Bethami A. Dobkin: Using the language of leadership against terrorism

Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke walks next to his wife Amy Hoover Sanders and Rep. Veronica Escobar Sunday, Aug. 4, 2019, during a silent march holding sunflowers in honor to the victims of a mass shooting occurred in Walmart on Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019, in El Paso, Texas. (Lola Gomez/Austin American-Statesman via AP)

The latest mass shootings constitute a public crisis that public officials now call acts of terrorism. As an educator and scholar, I welcome the terrorism label and the explicit connections to white supremacy.

I began studying terrorism, politics and media in the 1980s. I’ve been waiting since the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing for domestic terrorism to be publicly recognized as such. Finally, we have an opportunity to bring the full force of law and respond to the perpetrators of racist killings.

We must also address the context in which white supremacy flourishes and the consequences of our language. This responsibility belongs to all of us, particularly to those of us who are white.

Combatting an ideology predicated on hate and fear requires restoration of a democracy that can contend with information dominated by the internet. Online message boards, videos, memes, tweets and endless loops of confirming content help terrorists spread conspiracy theories, hate and information about how to carry out mass murder. Those same isolated, ideological bubbles in which conspiracy theories thrive dominate political dialogue, so we are all complicit if we reside comfortably in our bubbles.

It’s too easy to see only what you like, and seek only what validates your beliefs.

Contending with political violence and the power of ideological bubbles is far more difficult than pointing fingers at video games, social media or drug abuse. It requires a commitment to institutions that give people the cognitive and behavioral skills to both understand complex problems and develop creative solutions to them. That’s the role of higher education.

Before becoming a full-time university administrator, I spent over 20 years teaching in college classrooms. During times of great social and political crisis, students asked challenging questions: How could this happen? What should we do? Who should we believe?

I never imposed an answer, but I provided a place where multiple, diverse sources of information could be explored, where context could be built and challenged, and where there was, as one former student recently told me, “an open and tempered back and forth discussion of ‘thorny’ talking points,” despite feeling, at times, uncomfortable, challenged, misunderstood, “and on the losing side of the discussion.”

As we default to Google searches and social media posts for information, and reduce higher education to job training, we take away the mechanisms for critical thought and civic engagement on which a vibrant democracy depends. We leave behind active shooter drills and a growing public numbness to violence.

There’s also an immediate, deeper responsibility we must own in stopping an escalation dynamic that begins with the denigration of others. It exists in our homes, workplaces and in public. Insults dehumanize. Dehumanization removes empathy and, without empathy, we cease caring about others. Once we don’t care, the door to violence is open.

Terrorism has long been described in the public sphere as something that is done to white people rather than by them. The groups targeted by white nationalists already live with the terror of both words and deeds. It’s true that calling people illegitimate or criminal isn’t the same as killing them. However, we are too willing to systematically dissociate the words of some people from the actions they incite.

When we let people walk away from the consequences of their words, whether hiding behind anonymity, dismissing as entertainment or ignoring for political expediency, we are to some degree complicit in the consequences. We normalize violence, and we destroy the foundation of mutual respect necessary for creating common ground and sustaining democracy.

Educators are often leaders, and all leaders are educators. They teach others by example. Their words matter. Let’s hold ourselves, and our political leaders, accountable for word choices and engage in actions that demonstrate our commitment to democracy.

Bethami A. Dobkin | President of Westminster College

Bethami A. Dobkin is the president of Westminster College, Salt Lake City.