Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Intolerance & Technology

The short history of Palestine as presented in this YouTube clip echoes the main thesis of our assigned video from last week, Reel Bad Arabs, namely that it is quite easy to accept unalienable truths without being critical of their origins or particular nuances. To be clear, last week we talked about how many of us failed to notice how deplorably Arab characters in film are often portrayed. Blacks, Jews, Native Americans, women -- these groups are on our radar. We have been taught to be alert and critical when considering their representation. Arab peoples, however, we do not treat with the same sensitivity. That said, the same sort of ignorance applies to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. I had never even considered Palestinian rights in terms of this issue before studying the conflict in more depth in a World Literature course during my undergraduate work. In American media and general consciousness, it is implied that we are on the side of the Jew. Is this a way for us, in the West, to absolve ourselves of guilt related to the Holocaust? Are we afraid that we might appear anti-Semitic if we show sympathy for the "other side"? What of anti-Arab sentiment, then? Why is that more acceptable, more politically correct?

What goes without saying is that the above questions are rhetorical. Once given the resources to examine the Palestinian-Israeli conflict with a critical, intellectual eye, the issue is no longer so cut and dry. Any rational human being would come to the conclusion that the Arabs, the classic "villains" as we have cast them, have been wronged on the European watch. Nothing earth-shattering here. We watch the YouTube video. We feel the record, in our own intellectually curious minds, has been set straight. However, below the video in the comment thread, we encounter the feedback of your everyday YouTube user...and it is frightening.

The comments begin in a way that you might expect -- a few people seem enlightened and appreciate the new knowledge that they have gained from this clip. Most of the comments claiming that the information presented in the video is false or biased are inflammatory and emotional. People don't like change, and it's hard to consider a new viewpoint on an issue that is still relatively "hot button." To get to the point, more disheartening than the typical anti-Arab sentiment (which was, don't get me wrong, infuriating) was the anti-Semitism that came out in some of the comments. This one was my favorite:

"look dude...lighten up...rape happens, i do it, you do it, everyone does it, so what if a few jews died? means less risk of money being stolen from us right? dont get me wrong...jews are good people. but hitler did us all a favour"

Hopefully, this guy was on something when he wrote this. In a broad sense, what disturbs me so deeply about this post is that it demonstrates how even socially unacceptable prejudices, like anti-Semitism, still exist quite prominently. To be perfectly clear, I am speaking to the fact that, as students in America, we spend countless history lessons lamenting the plight of the original Americans, the black slave, the Jew. Each of us is taught that prejudice is wrong. If there are people on the internet willing to expose themselves as racists, as anti-Semites, at this juncture in history, then how long will it take us as a culture to come to terms with the story of the Middle East, whose victims suffer just as acutely as those with which we already sympathize?

To conclude, my experience of reading the posts associated with the video begs the question, does open dialogue like that facilitated by informal spaces such as threaded discussion provide too much space for uncritical, inflammatory commentary? Shouldn't technology bring us, as a global community, closer to understanding one another? I get nervous about people encouranging one another in the open range of internet discussion. The fact that such offensive statements can and do exist unchecked on the web makes me sad.

**A note on the photo: I included this image of Walter from The Big Lebowski because he did not tolerate anti-Semitism. Walter didn't hate anyone...except Nihilists. Okay, this is a bit tongue-in-cheek, but what's the harm in lightening up this heavy blog a bit? Here's to you, Walter.


  1. I think you make a good point with the question of who gets our sympathy and understanding. Can we sympathize with both sides without harming one or the other? When it comes to technology and its allowance for informal dialogue, is it better to have people voice whatever so that these prejudices can be addressed, even in the case of the disgusting comment left on YouTube, or to not be said but still thought? I honestly don't know myself. But I agree, it is very sad that people leave these comments and they go unchecked, making them seem acceptable.

  2. I think that anonymity plays a huge role in internet hate speech. Would this guy say these things in public? Probably not, and I think that Lisa has a good point about public hate speech leading to teachable moments.

    On the topic of the U.S. siding with Israel, I haven't ever really considered it in relation to he Holocaust-- although I'm sure it played a part, I always thought our support was because of the larger Jewish proximity (i.e.: they are "here") and Arab distance (i.e.: they are "there") more than anything else.

  3. I think the point about siding with the Jews as a result of the Holocaust is one worth considering. It was shocking to see camps where people were quarantined and murdered. However, at this exact same time, we were taking people of Japanese or Asian decent in the United States and placing them in camps. The criteria of which we use to define "us" and "them" does not seem to be solely proximity...so in that I disagree with Owen. Perhaps there is a proximity in how we associate with people, (i.e. do I think if them as like myself), and the less different they seem to us the less we "other" them.