Sunday, November 16, 2014

Arguing Monuments and Material Rhetoric

The concept of "materiality" and how physical objects argue is becoming popular in rhetorical criticism. Scholars are beginning to theorize that buildings, cities, monuments, and other physical objects can argue, influence people, and tell stories -- just like words. The history of "the material turn" is quiet expansive (as I've discovered while writing my dissertation about it), but I will summarize some key points before discussing examples.

Traditional rhetorical criticism focused on the speeches of great orators and analyzed the word choices and potential effects. Scholars slowly began to incorporate other objects of study like groups of speakers, genres of speeches, and non-elite speakers. These variations still focused on the spoken and written word, however. Larger changes emerged when scholars began looking at how physical spaces constrain or offer opportunities in the way that speeches invite or construct possibilities for audiences. Moving through a space that has physical obstacles is similar to spoken commands or laws that restrict movement. Physical spaces and objects can themselves be symbols (like words) that have embedded meaning, affect, and significance. Materiality invites audience participation and makes arguments.

The first example of arguing monuments is the Portrait Monument at the US Capitol. The marble monument shows three elegant busts of prominent women in the women's suffrage movement: Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Lucretia Mott. There is room for a fourth bust in a lump of un-carved stone in the rear of the monument.

Picture retrieved from Architect of the Capitol
This monument makes a clear argument that the work of women's rights is unfinished. There may have been great women in the past who deserve to be honored, but there is still the need for activism, activists, and progress. Furthermore, viewers of the monument are invited to honor the memories of these three great women by continuing on their work. Their memories do not invoke a sense of completeness or finality; their faces encourage the audience to ask, "what more can be done?" Some people have thought that the unfinished section is meant to be completed when the US elects the first female President. This, however, goes against the intention of the artist, Adelaide Johnson, to show the perpetually unsolved state of gender equality.

Another example is the Atheism bench. This monument is the first public monument to atheism, or a lack of belief in divinity. The American Atheists lost a court case to have a monument to the Ten Commandments removed from a Florida Courthouse. Instead of removing the monument, the court offered them the opportunity to build their own monument. The monument is a bench so as to be a functional piece of public display. It is covered in quotations that specifically mention religion and the American political and legal systems.

Picture retrieved from Time Magazine
The Atheism bench claims space for non-belief outside of a courtroom that, like Lady Liberty, should be blind to concerns of religion. The bench argues that religious belief should not be a factor in the courts. The bench also argues that public space should be free and open space where no ideas should dominate and none should be excluded. The bench also includes, in writing "consequences of breaking the Ten Commandments" as a direct verbal argument against the Ten Commandments monument displayed on the other end of the courthouse.

These are just two examples of how physical spaces can produce arguments. Oftentimes, memorials are coupled with verbal statements, like the Atheism bench, but it is important for scholars to note that images, monuments, and material things can produce independent, standalone arguments.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Denialism Studies and Re-claiming History

Image retrieved from this site.
I have been a little behind on my blog posts because I have been focusing on my prospectus. Also, last weekend, I attended a conference called, "Manufacturing Denial" which took up time with some great presentations and discussions. I was honored to be invited by the Strassler Center to take part. At the conference, I gave a paper on the similar argument patterns and rhetorical strategies in Holocaust-denial, climate change denial, and evolution denial. The three forms appeal to a unifying framework of conspiracy that allows them to construct enemies, discredit evidence, and shift the burden of proof onto historians and scientists. The article that served as the launching point for this larger piece can be read here. Summarizing comments from the conference can be read here by Dr. Massimo Pigliucci, who I had the pleasure to meet and discuss evolution with at the conference.

Presenting on my panel at the Strassler Center at Clark University. Photo credit to Khatchig Mouradian.
This post will address some important themes that emerged and will place them in conversation with a speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. who spoke out against the Vietnam War. His words echo in the present conflict as relevant and insightful. Similar to the foreign war sanctioned by government with dire, material consequences, denialism is often a pervasive, legitimized, and powerful force that begs us look at history and important rhetorical moments for guidance. 
The series of panels addressed many instances of denial, such as the genocide during World War II, the Armenian genocide, genocide in Rwanda and Cambodia, climate change, evolution, health effects of tobacco, autism vaccines, GMOs, political myths, and others. The variety of opinions ranged between questioning the worth of focusing and responding to denial to trumpeting the great work of exposing denial in its various forms. Some even went as far as to advocate for criminalizing denialism, as some European countries have done with the Holocaust, in all of its forms. They argued that not only are the memories of victims tarnished and 'the truth' being re-written, but also the mental and emotional well-being of descendants and citizens are affected by denialism.

Image retrieved from this site.
In the case of climate change, scholars argued that denialism promotes gridlock in the political system and stymies preventative action. Denialism, thus, is paramount to leading to thousands (and even millions) of preventable deaths. One scholar argued that the genocide of both humans and nature may have more casualties than any genocides in the past. Though I appreciate the candor of these scholars and respect that they are elevating issues such as climate change to the level of genocide in its consequences, criminalization is not the answer. It is quite easy for denialists to take advantage of criminalization as silencing the truth. The University of Utah Press, who came under fire repeatedly for published books that denied the Armenian genocide, has recently published a book by Lewy called "Outlawing Genocide Denial: The Dilemmas of Official Historical Truth" about the dangers of outlawing. Any type of law against denialism must somehow avoid issues of freedom of speech, specifically in America, and that everyone has opinions, however seemingly irrational or misguided they are.  In his speech, King argued that "communism will never be defeated by the use of atomic bombs or nuclear weapons." Taking firm, violent action against those with differing opinions is rarely a way to change people's minds or completely quash those opinions. In fact, a common theme at the conference was the likelihood that being faced with opposing information may encourage a backfire effect that heightens the original belief. War and violence conquers; it does not convince.
One common theme that came up among the panelists and my own paper were that although literal and blatant denial is often most studied by academics and heard about by the public, denial in its implicit and subtle forms can be the most insidious. In the Q&A, an audience member asked if scholars were not misplacing their time and efforts by trying to combat denialists instead of working on other research. I argue with King, Jr., however, who argued that "silence is betrayal." To not address important points of deception and denial is to remain passive and allow for evil to flourish. One of my co-panelists argued that "sunlight is the best disinfectant." Scholarship, in part, is based off of the very values that we are decrying: skepticism. Scholars look critically at the state of reality, question norms, and expose constructed and often subtle workings of power. Denialists occupy an extreme version of this healthy skepticism to where even basic evidence, consensus of truth, and facts are discounted, seen as fabricated, and are questioned. How do we negotiate and foster healthy skepticism and critical analysis without invoking cynicism and isolation?

Image retrieved from this site.
Although King was met with resistance to his speaking out against the Vietnam War and his advocacy for peace in the Civil Rights movement he felt obligated to fulfill his duty, follow his path, and oppose the evils that he saw. King argued that "men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government's policy." At the conference, the Armenian genocide and the Turkish government's attempt to rename the genocide as "the events of 1915" and paint the Armenian victims as insurgents speaks to a national, government-supported policy to change the past and rewrite history. It is not easy to oppose the government and break out of the "apathy of conformist thoughts." It is certainly much easier for many of us as scholars to turn the other cheek and focus on other issues. But when denial of facts and the subsequent gridlock and inaction occurs that threatens knowledge, public deliberation, and the future stability of the world, how can we not act?

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Dangerous Advertising and Disingenuous Controversy

Students of mine have turned in papers this week that critique different advertisements. Their papers have prompted me to think, as I have before (gender in advertising, political advertisements, religion and advertising, interactive advertising, and exclusionary advertising) about different advertisements that propose a cause or campaign instead of a product. My students had the choice of a traditional product advertisement and one form a non-profit. It was much easier to see the direct purpose of the for-profit advertisement: to sell a product. Oftentimes, however, the advertisements for non-profit groups have to be more creative in order to peddle something far less tangible than a car or a purse. These attempts to be innovative can backfire, causing more attention to the advertisement campaign itself than the message it is trying to convey.

Retrieved from this site.
In rhetorical theory, this is called disingenuous controversy. Fritch, Palczewski, Farrell, and Short proposed the term to describe situations when an ancillary aspect of an event occupies attention and the actual message (which itself could be controversial and counter-hegemonic) is lost. Their example was the comments by Ward Churchill where he compared the workers in the World Trade Center as "little Eichmanns" when describing the justifications for the 9/11 attacks. The purpose was to raise questions about the American economic structure and how it constrained and motivated the actions of the 9/11 terrorists. But, instead of this critique gaining media attention, people focused on his comparison between the Nazi bureaucrat and workers in the World Trade Center as offensive, insensitive, and unpatriotic.

Following the Nazi theme, I first want to discuss the advertising campaign that ran in Germany to promote HIV/AIDS awareness. The campaign features graphic images of infamous leaders such as Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Saddam Hussein having sex with women. This campaign was eventually pulled in part because of its graphic nature and outrage over the use of these infamous faces in relations with women. The campaign read, "AIDS is a mass murderer" and encouraged viewers to associate something traditionally thought-of as pleasurable with something inherently disgusting and deadly. The graphic depiction in the advertisement coupled with the unique history in Germany that makes the presentation of Hitler challenging, however, overshadowed the consciousness-raising of re-thinking about the dangers of unprotected sex.

Retrieved from this site.
The second campaign I'd like to present is a campaign by 10:10, which is a climate change advocacy non-profit. The advertisement shows various situations where people are asked about their opinions on climate change. A few that declare that they do not believe in global warming or that we should not act towards it are shown exploding violently. The version that received the most attention featured children exploding in their classrooms. The campaign seemed to be questioning the value of dissenters and how those who do not engage or pay attention are ultimately doomed. The violence, especially towards children, however, became the focus of the campaign instead of the message of the future of humanity.

These "dangerous" advertisements risk an audience backlash in favor of capturing people's attention. When the alternative is complete silence or apathy, perhaps a bit of attention-grabbing is in order. There are certainly risks to this type of advertisement. Non-profits may be more likely to risk these strategies because they are not beholden to shareholders or a bottom line. When attention is at an all time premium, with the variety of options for viewing, being offensive or crude is one way to be sure one gets eyes, if not support.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Using Religion as a Negative Characteristic

Due to my prospectus deadline looming, this week will have to be a short introduction to a topic that has been on my radar for some time. This trend that I have noticed, mainly in denialist rhetoric, uses religion as a negative characteristic that typifies history or science as "fantastic," "not to be trusted," or based solely on "belief" instead of fact.

Image retrieved from this site.
I am currently working on a paper that links the denialist strategies of Holocaust-denialists, climate-deniers, and creationists (evolution-deniers). This paper will explore the strategic arguments made by each group and the potential means to address them. Although it will not directly address this phenomenon, the frequent presence of "religion" as a negative characteristic has prompted my attention. I hope that this brief inquiry, which will be continued in another post or paper, will delve into these characteristics and this odd, recurrent rhetorical pattern.

One Holocaust-denial page ( argued that Holocaust-confirmers are wedded to their story of history with a religious fervor. The website argued:
"My guess is that people believe the hoax because they want to believe. It fills some deep emotional need—perhaps to overcome a sense of inferiority compared to the Germans, or to somehow join the dominant group in society. The exact answer is beyond any understanding of this writer—but it is an enormously important question nonetheless in the same way that one should try to understand why people believe in religion. Holocaust belief is a kind of new religion—as irrational and ridiculous as any other religion but enormously appealing. For those who have not totally lost their minds, the following reasons for rejecting the hoax may have meaning" (para. 8).
Belief in religion is characterized as "irrational and ridiculous" despite the author's many Christian symbols, crosses, and references to Christ's sacrifice for the good of the white race.

Image retrieved from this site.
Climate deniers are also quite often religious and base their opposition to environmental protection on Christian teachings. The Cornwall Alliance (CA) is a religiously motivated group that denies the importance of climate change and its consequences as distracting from God's true work. Dr. Calvin Beisner, founder of the CA wrote, “religion is the root of any culture, and environmentalism has become a full-fledged religion in its own right. It is the most comprehensive substitute in the world today for Christianity so far as worldview, theology, ethics, politics, economics, and science are concerned” (Beisner, 2013, p. 1). He described environmentalism, or a focus and care on the environment, as a religion, based not on science, but on faith.

I've written about the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) before regarding a conference paper. The paper focused on ICR's magazine, Acts & Facts, that presents research done in their institute that proves creationism. They advertise their magazine as a tool “to counter the lies of evolution” and include education as one of the three prongs of their mission (along with research and communication). ICR undermines evolutionary science as “conflicting with biblical Christianity” and “detractors” to the true worldview (“Creationist Worldview,” para. 4; 6). They publish research articles that support creationism and also interest pieces about political, social, and cultural issues. In an article about education, author Henry Morris  (1973) wrote, “One of the most amazing phenomena in the histoy of education is that a speculative philosophy based on no true scientific evidence could have been universally adopted and taught as scientific fact” (para. 1). He described evolution as a philosophy that worships that religion of naturalism and humanism. Evolution is “the established religion of the state” that has excluded competing voices because they fear the truth (Morris, 1973, para. 4). Evolution, often called "Darwinism," is a religion that worships Darwin as a deity that scientists follow blindly.

Image retrieved from this site.

The extreme irony here is that groups who deny history or science (such as Neo-Nazis, creationists, and climate-deniers) are often themselves deeply religious, namely Christian. What is the logic in using religion as a negative characteristic when one follows religion oneself? It seems hypocritical for religious groups to undermine their opponents by trying to paint them as religious. In one sense, this places both sides on an equal playing field, treated both as beliefs that should be respected. Another possibility is that by reducing the opposing side to religion, the deniers can claim scientific superiority. Though they may rely on religion in their own beliefs, many groups understand the persuasive and authoritative power of evidence, models, and rationality.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Danger and Opportunity in Speaking for/with Others

There are many issues that I feel compelled to address as a rhetorician and social agent of change (Klumpp and Hollihan argue). Engaging with these issues, however, requires reflexivity about my own status as a privileged, white, heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied, female and how that type of person/body can speak for others. Can I speak for others? Perhaps literally, yes, I could use my platform on this blog and as an academic to speak for others. It wouldn't be well or with full knowledge, but I could. Thus, the better question would be should I speak for others?

On one hand, attention to these important issues of transgender rights, racial inequalities, gender equality, and equality more broadly should have as many advocates as possible. People of all description can be allies and amplify the voices and stories of those who can speak more genuinely about these problems.

Image retrieved from this site.
On the other hand, speaking for others complicates issues of voice, could serve to isolate the voices of others, and reifies a system in which certain voices are more valuable than other voices. In an academic exchange in a journal, Campbell and Biesecker addressed the issue of speaking for women in rhetorical history and how the "canon" of rhetoric that is studied systematically removes female voices. Though Campbell erred on the side of including as many voices as possible into the current canon, Biesecker was in favor of rejecting the canon as a system of tokenization.

The rhetoric of tokenism highlights certain voices that triumph against an oppressive system as evidence that the system is not oppressive. The lauded status of certain individuals (Cloud has an excellent article on Oprah as exemplar) is unique and worthy of note, and their success is linked to their individual qualities. If others simply embodied these same qualities, they could also rise above the system, meaning that change is unnecessary.

This is the token black character on South Park, literally named "Token." Retrieved from this site.
Part of the problem in speaking for others is this dynamic of visibility, voice, invisibility, and silence. To speak for others is to reify that certain voices are not being paid attention to, but it also silences their actual message in favor of a conduit. To remain silent, though, is to allow and passively participate in the maintenance of the status quo.

I am still working through these problems and try to keep them in mind in the work that I address and the comments that I make. I try to always be reflective and aware of the position from which I consume information and process opinions. For now, I err on the side of commenting from my limited position, especially when certain issues are prevalent and pressing.

One issue that has recently emerged, and one which I am reluctant to rehash considering the wishes of my colleagues, has been the Annenberg Innovation Lab Black Twitter project. I wish only to comment on this situation's similarities to the issues of authorship, voice, and who is allowed/should study others as a researcher. A summary of the incident can be read here and an excellent response by my colleague Dayna Chatman can be read here. This incident helped me reflect more on my status as a researcher and how academia as a whole can be more reflexive of how our personal situations affect our approaches to certain issues.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Catcalling and Power: Hollaback at Violent Male Culture

Catcalling has been appearing frequently in article I've been reading, on social media, and in conversations with friends. I have already discussed more generally the problems that females face specifically on college campuses, but catcalling is a form of aggression that plagues all women. I use the term aggression purposefully and meaningfully as these catcalls are verbal, sexual assaults on females. These are, in many ways, hate crimes in that they are addressed and targeted towards a particular gender. I argue that these are violent, aggressive verbal attacks on females and are not addressed in order to be compliments or flattery. Any woman of all shapes and sizes in clothing from SoCal casual to Boston coats (I have seriously been catcalled walking down Boylston in my HUGE winter jacket) are catcalled. Like rape, catcalling is not about "flattering" or "complimenting" someone; it is about power, laying claim, objectifying, and reifying an order where men can and are allowed to "be men." The clip below is from a Fox News show where four clueless women and one man discuss how flattering and welcoming catcalling is.

The hosts argue "let men be men." This statement characterizes men as overly sexual, aggressive, and blameless for their actions. This attitude let's men off for perpetrating abusive, violent action towards women. The blame is shifted to the victims for not "taking a joke," their choice of outfit that incites a catcall, or walking in a certain area. Victim blaming is never something that should be encouraged or tolerated in society. Just like bullying or assault on college campuses, it is always the fault of the perpetrator, the person committing the crime and assault. It is never the fault of the victim. In the famous words of the recently passed Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting, victims must always remember, "it's not your fault." The hosts of the show should be ashamed of themselves for laughing and tolerating the inane slow clap of their male counterpart. The female presence is not a show or performance for the adoration or approval of males.

Retrieved from this site.
I have been catcalled many times and the first thing that I have thought was not, "oh how nice," or "how flattering!" Instead, it immediately places me in a subject position where my presence is only meaningful in that is a display and object for the male gaze. In one instance, I had a man follow me off a bus in Los Angeles and onto the Metro, yelling at me and attempting to accompany me to my destination. I will probably never forget the fear I felt when I realized he was behind me as I stepped off the bus. My relief in getting out of the situation became sheer panic. He ran up next to me and said, "I'm not trying to scare you sweetie, I just want to marry you." Another time, I was grabbed from behind by a young male on a skateboard on the very street where I live. This catcall, which I tried to ignore, ended in physical assault and made me feel like an object to be squeezed, held, and owned by others. When I step on the street, I have no control over the actions of others, what they may call me, how they may judge me, but I will say that it is more rare than not to have an assault-free day. Louis Althusser noted that when a police officer yells, "Hey you!" at someone, they immediately construct a subject position for them to inhabit. This interpellation is done from a position of power that constructs for the other person an identity that they have no part in constructing. Any reaction is to that assignment position within what Althusser called an "ideological state apparatus" that reifies hierarchy.

Buzzfeed attempted to create a humorous interpretation of catcalling. The video shows "What men are really saying when catcalling." This video is important because it addresses the counter-argument that many people use to defend catcalling: that it is a legitimate way to approach a female. If someone is interested, why not simply call out to them and engage them in conversation? Well, as the video shows and as I fully agree, catcalling is not an invitation. There is no desired or appropriate response. The male simply wishes to undermine the female, assert power, and inflate their own egos. As one of the males in the video states, "I noticed you're confident, so I'm cutting you down to feel powerful." Another notes that he's not sure why he's calling because he wouldn't know what to do if the female responded. When I have tried to respond to catcallers, I am either called a bitch, frigid, or am assumed to already have a boyfriend. Because already being owned by a male is the only reason to call off an approach.

Playboy also recently released a chart that describes when it is appropriate to catcall a female. Though my initial reaction was, "why do you need a flowchart to define the word 'never'?" this chart is important because it incorporates the participation of the female. The only way for catcalling to be appropriate, via this chart, is with the consent and agreement of the female party. This approach considers females active agents instead of simply passive objects to be called upon.

Retrieved from this site.
Catcalling engages issues of hierarchy and ideology. In what situations do females catcall men? In what situations do females have the power to objectify and undermine men? Simply put, they never do. The structure of hierarchy implies that the minority or discriminated group never has the agency or power to discriminate themselves. Any action is performed within that hierarchy. My response to a catcaller is always framed with the male in the right and myself in the wrong. Althusser's police office constructs the situation and appropriates the actions of the passerby without a need for reaction. Because of their respective positions within the system, the act of addressing and calling upon someone places them in the position of vulnerability, object, and minority. Catcalling reifies a structure that says that men are always in a position of power over women.

Retrieved from this site. Stats are specific to Hollaback Boston.
A few organizations, such as Hollaback , are trying to end street harassment. Hollaback focuses on sharing the stories of females who have been harassed in a triple-pronged attempt to promote awareness of how frequent and widespread the issue is, to provide validation for females who have been verbally harassed, and to promote healing through collective storytelling. I hope that initiatives like this can help to make real and present the plight of harassment that females experience every day. We as a society need to move away from victim blaming, listen to the stories of those shamed and objectified, and acknowledge the societal guilt that we all share by allowing this culture to exist. Though I am not knowledeable enough to comment in more depth, I do want to use this post as an opportunity to amplify how these issues often specifically and disproportionately affect women of color and the transgender community.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Online Activist: Making Charity Cold as Ice

There have been many commentaries on the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, hereafter IBC, including some by my colleagues at Annenberg. I have very mixed feelings about the challenge and they are quite scattered. I will attempt, then, to parse some of my more scholarly opinions on the matter in my overall criticism of the challenge as an event in narcissism and exploitation that has ultimately generated a lot of money for a great cause. In this sentence, I want it to be clear that the process by which these donations are raised is where my primary concern lies and not with the cause itself. Certainly, encouraging donations is a positive enterprise, but I am not completely deontological in that I feel that a critical look at the process and means by which these are obtained are necessary.

Retrieved from this site.
My first issue with the IBC is the notion of "challenge." There has been an increase of challenge and dare activities on the Internet where people are constantly trying to one-up each other. We had planking, for example, where people would try and lie supine on random objects, often in danger. The more dangerous or precarious the planking, the more valuable in terms of Internet clout. Then, came the video challenges by which people were dared to do something inherently dangerous, like jump off a bridge. Not surprisingly, this resulted in the deaths of a few people after drowning trying to meet the dare. Though meant as harmless fun (of which even my lovely siblings have participated in), these challenges raise important questions of safety and what activities the Internet are encouraging off-line. Others have been injured in so-called "cold water plunges" that are often media stunts to raise money for charities or certain causes. These challenges raise questions of agency and the choice of the "dared." When we are really talking about life and death, how can we not see challenge culture as a negative aspect of the Internet that encourages risky and dangerous behavior?

Planking on the edge of a building. Retrieved from this site.
These "I nominate X, X, and X" phrases remind me of the chain letters of the 90s where you had to forward these ridiculous stories (in Yahoo and Hotmail, typically) or someone would come kill you in the evening. What actually happens if you don't accept an IBC, cold water challenge, or forward a chain email? Absolutely nothing. The challenge culture simply takes your unwillingness to do a dare from middle school slumber parties to a global audience. In a word, it's childish. The maintenance of these challenges perpetuates the dangerous culture of one-upping and daring, although not specifically present in the IBC. What we communicate has essentially stayed the same, but how we communicate it has changed. Ong would see the evolving communication technologies as simply offering new forms that communication can take, such as the dare. The IBC has the countdown clock and the threat of non-compliance that email chains (and blackmail, by the way) have to motivate people to act. The dare takes the spirit of altruism out of the donations, because it is reduced to the act of one-upping others, blending in with the crowd, and passing the dare on to others.

My second issue is the notion that this particular charity is particularly worthy, or that I am forced to donate to this particular one. I think that donating to charity is definitely a worthwhile cause and one that the IBC has reminded me that I should do more of. But, why ALS? They have simply come up with this marketing campaign. They, like all charities, are not particularly worthy or more deserving than so many other of the great charities out there that one could donate to. Why should my choice in charity donation be limited because of a "dare" I receive on Facebook? Why shouldn't I donate to a charity that I care about? That I believe does good work? That I feel is not getting enough attention? Perhaps I have been personally affected by close family member having Alzheimer's or diabetes and wish to donate to them. Is this somehow less acceptable because I am not performing the dare made of me? Why should someone else decide where I give my money? This article brings up important concerns about what the money will be used for and the benefits of massive donations to a specific charity (especially one like ALS which focuses on research and impacts very few people).

Retrieved from this site.
My third issue is the performative aspect of the challenge that promotes narcissism and exhibitionism rather than a concern for the charity. Why should I have to dump water on my head to do a good deed? Not to mention the many concerns this has raised in California because of the drought. Why do I have to film it and share it with others? Why isn't donation a private act that doesn't need public display? Because it's not about my donation, it's about me. It's about my public performance of doing good work. Modern culture cannot do a good deed without getting recognized for it. We need public recognition of every A, every act of kindness, every charity. Dumping water is about including myself in the story of ALS and its success, about feeling good about my involvement. The IBC reminds me quite strongly of the "Fitch the Homeless" movement where people donated all of their Abercrombie & Fitch clothes to the homeless. On the surface, just like the IBC, this campaign did provide many donations of much-needing clothing for the homeless. But, this campaign leaves a similarly negative taste in my mouth because of the reasoning behind the actual donations. They were not out of the sake of the good deeds or that the homeless were in need, but that we were getting back at Abercrombie & Fitch CEO would made comments about his clothing being only for "cool kids." Yes, in response to this statement, let's donate all of the Abercrombie & Fitch clothing to the most non-cool kids ever. As this article put it: "what [this campaign] ends up doing is using people experiencing homelessness as pawns to make a political statement." The IBC similarly exploits the narcissism and dare culture of the Internet to encourage donations. Is the end result a positive? Definitely. But should we condone these types of reasons to donate? Absolutely not.

Retrieved from this site.
Donations are not a matter of being dared or used as a way to spite others. Donations should be about caring, giving, appreciating others, working monetarily towards a cause that you believe in. If this is the new way that people donate, then it changes the dynamics of charity, and may shift our thinking so that we require dares and challenges to make a donation. We couldn't act independently or privately for the benefit of a cause, but would need to publicly present ourselves and declare that others must congratulate or copy us in order for the good deed to be meaningful.

I want to reiterate that I think the donations raised about the IBC are absolutely amazing. I never would have thought that reinvigorating the giving spirit (sort of) especially for my generation could be done so successfully (especially after the Kony 2012 disaster). I think that the impassioned speeches of my colleagues on Facebook have been well heard and I do not look down or condemn anyone for doing the IBC. I merely wish to raise questions (albeit rather passionately myself) about the purpose of these type of videos, what they are actually promoting, and the motivations behind the good deeds that make me skeptical of the lasting power of this campaign and others that may try to imitate it.

I will not participate in this if someone challenges me. I've decided that I don't want to perpetuate a culture that made my brother jump off of a bridge, take away people's agency in deciding to donate, or reducing the act of charity to an event in narcissism. I do think that donations are a positive act and this challenge has caused me to see that people don't donate enough. I may donate because of this, I may not. It may be to ALS, it may be to a different charity, or none at all. But, I will not make it a public spectacle or "dare" others to have the giving spirit or shame them into performing for a Facebook audience. Instead, I encourage everyone to see the larger message in the beauty of charity and reject the process by which this challenge is perpetuated.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Race and Class in The Purge: Anarchy

I've already addressed my opinions on the societal shun of horror films. I think that horror films are much more inventive and experimental than traditional genre films and I wish more of my peers appreciated their subtle depth and creativity. This post is specifically about the second installment of The Purge, which I highly encourage everyone watch. Unlike the original, The Purge: Anarchy is a slick thriller with a moral message about class, race, and oppression. I will briefly discuss the horror aesthetics in this film (and its original) before discussing this interconnected themes of hierarchy and exploitation. The cultural scholar and common person alike would greatly benefit from exploring these themes on the silver screen (even with a bit of gore). It may not need saying, but this post will contain spoilers of both films.

The Purger: Anarchy Trailer. Retrieved from YouTube.

The first film was typical of its genre. There were cliche pop-out-from-behind-a-corner fake scares, misdirection, and a dearth of larger meaning than the human urge to kill. The film centered around the near future where a government has issued a 24-hour lift of all laws allowing society to "purge" through murder, robbery, etc. This results in a lower crime rate through the rest of the year and a boon in sales of home defense systems. The first film followed a family that had a break-in in their home after the young son tried to save a man being hunted in their neighborhood. This film was simply okay, an interesting idea poorly executed and mostly abandoned for the cheap and easy scares. I almost didn't go see the second film because of my disappointment in the first. I'm very glad that I didn't miss it.

Retrieved from this site.
The Purge: Anarchy focuses on the streets that are ravaged by roaming bands of vigilantes and the mysterious presence of military and government forces patrolling the streets. A Malcolm X type figure (Carmelo) becomes a prominent character who preaches that the purge is a government tactic to eradicate the poor (and subsequently, minorities) in order to keep the crime rate down during the year. We find out during the film that the government is targeting low income neighborhoods, kidnapping people, and performing genocides of the lower classes. One black woman and her daughter are saved from this government kidnapping by a (white) purger looking for revenge on the man who killed his son in a car accident.

Retrieved from this site.
Two scenes stand out for me as particularly shocking and expressive. The father of the woman saved from government forces disappears early in the film. The daughter and granddaughter find out that he has sold himself to a rich white family for $100,000 to allow them to purge in the safety of their home. The white family has literally bought a poor, black body as if it were property, to ruthlessly destroy and exploit it without exposing themselves to the risks of the purge. There is a poignant frame where the nuclear family is standing around the father wielding weapons in their pristine suits and plastic-wrapped living room of expensive art. Their massacre of this man will be their new art, their secret expression of white privilege that protects their valuables, status, and domination over the lower class.

Auctioneer before the hunt. Retrieved from this site.
The second powerful scene is shown briefly at the end of the trailer where a woman in a blue dress announces before a seated group of people in fancy dress that they have collected the last purge of the evening. The main characters are released into a pitch black maze where the highest bidders enter with night vision goggles and weapons to hunt them down. There are obvious echoes here about the purchasing of bodies as in the previous scene, but it also echoes themes from Richard Connell's "The Most Dangerous Game." This short story is about a stranded man looking for protection who ends up being hunted down for sport like an animal in a rich man's safari game. Humans being the most cunning (and thus perhaps most satisfying to kill) animal provides an elevated type of sport than the traditional hunt. Indeed, the highest bidders in The Purge: Anarchy wear traditional British fox hunting uniforms as if they were out in a normal hunting activity and not viciously murdering other people. In a quite satisfying ending, I will simply mention that the group manages to get a hold of one of the night vision goggles and weapons, making the hunt more of a fair fight.

Both of these scenes highlight for me the interrelationship between class and race and the exploitative powers of a system that only reifies the lasting order and undervalues the lives of poor and minority bodies. In this film, both the rich and the government specifically target and kill blacks, the homeless, deviants, and youth in an attempt to eradicate and "purge" the society of perceived evils. This movie asks us all to reflect on who is in power, what oppressive acts are they committing, and who does society really serve. Both the murderers and the white families who can afford to lock up and hide are complicit in the exploitation and eradication of people deemed unworthy of life. Just as a police officer in Ferguson made a decision of life and death for Michael Brown, The Purge: Anarchy asks us to consider who is in control and what those consequences are. Who gets to define who is worthy of life? Who gets to define how punishment is laid out? Who is in control of our streets, our livelihoods, our identities as targets or as civilians?

Carmelo, leader of the anti-purge movement. Retrieved from this site.
Carmelo is trying to start a revolt against this system. He targets the rich, white, and off-limits bodies to upend the genocide of the poor and the minorities. His tactics are in part successful, at least in saving the lives of the main characters, but his ultimate goal is left unfulfilled. Will it take violent revolution to change the system? Can violence itself do anything but reify the use of violence as a peace-keeping tactic? If anything can be learned in the current state of Ferguson, it is that the tensions between authority, race, and class run deep, and define for entire groups of people their ability to claim a place on this earth free from fear and death. That is unacceptable and violates the very basics of human rights. The Purge: Anarchy brings these themes to life in an exaggerated thriller that asks us to ponder our own situation: how far off are we from this being our reality?

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Rites of Passage: The Qualifying Exam

I have taken time off from this blog to go through a PhD rite of passage: the qualifying exam. There has been plenty of time for me to reflect on the purpose of the exam and the idea of rite of passage in general. From tests of adulthood to tests of skill to tests of preparation, rites of passage are important rituals in human life. For the past summer, I have been undergoing intensive preparation, reading, memorizing, and note-taking in order to prove my knowledge of my specific areas of expertise. Many schools do the qualifying process differently (and even within a school), but they all share the same goal of measuring knowledge and readiness to achieve the PhD. Now finished the writing process (I still have to defend my answers orally in front of my committee), I have often asked myself why PhD programs require these types of exams and why rites of passage in general are so very important to the maintenance of society.

Define "calm." Retrieved from this site.
I certainly learned a lot about the importance of ritual during my studying. Kenneth Burke argued that rituals reinforce "piety," or the maintenance of an overarching order based on social and role expectations. For example, rituals of marriage reinforce the role that men and women should strive to be husbands and wives. The ritual of confession cleanses sin and reinforces how people perform the role of a good Christian. When I engage in the ritual of the qualifying exam, I reify the order that my knowledge is and should be accurately be measured through my performance on this exam. Considering that the PhD qualifies me to teach students at a university, it would make sense that my exam would try to measure my knowledge, ability to synthesize fields of inquiry, and grasp of my given specialty. But, will I ever truly be asked to perform this type of task again? What does a concentrated burst of studying and writing (without access to notes, materials, or the Internet) really prepare me for?

I think the answer lies in looking at the larger picture of rites of passage and their purpose. There is an episode of "Taboo" where boys undergo extensive body scarification with toothed instruments and razors that bleed profusely all over their bodies. Going through this pain and struggle is part of the child's proof that they are able to understand and undergo the pain of adulthood. Though they may never experience such intensive pain again, this ritual proves that if the child can go through this pain, they can survive everything else.

Warning: This video shows graphic cutting and blood. Retrieved from this site.

The PhD program requires me to undergo a different kind of pain: mental pain. Though comparing this process to extensive tattoos may seem a bit extreme, there are similarities here between pushing oneself to the limit so that all challenges that come afterwards are manageable. Perhaps because of this experience, I will be better able to tackle journal deadlines, advising my own students, preparing for classes, and the myriad of administrative tasks. Not only will I have a base level of understanding of this material to draw from, but I will also be used to the long hours, mental strain, and intense workload. The qualifying exam does not quite measure my ability to succeed in this specific task. It is instead a concentrated and purposefully exaggerated challenge.

On the other side...Retrieved from PhD Comics.
As one of my professors once said, I may thank everyone one day for pushing me to my limits, challenging me, and preparing me for the difficult work ahead of me as a professor. Of course, many people in the PhD program are not interested in continuing into academia. This rite of passage, however, has become a universal part of achieving the PhD, an expected mark of academic excellence that you must achieve to be awarded the degree. As my advisor said, he wouldn't let me take the exam unless he knew I was ready, which perhaps begs the question of whether I am really in danger of failing at all. The point, though, is to undergo the experience and come out a better and well prepared scholar. I remember the pain of running during my first half marathon, but the great feeling of accomplishment after it was over. Of course, the process was extremely difficult, taxing, and exhausting, but now that it is over, I do feel a sense of accomplishment. I hope that this accomplishment is rewarded with a pass in the weeks to come! Best of luck to everyone else going through this rite of passage. See you on the other side!

Monday, July 21, 2014

Intergenerational Arguments about Climate Change

The consequences of climate change have become more prominent, but many of the harsher, more extreme consequences will not be felt by this generation. Part of the difficulty in crafting persuasive climate change arguments is about "jumping" the inter-generational gap. An intergenerational argument encourages people to act not in their own interest, but in the interest of future generations. Though most of us alive today will likely avoid most of the harshest effects of climate change, our children and certainly our grandchildren, will not be as lucky. People tend to be fickle, however. They are many things vying for our attention, pulling us in different directions, so anything further off than right NOW seems too far off to be worthy of our time. As Burke noted in Permanence and Change: “A philosopher, if he has a toothache, is more likely to be interested in dentistry than in mathematical symbolism. Communication cannot be satisfactory unless the matter discussed bears in some notable respect upon the interests of the auditor” (p. 37).

Retrieved from this site
How do we get people to care for youth? For animals? For anyone but ourselves? It is not simply a matter of narcissism or selfishness; it is just far easier for people to react based on their immediate surroundings. Thinking ahead requires much more energy than simple observation, putting oneself in a different mindset is difficult, and there can be other, conflicting loyalties that stop one from accepting long-term arguments. One of these arguments is economic: short-term business and profits may suffer when making long-term environmentally friendly decisions. Another complicating factor may be religious beliefs about human's dominion over the earth. Or, it might simply be a political affiliation that often denies science and climate arguments in deliberative spaces (Gauchat, 2012).

Author and activist Zadie Smith. Retrieved from this site
One of the ways to spread intergenerational messages is online. When public spaces may be held to standards of balance or may receive denialist backlash, the internet can serve as a location for the expression of information. A recent article by author Zadie Smith called, "Elegy for a Country's Seasons" addresses the current apathy in the climate change debate and how she might explain our inaction to her granddaughter. This excerpt from the piece is particularly important as the excuses given seem to pale in comparison to the burden that we will leave this young girl and all children as we bicker over money and politics.

"This will no doubt look very peculiar to my seven-year-old granddaughter. I don’t expect she will forgive me, but it might be useful for her to get a glimpse into the mindset, if only for the purposes of comprehension. What shall I tell her? Her teachers will already have explained that what was happening to the weather, in 2014, was an inconvenient truth, financially, politically—but that’s perfectly obvious, even now. A global movement of the people might have forced it onto the political agenda, no matter the cost. What she will want to know is why this movement took so long to materialize. So I might say to her, look: the thing you have to appreciate is that we’d just been through a century of relativism and deconstruction, in which we were informed that most of our fondest-held principles were either uncertain or simple wishful thinking, and in many areas of our lives we had already been asked to accept that nothing is essential and everything changes—and this had taken the fight out of us somewhat" Smith, para. 11.

Written articles may take time to read through and may not offer direct and easy consumption of information (however beautiful and engaging Smith's article is). Another potential solution is to create videos that craft intergenerational arguments. This video is from the Australian Coal Mining Company that has a unique intergenerational plan for halting the effects of climate change.

This humorous video has an important point. It mirrors the argument by Smith about passing the buck onto future generations when we could have done something about it. When we stand back and look at the potential consequences, what are our excuses? Is it really enough to look at dollar signs or listen to denialists when we are faced with the guilt of harming all future life? Dramatic? Maybe. Accurate? Certainly. These arguments are not always successful, but people should try to become more attuned to them. Focusing on the current effects now can be an entryway in to discussing how it will only get worse, and our children will suffer for it.

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Selfie: Self-Love and Object-Love

There has been an influx of attention on the phenomenon of "the selfie." I know that I am perhaps a little late to this discussion, partly because it is far outside my typical realm of interest. A small epiphany regarding them, however, has prompted me to address what I think is an overlooked but important aspect of the selfie: the Freudian divide between self-love and object-love. The selfie is the perfect integration of our love for technology and our love for ourselves. To illustrate this union, I will first describe the myths of Narcissus and Pygmalion on which Freud based the two extreme disorders of love: ego-libido and object-libido.

Retrieved from this site.
Narcissus was a Greek youth that was captivated by his beauty reflected in the river. He wasted away and finally died being unable to leave his mirror and break his own gaze. The basic version often excludes the presence of Echo, the nymph who falls for Narcissus but is unable to warn him of the danger. She can only repeat the words of others and represents the love that others felt for Narcissus that was not returned. Instead, Narcissus turned his love inward and loved only himself (and specifically, only his aesthetics and beauty). The myth of Narcissus has inspired the phrase "narcissistic personality disorder" or Freud's ego-libido, which links a physical and emotional desire for oneself over others or objects. This is also associated with megalomania, or the idea that oneself is more important or better than others. Before summarizing the tale of Pygmalion, it is easy to note how narcissistic themes can be seen in today's individualized society.

Narcissus discovering his reflection. Retrieved from this site.
Pygmalion was a Greek artist who built a statue so beautiful that he fell in love with it. Appealing to the gods for reprieve from his unrequited love, his statue Galatea was brought to life by Aphrodite. They married and Pygmalion was able to spend his life with his creation. Many variations, plays and films, have emerged from this myth, where different variations on "brought to life" have emerged. A notable one might be the recent film, Her, where Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with the operating system in his phone. His phone, as an object, came to life with a personalized, teachable, intelligent female voice. In a brilliant dualism, Phoenix even has a sexual experience with Samantha less creepy than phone sex he previously performed with an actual person. Pygmalion is the myth of object-love, in opposition to Narcissus as the myth of self-love. Physical and emotional eros is directed as certain people and objects that epitomize how people can love.

Pygmalion discovers that Galatea is now human.  Image retrieved from this site.
Currently on display in The Lourve, Paris.
The two forms of libido and love: inward and outward come together in the selfie. This new trend in photo-taking simultaneously emphasizes the importance and singularity of the individual and glorifies the technology that allows the self to be captured and spread so easily and prolifically. This is particularly apparent in images that also show the camera in a mirror as opposed to a front facing camera shot. The phone is immortalized in partnership with the individual, a perfect union of self- and object-love. We love ourselves, so we wish to capture our image and likeness. We love our technology, so we capitalize on its capabilities to connect ourselves with the world. As in Narcissus and Pygmalion, the love is often an aesthetic, physical love for appearances, than a deeper emotional love as is lauded in Plato's Symposium.

What Would Jesus Post? Retrieved from this site.
To worship ourselves, we fall into the phone's lens which collapses Narcissus's river. Our phone becomes our partner, come to life in its utility, friendship, and closeness. People cannot be without their technology, phones at their sides or in their hands, preferring the reflective screen to the faces of people around them. Some may say that like Narcissus, we will waste away focused on ourselves, individuality, and narcissism that restricts us from progressing or experiencing the world. Some may say that like Pygmalion, we are too emotionally and physically involved in our technology that we miss the beauty of the world around us in favor of a Google search for its likeness. In my cursory experience with selfies, I take very few and have posted even fewer, I see many positives and negatives to the phenomenon.

Comic by The Oatmeal about the negatives of selfies
Undoubtedly, it has taken news media by storm. The selfie of Obama and Biden made headline news and people were discussing the Oscar selfie (which was potentially a contrived Samsung advertisement) almost as much as the award winners. I'm not sure about the wide appeal of other people's selfies (in the immortal words of Mallory Archer: why would anyone want a picture of someone else's food?), but as a personal expression of self-worth, confidence, and creativity, selfies do have an important role in the rhetoric of identification. Especially considering that some people may not always find themselves presented in media (or they are expressed negatively), online, or in safe spaces, selfies could help establish an online presence and carve out spaces for open discussion about personal identification, labels, and communities. Selfies create visibility, are unapologetic, and bluntly express one's visual appearance, identity, and existence as important and worthy of appreciation. Even if it is produced for personal consumption, it necessary sharing (often on social media sites) encourages a reflection of how it may influence a larger public. The physical presentation of the body demands attention, space, and gaze onto individual, their stories, and potential arguments. The selfie also glamorizes the power of technology, to turn what would have taken many hours of labor to produce a self-portrait can be accomplished in seconds and sent around the world instantaneously.

I hear the cries on both sides about the narcissism and objectification that is implicit in the selfie. But, I see the selfie as merely an offshoot of these larger cultural changes than a root cause or responsible for them. There are innovative potentials in how the selfie could carve out rhetorical communities, enhance identities, and change norms of personal expression. Though I can imagine Kenneth Burke terrified by the reliance on technology that he warned against, I hope that he might appreciate the rhetorical opportunities for identification, mimicry, and understanding between people that may otherwise never have met. And, the rhetorical opportunities for personal expression and control over how one defines themselves and their relation to the world.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Hobby Lobby Supreme Court Case: Business is People!

Many bloggers have been commenting on the recent Supreme Court ruling on for-profit businesses and the availability of birth control for employees. There are many directions this post could take, and each of those could be an entire post long. In favor of breadth over depth (and in deference to others who have done the details better justice than I could), I will list a few points regarding this ruling.

Retrieved from this site
I have been abroad for an argumentation conference, so the news of the Supreme Court ruling in favor of Hobby Lobby came as a NYT update on my phone. At first, I was absolutely shocked, then heartbroken to hear that the ruling was 5-4. I could hear the chanting in my head: Hobby Lobby is people! Hobby Lobby is people! Businesses were given the rights of humans, where a non-human is ascribed the rights guaranteed to citizens and people in American law, while the rights of females are destroyed.

1) This only impacts for-profit businesses: specifically religious non-profits were already exempt from the Obamacare mandate. Now, all businesses and industries can impose religious beliefs despite the nature of the company. One could make the argument that choosing or accepting employment at a religious organization may require adherence with certain religious rules. But, these expectations have now been extending to employment at a Chick-Fil-A or Hobby Lobby or any business that decided birth control was immoral.

2) Pro-choice and pro-reproductive freedom does not mean support for abortion or birth control: I hear the conflation quite frequently that because people are pro-choice that they support abortion or want women to have abortions. Likewise, to be pro-birth control means that all women should always be taken some kind of birth control. The support is for choice. The support is for females as rational, decision-makers to decide for themselves what is best for their own bodies.

Cartoon retrieved from this site
3) Businesses are not people: Though Citizens United and this Supreme Court case have stated otherwise, I firmly argue that businesses are not and cannot be people. People have the freedom of speech, the freedom of religious expression, the freedom to protest, etc. Businesses are non-human, economic networks that are organized around profit. Businesses are made up of people, but a business itself is not capable of free speech, protest, or religious expression. Simply put: how could a business be religious? Do Hobby Lobby stores attend mass? Do they pray? Do they get baptized, confirmed, or search for vocations?

4) Birth control is not just for reproduction regulation: Although this is obviously the most important and contested use, there are other non-reproductive reasons (such as regulating periods and estrogen levels) for the use of birth control. Providing the opportunity for businesses to deny birth control for "moral" reasons also allow for the denial of its purely medical uses. Though I dislike slippery slope arguments, I feel the need here to make a short one. If anything and everything can be subsumed under the idea of "violating religious expression," then anything from wearing a headscarf, getting divorced, wearing a cross, or any "religious whim" could result in firing.

Retrieved from this site
There will certainly be many subsequent cases that unfold from this important decision. I hope that courts will stop rolling back the rights of females and move away from valuing businesses over actual human beings. This decision was certainly a disappointment for women's rights and the pro-choice movement. It is important, however, to acknowledge that despite the negative consequences of this ruling, people do have reasonable, legitimate reasons for their religious views and how they choose to express them. What is not acceptable is having these personal religious views interfere with and impose on the lives of others.