In my Approaches to Conflict class at the University of Baltimore, students must write a letter to someone in power, requesting something that matters to them. I always participate. So when, the Bay Area BART rail system allowed advertisements from a group that promoted Holocaust denial and white nationalism, I wrote expressing my concern. They said nothing could be done because of the Bill of Rights. This week, however, I received a wonderful email from BART telling me the Board of Directors will meet Tuesday December 4th, 2018 to consider revising their advertising policy. They asked me to comment on this new policy that gives them discretion over the messaging on their platforms. Here is my response....
Dear Board of Directors,
Thank you for bringing this proposal about the possible changes to your Advertising Policy to the Board of Director’s meeting this Tuesday, December 4th.
A former San Francisco resident, I reached out about this issue based on two areas of expertise. Firstly, as a decade-long senior global advertising executive and now as a scholar working on corporate accountability for massive human rights violations.
I study trains as sites of socio-political contestation, specifically the French National Railways’ role in the WWII deportation of Jews and the debates in the U.S. over whether the company has made sufficient amends to do business in the U.S. (especially California where it bids for high-speed rail projects). (For more on this research click here).
You face a conundrum faced by all Americans. As a nation, we want to preserve free speech and yet we all know the power of propaganda to promote the hate which leads to violences. We are torn: freedom of speech or peace?
The U.S. has long prioritized freedom over peace. Few leaders, except the likes of Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr., have been able to lead us through these complicated moral waters.
I can share with you the following from my own knowledge and experience. Emotions are contagious. Hate spreads like your California wildfires, especially when people are distressed or in fear. Every genocide on this planet is born of this propaganda.
If you are familiar with the Rwandan genocide, you may be aware of the crucial role the local radio station played by promoting the hate of Tutsis. The genocide could likely not have occurred without their assistance. Raul Hilberg, the father of Holocaust research, says that while many organizations contributed to the Holocaust, trains were vital. The Holocaust likely could not have occurred without their assistance. I’m sure you are aware of the Dutch National Railways recent announcement that it will pay descendants.
Though the U.S. remains largely auto-centric, trains have not diminished as sites of socio-political importance. The recent refusal of Washington D.C. metro drivers to operate a special train for those attending an alt-right rally, demonstrates the awareness of the members of the union.
As historian Howard Zinn so aptly noted, “You cannot be neutral on a moving train.” With this in mind, I encourage you to use your power wisely and be discerning regarding the messages you allow on your train platforms.
Advertising works— it can sell products or lay the groundwork for mass violence and political polarization.
I support the new policy.
Please keep me posted regarding what you choose.
Sarah Federman, PhD
Negotiations and Conflict Management
College of Public Affairs
University of Baltimore