Mirror, Mirror On The Wall

Operating outside their social, cultural, and political comfort zones, US journalists struggle to come “to grips with a social reality that is systematically different from one’s own, and to explain its specific logic and momentum are most difficult conceptual and pedagogical tasks.” [Jayant Lele, “Orientalism and the Social Sciences,” In Carol A. Breckenridge & Peter van der Veer (Eds.), Orientalism and the Postcolonial Predicament: Perspectives on South Asia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993:56]. Jayant Lele’s critique of the social sciences applies equally powerfully and troublingly to US journalism. There is a nearly complete “absence of self-reflexivity, through the singular affirmation of one’s condition as positive and worth of emulation,” which informs Western media representations of the world. [Ibid.]

This lack of reflexivity has acted to “insulate one’s worldview from a possible critique through an open exposure to other ways of making sense.” [Ibid.]. It makes journalism about the world only about the US, leaving other nations and communities “largely peripheral by the West, except, at times, as a convenient mirror to assess or admire itself.” [Ibid.]

We end up with nations and peoples “shut-down, sealed-off entities that have been purged of the myriad currents and countercurrents that animate human history and that over centuries have made it possible for that history not only to contain wars of religion and imperial conquest but also to be one of exchange, cross-fertilization, and sharing.” [Edward Said, “The Clash of Ignorance”, The Nation, October 4, 2001].

A common tactic to manufacture difference is to outsource issues–corruption, sexism, patriarchy, masculinity, political despotism, etc.–to the non-Western world with little or no effort to reflect on how these practices exist within the West and what the causes may be. Instead, a “fantastical” West–geography of democracy, freedom of speech, gender equality, the rule of law, etc.–is the ideal against which others are found short. [Joseph Massad, Islam in Liberalism, The University of Chicago Press, 2015:264].

This lack of self-reflexivity allows journalists to “discover” differences–patriarchy, masculinity, anti-democratic practices, corruption, misogyny–in the non-Western world. Although, upon closer examination, it “turns out to be internal to it [the West].” [Joseph Massad, Islam in Liberalism, The University of Chicago Press, 2015:1]. However, “the ruse of externalizing them as outsiders intends to hide the operation of projecting them as an outside so that [the West’s] inside can be defined as their opposite, as their superior.” [Joseph Massad, Islam in Liberalism, The University of Chicago Press, 2015:1]. More often than not, the construction of difference is politically motivated.

It closely tracks US imperial interests, capitalist priorities, and Eurocentric prejudices. Nations that question capitalism, or as challengers to US imperialism, or unconvinced of Western cultural supremacy become targets for essentialist, reductive representation. By holding the West as the ideal, the journalists present them as antithetical to “our” values. [Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, Zed Books Ltd. 1999:42]. They become dangerous, threatening, underdeveloped, anti-democratic, misogynist, despotic, tribal, or some other reductive label.

Moreover, the “comparison is often with a fantastical version of Europe and the United States, which societies are not subjected to an analysis characterized by cultural reductionism.” The media “bifurcates the world into the ‘West and the Rest’ and organizes everyday language into binary hierarchies implicitly flattering to Europe: our ‘nations,’ their ‘tribes’; our ‘religions,’ their ‘superstitions’; our’ culture,’ their ‘folklore’; our ‘art,’ their ‘artifacts’; our ‘demonstrations,’ their ‘riots’; our ‘Defense’ and their ‘terrorism.’” [Ella Shohat and Robert Stam, Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media, Routledge Press, 1994:2]. Our “enemies” appear in the strangest of lights, inexplicably painted as suffering from pathologies and propensities that are explained, analyzed, and judged through essentialist, cultural, and ethnic terms. And it is done with a remarkable lack of subtlety or self-consciousness.

The construction of “difference” stains almost all international reporting done by US journalists. But this is not mere cultural cringe or confusion. It is a consequence of a Eurocentric cultural arrogance that centers the Western journalist as a messenger of good, a giver of benevolence, and a seer of all.