Tuesday, February 1, 2011

How come it's only the left-wingers who support democracy?

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
— Evelyn Beatrice Hall (1868–1919), author of The Friends of Voltaire, published in 1906 under the pseudonym S.G. Tallentyre

What’s happened to the spirit behind the above quote? When, as Dror Katsav asks in his letter that sums it up so well, did democracy become the sole province of the left? This is a frightening situation, not to mention unhealthy.

I partly blame the media. Take this headline, for instance, which violates one of the basic rules of journalism: For a reporter to decide that someone is a “left-winger” or a “right-winger” is to cross the line from reportage to editorializing. A reporter has no business labeling an individual as anything that cannot be objectively verified, for example, the person’s carrying a party membership card on her person — and even that doesn’t give the reporter license to decide anything except that the individual is a Labor member (for instance); it says nothing about her actual views, which may actually be a mix of left and right, with a pinch of anarchy thrown in. The reporter in this case should presume to know nothing about the victim (Emil Grunzweig) except that he happened to be in attendance at a particular demonstration.
A journalistically verifiable and professional headline for this story would have been, then: "Emil Grunzweig Murderer Released". Indeed, the Hebrew headline [my translation] reads “Murderer Yona Avrushmi Released From Prison”. While this is certainly more factual, it doesn’t tell us who Avrushmi is famous for having murdered; after all, murderers are released from prison every day. Does not the victim in this case merit a headline more than his murderer (or at least a street named after him? As opposed to that well-known peace activist King George)?

But I digress. Such skewed headlines appear every day: “Left-winger Injured at Beilin”. Did the reporter interview the injured to find out their political views? What right has she to assume? Is it not theoretically possible that a Likud member believes that the separation fence route is unjust and went to Beilin that Friday? Yet such is inconceivable to the Israeli mind. Here in Israel, we march in lockstep as per the dichotomy: believes in freedom of speech, fair housing, and civil rights for minorities = left wing. Any other scenario is unimaginable.

Take another hypothetical headline: “Haredim Protest Sabbath Traffic on Bar-Ilan Road”. Technically, the reporter cannot ascertain the protestors’ theologies. A headline that would better serve the reader would read: “Jerusalemites Protest Sabbath Traffic”, for the only thing that can be verified about the protestors is their place of residence. Yes, as far as a reporter is concerned, an individual’s color, race, faith, nationality, ethnic group, or even gender don’t exist unless 1) it can be objectively verified and 2) it’s relevant to the story. Otherwise, as far as the reporter is concerned, the event happened to a two-year-old [no gender], a protestor, or a Jerusalemite.

The breaching of these time-honored journalistic rules feeds our dichotomous thinking. The only thing we know about a protester is what s/he is protesting against, i.e., hopefully bigotry, injustice, and discrimination. It is incumbent upon us, and especially upon the journalists among us, to create an environment wherein we all feel comfortable speaking out against the above three; in a democracy, this noble task is not relegated to those who subscribe to a particular ideology — it should be a tenet of everyone’s ideology.

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