Why We Need To Change The Way We Talk About Violent Extremism This Election Season

Beth Hallowell, PhD, is a cultural anthropologist and the Communications Research Director at the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). She is the author of AFSC's new report, Mixed messages: How the media covers violence extremism, and what you can do about it.

Our national conversation about race, religion, and violence has reached new lows this election season. But the vitriol that we're witnessing now is nothing new: Islamophobia and the sense that violence is the only response to conflict are cultural narratives that have been at work in the U.S. since long before the 2016 election cycle began.

Anyone who reads the news or watches TV knows that our national conversation on this issue is bad. But how bad is bad? A recently-released study by the American Friends Service Committee demonstrates the new lows that we have reached in public discourse. For example, the study documents how media overwhelmingly talk about Islam when they talk about extremism: 90 percent of the time the outlets in the sample covered extremism, they also mentioned Islam. This was far more often than those same outlets mentioned Christianity (13 percent), Judaism (4 percent), or any other religion. This coverage comes from -- and plays into -- dangerous and wildly inaccurate stereotypes of Islam as linked to violence. In addition to generating hatred towards Muslims and people who are wrongly assumed to be Muslim (another hallmark of Islamophobia in the U.S.), this coverage also frames groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda as either coldly calculating or as irrational barbarians, and sometimes as both in the same article.

Why does this matter? Because flat, ahistorical representations of these groups set them up as natural military targets: Either because they are cunning, state-like organizations that must be stopped by military means, or because they are monsters who only respond to force. This is in addition to the over-coverage of U.S. military interventions into conflicts. The study shows that military interventions into conflicts are covered far more often than other kinds of approaches to conflicts, like diplomacy or humanitarian intervention. What's more, this is within the broader context of under-coverage of nonviolent responses to conflict in general. The study found a 5:1 ratio in the coverage of violence to nonviolence, meaning that for every story that mentions nonviolent activism, civil society collaborations, or grassroots peace building, there are five mentions of violent responses to conflict. The result? A large proportion of the U.S. electorate -- 40 percent of Clinton supporters and 71 percent of Trump supporters -- think the U.S. military campaign against ISIS won't go far enough.

Fortunately, we can change this conversation. Journalists can tell stories that highlight individuals' humanity in all of its beauty and complexity instead of relying on racist stereotypes. They can cover violence in ways that explore both the historical roots of the conflict and the many different solutions that are possible, including the nonviolent ones. AFSC and other advocates can work together to bring these facts to journalists' attention, and help them become experts in these fields. Readers can help too: they can click, share, and comment on stories that humanize the people in them, and that tell accurate stories about the many possible solutions to conflict.

We have an opportunity to make a choice. This racist, violent discourse does not happen by accident. We can choose to talk about extremism in ways that move us toward nonviolent solutions, which research has shown to more effective in building sustainable peace. In fact, political scientists Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan have shown that nonviolent civil resistance movements are twice as effective in reaching their goals as their violence-wielding equivalents. Both our morals and our metrics show us why we need make this choice. This election season, let's change this conversation together.