Acknowledging stigmatized words

We frequently attach images, sensations and emotions to words. When we hear the word “apple” we can picture an apple and imagine its taste and feel. Generally, this information attachment happens unconsciously and is not a bad thing: when I hear the word “apple,” I do not really care if I picture a red apple instead of a green one. But since we gain a large portion of our knowledge from sensationalist media, it is a good idea to review commonly politicized words and figure out if the information we attach to these critical words are well-founded.

For example, whenever I introduce myself to people off campus and tell them I am from a Muslim country, I find myself trying to figure out if they are affected by the word “Muslim.” I have had instances where, because of my fluency in English, some people presumed that I am from the United States. But upon hearing otherwise, their expression changed; their smiles lose their genuineness. I understand why.

The media has stigmatized the word “Muslim.” It is not just that the media has associated the word with violence and extreme, radical images; they have associated it with a feeling of fear and have used it constantly in their loaded rhetoric. So, when people come across the word, they automatically feel afraid even when they have no concrete reason to be.

Ignorance is not the sole cause of this type of stigma. During a conversation with a friend, I started to picture a Muslim man. I imagined a bearded man in a white robe with a headdress consisting of a type of rope and white and red checkered scarf and I was stunned at my imagination.

In Bangladesh, 90 percent of the population is Muslim. The average Muslim man from Bangladesh would have a clean-shaven look and would wear a shirt and pair of pants. The only piece of clothing they may wear that is associated with their religious identity would be a Taqiyah, a simple cloth cap, but even only on special occasions or during prayer. Additionally, most Muslim women in Bangladesh do not wear hijabs; they wear Bengali clothing like sarees and salwar kameezes.

After seeing a particular image associated with a word many times, my mind has made a connection, even though I know better. I spent 19 years growing up in a Muslim country, and yet I pretty much painted the stereotype enforced by the media in my mind. For a while, I seriously started to doubt if I was also indoctrinated to associate fear with the word “Muslim.”

It is vitally important that we be aware of our feelings towards particular words, as they may end up affecting others. I cannot truly imagine what a Muslim person may feel if they encountered such situations as I presented above, but I can imagine it would be hurtful.

There are many other wordslike “Muslim” that the media routinely stigmatize and generalize on. To name a few: “conservative,” “liberal,” “Arab,” “Russian,” “Chinese,” “mental patient,” “Southern,” “communist,” “socialist.” There are people who get emotionally affected simply by hearing utterances of these words. That is not a sign of a mind open to reason; it is a sign of a mind that views the words, without their inherent cognitive content, to be toxic.

There is no good way for us to actively prevent ourselves from wrongly attaching images and emotions to words. The best that we can do is to be aware of our own emotions while having conversations and check if we are being agitated by particular words without reason. Only by talking to each other can we weed out our irrational biases.