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Opinion: the solution to intolerance starts with smart readers

Reading critically and coming to your own conclusions about news and information can solve intolerance borne from misunderstanding.

Illustration+courtesy+of+Pixabay.
Illustration courtesy of Pixabay.

Illustration courtesy of Pixabay.

Illustration courtesy of Pixabay.

Tucker Berardi, Features Editor

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I don’t have it hard. I am a white male, and I cannot deny that I reap the benefits of that privilege whenever I can. But as a journalist I can see the danger in distributing false information about marginalized groups, as it serves only to further fear and hatred toward those populations.

And as a gay journalist, the spread of hateful and inaccurate messages about minorities, the LGBT community and especially immigrants makes me doubt the progress of tolerance I thought we had made as a society.

Much of the rhetoric from this past election saw a very negative spin placed on immigrants — especially those of Hispanic and Middle Eastern descent. President Donald Trump campaigned on a platform that inspired proponents of fear and nationalism. Messages of anti-immigration, anti-women and more gave fuel to intolerance.

His campaign helped to resuscitate a side of American society that had seemed to be on the decline until recently — a population filled with fear and dislike of those with origins and practices dissimilar to their own, to the point of hate speech and hate crime.

My parents are conservative white Southerners. Were they happy when I came out? No. Did they learn to deal with it? Absolutely. Many other people are nowhere near as lucky, and receive constant hate for their sexuality, nationality or skin color. And increasing hate crime rates just mean that intolerance is getting worse.

In the 10 days following Trump’s win, there were 867 “bias-related incidents” reported to the Southern Poverty Law Center — a nonprofit civil rights organization. On Nov. 9 alone, 202 hate crimes took place. Of those reports, 280 of them had anti-immigrant sentiment.

While there are certainly large amounts of bigotry and blatant racism to account for, I would argue that much of this anti-immigrant sentiment is born simply from a lack of exposure to different cultures and overexposure to false information.

It can be so easy to “other” — establishing a group of people as alien to society — when you have no personal experience within that group. I believe that exposure to different cultures and ways of thinking can solve some of the base issues of immigrant discrimination in our society.

I visited the International Rescue Committee in November 2016 and heard stories of Congolese and Syrian immigrants. The stories were of suffering far greater than we can comprehend as first-world citizens. Their stories demand sympathy, and their struggle to find a better, safer life is in no way an offense to that of American citizens.

Martine Dherte, an IRC caseworker who interacts with these immigrants daily, stressed the importance of the media in terms of immigrant coverage. It is so easy for politicians like President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence to capitalize on horror stories of terrorists coming into our country in a Trojan Horse of refugees when there is no literature to dissuade people otherwise.

I see the issue from two sides. As a journalist, I understand that I have a huge responsibility to accurately share the stories of these immigrants so that America can see them for who they truly are, without the burden of hate speech or propaganda. As a gay man, I see that sometimes all it takes is putting a face to a stigmatized group to change one’s view.

But this is an issue bigger than one journalist, or a slew of journalists fighting for the tolerance toward immigrants. Citizens have a responsibility to think critically and develop their own opinions through research, as opposed to relying on the skewed literature shared with them via social media.

According to Buzzfeed, fake news articles outperformed real news on Election Day. In the three months leading up to the election, the top 20 fake stories generated 8,711,000 shares on Facebook, with the top 20 legitimate stories only generating 7,367,000 shares.

A number of deceitful headlines were responsible for the startling number of shares, such as “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President,” and “WikiLeaks CONFIRMS Hillary Sold Weapons to ISIS.”

Those are just some examples. The tools to construct crippling lies, anti-immigrant propaganda and any discriminatory material are right at our fingertips, and they are certainly being used by people other than ethical journalists.

Just as I see the moves currently being made in preparation for Trump’s presidency and grow nervous for the future of LGBT policies and protections in America, incoming and prospective immigrants must be regarding the United States with much more caution and reserve, and that nervous attitude, and sometimes fear, is made worse by the negativity that is shared and published through social media.

Here at FAU, the Office of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs aims to combat intolerance by offering students a safe space in its office and its Kaleidoscope Room — a place for tolerance and open-ended discussion about whatever topics or issues students may want to address.

And while the desire to protect these marginalized groups, whether they are part of the LGBT community, refugees, minorities or others is a great mentality to have, there is still need for a solution to the negativity born from the abundance of misinformation available to us.

The problem uncovered by this election is not one of racism, bigotry and small-mindedness, but rather one of unwavering trust in the media. We now live in a world where any content may be decorated and presented as real news, and the fault lies in those who fail to think critically and unearth the content’s misguiding.

The only hope for a tolerant society — a culture that welcomes newcomers and all their differences and struggles — is exposure. Interacting with people of different cultures, studying abroad and just being open- minded may help to cure the malignant fear that so many Americans hold, a fear born out of misunderstanding.

Tucker Berardi is the features editor of the University Press. For information regarding this or other stories, email tberardi2014@fau.edu or tweet him @tucker_berardi.

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