If I say the word “apple,” chances are you know what I’m talking about. You probably even have a mental picture: a shiny, roundish, red fruit, with a stem. Possibly a little leaf. The perfect apple that we praise children for drawing. The ideal apple, the conceptual model of which the actual pieces of fruit we encounter in the grocery store are variations.
Now try the word “terrorist.” What mental picture arises? Wait – hold it there for a moment. Don’t banish it, and don’t allow the second-stage engines of the intellect to kick in and alter it to conform to your thoughtfully cultivated personal politics and education. Just give this knee-jerk subconscious response a good look. What does this image look like? What color hair, eyes, skin? What is he wearing? What language is he speaking? And is it a “he”?
Two things are important here. First, both of these words operate independently of a referent. The word “apple” doesn’t need to refer to a specific physical ideal apple in order to function. This is because its actual function is to represent a fairly stable collection of cultural agreements about which characteristics constitute “apple-ness.” We internalize this set of agreed-upon characteristics in early childhood training, and the picture is constantly repeated and thus reinforced in cartoons, advertisements, etc. We soon learn to regard any fruit that displays enough key “apple” properties as an apple…even if it lacks or differs in others.
Consider, though, that you’ve at least held an apple in your hand. You can balance your experiences of various real fruits against the depictions of apples in media. You know that a nectarine, though it may display many “apple” characteristics (roundishness, reddishness, stem), is not an apple.
Now consider our other example in this same light. It’s a word that operates independently of a referent. A collection of cultural agreements. Created and constantly reinforced by the insistent repetition of a specific set of images and language. In this case, though, most of us have no real apple in our hand.
Return to the picture that popped up in your mind at the word “terrorist.” Don’t cringe too much if it’s racist, class-based, Islamophobic; in important ways, this picture is not of your making. It’s a composite that your pattern-matching brain, and mine, has assembled from the sets of images and linguistic associations we have absorbed; this picture, with its specific set of characteristics, is constantly reinforced by movies, the news, political rhetoric, etc. And the less we examine this picture, the more powerful it is.
Because here is the frightening thing. The strategy of repetition and reinforcement works. This process creates social reality. And movies, newscasts, and political rhetoric have, through insistently recirculating a strategically selected set of images and terms, bundled a whole range of human characteristics into the set that comprises the word “terrorist.” Characteristics that we (in comfortable Northern California) might find different, unusual, or opaque to our understanding. Characteristics that might include brown-ness. Use of another language. Modes of dress we don’t understand. The overwhelming repetition of a select set of images in popular discourse about the Middle East (the single photo of Osama bin Laden that the news sources all seem to have agreed upon, for instance) has linked these neutral types of visual difference with violence, oppression, and extremism so well that our default, knee-jerk picture of a “terrorist” includes them all. Even when they contradict one another, which they frequently do.
Since we don’t have the apple in our hand, the term “terrorist” has come to refer to a set of characteristics that is centerless, conflicting, and distorted, which therefore can be used to cultivate fear of any group of people whom our government (and the economic interests that dictate much of its foreign policy) finds inconvenient. So scrutinize your quick mental pictures. Investigate where they come from, and why. Look for patterns in the images and language you encounter about the Middle East in mainstream popular culture, and then look for the exceptions, new perspectives, more complex representations of actual people. And tonight, really take note of the moments that surprise you as you encounter the characters of INVASION!. Those moments of surprise may provide valuable insight into what’s really filling your basket of apples…or nectarines.
The Cast of INVASION! pictured left to right: Lawrence Radecker, George Psarras, Olivia Rosaldo-Pratt, and Wiley Naman Strasser.