After anti-Islam video and Muslim riots, we are all ambassadors

Ambassadorship is no longer reserved for elites. In this era of digital interconnectedness, we are all called upon to use free speech to foster peace, not violence. To honor Ambassador Stevens, let us uphold that responsibility in our online – and offline – interactions.

Mohammad Hannon/AP
Libyans hold placards as they march on Sept. 14 to express their sympathy for US Ambassador Christopher Stevens and other Americans killed in the Sept. 11 deadly attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Op-ed contributor Kate Otto says: 'These citizens also revealed a secret to high-quality ambassadorship: using online spaces to communicate the same sincerity as if one were speaking face-to-face.' Their actions 'still have the potential to ripple out and promote more peaceful days ahead.'

What does it mean to be an ambassador?

In the wake of the murder of Ambassador Christopher Stevens in Benghazi, Libya, and continued riots and attacks on US embassies worldwide, our traditional understanding of this ancient term takes on new meaning.

“Ambassador” is a title that signifies responsibility for relationship management between two foreign powers, and Amb. Stevens exemplified core virtues of respect and cultural understanding throughout his career. His years as a Peace Corps volunteer exposed him to the challenges everyday people face, and his fluency in Arabic and French was more than many individuals in international public service can claim, as many never learn the language of the communities in which they serve.

And yet as exemplary as his leadership was, his best efforts were thwarted by a different kind of diplomat: a 21st century sort, a kind whose power has mirrored the rise (and near ubiquity) of global digital communications – an “everyday” ambassador.

We live in a world of instantaneous connectivity, in which our capacity to share opinions with global neighbors is nearly limitless, and the likelihood of governments blocking access to such content becomes less with every fallen dictator. We thus become ambassadors with every new piece of content we upload, taking international relationship management into our own hands. If we fail to take this responsibility seriously, we risk dire consequences.

Stevens’s murder, and continued riots across the Muslim world, reveal the consequences of irresponsible “everyday ambassadorship.” In this case, an everyday person produced and posted online the film “Innocence of Muslims,” that while poor in professional quality, clearly disparages Islam’s holy prophet Muhammad and seethes with hateful sentiments. Less than a decade ago, this would have negligibly impacted the navigation of international relations, but in a truly globalized online world, in which anyone can stand at the digital helm, it has set a brutal struggle in motion.   

Though only a small fraction of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims are protesting the film in outrage, the violence that continues suggests there is indeed a responsibility that comes alongside anyone’s right to free speech.

Everyday ambassadors no longer simply represent specific countries, but sets of values, and values now spread quickly and consequentially. Mobile communication and even Internet access is no longer a luxury of high-income citizens. When disparaging, insulting, and disrespectful statements are sent into the online ether, these values can proliferate. They proliferate faster the more we talk about an “other,” and the less we have meaningful, respectful interaction with others not like us.

Through online channels, those interactions can collect into a jumbled twist of negative emotions, misunderstandings, and failed communications that can ultimately result in tragic offline consequences.  

In a diverse world so naturally full of opposing viewpoints, how are we to avoid outcomes like those of the past week?

Ordinary Libyan people exemplified a poignant ideal of everyday ambassadorship in the hours immediately following Stevens’s death. Their immediate outpouring of support, love, and shared grieving for the American people, through pro-America rallies and especially via photographed poster messages shared widely online, clarified that the embassy attack “does not represent us.”

These citizens also revealed a secret to high-quality ambassadorship: using online spaces to communicate the same sincerity as if one were speaking face-to-face. Their actions – on- and off-line – reinstated a set of positive values that still have the potential to ripple out and promote more peaceful days ahead.

Ambassadorship is no longer a position reserved for elite citizens in the highest political echelons. It is a sacred responsibility that you and I hold in our hands every moment of every day. In this role, we are meant to build bridges – not burn them. We are called upon to use whatever influence we have to foster peace, not fuel violence.

In honor of Amb. Stevens, let us uphold that responsibility through the values we convey in our every online – and offline – interaction.

Kate Otto works with various aid organizations on international development projects. She is writing “Everyday Ambassador,” a book about the power of human relationships in enacting lasting social change, and how to preserve them in an increasingly digital world.

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