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Letters to the Irresponsible

I know reading letters to the editor is not good for my health. I know that letter-writers are not representative of the population at large. I know that letters are included because they are likely to be controversial and dramatic. But still, I can’t stop.

It’s because I think letters to the editor are *important*. They matter for the simple reason that they’re right there on the editorial page of the newspaper, and they’re presented in small bite-sized digestible chunks, and they’re delivered in a tone that speaks of personal character rather than impersonal journalistic machine. They are the easiest reading in the newspaper.

And so it bugs me when the same negative things turn up over and over again. Particularly, speaking of the DomPost, there’s racism against Maori. Hardly a week goes by without Maori described as selfish, devious, dishonest, stupid, or worse. (And, almost without exception, these charges are levelled at “Maori”, as if to describe the fundamental nature of everyone with Maori identity.) Sometimes this is delivered hand-in-hand with a claim that there are no true Maori left anyhow. It’s ugly, and it’s been prevalent as long as I can remember. Would it be a surprise to find that Maori feel they are misrepresented and unwelcome in mainstream media?

Almost as frequent these days is the culture war against Islam. You know the ins and outs of this one, it appears all over the world, and the NYC mosque controversy has stirred it right up. The claim that got me agitated this week was the old claim that “if Islam isn’t a religion of violence, then why haven’t Muslims denounced terrorism?” Of course, they have, Islamic voices have been plentiful in condemnation of terror attacks. Here’s one big list countering this myth; there are many others.

The reason this last one gets to me is that this wrong-headed belief exists in the first place because of the failings of our newspapers and other media outlets. The denunciation of violence has never drawn much presence in our news narrative, and so many people think it never happened. And now those same people use newspapers (and talk radio etc) to pronounce their misconception, to damaging effect.

Look at that again. The number of times newspapers, within their pages, print “why do Muslims not denounce violence?” must massively exceed the number of times newspapers have ever reported on Muslim denunciations of violence.

The media is responsible for the misconception. By then publishing these letters without answer, I think it is also responsible for its propagation.

What are the editorial responsibilities of newspapers? I know the DomPost editor takes the reader letters very seriously and personally checks each day’s selection. It seems to me this is a massive failure on her part. The responsibility to fairly present reader’s views does not remove the responsibility to correct an obvious factual misconception. “But our readers really think this” is an inadequate defence against the charge of spreading a damaging prejudiced myth, especially when the reason they really think this is your own failure to adequately describe the world.

{ 6 } Comments

  1. samm | September 22, 2010 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    re Islamic denunciation of violence:
    Cheers for answering a question I have often pondered. While the media haven’t covered themselves in glory on this, I think part of the problem unfortunately lies with the way Islam itself is organised. If it had one central authority structure or figure a la The Pope or The Dalai Lama, its majority rejection of fundamentalist jihadism would be a lot clearer and easier to disseminate. It doesn’t though, and that is just how it is. Instead we have a wide collection of disparate clerics and sects all with their own spokesmen and viewpoint, and the media lack either the skill or the will to figure out who is credible or more representative. Plus a cleric or community quietly and reasonably denouncing terrorism is far less attention getting than a rabid call for the blood of infidels.

  2. morgue | September 22, 2010 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    samm: very good point. The structural limitations of Islam, and the structural limitations of newspapers and other big media enterprises, make for a particularly bad fit.

  3. Joey | September 22, 2010 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    They don’t need a central figurehead because they’re all the same, with their brown skin and their tea-towel hats and their facing Mecca and… um… those other things that Islam has.

    Not like us Christians, we’re all different! That’s why we need our central figurehead the Pope. Or is it the Archbishop of Canterbury, or the Governing Body, or the Moderator, or is it Joseph Smith, or perhaps it’s Jesus? Anyway, whoever it is, there’s only one of them (or maybe it’s a panel) and he (or she or they – or it) speaks for all of us.

    That’s what makes us Christians different from those Muslims. Apart from the fact that Christianity was never a religion of violence. Just ask the Irish.

  4. Andrew (Bartok) | September 22, 2010 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    One of the more interesting differences in coming to New Zealand from Canada has been seeing the integration of Maori into society here in a way which the First Nations back home can only dream. While not perfect by any stretch just having such a dialogue and visible presence is quite the accomplishment.

    That’s why I find it so aggravating when so many New Zealanders don’t understand how much the spread of cultures benefits society as a whole. Also this rediculous opinion (as often expoused by that “Friendly Face of Racism” Paul Henry) that Maori are somehow trying to “chip away” at “our” rights for their own benefit. Quite simply they are a recognised and legitimate section of society that wants and needs to be heard.

    I don’t understand what that concept seems to be so difficult for many to grasp.

  5. Pearce | September 22, 2010 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    It would be interesting to compare the visibility of indigenous peoples in the mainstream cultures of different colonised countries. E.g. the USA and Australia.

  6. billy | September 22, 2010 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    Seems as relevant here as anywhere; from an interview with China Mieville (who, oddly, has a PhD in international relations, which i didn’t know until just know)

    “”You can’t escape narrative, and as a culture we need to think so much harder about how stories are deployed politically,” he explains. “Narratives can be very powerful without convincing anybody.

    “For example – very few serious thinkers believed there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Very few people on the street thought there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. But that’s the story that made the running, and homogenised that whole area of discourse. So those of us who are opposed were running around shouting: ‘No, there aren’t any weapons of mass destruction’ – but maybe we should have been saying something more like, ‘fuck this absurd agenda! I’m not going to argue on this ludicrous axis, this isn’t what war is about!’

    “There’s a real political importance to questioning the power of stories, and it’s something that, as radicals, we definitely shouldn’t trivialise.” “