As most anthropologists know, the roles that people inhabit and are assigned in society are neither inherent nor permanent. Categories and classes of people are historically built, and change occurs in both membership and definition upon economic changes, new ideologies, or technological development. However, these psychocultural systems and biases are perpetuated through both language and praxis. The labeling hypothesis, developed largely by Erving Goffman, maintains that the connotations, expectations, and implications of a label form the scope of the role inhabited by a person with that label. Moreover, class, racial, sexual, and other distinctions are drawn in part by opposing labels.
The construction of “us vs. them” is accomplished in myriad ways and in almost every social venue. It is done in workplaces, schools, families, and in the public sphere. It is used by politicians and pundits to draw lines between the audience and the party’s opposition. It is used by religious leaders to explain why followers are privileged over the non-believers and the wrong-believers. It is even used by reality show hosts and teen romance writers to divide the audience into two camps who can compete and thus increase viewer- or readership. I would like to briefly review some recent news items to demonstrate how “us” is divided from “them” via the media.
According to Megan Reback of the Women’s Media Center:
More than a decade has passed, yet the deep hatred in the United States of those who practice Islam has not subsided. In fact, the radical right – which has increasingly become part of the GOP’s status quo – has held onto these beliefs both proudly and shamelessly.
Some weeks ago, I confronted startling evidence of this mindset as I disembarked from a Metro North train at the end of my weekday commute to and from New York City. Amid the familiar army of black and navy blue suits eager to join families for dinner, I noticed a stark, black advertisement with red, white, and blue type: “*19,250 DEADLY ISLAMIC ATTACKS SINCE 9/11/01 *AND COUNTING. IT’S NOT ISLAMOPHOBIA, IT’S ISLAMOREALISM.”
According to Mother Jones magazine, the ad and others targeting New York and San Francisco commuters are sponsored by the anti-Muslim blogger Pamela Geller. She made headlines last year when she backed other ads castigating a proposed Islamic community center near ground zero, calling it a “mega mosque” and a “victory mosque” that celebrated 9/11. … By mid-2010, Geller became a fixture on Fox News, commenting on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and the threat of Muslims and Shariah law in the United States. The Southern Poverty Law Center considers Geller’s organization, Stop Islamization of America, a hate group.
The anti-Islam ads, however, are not random outliers or radical statements. Instead, they represent a fear and hatred of Muslims and Islam that has been particularly rife of late.
Reback recaps some anti-Islam statements by GOP members and the attack on the Sikh temple in Wisconsin, and concludes by characterizing the ad described above as unproblematic except in its reflection and perpetuation of hate by a major political party. Which is a pretty big problem, to say the least. The ad’s language is hard to deny, as well. Even a person ignorant of the details but who still gets nauseous thinking of 9/11 would see that statistic, consider its impact, and be more inclined to think of Muslims as dangerous, violent people. The pejoration is done very simply, over repeated exposure to these blanket statements that play on the emotions. This is the entire purpose of rhetoric.
Here’s a more mundane example:
Women don’t enjoy this military action movie because it is “our” movie. And this is “our” drink. The us-them division couldn’t be more clear. This ad plays on stereotypes of movie and drink preferences to (over)compensate for the suggestion—already socially constructed—that a low-calorie drink is feminine. The ad ends by proudly exclaiming that women could keep their “romantic comedies and lady drinks,” because Dr. Pepper Ten is a low-calorie drink that’s appropriate for men.
Of course, these ads are very plain in their intent. The anti-Islam ad was clearly intended to incite anger towards a group of people deemed “other,” in an attempt to curry favor for a particular group of organizations. The Dr. Pepper Ten was clearly intended to be ridiculous enough to sell a product. However, its affirmation of gender stereotypes is distressing in an era where women are earning more and more yet comprise 17% of Congress, are vastly underrepresented in Hollywood, and are at risk for domestic violence, which encompasses a range of crimes that number, in reported cases in Florida alone, in the thousands.
We also cannot ignore the rhetorical power of non-advertising visual media. Stories are excellent vehicles for ideology and both tools and venues for social construction as the audience absorbs, reacts with, and retells the story. In 1998, “Will & Grace” popularized the first flamboyant gay characters on television. Unfortunately, the gay comic relief became somewhat of a trope, repeated endlessly on various sitcoms or on dramedies such as “Sex and the City.” A new class of “homosexual person” had been formed, and while the likable characters, their unrealism stood in stark contrast to news reports of various violent or pedophilic acts by gay men, encouraged by and conflated with anti-gay campaigns by conservative and/or religious outfits.
Eventually non-flamboyant gay characters featured on longer-form shows that allowed for character development, including “Glee” and “Modern Family.” Now, as though to trumpet the progress of positive gay representation in entertainment television, NBC’s “The New Normal” has hit the small screen, and follows the lives of a gay male couple exploring their options for children. Unfortunately, the rhetorical intent of the production, however important, may not be as salient as the symbolic content, which involves a certain exoticization (“them!”), explains Frank Bua of The Huffington Post:
[M]any of the show’s generalizations are likely more damaging than entertaining: Gays are wealthy, materialistic effetes with crazy disposable income. Gay men randomly wake up and decide that they want a child as the latest must-have accessory. Prospective parents look through a catalog of egg donors like they are recruiting for the HJ. A gay couple? One part effeminate man-boy, the other part a football-watching handsome dude
While Bua bemoans the show’s shortcomings, it is nonetheless clear that social change is happening, more visibly and perhaps more quickly, thanks to mass and entertainment media. Furthermore, each of these examples should demonstrate why studying the media is so revelatory of the process of construction; the understanding of these processes allows us to deconstruct enough to put the spare bits towards change. If we want it.