Written by Tarek Zaher.
Graphic by Peyton Cabaniss.
In 2007, six years after the horrific 9/11 attacks and the resultant cultural backlash against Muslims in America, just about the worst thing possible that can happen to a nine-year-old Muslim boy trying to survive socially in rural East Texas happens. Jeff Dunham, a famous ventriloquist and comedian, introduces his viral new character “Achmed the Dead Terrorist” who holds the notorious catchphrase, “Silence, I kill you!” to widespread enthusiasm—particularly in the small southern town of Hudson, Texas. I know because I grew up there; I was that Muslim boy.
My dad is named Ahmed, so it was always awkward having to tell people that he wasn’t like Dunham’s puppet when they asked, and they did ask. Who could blame them though? Oftentimes what children see on television and movie screens are the first depictions of certain cultures and ethnicities they are ever presented with. Today’s media, in more ways than one, forms the bedrock of our cognitive schemas.
Schemas, a concept pioneered by the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, are the categories we unconsciously create throughout our lives to help us organize the overwhelming amount of raw information we receive on a daily basis. To be clear, these categories aren’t inherently bad. Without them we would quickly burn ourselves out cognitively trying to understand the world and act safely within it. However, it’s rather straightforward to see how this innate feature of our cognition, when constantly fed violent data with regard to the character of Arabs and Muslims, would conclude that they are to be categorically feared and protected against.
This reveals two important facts about the problem of media representation and its consequences. First, it shows that it is no way the fault of the people who unconsciously receive these inaccurate stereotypes. Something you learn growing up as I did is that the source of bigotry is not hatred, evil, or wickedness, but ignorance paired with righteous energy. The few peers who warned me that I represented an existential threat to America in my childhood were the same people I worked haphazardly with on science fair projects and passionately competed with on the same sports teams. I learned that, through no fault of their own, they had been born into a time and place where their parents, pastors, and even, comical as he was, Jeff Dunham, had all indicated that I might be dangerous to them. Their schemas had been fed inaccurate data, and frankly the moral righteousness with which they spoke their words revealed more about their passion for preserving their community in the face of what they perceived to be certain threats rather than any hatred of me.
Imagine if, through the same avenues of education and media, Jeff Dunham and everyone else had directed that righteous energy of my peers towards actual threats instead of an innocent nine-year-old kid trying to make his way through middle school. What problems might we have already solved? Of course, they’re not to blame either for they too were given bad data to fill their schemas which they are not responsible for. The blame ultimately lies in the precariousness our human cognition, not in any person, culture or race. How, though, do we ensure that future kids and adults aren’t pre-judged on the basis of their group identities in the future?
This leads us to the second fact about the problem of media representation that is revealed by schema theory, namely that inaccurate schemas can be corrected by exposing individuals to better data. My experience with “Achmed the Dead Terrorist” wasn’t so much traumatizing as it was empowering for this exact reason. Just by existing in all of those shared experiences on basketball courts and backyard porches, my classmates and I filled our respective schemas with data about each other that was wholesome, constructive, and accurate. They learned that my father, even though his name was Ahmed, didn’t resemble “Achmed the Dead Terrorist” in any of the violent ways they feared. They learned that I had many of the same problems, hopes, and desires that they did, and my religion and ethnicity didn’t change that. At the very least, they learned that not all Muslims and Arabs were the threat they had been led to believe, and perhaps they later applied that same epiphany to other negative stereotypes they had been taught about certain groups of people. The fact that I could learn so much from them and them from me simply by existing around each other for a certain length of time proves to me just how hopeful our present condition really is.