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.