Yet in the days that have followed the tragedy in Orlando, American reporters, political commentators, bloggers, word-salad makers and everyone in between have engaged a repeated and telling set of linguistic patterns — word associations — that are worth noting. There is, of course, the conflation of "Muslim" and "terrorist." And then there is the emphasis placed on information understood to contradict what is known (or more accurately what is assumed) about Muslims.
Here's a hint: It often shows up in written sentences and public statements that include the phrase, "He's Muslim, but..." or "She's Muslim, yet..."
What's worse, a growing body of research suggests that these very habits, patterns and features so clear in the coverage of the situation in Orlando may not just demean and sometimes imperil the same groups of Americans over and over again. Research indicates that the repetition of this language, these assumptions and surprise when the assumptions prove untrue or incomplete may play a major role in feeding, fostering and sustaining stereotypes. This, in turn, programs our brains to view these assumptions as fact, participate in a fact-light or fact-free feedback loop in our conversations and in major moments of decision. The frequency and predictability of these patterns — which are often subconscious — influences everything from where we sit to where we opt to live and how we vote.
Still have no idea what we're talking about? Well, take a deep breath and accept that this post is about to get very real and very specific.
Look at the four examples below, which are pulled directly from the identified news organizations, in the last week. Pay close attention to the use of terms like "but" and "yet," and note some of the buts and yets arrived in the form of comments from reporters' sources — not the reporters themselves. Consider carefully the context in which they appear below.
The Washington PostMateen later had a son with another woman who also appears to have left him and declined to comment when reached at her current home.But one friend said Mateen became steadily more religious after his divorce and went on a religious pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia.“He was quite religious,” said the friend, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity. Yet, he added, if Mateen had sympathies for the Islamic State or other terrorist groups, he never mentioned them.The New York TimesMr. Mateen was an observant Muslim, but never expressed sympathies for terrorist organizations or radical Islamists.The Los Angeles TimesThe FBI had twice investigated Mateen on suspicion of having terrorist ties in 2013 and 2014, yet they could not find conclusive evidence.FightBackNews.orgAnd, it has been found out that the shooter was not a practicing Muslim [not accurate], but in fact was a fan of the NYPD.
Do you see the pattern? The language above both references stereotypes about Muslims and expresses surprise that Mateen's life did not always conform with them.
"The language being used in much of the news coverage is what we would call 'stereotype-congruent' in pointing out that this individual didn't seem like a terrorist, but was Muslim," said Bradley W. Gorham, an associate professor and chair of communications at Syracuse University's Newhouse School of Public Communications. "Just [Tuesday], the New York Times headline was Mateen was 'Americanized.' He was born in America, so he was an Americanized American? That language implies that an American Muslim should not be American-like."
To be very, very clear, no one is suggesting that facts should be ignored, the truth clouded for the sake of political correctness or making anyone feel equal in America.
Mateen did call 911 and express fealty to ISIS. But he had previously been investigated by the FBI for expressing sympathy or connections to two other Islamic terrorist organizations that sharply disagree with ISIS. No connections were substantiated. Yet with hundreds of reporters around the world working on stories about Mateen, it took days for that information to emerge, as did information about Mateen's multiple visits to the gay nightclub in Orlando where he later shot and killed 49 people and connections made on a gay dating app.
No one is suggesting that we avoid reporting on or reading information as it becomes available or begin to hedge so hard that all clarity is lost. And certainly no one should deny the existence of terrorism in the world, some of which is propelled or inspired by particular interpretations of Islam.
But none of that means that the men and women of ISIS are representative of all Muslims and anyone who does not conform or appear to subscribe to ISIS's worldview who is Muslim constitutes a human surprise. None of this means that other Muslims owe non-Muslims a collective apology or public demonstration of their commitment to nonviolence.
That thinking can have serious consequences for both justice and public safety, say experts on these things.
"When a Muslim American is involved in an incident, their behavior almost always becomes something [the country should] remedy by dealing with the individual," said Charlton McIlwain, who was a student at the University of Oklahoma when the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was bombed in 1995. Within hours of the bombing, McIlwain saw fear of persecution, a potential round-up or worse spread among Muslims on campus, about an hour's drive south of the bombing site.
McIlwain is now an associate professor of media culture and communication at New York University. For 20 years, he has researched and taught about race and media, how racial messages are conveyed in images and language and how this effects our political and social life. He co-authored the 2011 book, "Race Appeal: How Candidates Invoke Race in U.S. Political Campaigns."
Religious matters are also of interest and often treated much the same way when it comes to Muslims, he said.
"Since 1995, the association between Muslim and terrorist has grown to the point where they are frequently transposed and viewed as the same, described as the same," McIlwain said. "What we have seen this week is everyone from political candidates and important and respected public figures and thinkers to your neighbor next door connecting this act to religious group membership. And as is usually the case with a Muslim American, a distinct event, crime or tragedy is not something you remedy by hunting down and punishing the guilty party. You remedy it by criminalizing, in some way, the whole group, advocating for bans."
What the patterns in the four examples above reveal are what psychologists call "schemas." The human brain is designed to take in information, then rely on mental shortcuts or what some experts call "framing" that helps us process information as efficiently as possible. Both our schemas and our frames — notions we believe to be correct based on limited facts — are influenced by events, public statements, information that occurs at roughly the same time.
This is the anatomy of a stereotype, folks. And yes, Gorham said our brains are hardwired to take them in and rely upon them. So, when one thing happens in the future that would seem to affirm a stereotype, our brain's predilection for efficiency tells us all the other parts of the stereotype are also true. That's why when we come across contradictory information, we can react with hard-to-suppress surprise.
It turns out that when those schemas are given serious credence and become synonymous with information — such as, um, in journalism — reading, listening and talking about it helps to spread these ideas like intellectual viruses.
How do we know that?
Gorham was one of the researchers behind a 2006 study that found that people use more abstract and subjective language to describe people or events involving those who are members of a different racial/ethnic group than their own (i.e. "He's irresponsible") and more concrete, objective language when describing a person or thing involving people who share our racial/ethnic or other identities (i.e. "She was/was not on time"). Then, when test subjects were shown news stories involving race and ran their tests again, they found the same thing only in more pronounced terms. In fact, they found that the test subjects who in their daily lives consumed the most news demonstrated the most severe form of this pattern. For real. It pains The Fix to say this, but watching the news apparently makes things worse.
"The more news you consume, the more you get exposed to these stereotypes and that influences you at a cognitive level, if you are not aware or would not be inclined to agree with that stereotype," Gorham said.
If you do not consume information, especially the news, with a critical thought process, one that is attuned to the common but subtle deployment of stereotypes, you are more likely to believe these things to be fact. If you do not question information that fits too neatly within them, you are in intellectually dangerous territory for sure. Hence, you are more likely to make important decisions based on those same ideas.
Here is the one bit of potential bright light here in this tale of human habits: People can fight the powers that be. To do so, both McIlwain and Gorham advised the social-justice equivalent of mindfulness.
"The way to retrain your brain is to first of all be aware that you do it," Gorham said. "We all do. In the U.S., we tend to talk about racism and sexism and heterosexism as if they are only something that exists at the conscious, willful level. We think people who engage in this must be bad or not bright. That's really only true in some cases.
"Sometimes the solution is really as simple as reminding yourself that I don't know this individual. I don't know this situation or place or thing, acknowledging that upon meeting someone new and, for any reason, you immediately feel surprised. You have to think about the assumptions that underlie that surprise. We can reshape our brains."
The ability to understand this matters so much at the Newhouse School that no one — not future journalists, not future Mad Men and Women, not people who plan to go into business — can graduate without taking a course that examines the ways in which stereotypes are subtly communicated and possibly reinforced by various forms of media, public comment, writing and language. No one. This is a critical skill in an America where at least 38.3 percent of the country is not white but most often subject to the kind of group suspicions and aspersions we are talking about here.
And there are a few more facts that should humble us all as we think about whether this issue is real, whether it matters and whether we are truly all implicated in both feeding and wallowing in this problem. They pretty much highlight the limited logic of much of the conversation about Orlando this week.
First, until the incident in Orlando, both the Department of Homeland Security and the International Security Program at the New America Foundation had described terrorism inspired by far-right extremism (that's white nationalism and related ideologies) as the biggest threats facing the United States. For DHS, a report that stated as much created a big controversy.
The reason: Until Sunday, these attacks had been more frequent in the United States in the years since 9/11 than acts of terror inspired by any interpretation of Islam. And that hasn't actually changed. What has, after Orlando, is that the death toll due to Islamic extremism and violent Jihadist attacks has topped the number killed due to far-right extremism. But that later point only became true on Sunday. Sunday, people.
Second, the Orlando attack was launched by a man who, at this point, the president of the United States and the director of the FBI have said, has not been conclusively linked to any organization or ideology, but appears to have encountered radical Islamist ideas advocating terrorist acts in some way online. The investigation continues, but in essence anything or anyone that speaks or writes of such a connection with certainty right now — or discounts the role that other issues may have played in this massacre — is not really absorbing all the facts as they are known. They are likely relying, at least in part, on a schema, a stereotype.
Finally, the slow pace at which information about Mateen and his possible motivations came to light — with hundreds of reporters working on a story about a shooting in a gay nightclub — is also worth noting.
Still in doubt this is a real phenomenon?
Try this exercise. As you read about Mateen, the events in Orlando or national security today, count up how many times you see the terms radical Islam, radicalization, Islamic terrorist or Islamic terrorism? Do you see places where Muslim or radical Islam and terrorism are used almost interchangeably? Is it expressed as a possibility or a certainty, the lone reason why this mass shooting occurred despite all that we now know? Or is the absence of proof thereof phrased as a surprise? It's not the terms themselves that are a problem; it's the context in which they are used.
Then think about this: The creeping normalcy of group suspicion, reliance on stereotypes for key decision-making and refusal or resistance to new or important details that may contradict those notions represents a serious threat unto itself, McIlwain said.
"Only a fair-minded public, interested in facts and details has any hope of maintaining what I think we all hope will be a robust and functioning democracy," McIlwain said.