1 Nov 2010
Do Norwegians Live with Polar Bears Up in the North Pole?
It was some 8 or 10 years ago, back in Yerevan State University, sociology class. The late Dr. Moorad Mooradian (an outstanding researcher, adviser and friend), a visiting lecturer from George Mason University, started his class a bit differently from the mainstream teaching practices, by asking us to describe Jews in 5 words. Dr. Mooradian summed up the results. Dominating words were – Smart, Greedy, Shady, Rich, Conspiracy related. Dr. Mooradian did not hesitate to remind us that these are the prejudices that lead to genocides and gas chambers. He then informed that a similar poll was carried out in one of the classes in a university in Azerbaijan and that exact same 5 descriptions were pointed out by Azerbaijani students regarding their perceptions about Armenians. This class shaped my understanding of ethnicity, generalizations and stereotypes. It has literally been the only class I remember out of 7 years of university level studies.
Generalizations are very common these days. We easily generalize about a group, be it ethnic, cultural, religious or other, based on our previous encounters with people representing the given group or through other social agents shaping our understanding about the given group (i.e., history books, movies, news reports). Some generalizations seem to be working for the majority, while others can create prejudice, unfair treatment and offensive attitudes or practices. Needless to say that such generalizations may lead to discrimination towards persons from the given group, who do not necessarily perceive themselves the way one might perceive, categorize or label them. We tend to accept certain generalizations without contesting. I heard in the US (and perhaps some also believe this in other parts of the world) that Norwegians live very far in the north and side by side with polar bears. Imagine how surprising such a generalization is to an average Norwegian who definitely does not live side by side with polar bears very far up in the north. At times it can be even trickier than that. I suggest that we take an interactive test now. A comedy show few years ago had the following experiment in the US: somebody with a Middle Eastern appearance and accent appears on TV screens and says “I have a surprise for you, it will come this Friday, it will be something BIG, you will never forget it, life is not going to be the same after this…” Imagine your first reaction? Then the same thing is said by an average white American TV program host! And the message may simply refer to a new TV show they promote*. Message is the same, but our perceptions, prejudices and expectations shape the way we accept them and react to them.
A. Zverev in his book chapter “Ethnic Conflicts in the Caucasus 1988-1994”, points out “After the first direct clash between an Azeri crowd and Armenian residents, near Askeran, in which about 50 Armenians were wounded and two Azeri attackers killed, Deputy USSR Procurator-General A. Katusev, speaking on central TV on 27 February, told the audience about the killing of two young Azeris, specifically naming the nationality of those killed. This announcement may have acted as a catalyst. Within hours, a pogrom against Armenian residents began in the city of Sumgait, 25 km from Baku.”**
This comes to support Dr. Mooradian’s warning that generalizations may lead to major violence. This also warns about ways news are reported and identity and belonging is emphasized.
What made me go back into memories on Dr. Mooradians class and eventually write up this post is some of the media reports of recent weeks. Two specific reports come to fuel hatred and negative generalizations. One of them was the reporting in mid October on the massive FBI investigation that uncovered the largest Medicare fraud operation ever carried out by a single group in the U.S. that laundered over $163 million in false medical claims. The case has been widely publicized in US and international media, including such leading media outlets as New York Times, New York Post, Christian Science Monitor, Reuters, USA Today, ABC News, MSNBC, CNN etc. All media outlets have specifically stressed the Armenian background of the leading figures in this case. This led to many Armenian American community leaders and organizations to speak out and warn against generalizations. Prominent columnist and community activist Sassounian wrote on this “It is even more outrageous that the good name of all Armenians is being tarnished by sweeping media generalizations, bringing intense feelings of shame to millions of law-abiding Armenians who are overly sensitive about their reputation… Exploiting the media hype, all sorts of racists, Armenian-haters, and naturally some Turks have come out of the woodwork to post vicious anti-Armenian comments on various internet sites.” (See: Sassounian: Media Unfairly Bashes All Armenians Because of Alleged Crimes of a Few/). Sassounian also reminds that these convicts were not pledged guilty and only after a court verdict they could justly be called criminals.
The second report that poses similar danger came October 15, about two Azerbaijanis in a Russian city of Volgograd, who have been arrested for the brutal murder of an Armenian national who they burned alive, as quoted from a reported by the Pervaya Gazeta newspaper, on Friday. The alleged murderers, savagely beat the Armenian and then set him on fire alive, by use of gasoline. This report has been naturally widely reflected in Armenian media, which time and again will lead to many Armenians arguing that Azerbaijanis are a group of barbaric people and all they can do (or want to do) is to burn Armenians alive. Similar reactions were reinforced after reports in 2004, of a brutal murder of an Armenian officer by an Azerbaijani peer Ramil Safarov in Budapest. Moreover, the assassin soon afterwards was reported to be decorated as hero. While many Azerbaijanis were unhappy about such actions and have spoken out against it, the media would create an illusion that all Azerbaijanis are armenophobs and they happily titles assassins of any Armenian as heroes. Eventually hardliners are the ones who get the media coverage and not the mainstream, a phenomenon that contributes to reciprocal prejudices, hate and intolerance.
Chances are that all of us at some point have suffered from prejudices and unappreciated generalizations and it is each and everyone of us that bear responsibility for personal or institutional actions and statements that can fuel further injustice, suffering or even violence. Let’s think twice before using phrases such as “Those Americans”, “Armenians”, “Azeris” or “Iraqis.” Chances are that the majority of the population does not carry the characteristics we are about to impose.
* Credits for this example go to a comedy show that presents a similar example. The show has been observed on Youtube, as part of a stand up comedy about a year ago, which unfortunately was not identified now, to be included as reference.
**Zverev, Alexei, “Ethnic Conflicts in the Caucasus 1988-1994”, in: Bruno Coppieters (ed) “Contested Borders in the Caucasus” (Brussels: Vubpress, 1996) Available for free use at http://poli.vub.ac.be/publi/ContBorders/eng/ch0101.htm