This blog post includes ideas for conversations at the beginning of the semester. In a subsequent post we will discuss more detailed lesson planning regarding terrorism, migration, and violence in classes that deal with these kind of topics. The thoughts offered here can be integrated as brief conversations and are thus appropriate for a range of classes that do not necessarily address human rights specifically.
In light of this summer’s events both in the U.S. and Europe, our students may return from the summer break with anxieties and feelings of insecurity. Based on the different attacks this summer, students might feel unsafe in general and may also project these fears as biases at specific groups of people. Since these groups can, depending on who is harboring the fears, include African-Americans, Muslim Americans, refugees, migrants, police officers, and white supremacists, we are prone to encounter intersecting and conflicting fears in our classrooms. As most of us teach human rights, our syllabi include instances of discrimination and violence and thereby further contribute to this general angst. So what can we do about it?
It can be helpful to present statistics about terrorism, crime, and immigration, or use the ted talk in the resource section of this post for a general take on the decline rather than the rise of violence. I doubt, however, that facts alone will alleviate the fears. Showing that not all members of a certain group prescribe to an ideology or not all members of a group are violent is too vague to actually help students deal with their anxieties. My goal in this situation is to help students to see perpetrators as individuals rather than collectives (this approach may be more suitable for terrorism fears rather than police brutality and structural discrimination which our next blog post will address in more detail). A faceless group of potential attackers leads to a diffuse and irrational kind of angst. Therefore, I suggest a speak-out. Early in your class, ask your students to talk about their fears and possibly contribute as well. Ask everyone to respect what they hear and to not dismiss it. All fears should be taken seriously. As a next step, allow for conversations. Support different groups to talk to each other rather than about a faceless entity. Making it personal in ways where a fellow student may be a member of the group that other students fear will increase an understanding of diversity and individuality within that group. It also shows how these fears affect the actual members of a religious or ethnic or professional community. If you don’t have diverse classes, bring in people from other parts of campus or the community and allow everyone’s voice to be heard. Speaking alone might be cathartic, but entering conversations can make a long-term difference.
For these conversations to work, we should make sure that our classroom is a safe space. Don’t dismiss any fear for being unwarranted but address the reality of these fears as well (what are students specifically afraid of and why?). Don’t let conversation take the form of accusation and defense. If you have one or more minority students in your class, don’t take them as the representative, as the mouthpiece of their ethnic or religious group. This would play into the homogenization of groups as well. They should also not have to answer broad questions about their group – they are individuals with individual experiences. Present them as exactly that and have them share their feelings as well. Here, the personal contact is the most important element. Eventually, facts need to be introduced into the conversation as well. Depending on the time frame of this intervention in your class, bring in articles, statistics or professionals (for instance, police officers from the city or county, or the Imam of a nearby Mosque, or a scholar from your institution who studies African-American history, Islam, terrorism etc.) for factual information.
If you have the time, let students research the background to some of the attacks. Germany is a good example since four widely different attacks happened within one week. While all four attacks were committed by members of the same religious group and three attackers were refugees, only one (maybe two) were politically motivated. Both the Munich rampage and the Reutlingen murder could have happened elsewhere and with different ethnic backgrounds. That doesn’t make the crimes any better, innocent humans have died in both occasions, but it does help to relativize an assumption of homogeneity that plays into a rhetoric that sees a whole group as potential perpetrators of terrorism. The two refugees in Germany can also contrast the attackers of Brussels and Paris who had lived in Europe for a long time before their attacks. Here separation within a society lies at the heart of the problem, which a politics of fear may exacerbate. Articles can provide additional material to drive one main point home: By homogenizing one group of people and further pushing the group out of our societies, we may help the aims of terrorists.
On violence in general
Steven Pinker, Ted Talk, The surprising decline in violence: https://www.ted.com/talks/steven_pinker_on_the_myth_of_violence?language=en
Steven Pinker and Andrew Mack, “The world is not falling apart,” Slate: http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/foreigners/2014/12/the_world_is_not_falling_apart_the_trend_lines_reveal_an_increasingly_peaceful.html
On anxiety and terrorism
Steven Erlanger, “String of attacks in Europe fuels a summer of anxiety,” New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/26/world/europe/string-of-attacks-in-europe-fuels-a-summer-of-anxiety.html?ref=world&_r=2
On refugees and immigration
Imran Awan, “Stop Blaming Refugees for Attacks Like Those in Paris,” New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2015/11/16/should-europe-shun-refugees-after-the-paris-attacks/stop-blaming-refugees-for-attacks-like-those-in-paris
Ben Norton, “Our terrorism double standard: After Paris, let’s stop blaiming Muslims and take a hard look at ourselves,”Salon: http://www.salon.com/2015/11/14/our_terrorism_double_standard_after_paris_lets_stop_blaming_muslims_and_take_a_hard_look_at_ourselves/
Amanda Taub, “Shutting down immigration won’t solve Europe’s terrorism problem,” Vox: http://www.vox.com/2016/3/22/11285962/brussels-attack-refugees-immigration
By: Nicole Coleman