suggesting responses to fearmongering (unsubstansiated beliefs) about Syrian refugees

Inspired by current events like the one depicted in this article in Democracy Now “Nativist Hysteria” Against Syrian Refugees Echoes U.S. Rejection of Jewish Refugees in 1930s; along with Tim Evan’s Facebook post today asking:

“As folklorists, what role should we take re politicians who use urban legends to stoke fear of minorities?”

I have decided to share advice from Katherine Borland in her 2004 Journal of American Folklore article.

Borland suggests that by introducing such concepts as the legend process, ostension, and the construction of group and individual identity, and by recognizing these concepts at work in our contemporary environment, we as folklorists can help students identify “unsubstantiated beliefs” in their own lives (Borland (2004:347).

Stressing the utility, and applied, aspect of folklore in education Borland writes that:

“… teaching folklore can contribute to making this world a saner, healthier, safer place, particularly during an era of increasing hysteria, decreasing respect for individual rights, and a growing intolerance for difference” (2004:347).

Relevant to today’s unsubstantiated rumours about refugees being part of the recent horrific attacks in Paris (Nov 13, 2015), Borland mentions a legend used by President George H. W. Bush in the 1990 Desert Storm war to justify his rush to war. The reported legend is that when Iraqi soldiers took over a Kuwaiti hospital, they tore more than three hundred premature babies out of incubators and left them to die on the floors. President Bush used this legend – despite how unlikely it would be that a Kuwaiti hospital would have facilities for over 300 premature babies, along with his repeated assertion of the existence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that have now been shown to never exist – to justify US war (Borland (2004:346). Borland offers numerous other examples of legends affecting human rights and lives and is an excellent resource for further information. She also offers examples of how folklorists have helped groups and individuals deal with the trauma of human rights violations.

Diane Goldstein’s work, presented in her 2004 book, Once upon a Virus: AIDS Legends and Vernacular Risk Perception is also an excellent source that can inform students about the parallel impact of HIV-AIDS legends on real lives. Broaching the subject of legend and fearmongering of refugees from a less currently “hot” example may help students understand the implications and roots of current legend/narrative examples.

Other examples and suggestions?  I’d love to hear them.

And here is John Oliver ‘s address on “Last Week Tonight.” He uses humour to point to the current hysteria around the perceived threat of Syrian refugees.

Comments (1)

  1. Excellent idea, Amber. My understanding is that scary fairy tales are told to children for learning purposes and to help them put life in perspective. I am wondering what you think about all the scary fairy tales that mainstream media spews out daily? I suppose if people could figure out that most of it is a fairy-tale, they would be balanced and looking for the truth.

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