.

Giving air time in a public place for all ideas allows the larger public to determine the cogency and vitality of ideas and arguments. We need not censure the American public from them.  They will do so by themselves with thought and action.  If our ideas and ideals – political or religious – cannot stand on their own two feet in a public debate then perhaps it is time to reconsider our own position.

Vivian Schilling, the CEO of National Public Radio, and the other leaders of PRI (Public Radio International) should be ashamed of the way they handled the firing of Juan Williams. However, even more so, they need to reconsider how they treat sincere expressions of fear, anxieties and social concerns.  It is not enough to dismiss them as Vivian Schilling did with a suggestion that Juan Williams take his issues up with his psychiatrist.  There is a whole nation of people who know that twinge of fear, even if it is only momentary, when they get on a plane with people dressed as Muslims.  It is simply our current reality.

Would Juan Williams, who is himself of African-American descent, have received the similar discipline if he expressed the same fear about going into a poor African-American neighborhood with a history of drug and gang violence? Would he have been expected to not voice any fear if he had gone into a Ku Klux Klan meeting to do a reporting job?  The fact is that reporters, even NPR reporters, have a history of relaying personal impressions and expressions.  So, what makes this any different?  Oh, yeah.  It was on Fox News.  Well, that is another story.

Even in our current negative financial climate, the American people are chided for their fears. We are daily reminded that the problem is “the consumer confidence index.”  It indicates that we are fearful for the future and its uncertainty.  The expectation seems to be to overlook our fears and keep on buying and going into debt.  Until our own fears are conquered and we gain a positive consumer financial index, the economy is our fault.  Right.

Let us take the mute off of our fears and openly express them. We must not give in to our silent fears.  Instead, we are more apt to find solutions, overcome our fears and move confidently into our future side-by-side if we work together to address them.  Franklin D. Roosevelt expressed to the American people after the dark days of the beginning of The Great Depression that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”  By going on to acknowledging America’s fears he dis-empowered those fears.  Maybe he was only partially correct.  Maybe what we have to fear is our silent fears.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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