Saturday, July 11, 2009


Commentary by Philip J Cunningham

The recent ethnic riots in Xinjiang are a tragic development for the world’s most populous country. Ethnic strife, probably as old as humankind, is as cruel as it is unnecessary. Part of what makes it so potent are unchallenged habits of mind coupled with the nearly universal human tendency to divide the world into “we” and “them.”

A lack of empathy for those who are “different” is clearly part of the problem. So, too, is the failure to better appreciate the complex, conflicted reality of those close to a tragedy, a tragedy which has become a spectacle for the international news consumer. Behold the Schadenfreude with which the post-1949 “other” is now pitted against the post-911 “other.”

In the old days, rumors traveled narrowly at the speed of sound through word of mouth whispers, while today, electronic communications spread malicious misinformation far and wide at the speed of light, increasing the potential for flash mob action.

Given the global reach of today’s media, one country’s grievous problems can become a spectator sport for the rest of the world. When something big happens in China, US interest is piqued, especially if the big news is bad news.

Politicians and pundits weigh in with quotable quips, often in utter ignorance, and far more often than is prudent. The hungry maw of the 24/7 media machine demands a constant flow of words and images. This free flow of information, including bad, biased and incorrect information, is celebrated as a basic American right.

Of course, free speech is important to the health of any society. But let us just consider, in a make-believe role reversal, what it might be like if the shoe was on the other foot.

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