Looking at how Saudis have become regular punching bags for not only Western media, but also for Muslims who want to be perceived in a certain way by Western societies, it behooves us to ask why that is. Very few people go through the numbers and dig up statistics to bolster their anti-Saudi rhetoric. Given the power of the media in altering perceptions, it would probably be a safe bet to point the fingers there.
There are two interesting cognitive phenomena that could explain how it has become hard out here for a Saudi: false pattern recognition and negativity bias. False pattern recognition refers to the human tendency to see patterns that are not actually there. The clouds shaped like a person in prayer, and the rock formation on Mars that from a certain angle and distance looks like a face are examples of false pattern recognition. This phenomenon is also noted when we see a sequence of events take place and assume they are connected in a cause and effect sequence, when they statistically have no such connection.
A number of theories have been proposed to explain this innate tendency of the human mind to give meaning and order to phenomena that are a product of subjective projections rather than objective realities. One plausible explanation is that the brain compares incoming information with previous exposures and engages in a process of matching. In this model, thoughts are guided by analogies that make sense of the present through comparisons with the past. The only way to tease out the objectively present pattern from the subjective projection of a pattern is statistical analysis.
Negativity bias refers to the human tendency to have a greater capacity for recalling negative experiences as opposed to positive ones. Human behaviour seems to be guided towards avoiding unpleasant events, which makes us more likely to recall a negative past. Interestingly, negativity bias results in attitudes such as individuals being emotionally averse to flying but not to driving, even though the odds of being in a car crash are far greater than being in a plane crash.
A 1998 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology where brain activity was recorded in people exposed to pictures that aroused positive, negative, or neutral feelings demonstrated a greater surge of electrical activity to negative pictures. In the context of the media, bad news has a greater impact on us than good news. Evolutionary explanations for this revolve around what was more likely to ensure survival. In addition, pleasure, which is associated with dopamine release in the brain, is an activity that results in diminishing returns. This is why addicts keep asking for more of their fix as the same amount of drug taken previously is no longer sufficient to get the same high.
Given that we are more heavily influenced by negativity, it follows that there must be some ratio of positive to negative exposure to create a balance that offsets negativity bias. An interesting finding from research in healthy marriages shows that the magic ratio is 5 to 1. A total of five positive interactions were required to offset the effect of one negative interaction between couples. If we apply this to our interactions with the media, this means for every negative article we are exposed to about Saudi Arabia, we need to go through five positive articles to offset the negativity bias that we form against Saudis.
To add insult to injury, the media continues to circulate fabricated news that make Saudis seem ridiculous, or “fatwas” prohibiting all-you-can-eat buffets that turn out to be caricatured reports of discussions on Islamic law. Although it is true that Saudi Arabia does have a lot of problems, the pretentious “look at what the Saudis are doing now” using fabrications and caricatures is disingenuous. The media has successfully turned Saudis into a punchline to assert Western superiority. In doing so Saudis have been collectively judged as a backward, extremist, and ludicrous sex-crazed people who oppress women while driving their Ferraris and all their men are evil enough to take advantage of the plight of Syrians and marry their underage daughters with promises of emancipation, only to sleep with them for a month and disappear afterwards.
Sadly, the situation has gotten worse for Saudis now because even Muslims are disowning them. There is a trend among young Western Muslims to assert their disapproval of Saudis, which seems to be more about presenting themselves in a way that would be acceptable to a Western non-Muslim audience. This is corroborated by the fact that ridiculous “fatwas” go viral, shared by many Muslims with some caption like “Oh here goes another crazy Saudi cleric.” But when these “fatwas” are exposed to be fabrications, such exposures hardly get any recognition from anyone, Muslim or non-Muslim. This is not surprising if the goal is for one to promote a particular self-image. After all, how could one follow their rebuke of a silly “fatwa” with an article exposing it as a fabrication, which in turn makes them look silly?
The Western media coverage of Saudis is unfair and non-representative to say the least. We are consistently bombarded with silly news articles that turn out to be either misrepresentations or flat-out fabrications. They all seem to go through cycles as part of a repetition to cement a negative perception of Saudis into the collective consciousness, exploiting negativity bias and enforcing false pattern recognition in the Saudi people. Anyone who has visited or lived in Saudi, or even extensively interacted with enough Saudis knows there is a gap between the media and reality. This is not to mention the distinction one should be making between Saudis as a people and the Saudi government. Even within Saudi Arabia one cannot speak of Saudis as a monolith either culturally or even Islamically.
Putting their government aside, in spite of any and all empty claims to the contrary, the diversity of the Saudi people is the reason why they do offer a representation of Muslims and Islam. Are they free of faults? Of course not, but who is anyways? They have a lot of issues to address with regards to women’s rights and matters related to freedom of expression and religion. However, this does not mean they can be collectively demonized in the way they regularly are.