What Elliot’s experimental lesson teaches us about the nature of reality is that it is far more contingent and fluid than we initially appreciate. In relation to the economy of prejudice and the practice of discrimination, Elliot’s findings highlight the way in which prejudice is created through language and language based reinforcements, leading eventually to the creation of an environment in which a distinct logic begins to operate. This process has evidently occurred in today’s society. Today the “brown-eyed” people are the Muslims who at every opportunity are being singled out for their faith. Every day the media outlets specifically pick and choose to report negative information about Muslims, with an emphasis always placed on the offenders’ religion being Islam. Before 9/11 prejudice of any kind was generally unacceptable in society and harder to exhibit. This attitude, however, is beginning to change as prejudice against Muslims is slowly creeping into society as a norm. Today Muslims are much more likely to be jeered at in the streets for wearing a headscarf or for having a beard and are more likely to be attacked or assaulted. Martin Amis’ appalling rants against Muslims is an example of how views so potently prejudicial and discriminatory can go unnoticed if the speakers’ ire is directed at Muslims. What’s more, Obama’s campaign was severely tested when allegations were made of his “Muslim” connection, with few reporters and commentators bothering to question the subtext: Muslims are the new black.
After the experiment, Jane Elliot stated that it only took 15 minutes for “those wonderful, thoughtful children to turn into nasty, vicious, discriminating third graders”. If that happened in 15 minutes, we must ask urgently what effect has the seven year post-9/11 barrage of continuous, disproportionate and negative media attention on Muslims had on both the “brown-eyed” and “blue-eyed” persons in our society? We must wonder at how the language of intolerance is both masking itself and being normalised into and through the discourses presently at play. Having said that however, these are not the only questions we want to explore in this short essay. We began with the example of Elliot’s experiment in the 1960’s to illustrate in vivid terms our assertion that individuals’ awareness of reality is a much more complicated and contingent form of consciousness. Realising the ability of language to create (in this context) prejudicial environments, we have already identified the mass media as a key institution in our contemporary world fully equipped to shape perceptions of “reality”. But this isn’t anything new. Countless tracts have been written on the “power of the media” and so this is an accepted fact. What we will examine here instead are more penetrating questions, like why the media is able to shape our perceptions and why, despite the numerous documentaries and books explaining the dark side of media power, it is still such a pertinent agency for affecting people’s minds. Although these two questions seem similar, they’re respective emphasises disclose surprising insights – insights that reinforce Jane Elliot’s results but on a macro scale, and insights that offer strategies for resistance and change.
The obverse effect of this, however, is the constant realisation of the limitedness of the individual. His or her body is foregrounded while the media is experienced as vast and all encompassing, to the extent that its projection of the world is substituted for one’s own. Hence the media steps in as substitute for the individual’s presence, which he or she cannot obtain due to being situated in physical space. Thus whether we like it or not, this absence/presence dialectic concedes the media further authority.
A good example of this is the perceptions of viewers following the media’s portrayal of the miners’ strike in 1984. In a study carried out by the Glasgow University Media Group, results showed that 98% of those who had relied solely on the media for their information saw the picketing as mostly violent while none of those who had had direct knowledge of the strike – miners and police – believed that the picketing had been mostly violent. The latter rejected the media portrayal, claiming instead that most of the time the police and miners sat around doing very little.2
The discrepancy in these results shows us that the media and the news in particular, has the ability to discretely evoke our long instilled notions of authoritative ‘voice’. This authoritative ‘voice’ has been socialised into all of us from a young age via the teacher-student binary. While we can be cynical and sneer at the media, unless we have alternative (and preferably direct) information – as in the case of the miners and police – we concede to its authority. In this way the media shapes our view of the world and this process is even more powerful in a democracy because here our cynicism of the media coexists with the commonsensical notion of the ‘freedom’ of the press. Being embedded in these broader notions, the media in a democracy gains respectability, which persuades the viewer to practice some kind of suspension of disbelief. This is particularly true of visual mediums where the camera represents a symbolic distance that helps separate the presentation of the news from the practices involved in its creation.
News, as we receive it, is the product of numerous decisions made by numerous individuals. The value of information, or newsworthiness as journalists may term it, exists prior to the news we consume and in the minds of those who fashion it for our consumption. The process of creating news, therefore, involves a significant degree of individual perceptions, preferences, and prejudices, all of which come into play again when it comes to the question of the presentation of the news. It is these issues which are often forgotten or not taken into account enough by the individual viewer, and when it is taken into account its implication is rarely followed through. If the media is more than merely a mirror on the world then the media is also the agency through which social discourse is framed. In this respect, newspapers are an important medium unto themselves. Being involved in the business of the printed word, newspapers can often help create (and circulate) the vocabulary society will use when considering individuals and circumstances in the world. As such, newspapers are influential in how we speak about a given topic and that will invariably influence what kind of conclusions we draw from those discussions.
In Eliot’s experiment she herself set the terms of discussion. She placed in the minds of her pupils the terms blue-eyed and brown-eyed and changed a previously insignificant difference into a point of contention. The media, we want to suggest, carries out a similar function although we want to nuance this a little by suggesting that the people involved in the media are not outside the processes of signification and are themselves discursively constructed subjects. The difference therefore between Eliot and the media is that while Eliot was a conscious agent making deliberate choices to create a prejudicial environment, the media should be seen as a more subtle and perpetuating institution able to determine matters outside of itself, but also directed and propelled by its own narratives and discourses. Finally, it is also important to note the media as a language and visual based structure of society and Jane Eliot’s use of words and phrases as means for creating a particular environment in her class. The extrapolation is simple enough; it is the media’s disproportionate and negative portrayal of Muslims and Islam that has been a major factor in creating the environment of prejudice which many Muslims feel living in Britain today. If this practice is not challenged – as in the case of challenging Martin Amis and others – then the abuse normalises itself into our discourses and lives on to rear its head in the fullest sense at a later time; only then we are too far gone on the slippery road that leads from discrimination to violence and from violence to expulsion (the example of Japanese post Pearl Harbour) or Holocaust (Jews in Germany).
How is it that this state of affairs is maintained; why is it that despite the growth in our understanding of the media’s power, that knowledge is not widely known nor applied? Although there are many ways to answer this question, here we wish to forward one possible theory and that is that the apparently vast and allencompassing nature of the media – the present/absent dialectic – wears down the mind. The reason for this is because the modalities (that is, the nature of the two things involved) are different. Against the rapacious visuality and narrative capacity of the media rests a cynicism born of a cautious intuition about its unreliability. In this context then, the former, we want to suggest, ends up drowning out the latter.
If we accept this theoretical position we are presented with two possible strategies by which to counteract the influence of mainstream media when it comes to perceptions of Muslims. The first of these is concerned with addressing the issue of the different modalities. What this means is that in order to battle with the media we must get involved in the production of alternative media. Currently the poor programming on much of Muslim television channels and the poor standard of our newspapers, as well as the absence of a Muslim owned radio station means that these mediums are not yet available as counter-hegemonic blocs. Having said that, there is no reason why this situation could not be turned around. To do this agencies like Khayal and institiutions like MRDF should engage producers and managers of Muslim TV channels and editors and journalists of our local newspapers. Such efforts need a dedicated and creative group of people to push start certain processes as well as a willingness on the part of producers and editors, something which can be gained through small conferences where key individuals are invited and where ideas are shared and important links forged. But there is also a need to understand and underpin any such efforts with a well thought out theoretical backbone that can guide such efforts and it is to that end that this essay is a contribution.
The second strategy involves spreading critical ideas and theories about the media more widely. This of course ties in well with our first strategy, since one of the messages our alternative media could promulgate is the need for more criticism of the media itself. FOSIS for instance would be in a good position to organise a well-crafted program of seminars on the topic of critiquing the media and to tour this up and down the country in all UK universities. Similarly, one could liase with schools to deliver the seminars to students of Media Studies so that the issue of the power of the media could be brought into the classroom. One of the failings of media studies has been its lack of critical edge and this we feel is a major reason why people are still not persistent enough in questioning media messages. Indeed, critical and creative thinking is still only a vague aspiration for many schools and subjects. If Media Studies and English were to be taught in a more critical way, all 16 year olds would at least have had some contact with a critical vocabulary that helped them to think about the media and its power. Taking this idea further, we would encourage the funding of a detailed survey that looks into how critical the study of cultural products like literature and media is in schools. Such a survey could then be used to lobby examination boards, the Education Secretary and the Teachers’ Union to change the way such subjects are delivered and teachers in those subjects trained.
Although this seems impossibly ambitious, the two strategies outlined above interpenetrate to inform and support one another. The creation of an alternative media is a means to present counter-hegemonic discourses while the need to spread critical ideas about the media is an attempt to foster an environment in which those discourses can be more successful. Together, these strategies will work like a two-pronged attack reinforcing one another, and if enough of an echo is created it could help attract the attention of the more influential members of our society. Such an echo we think would disturb the dominant discourses of our society and – going back to Eliot’s experiment – act like a stubborn student in the classroom disagreeing with the teacher and destabilising her efforts to mask the unnaturalness of her arbitrary categories.
What we have explored thus far has given rise to many counter-intuitive insights and a number of potential strategies, all of which can be drawn back to our analysis of the nature of reality and the present/absent dialectic. To end this essay then, we are in a way going back to the beginning. If the media gains much of its power from the present/absent dialectic and thus gets away with mixing into our awareness of reality erroneous perceptions, then we must give greater importance to direct interaction – that is, one to one da’wah. We must constantly remind each other, and ourselves as well as be reminded from our pulpits, to interact positively with non-Muslims, since it is harder to maintain an erroneous perception of Muslims if one knows a Muslim. Much of this is of course a standard part of the Prophet (saw) sunnah and methodology, but it’s surprising efficacy can also be gleaned from the findings of the survey conducted by the Glasgow Media Group. Those who had no direct experience of the protests were the most likely to buy into the media’s skewered images, while those who had direct experience like the miners and the police, or those who had access to these individuals, were much more critical and rejecting of the media’s portrayal. Hence, direct positive interaction is something which all of us can undertake. However, not enough of this is being done and we want to end our essay by using Eliot’s categories to theorise why this may be the case.
With the rampant misrepresentation of Muslims in mainstream media and hostilities exhibited in blogs and comment sections of websites, today’s browneyed people (the Muslims) are feeling alienated and disempowered. Even where they feel that the information is erroneous there is little concerted effort to strategically counteract this information because it seems so pervasive and formidable (remember the teacher-authority analogy) that, like pupils facing a formidable teacher, they merely slump at the back of the class into some kind of abject apathy. Under these conditions two specific dispositions emerge as coping mechanisms for what is experienced as a psychical trauma. One is to overcompensate with a hyper-identity, which often exhibits a segregationist and profoundly angry mentality. The second is a disposition on the other extreme which exhibits hyper-assimilative tendencies. Both are problematic and must be resisted within the Muslim population, something that can only occur, we feel, when brown-eyed people reject the very categories that shape the present status quo and seek to imagine an alternative reality.
A PhD candidate at SOAS and English teacher.