The NRA’s new viral ad dividing Americans into “us” and “them” is a centuries-old tactic

(Reuters/Mike Theiler)
(Reuters/Mike Theiler)
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The National Rifle Association of America’s latest recruitment attempt isn’t subtle. In an ad for the group posted to its Facebook video page earlier this month, conservative pundit Dana Loesch uses the words they/them/their 16 times in 59 seconds, and it’s not out of respect for gender neutrality.

The anonymous pronouns are used to paint mainstream media, teachers, actors, singers, comedians, protestors, people of color, women, queer people, and immigrants as “the other.” It is a tactic that has been used for centuries to dehumanize a group to justify suppression, and sometimes violence.

They use their media to assassinate real news. They use their schools to teach children that their president is another Hitler. They use their movie stars and singers and comedy shows and award shows to repeat their narrative over and over again.

The ad says nothing about nonviolent protests. It also says nothing about the 42 unarmed black people killed by police in 2016 or the 67% increase in hate crimes against Muslims in 2015, or the concerns about losing health care, or funding for science—all things that sparked some of these protests in the first place.

And then they use their ex-president to endorse the resistance, all to make them march. Make them protest. Make them scream racism and sexism and xenophobia and homophobia.

She doesn’t name former US president Barack Obama, but she does say they use him to “endorse the resistance.” These activist-puppets “smash windows,” “burn cars,”“shut down interstates and airports,” and “bully and terrorize the law-abiding.”

“Us” as the Good Guys

In NRA-world, there are obvious good guys and bad guys—the NRA website’s video library even has a section of videos called “The Good Guys”—and the ad seems to say that the good guys need to start fighting back. It concludes:

The only way we stop this, the only way we save our country and our freedom, is to fight this violence of lies with a clenched fist of truth.

The ad seems to imply that violent response is acceptable from “us” because “they” aren’t real Americans. Loesch has been doing whatever it takes to help gun sales for years. She called the 2016 Orlando Pulse nightclub’s victims “sheep” for not having guns. “Arm the gays,” she said in that same interview.

This particular ad, though, has struck a nerve.

It had been viewed over 3.5 million times on Facebook by Thursday evening, attracted thousands of comments, and even seems to have inadvertently sparked online discussion there about the polarized US, because of its focus on “us” and “them.”

Some commentators said they were gun-owners who felt it went too far. “As a responsible gun owning household, there is no way we can support the hateful messaging the NRA is spreading with this irresponsible ad. Take it down. Please,” wrote one reader.

Centuries-old tactic

The use of “they,” and “otherness” is the centuries-old tactic that sets the stage for violence and oppression, according to historians and philosophers.

“The Jews, regarded as inhuman, were slaughtered by the Nazis,” argues Virginia Commonwealth University professor Chioke A.M. I’Anson. “Native Americans, who were seen as savages, were enslaved and killed by the colonizers in the New World. Africans also came to be regarded as subhuman as the transatlantic slave trade thrived.”

Feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir wrote in The Second Sex that “he is the Subject, he is the Absolute—she is Other.” Women were, and continue to be, subordinated (and worse) because they were seen as the other, as “the non-subject, the non-person, the non-agent,” de Beauvior wrote.

The NRA ad purports to defend those who are oppressed. But it uses that same formula: people + “other” = worthy of contempt. It is also dangerous, critics say.

“There has always been a reactionary core population of white people who have been eager to use the threat of righteous violence in defense of the status quo,” said Howard W. French, a journalism professor at Columbia University, in an email. “In doing so they target blacks and members of other minority groups whom they fancy as a threat to their way of life, however that’s defined,” French said.

The organizers of the Women’s March sent a letter to NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre, calling on the NRA to remove the video and apologize to the American people for it. Critics have also launched a petition calling for Facebook to delete the video.

Asked about the backlash, an NRA spokesman told Quartz, “We stand by the ad, 100%.”