The irrationality of ethnicity
May 23, 2002
Articles on media
In a report entitled "An operational framework for media and peace building" published by the Institute for Media, Policy and Civil Society (IMPACS) of Vancouver, the following passage appears in the introduction:
"The media is a double-edged sword. It can be a frightful weapon of violence when it propagates messages of intolerance or disinformation that manipulate public sentiment. Radio Mille Collines in Rwanda is one of the most appalling contemporary examples. Using a blend of popular entertainment and proselytizing by announcers, the government-supported broadcasts demonized one group of people and built resentment and fear among the other group. The messages implanted and legitimized the belief that genocide was an appropriate self-defence initiative, and hundreds of thousands of people were slaughtered in that country".
The ethnic problem in Rwanda culminated in unbelievable horror and the role the media played in that debacle is well recognised. One sign that the irrationality of ethnicity is becoming more prevalent is that facts and detailed analysis become irrelevant. If you're discussing the housing problem, for example, bias is automatically assumed in the allocation of house lots. No talk show host will ever have information available on the total number of house lots issued, the ethnic breakdown of the allottees, the problems involved in the development of the infrastructure, actual efforts made to solve these problems and so on. The object of the programme is not to shed light but to reaffirm prejudice. Nothing is ever fully stated, there are assumptions, hypothetical winks and nods. We knew it was like that, didn't we, why worry with the facts. The `other' side is bound to be duplicitous and corrupt in whatever it does.
The world viewed through an ethnic prism is deeply tinted. Every project has a hidden, discriminatory agenda, nothing is as it seems. If something positive is done it's too late or too little or badly designed because it has to be so, given the fundamental bad faith of the other side. In the nature of the case there is never any attempt at understanding, no give and take, no generosity. `They' caused it by their incompetence or malevolence. Of course there is some discrimination and unfairness, but without the facts one can never tell how severe it is or what remedy there might be.
One is dealing, in other words, with a pathology, a clannishness or defensiveness based ultimately on the fear of difference and domination, and insecurity. This gives rise to political and economic instability and makes sensible and rational discussion of issues difficult.
The IMPACS report goes on to suggest that the media can instead be an instrument of conflict resolution, it can try to present reliable information, respect human rights and represent diverse views. It can seek to enable a society to make well informed choices, to reduce conflict and foster human security. That is surely an ideal well worth aiming at for all the media in our deeply troubled country. The media can't solve the problems, which are ultimately political, but they can avoid making them worse.