Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Negative Narratives: Obama is a Muslim

Although commonly known as false, 17% of registered voters still think that Obama is a Muslim. Carefully placed and constructed media and political narratives have created this false, yet influential narrative. I bring up this specific example because of a question posed to me at the NCA conference on the Romney and Mormonism panel. The panel was questioned why voters would consider a Muslim more “mainstream” than a Mormon. After a few stunned moments and a brief corrective response, I wondered as to the likelihood of finding a well-educated academic asking such a question to me at a panel specifically addressing the intersection of religion and politics at a competitive national conference.
The reality that such narratives can gain traction in the public sphere demonstrate who damaging unregulated political advertising and web presence can be. Though Geer argues for the benefit of negative advertising in "In Defense of Negativity", there appears to be more evidence to the contrary. Increased levels of personal attacks, deceptive and manipulated information, and subtle racial comments have become commonplace in American politics. Even though Obama can counter such narratives on his web sites and in media statements, for those who doubt Obama or are looking for confirmation of their skepticism can cling to relevant narratives and ignore contradictory information. Is Obama the most adamant and vocal Christian ever? No. Does he incorporate religion and traditional Judeo-Christian values into his politics as strongly as others? No. But does that mean that people have the right to doubt his Christianity? Furthermore, what does this say about our country when being a Muslim is a derogatory identification that precludes one from the presidency?
The truth is that negative campaigning increases cynicism, allows for the spread of misleading or outright false information, and creates a culture of division. My NCA experience represents for me the negative effects that I have studied being realized. It is one thing to read about the racial connotations of the William "Willie" Horton advertisement and it is another to encounter someone who truly believes what is nothing more than a conspiracy theory that survives only through the radical echo chambers that exist online. With low voter turnout and vicious character attacks from SuperPACs and 527s, I hope that negative campaigning will eventually reach its peak and disappear. For the sake of democracy, a healthy public sphere, and unity in the face of elections, the fostering of a negative political culture must end.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Transgender Awareness Week

In honor of Transgender Awareness Week in Boston, I wanted to discuss some ideas about gender identification. Although there have been great strides in marriage equality and LGBTQ issues, the transgender population and their issues are often left out of the conversation. In part, I find the inclusion of LGB with T a partial misnomer. Whereas lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals are looking for acceptance based on sexual orientation, the transgender community is more concerned with gender norms and obstacles to identification. For example, the issues each group is concerned with varies greatly. When I lived in Boston, I remember regulations being discussed for allowing transgender people to enter bathrooms that may not correspond with societal norms. This was a large issue at the time, but would not an issue for an LGB individual, who would not be barred from entering a public bathroom.

When I consider issues of gender, I cannot help but think of reading I did for my summer project on the relationship between science and religion. Gender is a scientific and religious construction that defines gender as a binary and by physical characteristics. Even though modern science dictates gender as a more fluid identification, past categories have constricted gender expression into arbitrary labels fueled by religious needs for procreation. The first fact established about a person is their gender. Consider the first knowledge gained by a pregnant couple, even before the name, eye color, or personality, the parents know the child's gender in a male/female dichotomy. This piece of information determines color schemes for bedrooms, gifts for a baby shower, naming conventions and decisions, and expectations for the birth.

Simply put, one's gender is decided for oneself and becomes the defining factor for identity. Incongruity with a personal belief and experience and what has been provided for someone by others can create drastic psychological issues that can lead to destructive behaviors. As seen in the statistics below, transgender people are at risk for certain behaviors and are at risk for being treated differently because of their gender identity. I think it is important to remember how life-changing such an identity crisis may be. People are not simply changing their hair color, but they are undergoing a personal restoration to how they feel is the appropriate, representative, and correct gender, or anywhere along the spectrum.

Image retrieved from this site.
When people do not conform to these gender norms, society's discourse breaks down. Scientific, religious, and public discourse is only beginning to establish terms that break the binary and are truly representative for all people. The inability to express oneself, partially because of hegemonic discursive structures that restrict fluid definitions of gender. The way that society is structurally organized leaves little room for open spaces to discuss the body (e.g., at a doctor's office), naming transitions (e.g., at a university or with the government), or protection (e.g., with the police). The problems that face transgender people are still only on the horizon of LGBTQ concerns, but I hope that in the future, as more strides are made for LGB individuals that transgender issues will become more prominent. Leaders in this area should be lauded as they are paving the way for other people and politicians to become more aware of transgender concerns.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Faith in Humanity: Will it be Restored?

Doing research on the intersection of religion/politics and religion/science have brought forth some interesting, shocking, and saddening examples of what happens when these collisions occur.

Some things that I have read have made me echo the immortal words of Professor Farnsworth on Futurama:

This bill in Tennessee would place those who have had an abortion on an information-sharing list similar to sex-offenders.

The passage of this law in Idaho questions women's abilities to understand if they have been raped and requires them to view an ultrasound of the fetus before obtaining an abortion.

A doctor in Kansas is being stripped of her medical license for agreeing to provide an abortion to a 10 year-old rape victim carrying her uncle's child.

Protesters at Gay Day in Michigan threatened to rape and kill participants in the event, quoting and relying on biblical verses to justify the attack.

Representative Andy Gipson (R - MS) stated and then confirmed his opinion that it is people's duty to follow the word of God by having members of the LGBTQ community put to death.

Doctors in South Dakota are now required (as upheld by a recent ruling) to advise women seeking an abortion that there is a psychological link between having an abortion and depression and suicide.

Republican politicians confirm the active disenfranchisement techniques of Republicans towards African American and Latino voters.

Massachusetts judge approves a sex change operation for an inmate and sparks outrageous comments about the rights of prisoners, sex change operations, and tax allocation.

Stories like these ones above are not always bad, however. They remind me that there are still issues in the world that need to be addressed and corrected. We as people, part of humanity, cannot be satisfied with partial victories, segmented success, or the fracturing of freedom and equality.

Other news stories, however, help me to strike my best Freddie Mercury pose and exclaim:

The passage of the Affordable Care Act allow for equal coverage for women and access to preventative measures so they can be in more control of their health care.

Obama's statements on gay marriage and the Democratic Party supporting the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, though a small step, is an important first political gesture to inclusive marriage equality.

The repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell ended the prevention against open homosexuals from serving in the military and allowed for people to be open and honest about their identities.

The election of the first openly gay Senator and the passage of marriage equality in Maine and Maryland.

I hope that in the future, I will see more progress towards the acceptance, tolerance, and inclusion of all of humanity through equal treatment and opportunities. These are goals that we all can strive for and as scholars, voters, and communicators, we can strive for change together.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Political Advertising: 2012 Election

During my summer in Pittsburgh, I traveled across the state multiple times and saw many conservative billboards. My time spent in Philadelphia, Boston, and Los Angeles has not afforded me such exposure and I found many of them worthy of comment. The power of the billboard is in its simple, clear messaging, stylistic dimensions, and highly partisan statements. The limited space is no place for moderate remarks, especially when they come from third-party groups and can be as brutal as possible. One of my favorite billboards read "Coal: red, white, and blue, and always green". The appeal to colors highlights how patriotic it is to support coal, but also its eco- or environmentally friendly properties. There is no room for argument or debate on the billboard, simply a statement that the viewer can agree or disagree with as one drives past.

The purpose of this post, spurred by my interest in billboards and political advertising, is to describe a few political advertisements in the 2012 presidential election cycle. The advertisements share important information about candidates that are small, concise, sound bites for easy consumption. One that was prominently on display entering downtown Pittsburgh said:

Obama supports gay marriage and abortion, do you? The word "supports" portrays Obama as one who wants everyone to participate in gay marriage or have abortions, as opposed to supporting an individual's rights to choose these for themselves. Asking the viewer to reflect on these topics encourages an emotional and negative response in those questioning or already leaning conservative (at least on social issues). The enthymematic conclusion to this billboard is that by voting Republican, you will be voting for someone who does not support these rights, ergo Romney does not support gay marriage and abortion rights. This can be a powerful motivator for those who are undecided or conservatives who are concerned about Romney's reputation for flip-flopping on social issues.

Another way that Romney is trying to re-claim the conservative base is to promote the Christian ideals he shares as a Mormon. The Mormon.TV videos highlight their belief in Jesus Christ, "the savior of mankind", the variety of people who follow the Mormon faith. Mormonism has a negative association with being mysterious, cult-like, and secretive. This website and their television advertisements can help in part to assuage those concerns that Mormons are somehow dangerous, occult, or different by sharing the experiences of Mormons as people and how their faith is (for the most part) similar to mainstream Judeo--Christian beliefs. In fact, the differences between Mormonism and Christianity is the same between Christianity and Judaism, they simply believe in the divine inspiration of one more book.

An Obama advertisement that caught my eye was the "For All" advertisements that are being shared on Facebook. Borrowing from the unifying visual statements of the 99%, the advertisements show celebrities and everyday Americans and what they are passion about and fight for. The statement is quite unifying in the copying of the action, but also in the overarching statement that people vote not just for themselves, but to protect the rights of others.

Retrieved from this site
The juxtaposition of celebrities and everyday Americans also creates an inclusive environment, while also capitalizing on the celebrity support that Obama receives. This is also a contagion effect, where supporters can also mimic the post position and upload their own versions. Just as the 99% signs showed people holding up signs to portray their economic/employment/education situations for the Internet to see, this simple act of writing on the hand (and holding it over the heart as in the Pledge of Allegiance) can be mimicked by everyone worldwide. The visual is a powerful one and one that supporters and independents feel they can engage and connect with.

As the debates are underway and the campaign is heading into the final stages, the advertisements are more likely going to be even more negative and targeted. I never realized how many political advertisements that I saw when I lived in Pennsylvania until I moved to Massachusetts and California and now have seen very few. The ability of technology to micro-target communities means that voters in swing states are receiving the most advertisements and attention from candidates whereas other "safe" states will get very little attention. Trends that I perceive are the increasingly negative third-party advertisements, the focus on values and "change" from Obama (who seems impervious to gaffes or media attention for mistakes), and the struggling Romney campaign trying to salvage the conservative wing with whatever means necessary.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Netvibes: Research tools for students and scholars

Netvibes is a great research tool for scholars and a news tool for people alike. There are various types of RSS feed dashboards, but this one has the features and ease of use that works for me. Coupling this tool with the PagetoRSS functionality, creates a one-stop research location.

I have the Netvibes dashboard load as one of my homepages, making sure that I see the headlines in my research areas of interest. Because the dashboard is full of RSS feeds (as well as other widgets), it automatically updates, making my research time more efficient and easy. As opposed to an iGoogle homepage, the Netvibes dashboard allows for tabbed feeds, where dozens of tabs organize feeds by topic area. The set-up and organize of each tab can be changed in terms of columns and how many headlines the feeds draw. The site advertises "limitless personalization" from background art to widgets and apps, custom layouts, and RSS feed options.

This is the homepage of my dashboard, which has a weather app, general news feeds, a to-do list, and notepad. Each tab has a different research interest and toggling between tabs brings up new feeds and apps that I've loaded to the page. Adding the feeds are as easy as copying the link to the RSS feed on a website and pasting it in the "Add Content" tab at the top left corner of the dashboard. This adds a box to the page that updates with headlines and articles. I primarily use GoogleNews, JSTOR updates, and professional blogs to populate my tabs. My background is a nice, relaxing beach as a personal touch to the dashboard. 

The benefits of this tool (similar to other dashboards) are multiple. I find Netvibes the most convenient and intuitive to use, but the salient point is that these dashboard and RSS feeds can deliver relevant news and journal articles in various topics to one location.
  • With minimal set-up, the RSS feeds automatically pull in information
  • Dashboard can be accesses anywhere with an internet connection
  • Apps and widgets, such as weather, notepads, and to-do lists (with hundreds of others) are easily added through the "add content" link
  • Tabs organize and separate different research topics with no limit in the number of tabs
  • Adding content is as easy as copying and pasting links
  • Easily delete and modify feeds
  • PagetoRSS makes sites without RSS feeds easily accessible on a dashboard
The Netvibes's dashboards are automatically private, but people can publish their dashboards or share them with others. Additionally, premium features are available for those who are willing or for some reason need extra features and functionality.

There is an overwhelming amount of information online. Checking one location instead of multiple locations helps save time and sanity for scholars of any discipline. Whichever dashboard works best for you, make sure to update it and routinely check it, so you will always be up-to-date on timely, important, and relevant news for your research interests.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Climate Change and Health: Carnegie Mellon Panel

I had the opportunity to attend a panel at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) over the summer while interning at the City Council's office. The panel topic was specifically about climate change and its consequences that directly impact the health of humankind. Though some panelists extended the topic to more than just physical health and discussed general well-being, this focus was a fascinating addition to previous research I've done on the consequences of climate change as economic, political, and environmental.

The first speaker was Terry Collins, a professor at CMU. His presentation linked climate change and environmental protection with moral and ethical obligations. Noting that everyone is responsibility for the future of the environment, he encouraged everyone to engage in "transgenerational justice". Not only are present concerns important (e.g., the economy and war), but also the future environment for our human successors. His term of choice was "Sustainability Knights" which harnesses the ethical actions of medieval knights and the long-term vocabulary of sustainability. Though he only mentioned religion briefly, I find connection with his arguments and my current research on the relationship between religious rhetoric and climate change. Appealing to morality and ethics are values associated with religion, as they are persuasive according to biblical and religious hierarchy and authority. Religious members are traditionally associated with anti-environmental in accordance with White's 1967 theory of "dominion". From biblical passages, humankind is given dominion and power over the environment, undermining preservation and sustainable importance. Currently, there has been a slow but steady movement of religious groups and organizations that have begun to support the Evangelical Climate Initiative. This changes are only in their infancy, but I agree with Collins that this religious appeal to morality and values are an important part of the solution to mitigating climate change.

The next speaker was Gary Cohen, a representative of Healthcare without Harm. His arguments were incredibly fascinating and discussed the personal, current effects already being linked to climate change. 150,000 deaths have been attributed to climate change, most of them directly related to the rise in daily temperatures causing heat stroke. Vulnerable populations such as children and elderly are most susceptible to the changes, but as they become more severe, average people will also be affected. Cohen imagined a world, though perhaps only a distant reality, where the environment is destroyed, animals are becoming extinct, and all forms of food are coveted and expensive a la Soylent Green.

The final speaker with Noe Copley-Woods who worked at McGee Hospital in Pittsburgh. She documented a practical change that could be implemented to combat climate change. In the presentation, she showed the audience photographs of the waste produced by one birth. The trash bags were filled with hundreds of pieces of gauze, dozens of disposable medical tools, towels, bed sheets, and various other paper waste. For one child, over 30 pounds of waste was produced that became hospital trash. Worries about infection stop many hospitals from re-using and sterilizing equipment. Estimates place annual hospital waste at 50,000 pounds which Noe says contributes heavily to the pollution of our environment. Personal tips and changes are important, but making changes to larger institutions is a more effective and meaningful way to address pollution and environmental damage.

One of the largest takeaways from the panel was how to make these effects and consequences of climate change meaningful for the general public. Cohen's and Copley Woods's presentations in particular showed me how persuasive personal and drastic images can be for motivating action and interest. Although some of the more extreme and severe consequences are farther in the future, there are enough present day examples that can serve to incite progress and response. The danger in entering this conversation, however, is inviting similar persuasive tactics by those who argue for current examples as counterarguments to global warming. 

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Conference Pros and Cons

After going to three conferences so far in my academic career (a limited number compared to some of my prolific colleagues), I have already noticed some stark differences between the larger, medium-sized, and smaller conferences. The differences between the Eastern Communication Association, International Communication Association, and the Visual Communication Association conferences left me with much to think about for future conference planning, scheduling, and budgeting.

What is most surprising is that across the board, conferences cost around $700 each. Some of us are lucky enough to receive university funding to help subsidize these costs, but for most unfunded students, post-docs, and recent hires, these prices are restrictive in how many conferences it is feasible to attend. Using the ICA conference as my large conference and VisCom as my small conference, I have listed the pros and cons that I have experienced as a conference novice.

Large conferences - ICA as exemplar
  • great variety
    • I was thrilled to see all of the variety in panels that I could attend. From early morning to early evening, there were dozens of panels that interested me in a variety of topic areas and disciplines. There were even panels in different formats, from posters to panels to speed sessions, to keep my attention.
  • overlap in panels
    • Although the number and variety of panels were great, there was a lot of overlap where I was interested in multiple panels and had to chose which to attend. This is an obvious converse to the above point, but I still felt rude for leaving panels early and had difficulty choosing between panels of interest to me. A few times I felt that I had chosen incorrectly, but felt obligated to stay and be respectful to my fellow scholars.
  • large amount of people
    • This aspect is half green and red simply because for some, this is a positive attribute. For me, however, I felt quite overwhelmed by the amount of people at the conference, resulting in my clinging to the few people I knew and meeting very few new scholars. Surprisingly, for the conference being so large, I had only a dozen people present at my panel.
  • major city
    • Although I didn't explore Phoenix, I knew many of my colleagues who took time to visit the Grand Canyon, go on local tours, and simply wander the city. Next year the conference will be in London, so ICA offers even more sightseeing and travel opportunities. The major city also helped keep prices for flights and hotels down due to competition.
Small conferences - VisCom as exemplar
  • great variety
    • Although the conference was only about visual communication, a small subset of communication, the variety of presentations was astounding! From discussions of the body to politics to memorials to evolution, the panels did not disappoint in variety!
  • small amount of people
    • The small amount of people made for an inclusive and welcoming atmosphere. There was only one panel scheduled for each time slot, so everyone at the conference attended everyone else's panel. Not only was I presenting to many more people than at ICA, but I was having the same scholarly experience that my colleagues were having as well.
  • price for value
    • The registration fee for VisComm was more than double ICA's registration, which was surprising to me. One good aspect of this was that the food was included, so I did save some money there. Although I normally do not spend a lot of money on food anyway, it was a nice change to feel well-feed (and how good the food was!) at the conference.
  • location
    • This is in part related to the price issues above. The VisCom conference was in Midway, Utah, the closest airport being Salt Lake City, which was 1 hour away. The location was inconvenient and the prices to fly into Salt Lake City were expensive and the traveling complicated. The hotel site was beautiful, with a crater, mountains, and landscaping, but the high cost of the flight and hotel caused me to leave without venturing too far from the conference room.
View outside of the Homestead Resort in Midway, Utah

Poster Presentations - ECA as exemplar
  • genuine interest in project
    • People who stopped by to read more into my poster were genuinely interested in my project. Additionally, we had more in-depth and nuanced conversations about the specific aspects of my project that was particularly interesting. I was not talking to an entire room, answering a few generic questions, but was having a personal conversation with a fellow scholar. There was opportunity for sharing, brainstorming, and more intimate discussion.
  • repetition
    • Within those intimate conversations, though, I found myself repeating the basic tenets of my piece over and over again. In a larger panel discussion, I could have answered the questions for everyone a single time. For individuals, however, it was necessary to give my five minutes spiel for everyone who came around. For a two hour poster session, I was hoarse by the end of it.
  • chaotic/loud
    • The ECA's poster session was the first that it had put on for the undergraduates. They apparently had more interest than expected because the room was quite small and posters barely had enough space to stand beside without standing in front of someone else's. If the posters I were sandwiched between each had visitors, it was hard to even see my poster let alone have a conversation about it. These issues may have been alleviated with a different set-up and space, but it is an issue to consider when applying for a poster session.
Overall, I greatly enjoyed my conference experiences this year and look forward to my upcoming year of conferences, which is already being filled by my planned attendance at the National Communication Association conference in Orlando, Florida in November.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Apocalypse is Near, the Only Question is How?

Tick tock, tick tock, tick tock. The clock has been an immutable symbol of life, with each second passing signifying the unstoppable journey towards death. When our time will run out is a mystery, but its inevitability is universally known. In the classic Edgar Allen Poe tale, "The Masque of the Red Death", even the rich and powerful Prince Prospero cannot hide from the ticking black clock of death. For time ends for all of us, and the fear of death, the unknown, the uncertainty of its timing, has played an important role in the creation of laws, social structures, and mythologies.

One representation of the connection between time and death can be found in the Doomsday Clock. This large, symbolic clock is a measurement for how close the world is to destruction, annihilation, and the apocalypse. Its initial intention in 1947 (created by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists) was to measure the likelihood of nuclear war with 7 minutes to midnight the original time. Using midnight and the tolling of the clock as the endpoint to the countdown, the clock does not move constantly as a normal clock would. Instead, the hands are moved closer and farther away in response to certain actions and occurrences in the world. For example, the clock moved to two minutes to midnight in 1953, during the height of the Cold War. Despite its original symbolism, the Doomsday Clock now responds and moves in accordance to not only nuclear threats, but other apocalyptic threats such as nuclear energy, climate change and malicious technologies. The most recent move from seventeen minutes to five minutes to midnight reflects a topic previously discussed on this blog: climate change. Citing research about the consequences of climate change, the Doomsday Clock moves nearly as close to imminent destruction as under the threat of nuclear war.

The symbolism and rhetoric of the Doomsday Clock makes the comparison of climate change to nuclear war, legitimizing the threat by equating them. To consider the threat from climate change as equal to as as dangerous as nuclear war is a powerful rhetorical statement being made by the BAS. Whether one agrees that climate change should be included in the Doomsday Clock or not, the idea that the end is near is a belief held by many people worldwide. A recent poll shows that 15% of the world population believes that the world will end during their lifetime. Interesting to note is that one's belief in the apocalypse happening in our lifetime is negatively associated with education level. The implications of this could be as simple as those with less education are more likely to be persuaded by alarmist or apocalyptic rhetoric that answers their questions about life and death. This is a relationship that might need further explication and research in another post, but the finding in this study is an intriguing point. Overall, one in seven people believe in the impending apocalypse, and though these percentages fluctuate across nations, the tendency towards apocalyptic thoughts is a global phenomenon. That is to say, it is human to worry and be anxious about death, believing that the end is always near. The range of how the apocalypse will occur varies.

Some believe that the earth will eventually be consumed by the sun.

Some believe that the rapture will occur, saving religious believers and turning the world into a war-torn wasteland.

Some believe that climate change will become unstoppable, with massive flooding, displacement, famine, extreme weather, and war.

Some believe that a disease or virus will infect the world's population causing massive chaos and death.

Some believe that militant groups or governments may obtain nuclear weapons and begin a domino effect of nuclear war.

These beliefs range widely from the scientific to the religious to the fantastical, but the interesting point is that the end is not debated, only when and how. Just as no one can stop the ticking clock in the velvet room, humankind is aware of its eventual destruction, whether personal or global.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

When Freedom isn't Really Free: Church and Politics

Ever since I gave a lecture on Foucault to the undergraduates at USC, I have begun to link my interests in politics with issues of power, gender, the body, the environment, and religion. Each of these areas has their own discourse, language, and regulations. When these discourses begin to mix and gain voices in each other's spheres, problems can emerge. Consider the mixing of religion in the educational system, where scientific and religious discourses collide in how to teach the origin of humanity. Some would argue that religion should be separate from education and has no role to play, where others would defend its inclusion and right to be there wholeheartedly. Whichever side one would fall on, the reality is that the mixing of discourses complicates ideas of knowledge, power, and truth.

This specific example explores the relationship between religion and science/politics that has been a sordid affair for centuries. From recent debates about abortion, birth control to the nomination of Paul Ryan as the vice presidential nominee, religion and political regulation has risen to prominence. Whereas political discourse relies on the participation of the people and elected politicians to craft and decide regulations, religious discourse (primarily Judeo-Christian in America) places knowledge and truth within the Bible and religious leaders. The problem when they become mixed is that people who are atheists or follow a different faith are subjugated to non-universal laws. Religious discourses are better suited to personal or community spheres for those who believe, whereas political discourses are better suited to federal and governmental policies.

I was surprised at the proposed mixing of the two advocated at a sermon I attended in Pittsburgh. The overall theme of the sermon was to redefine freedom to be less self-centered and more inclusive of community, family, and religious purposes. The preacher discussed the traditional definition of freedom as "doing what you want whenever you want" as a participant in the sin of pride. He instead argued for freedom meaning the opportunity to follow God's plan and do what we were designed to do in life. While seemingly a plea for people to help others and avoid what can sometimes become a self-centered, navel-gazing activity of "I want", I found more sinister and underlying ideologies.

In a world, in a discourse where freedom doesn't mean free to choose or free to follow one's own actions, freedom is actually replaced with restriction, regulation, and oppression. When we sacrifice individual liberties in order to follow God's design, we ignore the 16% of people in the United States with no religious affiliation, those not part of the Christian majority religion, and those who do not wish to mix their religion and politics in favor, we lose freedom. I define freedom as the elusive ability to choose, to have options, to serve oneself as one desires as long as one does not harm, silence, or oppress others. Following God's law means that people do not have the freedom to choose, especially when one thinks of women's rights over their own bodies.

An inquiry into the complications and fears surrounding the female form would be a whole blog post in and of itself to fully address the issue. Suffice to say for this post that religious discourse has traditionally treated the female body as a sexual instrument, subordinate to and property of men. Even in current times, women are being denied their right to regulate their bodies, control becoming pregnant, and accessing services such as Planned Parenthood. The message that bothered me in the previously mentioned service was that by allowing for the discourses to mix, to take the personal focus out of freedom, fosters a community and ideology where restrictions on personal choice flourish. I imagine that women listening to sermons like these when they were younger (e.g., Sarah Palin and Ann Coulter) begin to believe that their rights should be restricted and they do not deserve the choice over their own body. Whether one would choose to have an abortion or not is not the issue, it is the right to be able to choose. If someone, for religious reasons, decides to keep an accidental pregnancy, they are equally without choice if it is mandated so by law.

Sermons and ideas such as these foster a culture comfortable with religious lessons and teachings leaving the Church, personal values, and family life and becoming commonplace in political discourse. When the voices of some are oppressed on the journey to power, freedom is distorted, and ultimately lost. Politicians and the general public should fight against these inclusions and keep the discourses separate. When there is freedom, true choice involved, those who wish to follow God's laws can do so as a personal choice, not a legal mandate.

Just like in American History X, I will defer to the words of others to summarize and inspire my words on freedom. I hope that in the future, human behavior, biopower, and personal choice can be left mostly unregulated, giving people true freedom over themselves and relinquishing them from the ideology of others.

Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves.
-Abraham Lincoln

Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed
-Martin Luther King, Jr.

For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.
-Nelson Mandela

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Please Vote for Me: Introducing Democracy to Children

In my media and politics class in the spring, we watched a fascinating documentary called "Please Vote for Me". It is currently available on Netflix and I encourage everyone to watch it as it has interesting implications for systems of government and global politics in addition to being a fun and enjoyable watch.

The premise of the film is that a classroom of young children (8-9 years old) in China is going to implement democratic voting for their class monitor. This position was previously appointed by the teacher, but now a student will be chosen as a representative of the class. Three children decide to run for the position, the previous class monitor (Luo Lei) and a female (Xu Xaoifei) and male challenger (Cheng Cheng).

From nearly the very beginning of the election, Cheng Cheng takes aggressive action in securing votes and manipulating his classmates. Though very young and unfamiliar with democracy and elections, he instinctively employs political tactics. For example, during various stages of the election, Cheng Cheng promises classmates positions if they vote for him, makes a promise to Luo Lei that he will get Cheng Cheng's vote (in order to get Luo Lei to vote for him), fabricates lies about Luo Lei and Xu Xaoifei and tells them to each other, plants students in Xu Xaoifei's audience to yell at her during speech, and overall using language and strategies that one would assume are beyond his 9 years of age. Making promises that cannot be fulfilled is a common tactic of American politics and one that happens near immediately in the classroom election. Catchy slogans such as "read my lips: no new taxes" sounds great and are persuasive, but practically are unlikely and strategic fabrications. Lying about candidate positions or exaggerating negative qualities has become more and more prevalent in negative advertisements and debates. From "swift-boating" to claims of Mormonism being a cult, exaggerations and lies are commonplace in political rhetoric.

I don't want to spoil the ending and who wins the election, but the tactics involved and the strategies that emerge in these three young children are truly fascinating. I believe that this movie speaks to the complications that emerge when people are given a voice, as the temptation to cheat, lie, and manipulate for each vote to power is an unmistakable part of the system. One would hope that politicians would be above the immature attitudes of children, but it is obvious from this film that people of all ages can be consumed by the thought of power in the climb to the top.

A connection that I cannot help but make is the relationship to values, a topic that highly interests me. I have previously discussed values in political speeches, and this topic is also relevant to "Please Vote for Me", because each student appeals to different values when searching for the election. In a tense debate between Cheng Cheng and Luo Lei, the question of honesty versus confidence arises. Previously, in an attempt to guilt Luo Lei into casting a vote for him, Cheng Cheng says that his vote will be for Luo Lei, because that is what is fair (despite his intention to vote for himself). In the debate, Luo Lei asks Cheng Cheng who he will vote for, prepared to either attack Cheng Cheng on his confidence or his honesty. When Cheng Cheng is called out on his lie, the classroom begins to question Cheng Cheng's previously made promises, collapsing his efforts to garner votes.

It brings to mind what values Americans place in their leaders and hope to find. Is the value of loyalty important? Then perhaps there is the explanation for Gingrich's fall, as his series of wives does not paint a loyal husband figure. Is the value of faith important? Then perhaps Romney will be facing a large difficulty convincing the American public that his Mormonism is a Christian faith. Is the value of change as important this time around? Then perhaps Obama still has a chance to be re-elected. What is interesting is the parallel between how values are influential in an American presidential election and a classroom election in China. The act of electing someone draws forth not only their policies, but also their character as an entire person, regardless of situation, location, age, or importance.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Supermodels Without Photoshop: Goffman's Presentation of Self

Arguments over the beauty of models has become under greater scrutiny with the use of Photoshop. Images and visuals, traditionally considered "truthful" as they show reality before the lens, can now be manipulated pre and post photo shoot. Many websites have made their focus highlighting Photoshop mistakes, the drastic differences in appearance when celebrities are "caught" without makeup, and how makeup and photoshop exaggerate the beauty of models.

JennaMarbles: How to Trick People into Thinking You're Pretty
Disclaimer: minor foul language

But how offensive are these "lies" and "manipulations"? What damage is caused when ideals of perfection are unreachable? Backlash from the over-usage of make-up and photo-editing tools call into question the health and well-being of youth, especially young females, who may feel pressured to perform dangerous activities to keep pace with media images.

Communities such as Pro-Ana and Pro-Mia groups (advocating, providing information about, or discussing anorexic and bulimic lifestyles) and "thinspo" or "thinspiration" groups are becoming more prevalent in online spaces. The accessibility and limited rules of the Internet allow for previously sequestered, shamed, or otherwise isolated groups to connect in open, free access spaces. These groups oftentimes detail strict dieting plans, workout routines, or glorify thin bodies in their quest for "perfection". Are the exaggerated and fake images in the media responsible for such behavior? Do they initiate or augment feelings of inadequacy in the population?

I find myself being drawn to Erving Goffman's presentation of self where he discusses the front stage and the backstage performances in the theatre of life. One's front stage performance is the act we put on in our every day lives, how we express and communicate ourselves to others. The backstage performance can be considered our true selves, or the identity that we hide, shield, or keep from others. The congruency between a front and backstage persona is often unachievable, as people are always trying to put their best foot forward and hide flaws (e.g., consider job interviews, politicians, dating, etc.). When the front and back stage do not match, or is revealed to be incongruent, one's identity and performance is questioned and mistrust, skepticism, and cynicism flourish.

Are these models not the same? The industry and media standards for beauty have literally become impossible. Even models and actors hired for the beauty can no longer meet the standards and must inflate and exaggerate their features through cosmetics or computers. And when their "true" identities are revealed or captured, there is ridicule and shame brought upon them. Can we truly fault these models for working? For meeting the requirements of their jobs? Perhaps this is an issue of the industry and the larger culture. So do we all not share the responsibility in creating and fostering these ridiculous beauty standards?

Part of me thinks that this is a good thing: when perfection is unobtainable, then the search for it can be forgotten. If models and celebrities cannot be perfect, surely no one can be, at least in current standards for beauty. When size 4 models are photoshopped to remove extra fat, when computers are altering cultural and racial representations of beauty, then can't the fight for perfection finally end?

Unfortunately, the issue is one of awareness and knowledge which is echoed beautifully in this article about a 14-year-old who is fighting back against photoshopping. Her criticism of photo manipulation stems simply from ignorance on the part of many that these levels of beauty are faked. In response to this lack of information, many organizations and countries have begun placing increased standards on media images because of the perceived health risks in exposing youth to harmful images (female and male alike). Israel, for example, has required advertisements to place disclaimers on advertisements that are photoshopped and all models have to provide a doctor's approval that they are of a healthy weight before working (i.e., to work in Israel, a model's BMI has to be above 18.5).

Even Pinterest, a site that has come under scrutiny for its large "thinspo" community that posts pictures of thin models and anorexia diet plans now places this disclaimer on "thinspiration"-themed searches:

Eating disorders are not lifestyle choices, they are mental disorders that if left untreated can cause serious health problems or could even be life-threatening.

For treatment referrals, information, and support, you can always contact the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237 or

People are no longer free to establish their own standards of beauty, but are labeled as unhealthy or mentally ill because of their physical preferences. Should transgender individuals feel the same way because they alter their appearance against the "norm"? How about other cultures that may bind feet, stretch their neck, or brand members in a search for beauty? These are all serious questions for our world, because while we are a nation founded on choice and free speech, there are situations where the health and well-being of our citizens requires, necessitates, and deserves intervention.

The journey to stop such glamorization of thin frames, anorexic bodies, and manipulations of beauty have only begun. I can only say that everyone should define beauty their own way, without the undue influence of the fashion and modeling industries, media images, and peer pressure.

Segment from National Geogrphic's "Taboo: Beauty"
Disclaimer: images of extreme anorexia

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Graduate School Best Practices: First Year in Review

With my first year of graduate school over and my second year fully started, I felt that a reflective piece about my first year would help serve both me and current/incoming students. It is cliché , but I learned just as much about myself as a person than content as a scholar. Below I have outlined a list of the best practices that I think would serve graduate students well to keep in mind. Most of them are obvious, organizational skills, but they truly helped me, and maybe they can serve as guidelines for others.

Best practices:

  • experiment with citation, note-taking, and to-do list tools
    • Not everyone works in the same way, so the "standard" or most popular tool may not mesh perfectly with your style. Compromise being mainstream and explore all of the options. Read blogs, gather information, and experiment before completely adopting a tool. Once you find it, stick with it, make sure it is updated and you can have access to it when needed.
  • find your "zone" location where you can really get down to work
    • I found that I was more productive in the office at my cubicle than anywhere else. When I really had deadlines to meet, I would only go there and stay there. I would bring snacks and drinks with me and stay there as long as I needed to be there. When my work was not as pressing or I was getting ahead, I let myself work from home, and be distracted every so often. These clear distinctions between work and home helped me stay on track.
  • plan ahead (at least 6 months)
    • This may seem a bit like an Emma-ism, because I am a planner, obsessed with making lists, placing things on my calendar, and working ahead. But, I think that this statement still has merit for all graduate students, simply because the 5 years (as I know from this first year) will go by quickly. Begin to plan out where you want to be, what you want your C.V. to look like, and how you can get there. Considering that conference deadlines are usually 6 months out, the publication process takes years in some cases (my senior thesis was published this April after 1 year), and students go on the job market as early as their fourth year, you cannot plan ahead enough. I recommend placing important events (such as conference deadlines and dates) on your calendar tool as soon as you know them to keep them in mind.
  • prioritize (be specific)
    • Continuing from the planning ahead idea, in order to do so, you must be able to keep organized and prioritize successfully. I keep a "pipeline" on my whiteboard at my desk which shows the stages that my current projects are in. This is a good template for making sure that there is progress and projects in the works. My pipeline has 6 categories (some more quantitative people have more for data collection): Ideas, Background research, Writing, Finalizing, Under Review, In Press. I also have a separate off-shoot under finalizing where I have "conference ready" papers. This is a poor "to-do" list, however, because it only lists large projects. Instead, I recommend making lists of specific, detailed next steps for the projects, prioritized by deadlines. I enjoy variety, so I like to mix up the order of the steps between projects to say engaged. For example, instead of "perform content analysis for Mormon project", I would write, "write code sheet", "find coders", and "perform LexisNexis search". Not only does this break the project up into more manageable sized chunks, but it also feels great to check off many things from your list!
  • find your balance
    • One of the most difficult parts of graduate school so far has been balancing how much I would like to do and how much I am physically capable of doing. I have dozens of projects in the "ideas" column that will probably never get to the "background research" stage, but that is okay. No one can fulfill every project idea (that's what tenure is for, I've heard) and it will probably only lead to sub-par papers anyway. Instead, keep track of ideas, reach out to colleagues and partners, and balance your time between the most fruitful project ideas and classwork, teaching, research assistant work.
  • be social, find your hangout spot
    • Your peers in your year (cohort as USC calls them) are your best allies. They are in the same boat, taking many of the same classes, dealing with the same requirements and school/program nuances, so they can relate to you better than anyone else. Be open to socializing outside of the office, make time to relax, get to know your colleagues, and have fun! Not only will you be calmer, more relaxed, and have a better quality of life, but you may also be lucky enough to realize that your particular cohort rocks out loud:
Case in Point: USC Anneberg '16

Thursday, August 23, 2012

A Time of Transition

The summer is officially over; I flew into Los Angeles yesterday and spent my time moving. I apologize for a missing blog post this week because of my travels, but the blog will continue on a weekly basis during the school year starting next week.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

In Media Res: Polarization of Climate Change

This week, I'm curating a post on In Media Res as a part of the political polarization theme week. My post discusses the clear split between Democrats and Republicans in the debate about mitigating climate change.

Here is the link to the entire post and video clip. Read, comment, and enjoy!

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Politics of Food and Consumption

Consumption and food are not new contributors to political identities, but one may imagine it is so considering the multitude of coverage surrounding the Chick Fil-A "eat-ins" and political denouncements. The old adage, "you are what you eat" echoes common academic themes of consumption outlining important characteristics of someone. Eating is something that people do consistently, and even the absence of eating communicates political, social, and personal values.

As a vegetarian, I have had my entire life of experience defending my choice of following a specific dietary habit. Refusing meat, questioning waiters at restaurants, and scrutinizing ingredients lists are often activities that I have to defend or justify as outside of the norm. People are vegetarians for multiple reasons, often attributing actions to animal rights, environmental concerns, allergies, and religious restrictions. For me, my vegetarianism is a product of tradition and family, being raised a vegetarian since birth and eating and cooking in the vegetarian lifestyle is an important part of my family life. For any reason, removing certain parts of a diet begs the question of explanation (and sometimes inclusion of certain foods, such as cultural foods). These questions would not be necessary unless one's choice in consumption were meaningful or symbolic.

This relationship has risen to great importance and attention in the media with the recent discussion of Chick Fil-A's support of traditional marriage groups and anti-homosexual groups. The politics of the organization has encouraged politicians, celebrities, and the general public to associate their products with their ideologies. Similar reactions have plagued organizations that participate in child-labor, unfair business practices, or are unfair to their employees. Boycotting has been around since the creation of the United States, when people refused to purchase items that were unfairly taxed. What, then, is the issue with Chick Fil-A boycotts and the discussion at hand?

I don't necessarily think that there is anything inherently "wrong" about the Chick Fil-A argument. I would rather media attention be focused on the rights of the LGBTQ community or contextualize these discussions within the larger battle for universal rights and marriage equality. Instead, news reports are often solely focused on the actions of individuals and the organization as opposed to the cause that is driving the discussion. When the news reports become overwhelmed with free speech and balancing the scales by allowing both sides their viewpoints, the actions of Rahm Emanuel and Tom Menino are undermined and discredited.

The most important part of these demonstrations is the power of the individual. Through simple actions such as spending money, kissing, and eating, bodies act as rhetorical tools for the creation and expression of identity. Even if I did consume meat, I would have been happy to participate in the Chick Fil-A boycott, using my consumption, or lack thereof, to complement my political and personal values. Although I admit I was skeptical of the ban at first and questioned its fairness, I am now proud of my alma mater, Northeastern University, for banning Chick Fil-A's establishment in our student center. Banning Chik Fil-A represents the importance of the LGBTQ community on Northeastern's campus, which recently approved general neutral housing, preferred name and pronoun identification, and multiple student groups and training groups for inclusiveness on campus.

Instead of allowing for the power of consumption to force the Chick Fil-A to leave, Northeastern used its political power to avoid the issue altogether. The issue, then, becomes when people are willing to consume, purchase, and use their bodies as supporters of hate, bigotry, and exclusion and are defended as heroes of free speech. In that world, our world, change will be slow and riddled with obstacles. Recognizing the power of consumption and encouraging people to eat consciously may be part of the solution towards equality and empowering businesses as political entities.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Hegemony, Choice, and Struggle: Taylor Cotter

This article has received much coverage and critique over the past month, but I wish to add my opinions on the matter of struggle, privilege, and hegemony.

It is not lost on me that this critique of Taylor Cotter's article is hypocritical as she is almost my complete double: Northeastern graduate, female, white, employed, and journalism/communication focused. In spite of these similarities, I would like to dissect Taylor's article and view it as a communication scholar would: in terms of issues of power. The ideas in her article, "A Struggle of Not Struggling" have been met with much contention, minimal but loud support, and debate over her intentions. The article is short so I recommend reading it, but to summarize, the main point of the article is that, for Taylor, having been successful has kept her from experiencing life from a different perspective: the struggling, freelancing journalist. Overall, she imagines what a different life might have been had she not been successful, or, as she describes, if she had fallen on the other side of the statistics.

In part, I can empathize with a general life feeling of uncertainty of making the right choice, wondering about making different decisions, or planning for the worst case scenario. These are natural feelings of anxiety, worry, and preparation that most people experience. The difference, then, is what the topic of anxiety is and what the side the grass is greener on. For Taylor, she pines for the less green side of the fence, the struggle and character-building that comes from falling on the other side of the statistics. Though Taylor could easily change her situation and decide that she wanted to leave her job and move to New York to live her dream lifestyle, she does not. In keeping the job and complaining about it, she denies herself the dreams she pines for, and further insults others who might not have been as fortunate.

The key issue for me is choice. At the end of the day, Taylor chose her life and could easily change her decision. "I chose the path of a full-time job and an adult life. I gave up on the adventures, on freedom, on youth. " Her pining for the other side mistakenly equates a part-time job, living at home, and financially struggling with adventure, freedom, and youth. There is nothing inherently adult about having a job and there is nothing inherently youthful about having adventures. Condemning oneself to a boring, full time job is simply that: a mistake has been made and one has the opportunity to change it. Those who are not as lucky are not necessarily in a different situation, but are trapped, cannot choose. Working a part-time job, living at home, and eating ramen may seem a glamorous, enviable life to one in a higher, more entitled position. To those for which it is daily life, a necessity to survive, the glamor fades quickly.

I may not know what it means to be anything but a privileged, Caucasian, heterosexual, and middle-class ciswoman, but I would not pretend to know anything else. I would not claim to look through the lens of others, understand others, or envy others (at least not intentionally). I, therefore, see the hypocrisy in writing this article and critiquing Taylor, not knowing her full story. But from the article, the only easy-accessible evidence in which she is explicit about her situation, I feel that a character-evaluation and full opinion can be made. The underlying narrative of the greener grass always being on the other side is undermined by hegemonic, pompous overtones.

Hegemony and power are important concepts in communication, especially in gender and cultural studies, where issues of power define all relationships and communication. Whether one believes in the Marx or Foucault brand of hegemony and power, one could argue that Taylor is a representative of the top or ruling class because of her self-reported situation (e.g., in terms of economy, race, opportunity, and social status). Marx would argue that power is held in the top and oppresses those beneath whereas Foucault argued that power is found in every level of society. The power of Marx is oppressive and top-down, but Foucault's power is flexible and multi-directional. Those in the top have the choice to abandon their post, the factory owner could leave power and become employed at the factory, Taylor could quit and pursue a different life. Those in the bottom, however, have no such independent, personal choice, the factory worker cannot simply become the owner, part-time workers cannot simply obtain a full time, well-paying job. The different positions are inherently issues of freedom, choice, and independence. While Taylor "often laments" her life were not different, she does not take the action to change it that others have no power to do. Instead, her lamentations of the path not taken appear as navel-gazing whining of an unnecessary quarter-life crisis. Nothing is permanent about her life, nothing is permanent about anyone's life when one has power. When one lacks power, however, they would not write such an article, for there would have been no choice to be made and thus no opportunity for regret.

Why this article offends, upsets, and bothers people is because by pining for the "other" life, Taylor denies her privilege as a benefit, insults those who have no choice, and embarrass those in her same position that must now justify and defend the hegemonic claims to entitlement by those who are so ungrateful. This is not a question of wishing better decisions had been made, regretting mistakes, or pondering other avenues. This article puts under scrutiny the very definitions of sacrifice, success, hegemony, power, and personal freedom. When choice is stripped from you, you are not free, a fact that Taylor takes for granted.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Visual Communication Reflection: The Power of the Gaze

With a brief intermission in honor of the Dark Knight Rises, the past three blog posts have focused on nudity, tattoos, and eyewitness testimony and their relationship with the visual communication topic of "the body".

The connection I found between all of these pieces was the idea of power transferred and disciplined through the gaze, specifically, a masculine, powerful gaze. The male gaze is the primary consumer of the ESPN magazine and the differences in framing the masculine and feminine bodies draw the male gaze to the female form. The gaze on the masculine bodies is one of camaraderie, but the gaze on the feminine bodies implies sexuality, ownership, and conquest. The tattoo as a public display directs one's gaze to certain locations on the body, hides other parts, and draws attention to one's narrative and modifications. Victims of and eye-witnesses to crime are robbed of well-being, safety, and peace of mind. Their gaze in identifying the suspect (whether innocent or guilty) reclaims some of that uncertainty and paranoia with power, retribution, and relief. The gaze, then, that tracks the faces and makes the ultimate decision is a tool of power and control reclaimed and operated by the victim.
Gaze and power are two powerful concepts that have importance implications for communication scholars, especially those interested in feminist, cultural, and rhetorical studies. Those in power use different methods of oppression and discipline others, one of those ways in through the gaze. I have had experience with this power at a bar on New Year's Eve two years ago. After dancing and having fun with my friends, a man approached me and told me that his friend wanted to meet me. Unsure why, but optimistic that my single friend might be entertained by the current man while I spoke with his friend, I followed him back to the bar. After awkward introductions and seeing my friend be abandoned at the bar, I tried to break off the conversation with the friend. Upon leaving, he grabbed my arm tightly and said a few words that I can hear clearly even today: "I've been looking at you all night. You will dance with me." The idea that his gaze somehow controlled me or that his gaze provided him power over me was simultaneously ridiculous and terrifying. Was my body not my own? Did simply being out in public make me vulnerable and even complicit in the gaze of others? This particular person seemed to think that the very act of looking, gazing, staring was a service, labor, and favor to me that I was obligated to return or compensate him in some way. This is an event, unfortunately, not unique to me and is the result of a patriarchal society that objectifies and sexualizes the feminine.

Rihanna's "Man Down" Video

But one's gaze should not provide undue or unwanted power over another. The women in the ESPN magazine should be given the same emphasis on skills and abilities instead of their naked form. Those who chose to get ink on their skin to tell stories, personal or public, should not be denigrated or ridiculed for their decisions. Criminal investigations should not rely on the unreliable, reclaim to power that is the eye-witness testimony. No one should be controlled simply because another's gaze is directed towards another person. The power in the gaze is well-documented and remains an important idea for communication scholars as the heteronormative, male hegemony of the gaze has important implications for relationships, argumentation, and power.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Batman and Rhetoric: Transforming Human to Legend

The trilogy finale of the Batman series from Christopher Nolan finishes July 20th (or for the avid fans, midnight tomorrow night). The finality of the trilogy has been confirmed with Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale abandoning the project after this film. Though I was more than a little upset when rumors of Johnny Depp as the Riddler were squashed, I appreciate the finality of the series. I respect the ability of both actors and directors to sacrifice profit for the sake of a coherent and meaningful story line.

After re-watching the first two in preparation for the midnight premiere, I was struck by the iconic Liam Neeson line from Batman Begins: "If you make yourself more than just a man, if you devote yourself to an ideal, and if they can't stop you, then you become something else entirely...a legend, Mr. Wayne." The line is meant to encourage Bruce Wayne to abandon his mortality and chase immortality as a symbol, a legend. Many people around the world have devoted themselves to causes and emerged as icons for movements, causes, goals, and values. Rosa Parks, Mother Teresa, and Harvey Milk were just people, but through their actions and values, they have become legends, eternal, immortal symbols of equal rights, charity, and acceptance. The narratives of their lives have transcended the normal good and evil, the trials and tribulations of being human, and the faults, flaws, and sins inherent in all humans. These people, and many others are, in a way, superheros, super-people, because they have become more than just people. Their stories and actions become symbolic representations of events more significant than can be contained within one human life, body, and narrative.
Similarly, Batman is the comic representation of everyday heroes, who has transcended his Bruce Wayne, human persona for Batman, a superhero, legendary symbol of justice. By abandoning his humanity and replacing it with a mysterious persona, people in the comics turn to Batman as a savior, not as a person. Though Bruce Wayne has money and with that money comes power and the ability to transform into Batman, Bruce Wayne cannot fight crime, be an ally to the police force, and terrorize Gotham's criminals. Every person, though, has the power to become that better, idealized version of ourselves, immortal in our story and legacy. This occurs through committing oneself to a cause, extending oneself past human constraints, and becoming more than just a person. We can all leave legacies, whether positive or negative, and its corresponding strength and staying power is only restricted by our actions.

Not only do people become legacies, but the words that we use leave sometimes unforgettable impressions on the world. The power of the spoken word is why I wanted to pursue communication in an advance degree, so I could explore language as symbolic. Kenneth Burke famously described humans as symbol-using animals and rhetoric as the study of those symbols that create meaning (Grammar of Motives, 1970). Words are merely words, tools with different definitions, interpretations, and meanings. But when used with a purpose, for a cause, words can become infamous, last beyond the life of a person, and serve as everlasting symbols. 

Think of the immortal words of Abraham Lincoln: "this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." Or the words of Ghandi, "you must be the change you wish to see in the world" or Martin Luther King Jr., "when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!" These words have transcended each person and left a rhetorical legacy of the unity of the United States, the importance of peace, and the eternal struggle for equality.

One's legacy is thus a combination of actions and words (or just actions if we consider physical action and symbolic action) that is for the most part under each of our control. We can devote ourselves to a cause, use our language symbolically for a cause, and transcend mere mortality to leave a permanent mark on the world.

I am looking forward to the midnight premiere, in part for the transportation power of film and also to imagine for a few hours, that I can also reach immortality through my words and actions.