Content warning: contains racist slurs, swears, and expressions of hate
American Sniper is a movie based on a book that includes proven lies. Under typical circumstances, I would not waste my breath, my keystrokes, or my brain cells on it.
These are not typical circumstances.
In the last six weeks, I have been unfriended by no fewer than a dozen people on Facebook for engaging in “anti-military rhetoric” on my timeline. Whoop-de-doo. I lose friends all the time, usually acquaintances who are shocked when I speak up about something with which they disagree. While it’s no secret to most of my friends that I am non-violent and regularly engage in conversation regarding alternatives to war and violence, I guess people were surprised that I was vocal about my disgust with the hero worship of Chris Kyle and his self-aggrandizing book-turned-movie. And I was surprised that my criticism for a movie garnered sexist, racist vitriol, militaristic one-liners, misunderstandings of the word slander, and suggestions to stand in front of a spray of bullets.
Actually, I wasn’t surprised.
Last things first: I don’t generally use the word pacifist because most people misinterpret it as a passive choice. I am a non-violent activist. It may become my job to stand in the way of violence, between the oppressor and the oppressed. So when someone says, If you don’t stand behind the military, feel free to stand in front of them, chances are there may be a time I may be faced with such an option (I mean, this is one of my favorite books…). Saying this to me doesn’t make me rethink my position, but it makes the person saying it look simplistic and cruel.
I focus a lot of my blog posts on intersectional feminism in K-12 education. That’s the setting in which I work. It’s the focus of my masters program. It’s where I see myself working for the foreseeable future. So how does American Sniper fit in? It fits because of Benvolio.
Benvolio is not Benvolio’s real name. But there is a student whose family moved here from Iraq in 2008, and he is my Benvolio in Romeo & Juliet this year. He is, quite possibly, the brightest student I have ever had the pleasure to teach. He is the main reason I wish we were not using an adapted script: he came to our first rehearsal with his entire part memorized. So we gave him an additional part. He comes to me each week with ideas for his character, for staging, for mood. His instincts are good, which is notable because he can’t see the entire stage. He wears argyle sweater vests. He’s a pretty typical high school kid, he just happens to have a cane and read Braille.
He is also Muslim.
During my undergrad coursework, I heard over and over again that school needs to be a safe, inclusive, accessible environment for every student. Many of my professors iterated the guideline that celebrating holidays in school marginalizes students of diverse religious and cultural backgrounds and students who live in poverty. I have an ongoing dilemma trying to reconcile that with the Deaf school norm of celebrating every mainstream holiday because for some students, it is the only access to the background and explanations they have.
I have seen awful posts on Facebook about American Sniper. I have seen disgusting tweets. In short, the film offers a simplistic view of a war that is all grey, and does not inspire the best responses in much of the target audience. It is this response I will address, just to keep my notes as brief as possible.
This is the kind of thing Benvolio can read online. It’s also the kind of thing his friends and classmates can read online. With the number of students in our schools who are Muslim, or who come from predominantly Muslim countries, or who just happen to be brown and encounter people who don’t know anything about world religions and/or geography, American Sniper inspires a hatred and a brand of fevered nationalism that is dangerous to their emotional well-being, their concept of self, and their safety in school.
I’m posting a few examples; the rest can be found from even a cursory search or from this Storify.
Usually I stay out of Facebook comment conversations, especially those that are political. My acquaintances save me the trouble of unfriending them by deleting me first, but I wish they would view the world through a different lens. A lens that sees the damage this film can inflict, the hatred spewed by its most ardent of fans, and the attitudes expressed by even some of the more reasonable of fans. It’s a problem for students like Benvolio, for his family, for his community. When we paint the world as black-and-white, the white people generally write the narrative. And it isn’t the kind of narrative in which the hero thinks critically about his actions, sees the Other as a whole human person, or considers the nuance of the story into which he’s written. And when we consume the narrative as uncritically as it was written, we legitimize it.