“I don’t know or have never seen Syrian refugees but I fear them. I have known only a couple Muslims and they were nice people but I’m uncomfortable being around them.”
That was the point of view of a man I was having a debate with on Facebook last month.
He claimed that news reporters, like myself, were responsible for creating a “paranoid society” by constantly publishing negative articles about Syrian refugees and Muslims in particular.
“Screw the press,” he wrote, referring to U.S. President Donald Trump’s ongoing war with a free press. “They are mostly responsible for creating a paranoid society. They pick and choose what nonsense they want to feed the world so it’s about time they got some back.”
It is not an entirely uncommon point of view. My profession is not, despite the boosts in circulation some American papers are experiencing courtesy of Trump’s fatuous circus of the bizarre, exactly operating at its best.
Deep cuts across all news media, from national newspapers to local outlets, have done tremendous damage to the ability of reporters to hold power to account and tell the stories in every community that need to be told.
In this weakened condition, we face increased pressure from politicians who want their spin presented to the public unfiltered and unchallenged. Part of the way they do this – with Trump and his gaggle of sycophants being the most egregious example – is to claim everything reporters write is false. Everything is “fake news” except the news you like, and press can be a whipping boy for anything you happen to find distasteful.
Like, say, refugees.
The gentleman on Facebook claimed that his fears about refugees and Muslims was not his fault, but rather the fault of reporters who pile on negative stories about them to sell more papers:
“Most of my opinions and fears come from what I read in newspapers or see on the news channels.So that being said if these papers or news channels did have an agenda we would most likely believe it. They could choose to go out and find stories on the happier beliefs in Muslim religion and tell me about them. But of course that probably wouldn’t sell Papers now would it?”
Is this even remotely true? Aside from stories about Islamists and Jihadists, most of the mainstream news coverage of refugees can hardly be labeled as “negative.” Indeed, the press sometimes errs too much on the side of accommodation, giving a free pass to Muslim clerics who say or do things that would rightly be criticized if done by, say, a Christian pastor.
Most of the recent coverage of refugees and Muslims, following Trump’s Muslim travel bans, have focused a great deal on the plight of immigrants and Muslims stranded in limbo. On the other hand, it is people like Trump, or in the Canadian context, Conservative Party leadership hopeful Kellie Leitch, that fan of the flames of xenophobia. So whatever narrative this man has found to make him that fearful of refugees, it isn’t a creation of the mainstream press.
But the root of his fear was perhaps found in something else he said:
“I am not alone in this but I don’t know or have never seen Syrian refugee but I fear them. I have known only a couple Muslims and they were nice people but I’m uncomfortable being around them.”
Think about that for a moment. Absorb it. He fears people he knows nothing about and that he has never met and have done him no wrong. He simply fears them. They represent the other, that dark shadow we all instinctively worry is out there, just out of sight, waiting to cause us harm.
This man isn’t a horrible human being. Fear is about as basic a human emotion as there is. And it takes some courage to admit one’s prejudices in so open a fashion on a platform like Facebook, where a person can be attacked like meat thrown to the sharks.
This was never about the press. It is about allowing fear and loathing to poison one’s thinking.
“That says way more about you, and your attitudes than the functioning of the press,” I wrote back to him. “In Canada, in particular, there has been a tremendous amount of coverage that can be deemed ‘positive’ about refugees from Syria. In the US, when Trump instituted his travel ban, there was story after story presenting facts and stats about the actual number of terrorist attacks and other crimes committed by Syrian refugees. (The number is zero.)
And yet you want to claim your fear of Syrian refugees is the fault of reporters? You are blaming us for pointing out that refugees don’t commit many crimes, haven’t committed terrorist attacks, for holding governments to account for where refugees programs fail, for your fears?
Maybe the problem in this case can be found your own mirror.”
If you are that afraid, I suggested, then go out and meet some refugees. Go to your local community center, or folks arts center, or church or whatever other agency is working to assist refugees in your community. Talk to them. Learn about their lives. Ask about their fears. You’ll find out that they, like you, are just human.
On social media, these sorts of debates rarely end up being constructive. Far too often social media debates are merely an echo chamber for people to scream out their biases and prejudices, rejoicing in hearing those ideas bounce back to them, and then attacking those who disagree.
This case, however, was different.
” I’m in over my head here,” he wrote. “Thanks for the debate. I have some soul searching to do.”
Wise advice for us all. And perhaps engaging people on social media isn’t always a waste of time.