Sweeping assertions have no place in healthy debate and discussion
In the wake of the appalling shooting in Quebec on Jan. 29, it didn’t take long for media outlets to start assigning blame. Fox News was quick to report that a suspect in the shooting might have been of “Moroccan origin”—as if it would somehow be OK if the shooter was foreign-born. The report was quickly rebuked by the Prime Minister’s Office since the shooter was in fact French-Canadian.
The episode was another example of the intentionally polarizing reporting and public discourse that has recently plagued our society. Time and time again we see emotionally charged identity-based reporting used to create interest through outrage. And the tactics aren’t limited to right-leaning publications like Fox.
CBC, which was quick to call out Fox on its error, used similar emotion-generating language with different intent but a similar effect in an article aimed at breaking down Islamophobic stereotypes.
Their story ran on Facebook under the headline, “Simple truth is that white men are Canada’s mass shooters.” The headline pushed the oppositely false connotation that all white male Canadians are colluding to commit mass shootings.
What makes this even worse is that because these assertions attack people’s identities, it’s hard for those implicated to consider the alternative point of view. A statement along the lines of “people like you do awful things” hurts regardless of if it’s a simple fact or intended as an attack and puts you on the defensive.
I cringe every time a well-meaning presenter says something to the effect of “men are the perpetrators” or “women act this way” because I know so many people will simply leap to the defence of their gender identity rather than consider the implications of ingrained sexism and other social concerns.
In the debate to cast blame on one group or another, we’ve somehow lost sight of the fact that using sweeping stereotypes and labels to judge people is itself morally wrong.
Each of these examples is strikingly false because they each assert universal statements that are easily disproven by finding a single person who it doesn’t fit. The injustice of punishing people based on such sweeping assumptions then becomes painfully obvious.
It is the same ignorance that makes Trump’s travel ban so reprehensible: The idea that where someone is born is a just way to decide whether or not they are a threat is absurd. Trump’s seemingly arbitrary and anti-Muslim travel ban was celebrated by ISIS as it plays into their narrative that Americans hate Islam and don’t see Muslims as unique human beings in-and-of themselves.
A similar effect occurs in our already divided public discourse when we make sweeping judgements of each other. We’re unlikely to constructively engage with someone who constantly makes belittling assertions about people who share major parts of our identity.
Interestingly, the CBC headline for the same article but posted to their website rather than Facebook was more nuanced and accurate: It reads, “Simple truth is Canada’s mass shooters are usually white and Canadian-born”. These qualifiers like “usually” are important and we need to use them more often to create conversations that move past sweeping assertions and name-calling, and allow us to start regaining some common ground.