Sunday, November 10, 2013

Important Questions for Communication Scholars

These are questions that guide my research and I believe they are important for all researchers and communication scholars. Feel free to add questions in the comments and debate the value of these questions. Within my interests in politics, policy formation, and the negotiation of power, I try to consider:

General Research Questions
What is my object or artifact of inquiry?
Is this artifact "interesting" or valuable to the academic community?
What questions operationalize and analyze my artifact?
How do I answer these questions?
Whose shoulders can I stand on?

Topic Specific Questions
Why do people believe some things over others?
What influences information consumption?
How are people accessing and processing information and data?
What are the effects of technology on social, political, and cultural activities?
Who has power, how did they obtain it, and how do they use it?
Who are the privileged/marginalized voices and what do they say?
What elements of speeches, advertisements, images, and narratives make them persuasive?
What arguments are believed and why?

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Importance of Values in Polarization

Past research of my has focused on the difficulties in defining values and applying them to different scenarios. Despite the research complications, values remain an important aspects of politics, religion, culture, organizations, and relationships. My recent readings of the God Strategy and the Faith Factor have reinforced my respect for the "values voters" that make up the religious right and conservatively 1/3 of the US electorate. As a united front, they are an invaluable voting block for Republicans. They typically do not vote Democratic (though recently ethnic evangelicals have for Obama) and are concerned with electing Republican nominees who reflect their values of hetero-normative definitions of marriage, anti-women's choice towards pregnancy and birth control, and a general aversion to stem cell research. The marrying of religion and politics allows for values to remain integral aspects of candidate character and personality.

Cartoon from Times-Picayune

As mentioned before, this focus on values is pervasive for all of all politics, but is especially important for Republicans. As the Grand Old Party, associated with nostalgia, antiquity, and maintaining the status quo, their candidates must embody those values more than the Democratic Party. Democrats, instead, often emphasize abstract goals for future engagement, inclusivity, and are the pioneers in equality and acceptance of minority groups (e.g., the current fight for LGBTQ rights). What has changed in recent years, however, is the polarization of these values into groups that cannot compromise on basic ideas. There is less freedom to express moderate values and politicians are in near constant campaigns. For example, the environment has become a haven for political isolation where Democrats are expected to be environmentally conscious and Republicans who are can be considered traitors. The Republican values of free market and enterprise trump those of the environment, and that is avoiding the larger issue of religious identification that also complicates the issue.

The graph above is from the Pew Research Center American Values Survey that shows the gap between support for the values. The environment has increased dramatically from only a 5% difference in those that support in 1987 to a 39% difference in those that support the environment in 2012. This polarization shows more established party lines on values where compromise is precluded by trying to remain party loyal. What is the future of American politics? How can the polarization continue with politicians and the general public operating as enemies? The 2008 election brought about massive celebrations for Barack Obama's election and massive despair from people convinced that a terrible decision had been made. Similarly, Obama's reelection was met by rumors of secession and outrage by Republicans. Perhaps my favorite response was the emerge of "White People Mourning Romney" tumblr which emerged out of whites being the only race that Romney earned the majority of their votes. South Park's rendition of the hyperbolic reactions that people had in their episode "About Last Night" perfectly sums up the political polarization currently plaguing America.

I would like to be optimistic and predict a reverse in the polarization or at least a breaking point where the polarization is no longer sustainable, but it is unlikely. I do find hope in the small compromises, but they are few and far between. One solution could be a more critical, "unlovable" media that encourages compromise by expressing the dysfunction of current polarization. The Internet can also serve as a new public sphere where citizens can serve as fact-checkers and critical observers to the political process. In the future, the polarization might decrease or change, but for now, politicians seem to be more concerned with maintaining their seats than reaching across the aisle.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Discrimination and Rhetoric in the Judiciary

Recently I read Stephen Toulmin's "Tyranny of Principles," an article written in 1981, but one I found highly relevant to current times. Toulmin, perhaps most famous for his Toulmin Model of Argumentation, describes the evolution of rules and laws from traditional discretionary practices in Roman times. I found this piece fascinating because it helps contextualize a common point of controversy in modern judicial and moral arguments, and also because I find rhetoric's roots in the judicial system and its constant tension with "ethics" (the good man speaking well) worthy of discussion.

Toulmin begins the article by describing previous methods of judiciary practices, where there were no written laws or precedents in Rome for judges to base decisions. Instead, each individual case was handled as a separate, distinct scenario in which all mitigating or unique circumstances were taken into consideration. People trusted the knowledge and discretion of the pontiffs, not an overarching law. But, as Toulmin describes, multiple factors (including immigration that changed societal norms and a need for more and thus less trained judges) constructed a need for established and referable rules which today are the basis for Western judicial systems. This transition is truly a double-edged sword, for now equality and consistency have been established, but in its stead, we sacrifice equity. Simply consider Jean Valjean in Hugo's Les Misérables, who served 19 years (5 for the crime and 14 additional for trying to escape) for 

stealing bread to feed his nephew. Did he steal? Yes. Was this crime worthy of 5 years in jail? 
To Javert, a servant of God and the Law, there are no mitigating circumstances, a crime is a crime. 
And even when the tables turn and Valjean lets Javert escape, Javert is still bent on returning 
Valjean to jail. He eventually experiences a mental break where he cannot justify living in a world 
where people like Valjean violate his standards of right and wrong.

Philip Quast: Javert's Suicide

The transformation of the judicial system, our reliance on the Constitution and precedent has 
emphasized the letter over the spirit of the law, removed wiggle room, and devalued mitigating 
circumstances. One need only consider the death of Savita Halappanavar, who died from birth 
complications after the abortion she requested was denied. The religious (and in this case Catholic) 
view of abortion as wholly wrong contributed to Savita's death, whose health was not a justification 
for the abortion. Many anti-choice advocates do allow for abortion in cases of rape, incest, or the 
health of the mother, but there are prominent American politicians and even doctors that do not. 
In response to Savita's death, Irish politicians are attempting to re-legislate the rules concerning 
abortions and when the health of the mother overrides the abortion ban. As Toulmin argues, society 
must be wary of an over-reliance on these rules, and must refrain from adjusting laws with more laws, 
instead of addressing the morality and ethics of the original law.

Toulmin's article is a useful transition for me to discuss inherent discrimination and a lack of equity in 

the judicial system that I learned about in a fall class. We discussed the different levels of scrutiny that 
the courts in America give to different types of discriminatory laws under the equal protection clause. 
For example, the strictest level of  scrutiny is given to laws based on race and national origin, which is 
a prominent reason why many affirmative action cases lose when brought to court, because they treat 
people of different races differently. This fact, though in part justified through previous discriminatory 
measures that make affirmative action necessary, are not mitigating circumstances. The only way for 
racial discrimination of any kind to be allowed through governmental approval is if there is a "compelling 
state interest" and the discrimination is the most efficient way to address that interest. A famous example 
of this is the Japanese Internment Camps that were ruled constitutional since they did address American 
fears over Japanese immigrants during World War II.

Image Retrieved from National Paralegal
Under strict scrutiny is intermediate scrutiny, for cases of gender discrimination. Under that is rational 
basis review, where discrimination cases based on sexual orientation or mental health are decided. 
I find it quite ironic that such levels exist at all. Why are different forms of discrimination created into 
a hierarchy of discrimination? Isn't this organization in and of itself discriminatory? It seems to me quite
hypocritical and unjust for someone to receive different punishments or court ruling simply because they 
are a different type of bigot than someone else.

I find these different strands inextricably linked. How deeply and strongly do we rely on rules of law, and 
for example, these seemingly hypocritical rules, when they lead to death and discrimination? Toulmin argued
 that we as a society should not mistake equality for equity, be satisfied with unjust laws, and tie our morality
unquestionably to the rule of law. "We need to recognize that a morality based entirely on general rules and
principles is tyrannical and dis-proportioned, and that only those who make equitable allowances for subtle 
individual differences have a proper feeling for the deeper demand of ethics" (p. 107 in Foss's 
Readings in Contemporary Rhetoric). I would hope that people would learn to be open-minded towards 
people's circumstances, take into account circumstances and mitigation, and let ourselves be human,
reasonable, and overcome our obsession with perfection, black/white dichotomies, and absolutism.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Underestimating the Enemy: Creationism vs Evolution

At the beginning of August, I attended the Alta Argumentation Conference in Alta, Utah. There I was presenting a paper titled, "The Institute for Creation Research as a case study of scientific and religious argument: Revisiting argumentation fields in a postmodern context." The paper was presented on a panel of other papers about "religious argument." To summarize the points of my argument, I was discussing the ICR as an example of postmodern and contemporary creationism discourse. ICR is attempting to blur the lines between science and religion in order to present the illusion that science proves the story of Genesis.

The Logical Process of Science and Creationism: Source
My paper interrogated why creationism is still so persuasive to many people and why scientific consensus has not squashed this alternative story. In addition to this argument, I also stretched communication and argumentation theory by introducing a new term "deceptive controversy" and expanding the role of argument fields to creative normative standards. After finishing my speech and waiting for the Q&A, I thought about the theoretical implications for my argument and had prepped myself to defend my new term and the application of argument fields. Instead the first question I got was roughly paraphrased as: Aren't you giving ICR too much credit? They are obviously non-scientific, so what is the point of your paper?
To say I was shocked was an understatement. My extension of argument theory was not being questioned, but the very purpose and need for my intervention was. Unfortunately, I reacted more passionately and unprofessionally than I would have liked, feeling defensive of my research. I would like to take this blog post to react more professionally than I did then.
It is imperative that scholars and scientists take opposition from creationists seriously. Although science and logic show the truth of natural selection and evolutionary mechanics, that is unconvincing to more than half of the nation's population. The power of these narratives and the hold that biblical accounts have on the American public are underestimated at the risk of knowledge and innovation. There still remain issues of creationists gaining position on school boards, colleges accepting creationists on their staff, and the steady dominance of creationist thinking in the US.
Steady maintenance of science denial: Source
My inquiry was not to suggest that one should consider ICR scientific, but to examine how and why ICR does say that it is scientific. What is it about ICR's discourse that convinced hundreds of thousands of subscribers each month to read and examine its arguments? That was the point of my inquiry: to examine the patterns, rhetoric, and argument style that keep creationists relevant in modern society. Armed with this knowledge, how do we address and restrict its presence in areas of society it does not belong?
My paper took samples of ICR's discourse and broke the arguments down to their basic elements to determine if they really were scientific or not. Recent polls show only 15% of Americans believe in the occurrence of evolution without supernatural intervention, with 46% believing the in the Biblical account of origins with God (a Judeo-Christian one). That's nearly a majority of Americans who deny a scientific consensus of evolutionary mechanisms explaining origins. Groups such as ICR receive millions of dollars in charitable donations, run talking tours, sponsor museums and even a award degrees from an accredited school. Creationism discourse is alive and well in the United States, at least in the public sphere.

It is a mistake to assume that everyone approaches the creation/evolution controversy with the knowledge and capacity of intellectuals. What my questioner was really saying was that "isn't everyone in America as smart as I am? Only fools would believe in creationism." Because he saw the truth in evolution, he immediately discredited the possibility of creationism as being a valid threat. But it is. It has been and remains a threat to scientific standards, classroom education, and the knowledge of millions of Americans. To discredit their opposition is to err as many scientists have done before. To simply say "look at the science", "look at the consensus" is not enough. These facts are not convincing in the way that many academics and scholars wish that they were.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Unified Theory of Everything: Physics and Communication

I've come across the dichotomy of physics and communication one too many times to not comment on it as a pattern. When scholars look to compare communication (as a humanities or social science) to a "hard" science, the topic usually turns to physics.

I do not know the reasons for this, but I can make basic assumptions about the two fields. Communication has humans, people, and their interactions as its focus, but physics concerns the interaction between forces, atoms, and particles that are not sentient or of free will. Although humans and particles are quite different in their motivations, actions, and behavior, the two fields actually overlap quite a bit. Both are concerned with interactions, relationship, causes and effects, and patterns. Both fields are also undergoing large arguments about the purpose of the field and how it can be united into one universal theory. For communication scholars, the journey to defining "communication" and linking disparate scholars (from cultural studies to rhetoric to psychology) in their ideology and methodology has been a task thus far daunting and unreachable.

The Theory of Everything is an equally inscrutable theory of physics that links all physical phenomena under one theoretical boundary. The purpose of creating these overarching theories is not lost on me, but I fear they may never be fully realized, especially in our lifetime. The main issue that links both physics and communication in their search for the theories of everything is to find the balance between application and oversimplification. For physics, the search for the universal theory of everything is admission that some theoretical concepts do not universally apply to everything. Fundamental forces are grouped into two categories, general relativity and the three: electromagnetism, weak, and strong forces. These two groups operate under opposing principles, meaning currently, physicists are still pondering the universal forces that govern all interactions. From the rotation and orbits of planets, to the relationship between atoms and particles, there is no one solution to how forces work. The current contender for the theory of everything is "string" theory, that changes the way that matter is defined in order to negotiate the hypocrisy between weak and strong forces. Unfortunately, the theory is still being developed and is not yet being used by current researchers.
In communication, there is no one theory to when, where, how, and why communication occurs. Some believe that communication is constant, some believe that only meaningful, intentional communication is important. Some believe that communication is a matter of power and oppression, where other focus on communication as persuasion, information, or networks. Introduction to Communication courses are largely a result of the professor's personal inclinations, for a class such as this could not truly begin to be an introduction to every aspect of communication, at least not as it is defined now. There are researchers currently trying to define what communication is and how all aspects of it can be linked with one unified theory with the purpose of creating unified though, research, and meaning out of the field.

I am skeptical that such unified theories will ever truly exist, at least not in ways that everyone can agree on. For what purpose is a communication theory that discounts racial, ethnic, or gender differences? How applicable can a theory be that does not acknowledge the impact of technology, networks, and relationships among people? There are so many different aspects of communication, that to create a unified theory must privilege some and reject others. Reducing the varied, exciting, and unique field of communication to one theory would undermine the ability of researchers to address specific problems, artifacts, and inquiries with the most appropriate theoretical tool. The theory of everything for physics would mainly help simplify physical formulas and streamline research and data, but little would change for most researchers. Simply because, current theories function well to predict small interactions, and general relativity functions well to predict large interactions. Combining them would change very little about these predictions, except for that they would be linked. The one exception would be for those objects that are both tiny and massive; namely, black holes complicate this separation. Black holes are massive, but occupy very little space, so theoretically, both sets of theories should apply, and yet, they cannot.
I applaud scholars whose research finds them looking to larger, theoretical problems. I believe that most researchers, though, might find their time better spent analyzing and solving smaller, more meaningful communication and physics issues.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Words to Reconsider

I'd previously wanted to title this: Words you shouldn't say anymore, but I changed the title to reflect how my opinions aren't those of everyone. Prescribing language changes for all people, though I believe that these are respectful and accurate changes, is problematic for many reasons. These suggestions are more for people who are already in line with my beliefs, namely liberal ones, and how to adjust your language choices to be more respectful of others and values.

Racial slurs: First of all, my previous post on Django referenced this briefly, but racial slurs are not appropriate in every day use. This primarily applies to the non-African American, black, brown, or identifying groups that may use racial slurs in jest, for shock value, or as a political statement. They are not words that most of us should or can say, by re-appropriating them into white vernacular, they lose their political meaning and importance. Simply put, these words can be used to reinforce power hierarchies and should not be used lightly or at all by dominant groups.

Tarantino Responding to Criticism about Django

Pro-life: This term has bothered me for a long time. What exactly is pro-life about banning women from having abortions? Abortions can be a life-saving procedure and refusing one can lead to complications and death. The idea that a fetus is alive is based on religious definitions that life begins at conception. For non-believers or those that operate under a different definition of when life begins, the life of the mother is the life that needs to be protected. The life of the mother is not always immediately in physical danger, as was Savita Halappanavar's, but there is always emotional and psychological life to worry about. Although many pregnancies are intentional, women do become pregnant for many reasons accidental or through force. Denying these women the right to closure and healing from rape, incest, or other emotional traumas can be damaging to a woman's life as well. Instead of "pro-life" which I have described as very misleading, I endorse the term "anti-choice" to emphasize the true issue: deciding for women what they wish to do with their bodies. If life were really the issue, then the woman's life would weigh importance as well, which for many anti-choice groups, though not all, it is of secondary importance, if that. Perhaps the most disturbing part of the anti-choice movement is that by equating the fetus with a child, they respond to abortion clinics and places like Planned Parenthood as if they were attacking murderers. Abortion practitioners have been threatened and killed (pro-life, huh?) and funding for PP has been cut in many states.

Savita Halappanavar
English in general: I recently read an amazing chapter from bell hooks who discussed the emphasis on clean, pure English as a means of stripping people (primarily former slaves and their descendants) from keeping in touch with their roots through dialect. She quoted a poem by Adrienne Rich saying, "this is the language of my oppressor, but I need it to talk to you". This statement is powerful and I feel needs no explanation or extrapolation except to say that the hegemony of the English language is not something always laudable. We should all try to learn other languages and encourage others (as bell hooks describes in a teaching role) whether they be friends, family, or students to speak how they feel comfortable speaking and encourage expression in multiple voices.


Boy/girlfriend, wife/husband: I think that these words should be replaced with the gender neutral counterparts of "significant other", "partner", "spouse", etc. Assigning and using these terms reinforces heteronormative definitions of marriage that use the binary gender terms, male and female, as the standard. Despite setbacks, such as Proposition 8, marriage is on its way to being redefined as open to homosexual couples. To reflect this openness and one's agreement with the changes, more gender neutral terms should be used to describe couples. Some homosexual couples may prefer the girl/girl friend or boy/boy friend terms, and that should be respected. For general conversation, however, the gender neutral terms are more encompassing and respectful. This gender neutrality follows for trans* and members of the queer community. Pronoun and name usage is something that I am still struggling with, but I find that simply asking for one's preferred gender pronoun is the best option. For some, their outward appearance may not reflect where they are on their personal journey of identification and which gender pronoun they would prefer. One's sexual organs does not adequately describe most people's gender identities and can be restricting in terms of expression. I remember hearing a quotation from a friend at an LGBTQ event at Northeastern: "I wish I had been born a girl, instead of just having this vagina." This statement highlights the struggle of many people attempting to realign their physical gender with one's felt gender and how sexual organs should be not be defining characteristic of a human being.

These are a few suggestions for different word choices that I think might be helpful for more open, liberal-minded people. For people who are anti-choice, pro-heteronormativity, and perhaps unconcerned with issues of race, these suggestions may fall on deaf ears. For others, I hope that these at least spark some thinking about the power of the words that we use, what context we use them, and who we use them with in defying hierarchies and promoting equality.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Cyborgs: Entertainment and Reality

Many great scholars before me and currently have performed more extensive inquiries into the nature of cyborgs and the growing intersection of humankind with technology. My interest has been piqued in this topic tangentially, as I have interests in the use of technology for information gathering, dissemination, validation, and power. Inf/using technology in our daily lives is simply an inevitability that communication scholars must address, and cyborgs are an interesting "end product" in my mind. The cyborg represents a unity between humans and technology, faults and flaws permanently mended by technological advancements and prowess.

Because the cyborg, for the most part, only exists in fiction, much of the cyborg's mythology comes from media representations. The relationship between humans and technology range from fully robotic operation with human appearance (e.g., The Stepford Wives) to humans with technological modifications (e.g., Planet Terror) with traditional definitions of "cyborgs" operating near the halfway point (e.g., the Six Million Dollar Man). They key appears to be integration, where a character has equal or mostly equal human and technological parts that operate as parts of a unified whole. Someone using a gun (i.e., picking it up and using it) is quite different from having one functioning as a leg and being able to fire it from internal signals instead of pulling the trigger.

After some pondering (and heated discussion with my significant other) about the nature of cyborgs, we also reached a conclusion that cyborgs are not merely people with technological parts (e.g., a person with a pacemaker), but this technological addition must perform a fundamentally inhuman task. Iron Man, though he has a metallic plate protecting his heart, the addition of this technology does not provide him inhuman strength, power, or wit (that's just Robert Downey Jr.). Will Smith, however, in I-Robot, does have robotic additions that give him extra strength and powers, like the superhero that Iron Man is. Instead of a suit that can be taken on and off, true cyborgs have integrated technology with their human bodies to advance the form beyond what was previously possible.

The thinking about cyborgs began with my viewing of The Amazing Spiderman, where the antagonist has lost a limb and pines for its re-growth and repair. Whereas he believes the solution lies in cross-species DNA, the attempt to achieve this ends spectacularly well, a la The Fly. When I think of his pining over perfection, and yet the inability to consider a prosthetic arm, it echoes my feelings above that the functionality of the cyborg is the key. A prosthetic arm would perform basic functionality of an arm, but to replicate it perfectly and to extend its strength, a robotic replacement would be needed. What Dr. Collins realizes is that in his search for perfection, he must replace the entirety of the human body, for it is weak and vulnerable. In his transition to a lizard-human hybrid, he becomes similar to a cyborg in that his human form has been replaced with stronger and more powerful parts to complement the human form.

A live example of the cyborg may be found in Neil Harbisson, a color blind person who used a prosthetic eye piece to hear colors. Though he sees colors in shades of grey, the eye piece translates each types of color, including its shade and vibrancy, into sounds that he can understand. He is attempting to have the eye piece surgically attached to his spine, fully integrating the eye piece to his human form. There's no need for me to define him as a cyborg, he's done that already.

The Cyborg Foundation that he founded is the first organization working to defend cyborg rights and indeed encourages people to embrace technological additions. One of their listed aims is "to extend human senses and abilities by creating and applying cybernetic extensions to the body" and they describe their missions statement as "helping people to become cyborgs." This is quite a radical step in theory but these changes are already beginning. Consider the Futurama episode "Eye-Phone" that made fun of the attachment that people have to their technology by implanting one's phone behind the eye socket. Now, Google Glass is in its "explorer" mode and may soon become a normalized part of our technological experience.

Photo source
In the future, cyborgs may become the new human rights campaign. Whereas in the past, people have been dehumanized based on the color of their skin, their choice of religion, and their sexuality and partner preferences, the future may hold civil rights battles on behalf of cyborgs and their definition as more than/human. If the past battles were about defining humanity in terms of property, voting, and marriage, then future definitions of humanity will surely be tested.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Papal Authority and Ethos

Ethos is a term that Aristotle used to describe one of the modes of proof, or support for an argument. Ethos is most commonly and simply summarized as authority and credibility, or how well supported the argument is by the speaker, sources, situation, or position. In terms of ethos, the Pope has one of the most powerful appeals to ethos in the world. With over 1 billion Catholics in the world and support for his position coming directly from God, the Pope is an example of a single, infallible speaker with immense authority and control. Indeed, the Pope is considered a direct disciple of Saint Peter, meant to carry out God's will and speak for God on Earth. I expect most of this information is well-known and thus unnecessary, but I repeat it to emphasize the gravity of the next part of the post.

Following the traditional and literal approaches of Pope John Paul II and particularly Pope Benedict XVI, Jorge Mario Bergoglio began his papacy as Pope Francis I on March 13, 2013. Even only a few months into his papacy, he has already caused much stir over his non-traditional approaches to papal speech and behavior. He has forgone the papal "throne" and opted for a less adorned seat in addition to wearing only white.

Source: Pope Benedict XVI (left) and Pope Francis I (right)

He has also washed the feet of a Serbian Muslim woman and of prisoners instead of traditionally having his own feet washed after his appointment.

Source: Feet-washing by Pope Francis I

More recently, he was under media attention after carrying his own luggage on his trip to Brazil for World Youth Day.

Source: "Only Pope Francis would carry his own bags aboard the plane for Rio!"

But perhaps most important are the words that he has said about traditional Church positions that have prompted prominent members of the Church and the Vatican itself to issue correctives. I cannot emphasize the irony and importance of this statement enough: prominent Church leaders and the Vatican have corrected the appointed voice of God on Earth, the infallible and unerring. Pope Francis I said on his return from Brazil that he and others should not judge the calling of gays to the priesthood. For a Church who argues for the immorality of gay marriage, this is really only a small step for acceptance, but is revolutionary nonetheless. This statement, however, was rejected by prominent New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan in a statement confirming the Church's official position that still considers sexual relations outside of male/female marriage immoral.

Additionally, Pope Francis I made a statement regarding the morality of atheists. Even those without a belief in God, let alone a Catholic follower could still do good and "we'll find a meeting point." People have interpreted this to mean that good people, no matter their religious affiliation, could be allowed into heaven. After this statement, the Vatican issued a statement that anyone who rejects the Catholic Church "cannot be saved."

What does it mean for the ethos of the Pope to be challenged? Is the Church so tied to tradition and antiquity that it must reverse even the slightest hint of progressive, liberal, and welcoming rhetoric? What role does Pope Francis I play if his position as voice of God is subject to human correction? Can he be trusted and considered an authority by followers?

I do not believe that these small statements truly mean that Pope Francis I is a liberal or that the Church is anywhere close to changing its positions (considering the correctives). To say that finding a place for women in the Church is revolutionary is really to forget the fact that it is 2013. The implications of these statements should not be completely ignored, however. What these statements represent is a small, but meaningful step towards increased inclusion in the Catholic Church. These symbolic gestures, though rejected by others, might promote the increased openness of Catholics or at least temper Catholic backlash to liberal social issues. At least this is a positive step away from some of the past teachings that were highly restrictive and more concerned with pomp and circumstance than change.


Fall 2013 Blog Updates

I hope everyone had a great summer! I am heading back to classes this week and am happy to announce that I will be writing up blog posts this semester every Sunday instead of every Wednesday.

Also to announce is that I am currently in a domain dispute for, so if you would like to view my website, please use the Google Sites address:

Thank you for reading and I will be posting the first blog post of the semester shortly!

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Summer Hiatus

With the end of my 2nd year at USC and the close of the 2012-2013 academic year, my research blog will be suspended until the fall of 2013.

I hope everyone will have/is having a great summer! I look forward to continuing my weekly posts in the fall. In the meantime, feel free to look through previous posts, below are a few of my favorites, visit my website, or contact me at You can also read a recent book review published in the International Journal of Communication of The Rhetoric of Food.


Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Vampires and the Narrative of TV Shows

Despite the proliferation of vampire/zombie/werewolf media figures in recent years, I find myself drawn into the various iterations and rule changes that simultaneously govern the characters and direct the plot in some popular shows and movies. How these rules change within the same mythology determine the flow of action and restrict plot twists complicate "lore" for the sake of an engaging narrative.

Dean and Sam on "Supernatural" encounter various ghosts, mythical creatures, and curses that each can be undone through their unique combination of research/brains and violence/brawn. There is a repetitive scene where Sam discusses the multitude of "lore" and history surrounding the supernatural occurrence and the two brothers discuss which solution or cure is the accurate one. Despite the various myths and folklore surrounding the situation, the brothers eventually find the solution, whether it be by manipulating the history or using a tried and true method.
Jessica on True Blood

Vampire on Supernatural
Caroline on Vampire Diaries

For example, the vampires on Supernatural are different from the ones on Vampire Diaries or True Blood. On Supernatural, vampires grow an extra row of teeth that emerge from the top gums. On Vampire Diaries, the creatures' teeth only emerge when they see blood or are about to feed and it is only the canines that grow to be longer and pointed. True Blood also only has one set of teeth grow, but it is the lateral incisors instead of the canines. Supernatural vampires create more vampires by bleeding into an open wound on a human's body. Those on Vampire Diaries become vampires when they die with vampire blood inside of them (and complete the transition once they consume human blood). True Blood vampires turn when they are drained of their vampire blood and replace it by drinking (and thus replacing) their blood with vampire blood (and complete the transition once they are buried in the ground). These various methods of transformation drastically change the plot of each show. Unique to Vampire Diaries, someone could be at risk for becoming a vampire without their knowledge (accidentally or unknowingly consuming vampire blood), while the other shows involve some type of direct contact with a vampire.

Perhaps the most interesting adaptation to the vampire myth is the sun. In True Blood, the vampires almost exclusively interact in the evening. They are vulnerable during the day when they are resting in their coffins and burn to death once entering the sun. This allows for interesting plot devices where vampires must fight through the pain of sun to help humans, the creation of vampire-friendly hotels with blacked out windows, and the constant threat of attack during the daylight hours. The setting and rising sun becomes a countdown clock for action in the show where tasks cannot be or have to be completed before a certain time. Fairy blood thus becomes a powerful and all-consuming commodity because it allows the vampires to walk unharmed in the sun, driving much of the action and focus around Sookie Stackhouse.

Eric and Russell burning in the sunlight
Vampire Diaries gets around this biopower by relieving the vampires of their reliance on the sun. By using the power of witches, they have magical rings that allow them to walk in the daytime. This creates another interesting set of restrictions that makes vampires more difficult to identify. Danger is thus more prominent and surprising as people who cannot come out during the day are easily identified in True Blood as vampires. In both series, vampires are restricted in their consumption of human blood. True Blood vampires use a synthetic blood (the namesake of the show) to curb their thirst for human blood, though there emerges a strong divide between vampires who consume True Blood (mainstreamers) and those who still feed on humans. An analogy can be made to this distinction and the Chick Fil-A argument that constructs consumption with identity politics. Vampire Diaries vampires do not have a synthetic blood option, but many choose to rob blood banks or feed from animals in order to avoid harming humans. Again, the stigma involved in the consumption of humans is both honored and vilified as competing groups determine their own consumption rules. Interestingly, Vampire Diaries vampires can consume "human" food, while True Blood vampires cannot (instead they "flavor" their food by changing the diet of the human).

Vampires and supernatural creatures are similarly constructed with different rules and restrictions in the media to allow for and direct certain plot points and devices. The key to the differences is keeping them believable, probable, and consistent. Fisher used the terms narrative fidelity (internal consistency) and narrative probability (external consistency). The interesting twist in shows such as Supernatural, Vampire, Diaries, and True Blood is that the existence of these creatures in and of themselves problematic to "reality". Given their existence, however, the shows can construct their own rules based on different mythologies. As long as they make sense within their own narrative reality, the audience can watch multiple shows and still engage with the vampire narrative.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Feminine and Masculine roles at a USC Football Game

Football was not a large part of my undergraduate experience (though ice hockey was!), so I have to admit how overwhelmed I was attending a USC football game for the first time last year. Not only is the sound booming, but the action is non-stop, the heat is blazing, and the energy is palpable. Considering the history of the Coliseum in hosting the Olympic games and the traditional sports association with gender stereotypes, I thought I would dedicate this post to the gender disparities I noticed at the last game I went to.

It doesn't take a communication scholar (or any scholar for that matter) to notice the strong gender separation in the sport of football. I find the disparities highlighted at the football game because of the lack of a female equivalent to football really doesn't exist. Instead, females participate in the football game in the form of marching band members, the audience, and the USC song girls (our version of cheerleaders). The audience has the power of gaze and observation over the performing male bodies. The athleticism of the male is the activity to be cheered and booed when performance is outstanding or below expectations.

Though the audience in a sense has this gaze and some power, the ultimate power over the mood of the game relies on the performance of the masculine bodies on the field. Though the center of attention, they hold the power over the narrative of the game day.

The marching band embodies a skillful performance, precision, and musicality which reminds me of the Ancient Greek chorus that interrupts the action for some crowd appeal, break from the continuing action, and engagement with the audience. The mixed genders that make up the marching band show a skilled performance of expertise with instruments, hands, and foot coordination as opposed to expertise of physical force and dexterity. The feminine role is exemplified as a member of the team, an important, integral part of the marching band and its cohesive performance. Though the drum major is traditionally male at USC (doning the Trojan uniform and leading the marching band as would an army general), the band itself is composed of all types of people who come together, unified for a common goal.

Although the song girls are a USC tradition, I find their performances over the games I've been to a sad reinforcement of gender stereotypes that portrays the female as the unskilled observer whose only purpose is to perform the sexualized dance routine in the breaks between football plays. I do not wish to offend members of the USC family who enjoy this tradition, but I find the un-coordinated hair-flipping and hip-shaking a detriment to the capabilities of women and creates a stark contrast between the abilities of the male bodies and the sexuality of the female bodies. The male body in the game is only a success if it performs physically in terms of strength, agility, and operationalized by scoring touchdowns and running yards. The female body, on the edge of the performance arena, is only a success if it can serve as the sexualized object of the audience and football player's gaze. A step out of line, a missed tackle, an out of place hip twirl, a weak head flip all create standards of excellence that the male and female performers can meet. The clear differences are between the amount of skill for each activity, the measurement of success or physical prowess, and the power struggle that occurs between performance and audience.

I understand the history of male performers and female cheerleaders is a historic one, but I still feel that the traditional "cheerleader" shows more skill and prowess than do all of the song girls combined. Physical athleticism is achieved through advanced cheerleading techniques, formations, and gymnastic abilities.

The format and engagement of the athletic body may not ever change, but I think that engaging the more athletic abilities of females at sporting events can help to minimize gender disparities and the differences between athletic performances and the expectations of the body.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Climate Change Skepticism as a Roadblock to Progress

I have previously discussed climate change from the perspective of science and extrapolation to future consequences of global warming. Not only are the predictions highly varied, but the consequences of them range from changing in weather patterns to massive displacement, war, and global food insecurity. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is often considered the foremost authority on climate change and uses amassed scientific data to create a consensus surrounding climate change, urging countries and politicians to act.

Here is where the problems occur, because policies to limit the effects of climate change are not occurring, especially not in the United States. But why? The answer to this question lies in the polarization of politics and the divide between Republicans and Democrats on the climate change issue. Gauchat (2012) proposed the politicalization of science where over time, the issue of scientific authority has become inextricably tied to political loyalties. Consequently, Republicans and frequent church-goers have significantly lost faith and trust in science as the authority of truth. To accept science as the authority is to abandon other methods of explanation, such as faith, and become disloyal to party lines.

The evidence for this claim is seen not only in the polls that Gauchat analysed, but also from the actions of Congress and the Republicans in it. Funding for climate change research under the Republican chairs of committees and subcommittees has been debated and in some cases cut. In defense of removing National Science Foundation funding for climate change projects, Chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX) said, “the reluctance to engage in conversations with people who have doubts or question the veracity of climate science is at the heart of the wrong doing that undermines trust in climate change science”, thereby legitimating climate contrarians by placing them at even footing with scientists (“Witnesses Highlight Flawed Processes Used to Generate Climate Change Science, Inform Policy,” 2011).

Perhaps most shocking and incredible is the recent ruling by North Carolina that scientists are no longer allowed to use extrapolations to predict future implications of climate change, but can only use past data. This is an exemplar of politics directly interfering with scientific integrity, capabilities, and validity with no justification. Stephen Colbert mocked this bill excellently by noting that North Carolina are blocking scientific inquiry in attempts to hide data that would force them to act in favor of the scientific consensus. Literally restricting science's ability to chart and model future climate change implications further undermines science's ability to predict problems and urge political action. For without powerful, scientifically accurate, and frankly, worrisome data, how are politicians to be convinced to action?

Herein lies another complication: the urgency of climate change and in fact its very existence is wholeheartedly rejected by many politicians, making any attempt to convince them quite fruitless. Climate change skeptics or contrarians simply will not be persuaded by any scientific plea for action, no matter how urgent or convincing. The situation is remarkably quite similar to the idea of the religious apocalypse: for no matter how urgent or persuasive a prophet of the rapture is, non-religious, agnostic, or atheistic people will simply not be persuaded. Faith to them, just as science appears to be for Republicans and church-goers, does not hold any persuasive clout.

The result of this skepticism is the questioning of all scientific data to support policy ideas. Instead of taking action, politicians wait for "conclusive" scientific evidence, which threatens the world's ability to ever fully prepare for the consequences of climate change. Soon, it may be too late to act, and we will reach the tipping point, where there is no longer the opportunity for preventative measures, but only response. How serious these consequences will be revealed only through time, but we know now that the longer we wait, the worse it will be. Soon, it will be too late to act, but the world will cry out the famous words of Macbeth (Act 3, Scene 4):

"I am in blood, stepped in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o'er"

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

God the Mother: Femininity and the Bible

On USC's campus in the past fall, I was approached by a woman as I was walking home from class. Thinking that she might be looking for directions, I was surprised when she approached me and asked if I had  heard of "God the Mother". I hadn't; of course I had heard of God the Father, the traditional Judeo-Christian  appositive for a higher power. I was intrigued and asked her to tell me more. This facet of Christianity follows a path of divinity for a character they call "the mother". She is described in Revelation and also in Galatians as Christ's "bride" and the "mother" of all humans. When Christ returns in his second coming, the World Mission Society Church of God believe that both female and male forms will come to rule.

Upon first hearing, these ideas sounded unique and ground-breaking to me. A larger, more prominent role for women? To be considered divine and worshiped  playing a role (as opposed to the passive Virgin Mary role) in human salvation? It seemed a positive and reassuring step in the right direction for gender equality in faith. The patriarchal system in Christianity is undeniably exclusive to females. Although some facets do allow for women to be ordained and serve in higher roles, typically faiths that believe in consubstantiation do not allow for female priests as the priest becomes Christ momentarily during the transformation of the bread to the body of Christ. Furthermore, many biblical passages undermine the role of women and encourage subordination. For example, 1 Timothy 2:12 reads, "I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet". Titus 2:5 describes that women should "be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God". This is of course excluding the many passages that discuss women as property or commodities to exchange. This hierarchy of the male over the female has been reinforced or at least continued through faith (and also science, see Ferngren's Science and Religion), so I thought that this group might be an interesting foil to traditional interpretations.

I agreed to attend weekly meetings with a missionary on campus and learn more about the faith. Fascinated, I took many notes on our meetings. I quickly found, though, that this church was not as different in their treatment as I initially thought. Learning about the "God the Mother" figure reinforced for me that this was merely a different manifestation of the already sexist female role in Christianity. Similar to the role of the Virgin Mary, as I briefly described above, the Heavenly Mother emerges as a vessel, place holder, and masculine foil, with no power, characteristics, or importance herself. Instead, the Heavenly Mother incorporates the traditional gender roles of femininity (i.e., bride, spouse, mother) into a divine form. Though it may seem encouraging to have a female face among the divine, her role as a foil to Christ removes any autonomy and importance in her narrative role. To maintain narrative fidelity (as proposed by Fisher's narrative paradigm), the patriarch must still be in place and the hero of the story must remain the male protagonist. The Heavenly Mother does not challenge this role, become a hero or protagonist herself, but merely complements the masculine figure.


The Heavenly Mother, and consequentially, all women, are also only laded, valued, or given importance when they fulfill their gender roles. The Heavenly Mother does not have a name, like Christ, or a purpose, other than to serve Christ and be the mother of all humans. The Heavenly Mother thus becomes nothing more than the Virgin Mary: a divine vagina. Her sexual organs are the only meaning she provides for the narrative, as a sexual object for Christ as bride and a vessel for human life as mother. The woman I met with emphasized the importance of the family structure, the "nuclear" mother, father, children unit that is the backbone of society. This structure is a metaphor for the larger Father, Mother, and humankind as children. After prompting by me, my faith partner also admitted that the LGBTQ community does not fit this holy female-male binary (transfemales not in possession of the normative sexual organs) so should be banned from marriage.

My hopes for a more inclusive, engaging, and female-friendly version of Christianity were definitely dashed. I see no benefit to having a divine female figure if her only contribution to the faith is her vagina and its function. I continued to meet with the conversation partner for a few weeks, learning about why her faith was the "true" faith and the literal word of the Bible and its importance. Not only does this faith believe in the second coming, but they believe it will happen in our lifetime. During that apocalypse, we will be welcomed by both Christ and his bride, to be reunited as a heteronormative, nuclear family.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Best of Larry List

After not checking my account for a few months, I was shocked to find over 3000 emails from Dr. Larry Gross as a subscriber to his infamous "Larry List". These emails are all fascinating and interesting articles that Dr. Gross shares to this email list and can number in the dozens per day. Going through them all finally, I wanted to share my favorite articles. There is really no rhyme or reason to them besides that I found them interesting. Enjoy!

Atmosphere of Distortion
This article discusses the relationship between climate change and daily temperatures. Though climate change  is reflective of long term changes and patterns, skeptics often point to snow and cold weather as arguments against climate change.

This map represents aggregated Twitter data on the presence of "beer" (blue) and "church" (red) by frequency and quantity. This is an interesting use of Twitter which echoes my involvement with the Twitter sentiment project at the Annenberg Innovation Lab. Twitter is still a new arena for communication scholars, so I find these endeavors into how to operationalize the data fascinating.

This article interests me because of the interesting connection math has between sciences and humanities. Theoretical math has inextricable ties to both physics and philosophy, which this article explores. Especially when one thinks about why we are here, where did we come from, and how do things function, areas such as physics, communication, religion, mathematics, and philosophy all find space to explore the answers.

Sky Monsters
These images are not interesting from a research perspective, but simply because they are beautiful representations of what might otherwise be a normal storm cloud.

Movies in Miniatures
This portfolio of pictures represents (as the artist describes) an intersection between Eastern art with Western film. My interests in narrative make these photographs interesting. Without captioning or explaining, viewers can instantly recognize the scene and thus, the film that the pictures are representatives and icons of the narratives themselves. Despite the difference in style and presentation, the image above is instantly recognizable as the scene from Alien where the creature emerges from the character's chest.

Singapore Airport Art
There have been many attempts at airport art, as a distraction from the banality of airport travel and inevitable delays and lost baggage. This one might be the most successful. It is reminiscent of a lava lamp, with its simple shapes and movements, but hypnotizing and enticing.

Prius Features
This video is just hilarious. The irony in adopting environmentally friendly policies is that you can never truly offset the carbon one produces from being alive. Massive deaths (a la Soylent Green) could be advocated for on behalf of the environment. Funny and philosophical, the perfect Onion piece.

*Images retrieved from websites listed

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Appeal of Horror

Although I've always known that my preference for horror films over romantic comedies draws curiosity and concern from others, I never understood why. What is it about horror films that makes my interest in Saw, Hostel, and The Cabin in the Woods inherently worse than in No Strings Attached, The Notebook, or Sweet Home Alabama?

This is not an avenue of research I would pursue with any intensity, but its frequent occurrence in my life makes it a perfect blog post entry. Below are some musings and thoughts I've had about why horror is offensive on a basic level to human nature and why some yearn for that experience in the theater.

One of the issues in horror films is their defiance and utilization of reality. Whereas science fiction and fantasy is inherently "unbelievable", romantic comedies are life-like and true to reality. Outside of the necessary fantasy of Hollywood, unique plot points, and unlikelihood that come with a film, there is a transcendence that occurs naturally with romance, comedies, and dramas. Real people being dealt unlikely, but possible events, with real emotion and reaction. For the most part, these films follow standard structures with the protagonist achieving their goal or the couple uniting in the end. Aberrations from this structure may serve as a twist to surprise the audience, but the structure remains mostly intact.

Horror changes this structure by combining the reality of dramas, comedies, and romance with the abnormal and occult of science fiction and fantasy. Just as Harry Potter takes the reality of a rough childhood and transforms it into magical fantasy, horror films take the reality of normal, everyday people and sends them directly to Hell. The Saw films punish people for taking life for granted, something that everyone can be considered guilty of. The Hostel films torture people on vacation based on random acquisition. The reality of people's stories create an affinity and connection between the audience and the characters, allowing for a dangerous and frightening transcendence. Connecting with characters about to undergo bodily, mental, and psychological damage and harm can be an uncomfortable position for the average movie-goer.

People are willing to go and see them, however. The same adrenaline rush that brings people to amusement parks for a roller coaster ride fills the seats at the midnight premiere of the 7th Saw movie. The fear that arises from the films might be in the loss of power. Denying the basic, happy-ending structure of other films, horror movies remove the viewer from a position of power: from knowledge and expectations. Horror villains may have no explanation, attacks may come at any time from any location, and the fate or safety of the characters is variable. For example, the complete back story of Jigsaw, the villain in Saw, is revealed slowly and in pieces over the course of the movies, making his actions and the actions of his disciples mysterious and random. Epitomizing the random attacks is the Final Destination series, where "fate" is literally the villain that interacts with the environment around the characters to kill them in accidental ways. There is no man or monster hiding and approaching, but merely objects and spaces manipulated to attack and murder the characters at any point. Because it is a horror film, there are almost always murders or deaths, especially of the main characters. The survival of the characters (if any) usually only follows the deaths of others in the group.

The fear that these movies create is often avoided by movie-goers looking for an "escape" or pleasant experience. For those that do enjoy them, myself included, the pleasure comes from not knowing and experiencing something that is unique to movies and entertainment. The horror movie is an escape from the normal, everyday, average life, by exposing viewers to the dark side of reality.

I do not know what my favorite horror film would be, but I have to say that the recent Joss Whedon film, The Cabin in the Woods, has become a strong contender. The variety of emotions, from nervous and terrified, to intrigued and confused, to laughing out loud in the theater, this movie was the perfect horror film for me. Even for those not a fan of horror films, familiarity with the genre will help you appreciate the satire and exaggeration that makes this film an instant classic.