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They’re Animals!

Issue: 56 Section: Media Analysis

December 19, 2008

They’re Animals!

Dehumanization, media and the War on Terror

by Tim McSorley

Erin Steuter, in her new book, At War With Metaphor, says that using animal metaphors, common in nearly any language, becomes dangerous when we move beyond simple comparisons to persistent metaphors. People are no longer like something, but have become something. Photo: Frances Mackenzie

MONTREAL, QUEBEC – While most people were glued to their television screens, confounded by the images of the burning Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, Erin Steuter started to notice a trend among television announcers and in news coverage of the event. "I noticed right away that some commentators were starting to use animal metaphors, terms like 'the hunt for bin Laden,' instead of 'the search for,' or they would talk about them hiding in caves and lairs or nests instead of bunkers or something human-made."

While the Professor of Sociology at Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick, found the analogies off-putting, at first she thought little of it, chalking it up to the immediate frenzy that would follow such an event. But gradually, as she followed the language used informally, she noticed a disturbing trend. "[The animal metaphor] started to grow and be used for all citizens of Afghanistan or all the people of Iraq." Increasingly alarmed by the pervasiveness of this language, she began following it more closely, doing thorough searches in media databases such as Lexis-Nexis. As she delved deeper, she realized that instead of receding as time went on, the dehumanizing metaphors continued to spread, "not just to specific enemies or to specific people associated with particular countries we were at war with, but to all Muslims and in some cases all Arabs." The result is the recently published At War With Metaphor, which documents and attempts to explain not just where this language comes from, but what its dangers are, particularly based on historical precedent.

Taken alone, using animal metaphors does not necessarily seem so nefarious. Indeed comparisons to animals – eating like a pig, strong as a bull – are fairly common in nearly any language. The danger lies, according to Steuter, when we move beyond simple comparisons, to persistent metaphors; people are no longer like something, but have become something. You’re not like an animal; you are an animal. Steuter points out that we have seen this kind of dehumanization before in some of the most brutal and bloody human conflicts.

The image of the rat was used both by Nazis in their dehumanization of Jews, making it easier for neighbour to turn on neighbour during the Holocaust. The rat metaphor was also adopted in America when it came to locking up Japanese-Americans in internment camps later in the Second World War, following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour and the United States' subsequent entry into the conflict. Most recently, Steuter points to the 1994 genocide of Tutsi populations by Hutus in Rwanda. International tribunals have condemned journalists for inciting and provoking the massacre, particularly radio stations, which painted Tutsis as cockroaches and calling for their extermination. As animal metaphors grew in the coverage of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Steuter found it difficult to believe that these recent lessons about the use of language in committing violent acts had disappeared from the public consciousness. "I thought it would be more resonant, but people have short memories. I don't think they realized that the records of what is being said about this war on terror is not dissimilar to those previous records."

In April 2008, it was revealed that the Pentagon, with the complicity of the major American news agencies, had co-ordinated the use of military analysts in US coverage of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in order to drum up support for the military operations. The American media has been roundly criticized since for allowing military officials too large a place in shaping the media's approach to its reporting on the war on terror and related elements.

Steuter agrees that militaries – American and Canadian – have played a large role in pushing the animal metaphor. "I think there's a sort of masculinity and intensity and power in the military language and I think the media is sometimes quick to adopt it to take on some of the power and authority for themselves." But she is quick to add that chalking up how the war is framed only to military officials is scratching the surface.

"The very notion of the war on terror was developed with consultants to make sure it brought forward the right kind of responses that suited the American political agenda and even now in Canada, the Canadian political agenda."

Steuter contends that the Canadian media have not escaped falling into the trap of dehumanizing its opponents either. According to Steuter, while the Canadian media were fairly critical of the first Gulf War under George Bush Sr. in 1991, their analysis has since significantly softened. Though Canadian media seemingly haven't engaged in dehumanizing Muslims, Arabs or Afghans as much as our southern neighbours, Steuter sees a growing trend, leaving her with little doubt that if our media do not start to turn a critical light on our own country we will soon be as complicit as our American counterparts.

“I definitely see it happening as well in Canada and I think that as the Afghanistan situation is not being resolved I think it's going to escalate, so I've been keeping tabs on the way that the Taliban and the Afghan people are being portrayed.

"I think that soon enough we're going to start to see that if you keep thinking that these people aren't even human beings, you're not going to be treating them as such. I think it is just going to explode, where Canada is going to be humiliated and embarrassed by the way we're treating civilians of enemy combatants or anyone who’s in our hands in that way."

How do we avoid heading down that road? For Steuter, the first step is to develop more informed and critical-thinking media consumers. The last chapter of At War with Metaphor, "Talking our way to peace," outlines her vision of how more critical debate can help break apart the monolithic viewpoint presented by corporate media and that government public relations should have a more rounded debate on military exploits. The lack of a critical approach, she says, is what led to prisoner abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, where images and videos of prisoner abuse have clearly shown a physical manifestation of the metaphorical dehumanization within the media.

"The very famous picture we have of [US Army Specialist] Lynndie England is her standing over a prisoner who's on all-fours naked on the end of a leash. Look at the pictures at Guantanamo Bay – they're chained to the ground in little cages with water bowls like dogs. So these are the actions that are following [from the media's dehumanization]." To counter this, people need to start revisiting their own everyday language in discussing the war – and challenging the language used by others.

"If we start to consciously change our language and start to talk about the criminal acts that have to be prosecuted and tried and that people need to be brought to justice for their actions, then we will see a much better situation in terms of addressing the problems of the violence and not of spreading the abuses with it. So having a personal consciousness of the use of language and calling others to account, calling them on it in the way that we do often call public figures and journalists on inappropriate language in other contexts, I think it's definitely something that we need to step up."

Tim McSorley is Media Analysis Editor at The Dominion.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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