Naming the actors of violence

Sonia García de Alba | November 6, 2017

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The Las Vegas shooting earlier this October was among the latest of the increasingly violent outbreaks that have taken place in the United States. As we seek to comprehend the underlying motivations behind the escalation of violence, we face the issue of describing and characterising those who commit these acts.

The labelling of the perpetrators of these crimes, especially if they belong to a certain demographic, has proven to be controversial on repeated occasions. We need only look at how the news headlines oscillate between describing Stephen Paddock as a “lone wolf”, a “white gunman,” and a “terrorist” to see how divided opinion can be on his portrayal. A similar debate was sparked in August over whether the attack against counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia should be considered an act of domestic terrorism or simply a hate crime.

Yet how the media labels Paddock and, moreover, how we decide to label him when we refer to this incident, has important implications that transcend our immediate context. The labels we choose not only have political and moral repercussions, but they can potentially impact long-term social behaviours, especially as our views are echoed across social media and our circle of friends.

The debate stems not so much from whether the Las Vegas shooting can be considered an act of terrorism (a concept that in its broadest sense can very well encompass this event). Rather, it is the result of a conceptual incompatibility: the image of a white man is not what comes to mind when one thinks of a “terrorist”. As James Fallows stated in a recent article published in The Atlantic, “We know that everything about the news coverage and political response would be different, depending on whether the killer turns out to be “merely” a white American man with a non-immigrant-sounding name.” [1]

Evidently, the label of “terrorist,” through repetition and continuous association, is now equated with the westernized image of the Muslim and those with their ethnic traits. It is an unfair and biased association that results from how the media has favoured the use of this term in its portrayal of radicalised Islamic individuals. However, western corporate media is only one of the actors involved in the construction of these types of labels.

The labels are also reinforced because we are inclined to resort to pre-existing concepts when we attempt to describe and comprehend these horrifying events. Jacques Derrida provided some insight into this tendency in an interview he gave after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He argued that we find the need to name the traumatic event and repeat what we hold to be true about it in order to come to terms with it. Usually, the media assigns a label that we reiterate in order to “exorcise” the tragedy[2]. The inherent problem, of course, is that said labels represent only a partial understanding of violence and those that cause it.

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The label of “terrorist”—through this inevitable repetition— has become associated with a concept very distant from what Stephen Paddock embodies. That is why we find it so hard to pin the crime on him. Yet perpetuating the existing labels that characterise violence implies that we normalize their bias. In doing this, we influence how those around us will perceive the individuals that happen to be wrongfully associated with these concepts.

In this context, the rise of social media has provided both the established media and independent journalism with a platform to spread their perspectives and vie for the reader’s attention. Simultaneously, it has given readers a central role in both the selection and transmission of news that align with our own worldview.

Through likes, shares, retweets and comments, we get to determine which codes and labels become a trend and effectively shape the concepts that define those around us. The question remains as to whether we can use this new space consciously to critically challenge the established labels. Now that we have found a new channel through social media, perhaps it is time to use it to change these constructs and explore new ways of approaching the complex realities engendered from violence.

[1] Fallows, J. “Two Dark American Truths From Las Vegas”. The Atlantic. (2 October 2017). Retrieved from: https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/10/two-dark-american-truths-from-las-vegas/541692/

[2] See the full interview in Habermas, J., Derrida, J., & Borradori, G. (2003). Philosophy in a time of terror : Dialogues with Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida. Chicago ; London: University of Chicago Press, pp. 85-94.


About Sonia

Sonia is currently studying an MSc in Medieval Literatures and Cultures at the University of Edinburgh. Her research interests include understanding the influence of myth and folklore in medieval narratives, particularly in their relation to the supernatural in these texts. She is also an avid reader of fantasy novels.

Twitter: @sonia_gda

Article edited by Laurie Beckoff and Julian Menjivar.

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