The digital world is allowing us to spread hate far and wide without any understanding of how it affects the world, and the people, around us.
Soon after moving to my husband's home state of Texas in 2006, we got into a vaguely philosophical war with members of his family about a vitriolic chain letter one of them had forwarded by email, supposedly written by an American Airlines pilot that began this way:
"Amen to this one!!!!! Profiling? So What? From a pilot's point of view…This is the most profound, most insightful message to Muslims I've seen. I think it should be read on FOX, sent to the President and forwarded to any other form of media to express what so many of us feel toward the Muslims!"
I was raised Muslim and am the only Muslim in my husband's family, so the letter hit me in a deeply personal way, and I went on the attack, along with my husband and his sister. In the letter, the "pilot" then went on to profess, "I've been trying to say this since 9/11 but you worry me."
The burden was now on us, the Muslims of the world, the author claimed, to prove our good intentions—that we weren't terrorists lying in wait.
Snopes, the fact-checking site, found the letter to be of questionable authenticity having circulated in various forms since at least 2002.
Donald Trump's recent tweets (Muslim migrant beats up Dutch Boy on crutches!" "Muslim Destroys a Statue of Virgin Mary!) purporting to show extreme violence perpetrated by Muslims reminded me of this tense-filled time.
To tell the truth, I haven't been able to bring myself to watch the videos. It's bad enough just to know they're being propagated to foment distrust of Muslims, by the president of the United States no less.
When the veracity of the videos was challenged, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders defended Trump’s peddling of racism to his 43.7 million Twitter followers, claiming, no matter the videos' origins, "the threat is real."
My in-laws also doubled down when challenged: "She does not need to take heat over something as innocuous as a forwarded email," someone wrote in the sender's defense.
Innocuous? Why would she have forwarded it if the words didn't have power over her and if she wasn't hoping for them to have power over other people?
"How do I differentiate between the true Arab/Muslim-Americans and the Arab/Muslims in our communities who are attending our schools, enjoying our parks, and living in OUR communities under the protection of OUR constitution, while they plot the next attack that will slaughter these same good neighbors and children? I want to know, I demand to know, and I have a right to know whether or not you love America."
Not much has changed in the past 10 years, it would seem, except the technology with which such racism is propagated.
In 2007, The Nation called forwarded e-mails "the new right-wing smear machine."
Twitter launched in 2006—in the heyday of the forwarded electronic chain letter—and by the 2016 presidential election had become the largest source of breaking news, arguably replacing e-mail chains as the predominant form of sharing one's political viewpoints.
The problem with confirmation bias is people look for evidence to support things they already believe. For how many did these videos—or the You worry me e-mail chain letter—confirm underlying, racist beliefs about Muslims?
Even if it was just a few, isn't that still too many?
While my in-law did not write the hateful screed she shared over e-mail, and Trump did not create the caustic videos he blasted to his many millions of followers, I would argue we have a social responsibility to avoid circulating false, offensive rhetoric that fan the flames of racism.
There is nothing innocuous about spreading hate, and we cannot know the far-reaching consequences of these actions.
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