Sticks & stones break bones but names can kill indiscriminately
By Ernest A. Canning on 8/19/2009, 10:13am PT  

Guest blogged by Ernest A. Canning

In "Radio Speech is not Free Speech," Sue Wilson touches upon the trend toward an increasingly strident, right-wing talk radio.

Setting aside First Amendment issues, one has to understand the true danger posed by "hate speech," which is both product and cause of the process of dehumanization --- a process defined by Professor Phillip Zimbardo in The Lucifer Effect as a means "by which certain other people or collectives of them are depicted as less than human….”

Zimbardo regards this as “one of the central processes in the transformation of ordinary, normal people into indifferent or even wanton perpetrators of evil….a ‘cortical cataract’ that clouds one’s thinking and fosters the perception that other people are less than human…to see…others as enemies deserving of torment, torture, and even annihilation.”...

History's most blatant example, the “final solution,” was not the product of some inherent psychological deficiency in the German people. To the contrary, Zimbardo informs us, it was the product of a deliberate campaign carried out in newspapers, on radio, in required texts of school children, and even in comic books, which “sought to create the perception of Jews as a sub-human race that was a threat to the national state.”

Dehumanization is by no means unique to Nazi Germany. To the contrary, Zimbardo observes, citing Sam Keen’s analysis of the “hostile imagination” in Faces of the Enemy, it “is created by virtually every nation’s propaganda on its path to war….”

Zimbardo writes:

“The process begins with stereotyped conceptions of the other,…conceptions of the other as worthless, the other as all-powerful,…the other as a fundamental threat to our cherished values and beliefs. With public fear notched up and enemy threat imminent, reasonable people act irrationally, independent people act in mindless conformity, and peaceful people act as warriors. Dramatic visual images of the enemy on posters, television, magazine covers, movies, and the internet imprint on the recesses of the limbic system, the primitive brain, with the powerful emotions of fear and hate."

We Americans have a habit of looking back through an idyllic lens. We admire the lofty egalitarian principles enunciated by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, yet forget that Jefferson, like so many of the Founding Fathers, owned slaves. We reminisce about the “good old days” of the late 19th and early 20th Century and a supposedly simpler way of life, all the while ignoring the horror and terror inflicted on our African-American citizens by Jim Crow; a terror embodied in the haunting Billie Holliday melody, Strange Fruit, and photographically displayed in Without Sanctuary (2000) which provides a gruesome pictorial accompanied by detailed accounts, some from contemporary newspapers, some from the editors of the book and some from handwritten scrawl over postcards bearing the black-and-white images of mutilated, hanging corpses.

As one of the book’s editors, Leon Litwack, observed, the “story of lynching” in America, entailed “more than the simple fact of a black man or woman hanged by the neck. It is the story of slow, methodical, sadistic, often highly inventive forms of torture and mutilation."

Just as Zimbardo traces the sadism of the SS to the Nazi media campaign to dehumanize the Jewish population, so also Litwack traces lynching, which took the lives of more than 4,700 African Americans between 1882 and 1968 to the injection of racism into popular culture by media.

Historians and the academic sciences [provided]…the intellectual underpinnings of racist thought and behavior, validating theories of black degeneracy and cultural and intellectual inferiority, helping to justify on ‘scientific’ and historical grounds a complex of laws, practices and beliefs. Popular literature, newspaper caricatures, minstrel shows, and vaudeville depicted blacks as a race of buffoons and half-wits. And with Birth of a Nation in 1915, the cinema did more than any historian to explain the ‘Negro problem’ to the American people….Beneath the grinning exterior of the black man, this film warned, there lurks a mindless savagery that demands white vigilance….

The extent of the dehumanization is reflected in a remark by former Georgia governor William J. Northen, quoted by Litwack:

“I was amazed to find scores and hundreds of men who believed the Negro was a brute…and his slaughter nothing more than the killing of a dog.

Viewing Without Sanctuary’s gruesome pictorial display is a daunting task, perhaps lightened by the absence of color in the black-and-white images. But the truly disturbing feature is the carnival-like atmosphere; smiling white faces of people genuinely enjoying themselves; an atmosphere calling to mind a scene from the Steven Spielberg film, Schindler’s List, in which, while dining with their families, one of the SS officers nonchalantly picks up a rifle and begins firing it randomly at helpless prisoners.

It is a reflection of the degree of psychic distance created by the process of dehumanization; one in which the perpetrators see themselves and the atrocities they commit as virtuous. “This may be ‘Southern brutality’ as far as the Boston Negro can see,” proclaimed a Little Rock newspaper, defending the practice when applied to blacks who cast “lustful eyes on white women,” “but in polite circles, we call it Southern chivalry, a Southern virtue that will never die.”

In Reel Bad Arabs, Jack Shaheen, a Professor Emeritus of Mass Communications at Southern Illinois University, unveiled the results of his personal study of how Arabs were depicted in more than one thousand movies dating back to the first silent films of the 1880s.

His conclusions were explained in an Egypt Today review:

Hollywood’s epic battles between good and evil. Arabs and Muslims make some of the best generic villains. These bad guys are one-dimensional killers, bloodthirsty and often fanatically religious or nationalistic terrorists….When Arabs and Muslims are not terrorizing Americans or kidnapping their women; they are buying up the country and being the source of America’s economic troubles.

While there remains an undercurrent of racism, one has to concede that there has been a significant reduction in the dehumanization of African Americans since the days of Jim Crow --- a fact attested to not only by the election of Barack Obama but to firestorm of protest that led MSNBC and CBS radio to fire Don Imus after he disparaged the Rutgers’ women’s basketball players as “nappy-headed hos.” Yet, American media pundits regularly disparage Muslims, even call for their wholesale slaughter, and, almost universally, they do so without adverse repercussions to their careers.

Case in point: Glenn Beck.

During a May 11, 2006 Clear Channel radio broadcast of The Glenn Beck Program, Beck said: “I say we nuke the bastards. In fact, it doesn’t have to be Iran. It can be everywhere, any place that disagrees with me.”

During the July 12, 2007 edition of his CNN Headline News Beck stated:

We’ve got World War III to fight. Yes, it is the end of days….Here’s what I do know about…the impending apocalypse. One, we can’t coexist with people who want to blow up trains and subways….I also know that whether you like it or not, this is a religious war. Radical Muslims want to wipe everybody else off the face of the earth.

During an August 10, 2006 airing of The Glenn Beck Program, after calling out Muslims for not being “the first ones in the recruitment office lining up to shoot the bad Muslims in the head,” Beck added, ominously,

I’m telling you, with God as my witness…when people become angry, when people see that their way of life is on the edge of being over, they will put razor wire up and just based on the way you look or just based on your religion, they will round you up. Is that wrong? Oh my gosh. It is Nazi, World War II wrong, but society has proved it time and time again: It will happen.

“The Middle East is being overrun by 10th Century barbarians,” Beck announced during the September 12, 2006 CNN Headline News broadcast. “If they take over…we’re going to have to nuke the whole place.”

On October 4, 2006 Sharida McKenzie, a Muslim American and organizer of the Muslim Peace March was Beck’s guest on his CNN program. Beck asked, “How do we know the difference between you and those who are trying to kill us?” On November 16, 2006 it was Representative Keith Ellison (D-MN), the first Muslim ever to be elected to the United States Congress. “I have been nervous about this interview with you,” Beck tells Ellison, “because what I feel like saying is, ‘Sir, prove to me that you are not working with our enemies.’” Beck then added, “I’m not accusing you of being an enemy, but that’s the way I feel, and I think a lot of Americans feel that way.”

Unlike Imus, Beck didn't lose his job. To the contrary, he not only remained but moved up with ABC News announcing on January 9, 2007 that Beck would soon join Good Morning America, whose executive producer, Jim Murphy, told AP, “Glenn is a leading cultural commentator.”

Sadly, Murphy is right. Beck is a “leading cultural commentator” precisely because 21st Century American culture is imbued with the racist sentiments embodied in the 1,000 films reviewed by Jack Shaheen. And, beyond that, we now see, in hard-right propaganda and in the wing-nut mobs shutting down the town halls, a dehumanization of everyone who does not subscribe to a narrow, authoritarian, Christian-fundamentalist world view.


Ernest A. Canning has been an active member of the California state bar since 1977. Mr. Canning has received both undergraduate and graduate degrees in political science as well as a juris doctor. He is also a Vietnam vet (4th Infantry, Central Highlands 1968).

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