“Somebody did something,” are a few of the words in a talk by a congresswoman at an event given by a Muslim civil rights group. The talk itself was focused on the issues new Muslim Americans continue to face since 9/11 with intimidation, bullying, discrimination and feelings of hatred in public spaces. This was a talk actually about sensibilities and metaphors. Sensibilities are acute and immediate responses (usually emotional) to something, usually implied, said or demonstrated. For example, the response of a Muslim woman being glared at hostilely because she is wearing a headscarf or a Muslim child being bullied in school. A metaphor is a figure of speech that, for rhetorical effect, directly refers to one thing by mentioning through some means, another. Muslim women’s headscarves are always mentioned (usually through pictures) with other reports of terrorism or violent acts on the parts of some Muslims somewhere in the world. The rhetorical effect becomes the substitution of one thing for another in the consciousness. The headscarf has become a metaphor for terrorism and a dislike of American values in the psyche of some non-Muslim Americans. Negative metaphors and the images associated with them, if embedded in the consciousness through constant and widespread repetition over time, cause a loss of sensibilities.
The sensibilities of many Americans regarding 9/11 were also stoked by the phrasing of the reference to it. These Americans were both Muslim and non-Muslim who lost loved ones or were injured in the attacks. Many of them wholeheartedly believe that Muslims were responsible for the attacks, regardless of nationality of the Muslims perpetrators of the attacks. Any comments using metaphors that can be perceived to make light of or cast suspicions on the causes of 9/11 affects sensibilities and will draw among some Americans those pictures of the attacks and confirm that new American Muslims hate America.
We need to be aware of particular sensibilities such as those surrounding 9/11. Americans come from many ethnic groups all of which have sensibilities about events and situations. How are we to encourage mindfulness about the metaphors that we create and distribute about people and events? Granted that we cannot have a consciousness of each and every ethnic community’s sensibilities, we can endeavor to pay attention to our rhetoric about events and situations that are part of the public discourse. Though the First Amendment gives us the freedom of speech, we should not only be mindful that that speech not incite harm but also that that speech is the result of reflection on whatever the subject may be.