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Media portrays Indigenous and Muslim youth as ‘savages’ and ‘barbarians’

A group of youth walked 1600 kilometers to bring attention aboriginal issues in 2013 at Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario. They hold up the Cree flag. By Paul McKinnon/Shutterstock.com

Media portrays Indigenous and Muslim youth as ‘savages’ and ‘barbarians’

The representation of girls and women in the popular press has raised concerns ranging from eating disorders to sexual exploitation. In a similar manner, how youth are represented in the mainstream media also raises concerns about how they are perceived and how they, in turn, perceive themselves.

In fact, media plays a crucial role through which social norms are communicated. The circulation of images and words attach meaning and identities to different bodies in our society.

As a long time researcher of media, race, gender and representation in Canada, I have studied how media portrayals of young Indigenous people and young Muslims impact public opinion and government policies. These depictions can also deepen the alienation those young people feel.

My research has examined how stories in the Globe and Mail — which proclaims itself as “Canada’s #1 national newspaper” — represented both Indigenous and Muslim youth. I traced patterns in the Globe print edition across four years from the beginning of 2010 to the end of 2013. I included stories produced by Globe and Mail reporters as well as other sources such as wire services.

‘Savages’ and ‘Barbarians’

Rather than look at isolated stories, I focus on the patterns that leap to the surface when the stories are compared and examined together. What becomes obvious is the way in which these youth are represented as ‘savages’ and ‘barbarians’, as described by prominent French philosopher Michel Foucault.

The former, Foucault argues, is based on the notion of the ‘noble savage’ — an idea created in the 18th century order to support the structure and success of western nations. The ‘savage’ can be tamed and converted into civilization. In contrast, the ‘barbarian’ is motivated by the irrational desire to destroy other civilizations that threaten his way of being and impede his domination of the world. Foucault argues this racist way of dividing populations within a society helped governments to control and build nations.

Youth consumers are treated well

Although most representations of young people in popular media tend to focus on youth as teens in trouble, my analysis reveals non-Indigenous and non-Muslim youth enjoy the most positive representations when they are portrayed as good consumers and making contributions to the economy. When they do get into trouble, it is often described in normalized ways such as truancy, wild driving and partying.

In contrast, almost 90 per cent of stories concerning Indigenous youth deal with failure — demonstrating how our systems have failed Indigenous peoples, and how they, in turn, fail to fit in. This leads to a perception that as “problem” youth, Indigenous teens remain unable and unfit to be part of society — that their own inabilities explain why they remain abandoned in prisons or are part of failing social systems.

There is nothing wrong with highlighting the failure of these systems. However, context matters in how perceptions are made.

For example, in mainstream society, “pulling oneself up by the bootstraps” is highly valued and an individual’s exceptional ability to transcend systemic limitations is constantly highlighted. In contrast, an individual or community’s inability to succeed becomes reflective of their inherent deficiency and failures.

Terrorists and failures

The implication is that Indigenous people are unable to survive, and according to colonial logic, they will vanish either through this inability to fit in — survival of the fittest — or by killing themselves. When they do survive, it is because of the benevolence of our institutions and charitable values.

My examination of stories about Muslim youth show a different predominant pattern — a portrayal of ‘barbarians’ who wish to destroy contemporary Canadian society. More than half of the stories I analyzed concentrate on radicalization and terrorism.

Other stories about Muslim youth show a pattern about their inability to assimilate into Canadian society — and that lack of fit was intimately tied to engaging in criminal activity and violating deportation orders

Violence against women as a foreign concept

A related thread in the stories covering Muslim youth dealt with victims of honour killings, with the focus being on the fact that such practices of barbarity are contrary to Canadian values. Again, context is important here. In these stories, there is no mention of the rate of femicides in the general population across the country, not to mention the shocking numbers of Indigenous missing and murdered women.

Is it any wonder then that two years ago the House of Commons passed the so-called “Barbaric Cultural Practices” bill? And while it was Stephen Harper’s Conservative government that introduced the legislation, the then opposition Liberals supported it. The assumption of that legislation was violence against women, gang affiliation and gang violence are imported from elsewhere — not that they organically emerge from present conditions such as high unemployment, structural and personal violence, isolation and depressed living conditions.

Deportation, abandonment and ‘rescuing’

After examining almost 400 stories in the Globe, a few basic themes emerged on how both Indigenous and Muslim youths were portrayed: the Indigenous stories focused on failed systems or problem individuals, missing women and gang violence. For the Muslim stories, it was radicalization and terror, surveillance, immigration, honour killing and gang violence. In other words, ‘savages’ can be salvaged if they do not disappear and ‘barbarians’ can only be ejected through deportation or incarceration, and their women rescued from the clutches of an ultra-patriarchal culture.

Only a small percentage of those 400 articles could be categorized as positive stories — about 18 per cent of the Indigenous youth items and seven per cent of the ones about young Muslims.

In other words, the Globe has created a script in which the answer to deal with Muslim youth is to criminalize, deport or detain them as a way to cast them out. On the other hand, problem Indigenous youth remain unable and unfit to be a part of the state, so they remain abandoned in prisons and in the mesh of failing systems because of their own inabilities.

The pattern of these stories also helped foster an “us and them” mentality. With these media messages continually confronting us, it is not surprising to see how these marginalized youths can become even more alienated from the mainstream.

To be sure, the Globe is not the only media outlet to present and sustain such stereotypes. They are rampant across media. Nonetheless, we need to dismantle the idea of an ‘us’ and ‘them’ if we are to progress towards a more just society.