Friday, July 29, 2016

Words and phrasing (really) matter

Tuesday night, during President Bill Clinton's speech at the Democratic National Convention, he said this:

“If you’re a Muslim and you love America and freedom and you hate terror, stay here and help us win and make a future together.”

I admit his statement sounded rather innocuous to me. I didn’t give it a second thought. 

However, it was received quite differently from American Muslims. Tuqa Nusairat's article, "Bill Clinton's Loyalty Test for Muslim Americans", on the Foreign Policy website on July 28, is revealing: 

"Muslim Americans heard Bill Clinton announce a loyalty test for those who want to remain in the land of the free. We heard him say we are only allowed to stay if we somehow prove that we love America and proclaim that we hate terrorism, as if that is not the natural state of who we are. We heard him separate the Muslim community from him and other Americans (the “us”), as if we are a foreign entity that should be welcomed on certain conditions. And we heard him tell us to “stay here,” as if we had any intention of leaving or anywhere else to go.

What we did not hear was an acknowledgement of the Islamophobia our community is facing day in and day out — a sentiment that has increased dramatically since the start of the presidential campaign, resulting in violent and deadly attacks against innocent Muslim Americans. We did not hear an acknowledgement that we are part and parcel of the fabric of this country, that we contribute to it, and that we have helped protect it. We did not hear that Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party will protect our rights and stand up against the intolerance and fear that the Republican Party is trying to make mainstream."

Ms. Nusairat wishes he’d said:

“If you’re a Muslim American worried about the rise in Islamophobia, know that your fears are ours too. Let’s work to make a future together that does not include those voices of fear, racism, and intolerance.”

I imagine the former President did not intend for his words to be hurtful, disrespectful, or divisive. However, the way they were received by many in the Muslim community proves that words and phrasing matter a great deal. Furthermore, it demonstrates that we process words and actions from our individual experiences, culture, and biases. Three people can hear the same sentence yet have three different interpretations of it or reactions to it.

The positive takeaway from this for me is that by being made aware of this particular disconnect, I am encouraged to be more cognizant of how I frame statements, be they in writing or in a speech. Who is the audience? What segment of the population am I trying to reach? Is there potential for a negative response to my message? If so, what changes need to be made? These simple questions may help to bridge any potential communication gap(s) because if you have a positive message, the last result you want is to create distance from those whom you want to attract. 

This is not political correctness run amok. It is about respect and understanding. All of us can be clueless at times about those outside our tribe, but that cluelessness can also be a learning opportunity. Nor is perfection the goal—which we all know is impossible anyway—but rather, doing one's best to ensure that a positive point or call to action is actually positive, or at least as positive as it can be made.  

This post concludes with an exercise. If you, like me, thought Clinton's statement was fine at first glance, please read the article then ask yourself: Do I think differently about it now?  

My answer was: I do.