Opinion: Willamette should avoid “See Something, Say Something” rhetoric
Updated: Oct 10
Since reopening in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, alongside posted signs and infographics of ‘Blitz the Bearcat’ learning to wear a mask, Willamette University administrators have been informally pushing the motto “See Something, Say Something.” This phrase is meant to prompt the student body to essentially self-police when it comes to pandemic precautions such as wearing masks and practicing social distancing. It’s an innocuous seeming phrase, heard often over the crackling speakers of transportation centers, yet many of us will bristle at the use of it perhaps without even knowing why. Given the university administration’s use of the phrase in emails to students, such as an August 27 email from Lisa Landreman and in a recent email interview with the Collegian, it’s worth examining the history and the connotations behind the phrase as well as the role it plays in the larger rhetoric regarding COVID-19 on campus. When that background is taken into consideration, it shows that the term is deeply problematic and could have a negative and unintended impact on the culture of Willamette.
After the events of September 11, 2001, the United States underwent a significant cultural and political shift. One of the persistent and unassuming remnants of this change is the slogan, “See Something, Say Something.” According to a New York Times article, the line was originally written by an advertising executive named Allen Kay, the day after 9/11, and was intended for the Metropolitan Transit Authority. It is still the legal trademark of the MTA, but they have permitted its usage for other government and transit departments, perhaps the most notable and widely known being the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). For the DHS it became more than just a slogan and is now representative of an entire trademarked anti-terrorism campaign.
The DHS website introduces their campaign with the following paragraph: “Across the nation, we're all part of communities. In cities, on farms, and in the suburbs, we share everyday moments with our neighbors, colleagues, family, and friends. It's easy to take for granted the routine moments in our every day—going to work or school, the grocery store or the gas station. But your every day is different than your neighbor’s—filled with the moments that make it uniquely yours. So if you see something you know shouldn't be there—or someone's behavior that doesn't seem quite right—say something. Because only you know what’s supposed to be in your everyday.”
For many Americans this small piece of writing was compelling, and it certainly kept with a view of an idyllic, routine American existence that could be shattered at any moment by an act of terror. In a moment where the entire country felt vulnerable many saw it as empowering them to protect their community, but it also left very little guidance on what exactly they were protecting it from. The idea that the average American knew best what “shouldn’t be there” or what behavior “doesn’t seem quite right” is quite an assumption. To trust that those people would be able to examine the situation while accounting for their own bias goes beyond assumption into absurdity.
In 2002, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a report entitled, “We Are Not The Enemy: Hate Crimes Against Arabs, Muslims, and Those Perceived to be Arab or Muslim after September 11.” They detail the surge in hate crimes and the circumstances creating them, as well as suggestions for remedy. In their chapter regarding government response, there is an entire section on the concept of ‘mixed messages.’ While some government figures (notably President George W. Bush) expressed solidarity with Arab Americans during a time of heightened paranoia and discrimination, there was also a strong cultural thread pushing against that idea. Some of that discrimination came from religious leaders and other political figures outside of the government, but a great deal of it came from people observing the actual policies and rhetoric of the government agencies they came to trust in for security. HRW highlights that these government statements varied greatly from those of government agencies: “Official statements exhorting the public not to view Muslims or Arabs differently than anyone else were countered by measures taken as part of the anti-terrorist campaign that cast a cloud of suspicion over all Arabs and Muslims in the United States. Those measures have included, for example, the detention of some 1,200 persons of almost exclusively Arab, Muslim, or South Asian heritage because of ‘possible’ links to terrorism; the FBI requests to interview over eight thousand men of Arab or Muslim heritage; and the decision that visitors to the United States from certain Middle Eastern countries would be fingerprinted.”
The prejudices picked up post-9/11 have survived well into the current day, in the everyday experiences of Americans and travellers alike. The experience of being ‘randomly selected’ as a Arab or Muslim person, or even as someone who looks like they are Arab or Muslim, is so common as to have memes about it and a Buzzfeed article making light of it. For Muslim Americans, the DHS campaign cemented negative changes in their everyday life instead of protecting it. The slogan and the ensuing campaign were created with those people in mind as the ‘other’ to be protected against.
While that original ‘other’ in this specific case was generally thought to refer to people who were Middle Easten or Muslim it has (as propaganda campaigns are want to do) expanded beyond those original bounds. In recent years there have been numerous high profile incidents of white people ‘saying something’ after ‘seeing something’, when the something they saw was a Black person doing just about anything. In April 2018, according to CNN, “a white woman reportedly called police on a few black people who, she said, were using a charcoal grill in an area where it was banned.” In May of that same year, from another CNN article, two Black men were wrongfully arrested for seemingly just existing in a Starbucks, prompting protests and apologies from the company. In one of the most absurd incidents, a white student at Yale called the police on a Black student who was napping in one of the university’s common spaces. These types of calls to the police are so common that some states are considering laws criminalizing police calls that are over exaggerated or fabricated, especially when they are intended to intimidate or harass a person of color. What’s even more concerning than just a phone call to the cops, is when the ‘self-policing’ of their community becomes more literal to these people. This is the case in the murders of people like Ahmaud Arbery and Trayvon Martin, where non-Black civilians profiled them but instead of just reporting it, used lethal force. Of course, these cases play into the larger conversation that even the police don’t receive proper training and thus resort to thoughtless force. Oftentimes the training they do receive is actively counter to methods of de-escalation and peaceful conflict resolution, making it questionable whether or not their thoughtful force would be any better. When regular citizens, individuals without training or proper education in these subjects, feel empowered to self-police their communities by alerting authorities it can also lead to them feeling justified to take the situation into their own hands entirely. Regardless of who is pulling the trigger, when there is a simultaneous paranoia and overconfidence as a civilian extension of law enforcement it leads to horrifying results.
Pulling on the single thread of “See Something, Say Something” unravels into a much longer conversation and a much more complicated cultural legacy than one might think. This is not to say that Willamette University administrators are trying to create a bastion of authoritarianism here and purposefully perpetuate the consequences of this slogan. However, it is worth questioning how the slogan and all of its connotations made it into Willamette’s messaging during a pandemic and what that fact says about the university’s overall rhetorical approach. It is a provocative phrase even without knowledge of its origin, and it certainly sticks in students’ minds easily enough, as any good advertising slogan should. However, in regards to the administration's general messaging it seems out of place and dissonant when compared with things like their recent usage of Blitz the Bearcat. When the university uses a MTA/DHS slogan that came out of post-911 hysteria in one place and a quirky mascot in another, it creates a deeply mixed tone to their message. Animal characters have certainly been used successfully in public service campaigns before, but usually for campaigns directed at children and not for issues of this gravity. It’s like having a Smokey the Bear poster proclaim, ‘Only you can prevent nuclear armageddon.’ Is this a situation worth reverting to authoritarian rhetoric and risking unintended consequences to Willamette culture, or is it one worth a cute cartoon making light of the situation? Can anything be both?
Outside of the cultural change and consequences shown in current events, there is a great deal of academic literature connecting these issues to larger movements in American society. The book Citizen Spies: The Long Rise of America’s Surveillance Society by Joshua Reeves tracks this progression and mourns the results. He writes, “It is unfortunate that, while we could use our eyes and mouths to build solidarity—or even to bring accountability to capital, the police, and a corrupt ruling class—we far too often direct that scrutiny against our friends, families, and neighbors for apparently failing to live up to ideal standards of moral or legal conduct.” Willamette University simultaneously telling students to watch out for each other's health and to watch out for each other as threats cancels out when it comes to community building. As Reeves says, instead of building solidarity this rhetoric builds scrutiny.
Either the university considered these questions and decided that this slogan was important to an effective public health campaign or they did not consider it. There is a very real potential that not a single person in the Zoom room thought anything was wrong with using “See Something, Say Something.” They could argue that this is different and they aren’t using it in reference to those cultural and historical roots. But regardless of the connection or lack thereof with the historical connotations, that history is also a case study and cautionary tale for how this phrase has been played out before. Before it happened over the course of several years and across the span of an entire country, but Willamette is a small campus with a fairly close knit community, and a culture of paranoia and scrutiny could spread as fast as a virus.