A new report was released yesterday, ‘Suspect Communities’, comparing how UK media and government have framed Irish and Muslim communities since the 1970s. The authors find that the ideas underpinning counter-terrorism measures and the way politicians, policymakers and the media discuss who might be responsible for bombings have not changed over four decades. The key finding is that ambiguity surrounding who is an ‘extremist’ or a ‘terrorist’ has led to hostile responses in everyday life – at work, in shops, on the street – from members of the public who think they are under threat from Irish-sounding or Muslim-looking people whom they associate with that threat. Hence, the report implies that government and media language is impacting on the everyday lives of communities judged suspect and everyone else who must live with them. In a debate in Parliament yesterday, the solution put forward by many was greater sensitivity of language by elites and more dialogue between the stigmatized, the elites, and the majority society.
While useful, the debate needs to go further. The crux with such reports is their method. This research team first analysed thousands of media texts and government documents, and found these to consistently frame these communities as suspect (and as communities, not individuals). They then did focus groups with members of those suspect communities to hear about living under suspicion. What the team did not do is try to explain why journalists or policymakers would consistently produce stigmatizing material. The consistency of the stigmatization suggests its nothing to do with any individuals, but a function of the institutional practices and professional imperatives of the fields of journalism and security policy. Most journalists don’t want to be racist. They think that by allowing a ‘moderate’ and ‘militant’ Muslim to debate they are providing balance – journalists don’t usually understand that they are reducing threatening and non-threatening minorities to equivalents in the eye of the non-Muslim audience. And policymakers know full well that homogenizing a community to tell it to ‘stop harbouring terrorists’ is not going to please everyone, but they really don’t want another bomb going off and will try any means to stop it. These are the pressures they face, and criticizing their language choices isn’t going to remove those pressures. So, if we are to move towards societies in which entire groups are not routinely lumped together as dangerous and disloyal, we need to begin to unravel these institutional and professional logics. A truly critical project would address these power relations and daily trade-offs instead of simply decrying the consequences.
This is an important topic. The Suspect Communities report supports a longstanding research finding (UK here, US here) that those who feel stigmatized tend either to retreat from public spaces (‘keep your head down’, ‘keep your mouth shut’) or become angry and try to resist slurs by turning them on their heads (reclaiming ‘queer’ in the 1970s, jihadi chic in the 2000s). Either way, the result is fear and alienation, which reduces trust on all ‘sides’ and makes reconciling interests and grievances through democratic institutions much more difficult.