Sunday, February 23, 2014

Book of Mormon: A Latter Day for the Latter Day Saints?

Book of Mormon has recently come to Los Angeles and I have now seen the musical twice. There are a few important notes that I would like to make regarding the musical. I won't have too many spoilers or descriptions of the musical, but if you haven't seen it or would like to remain in mystery, then turn back now!

Retrieved from Wikipedia

The first point I'd like to make about the musical is the various reactions it has received due to its concentrated treatment of the Mormon faith. Based on an episode of South Park where the Mormon faith is described in song, including a chorus calling it "dumb," the Book of Mormon primarily follows Elder Price on his missionary trip. Matt Stone and Trey Parker are comedians and the musical follows the comedic and often offensive style of their TV show and movies. Though the show has received much praise including Tony awards and nominations, there has been much backlash from the Mormon community that the show paints their faith as something to laugh at, and not seriously consider as a legitimate faith. I have previously written about the Mormon faith and how it complicated Mitt Romney's run for presidency. Part of its problem is its youth where "ancient upstate New York" is a biblical location and the Garden of Eden is located in Missouri. The relative "all-American" prophet is something foreign and different from the traditional Middle Eastern locations.

The backlash that it has received overestimates the exclusivity of Stone and Parker's critique. What the Book of Mormon does is present the Mormon faith as similar to other faiths, not distinct. When one considers the equally occult and supernatural forces that define other religions, laughing at the Mormon faith means that people are laughing at all faiths. In the song "I Believe" Elder Price sings about all the things that he believes in as a part of his faith. The first two lines are quite Christian in nature: "I believe that the Lord God created the universe" and "I believe that he sent his only son to die for my sins." Not until line three is a marked changed expressed where he sings, "I believe that ancient Jews built boats and sailed to America" that elicits much laughter from the audience. The chorus notes that "I am a Mormon and a Mormon just believes." In a sense, this is a critique of all religions that just believe the doctrines put forth by their faith. Is it any less funny or unbelievable for their to be a Christian version that statements "I believe that Christ turned water into wine"? Or "I believe that Mary gave a virgin birth?" Or "I believe that Christ resurrected after being crucified?"

This song touches on the key component of all religions: faith. There is little to no evidence of all of these supernatural and religious occurrences, so for Mormon doctrine is equally as legitimate and believable as all other faiths. Even if the audience does not catch onto the criticism, the Book of Mormon expertly causes everyone to consider the beliefs that they hold as true and examine why their faith holds weight, if any, over others. The Book of Mormon also expresses other similarities to faiths such as missionary trips, studying the Bible, guilt over sinning, and uncertainties about its teachings. As an atheist, it was clear to me upon watching the show that this was a critique of all religions, their systems of beliefs, and the arbitrary hierarchy and discrimination directed towards Mormonism.

Perhaps the Mormon Church understood the great potential in the play as an avenue to reach new members. In the playbill for Book of Mormon, the Church took out three full page advertisements. The first is a white male noting "I read the book." The second is a Latina female with the text, "the book is always better." The final page is a black male who notes, "you've seen the play, now read the book." All three advertisements contain three methods to learn more information: a QVC, website address, and instructions to text "BOOK" to 33733. The faces of the individuals are highlighted to reveal their diversity and the power of the individual to find more information. The play centers around the "Book" of Mormon, so the advertisements push viewers to explore the book through its original text instead of simply through the play version. For the first advertisement, having read the book is a point of pride, a way for savvy-going theater-goers can engage with the play more fully. The advertisements take advantage of a captive audience that is engaging, perhaps for the first time, with the Mormon faith and gives them the opportunity to learn more.

Retrieved from this review
Those who may be visiting the show and preparing to laugh may not be the best audience to find converts. I thought similarly after seeing street preachers in Las Vegas. But, the places where there may be the most resistance are also perhaps the areas with the most potential and opportunity. Just as Elder Price entered a missionary location in a poor town in Africa, the Mormon Church is braving hostile territory with an unlikely chance of success. But just as Elder Price and Elder Cunningham attempt to change the landscape for Mormon missionaries, the Church also attempts to affect the narrative of attendees by offering its own version. Either way, this musical has people discussing the faith and has exposed many people worldwide to its teachings and doctrines. The Church is smart to see this as an opportunity instead of a threat and everyone would be best served by appreciating the critical nature of the play not as anti-Mormon, but as inquiry of the role of faith in general.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Defining Life: Visual Representations of Life and the Anti-Choice Movement

I've titled this piece specifically in reference to a previous post justifying anti-choice instead of pro-life for the description of abortion right's opponents. The point of the post is to discuss a few interesting manifestations of visual rhetoric in anti-choice arguments that I've recently noticed. The visual tactics of the abortion movement have been documented well by those scholars who have come before me, especially in terms of the photographs and images of aborted and damaged fetuses as resembling born children in appearance and described action (Petchesky, 1987; Lake & Pickering, 1998; Condit, 1990). My first artifact heavily references these visual elements in equating the fetus to a baby. A new service called "3D Babies" allows for parents to upload photographs of their ultrasounds which can then be printed into a doll-like plastic sculpture.

Retrieved from 3D Babies.

These dolls reflect the argumentative tactic of representing life as starting from conception. Due to the physical resemblances of a fetus to an infant, the doll represents a visual argument for the protection of the fetus as one would protect a child. This image is described on the website as a 23-24 week old baby "measuring 8 inches from crown to rump." At 24 weeks, the fetus is nearing the end of the second trimester, so is nearly considered a viable fetus that could survive outside of the womb. Because of this, third trimester abortions are currently illegal in most countries. Consequently, abortions at this stage in the pregnancy comprise less than 1.3% of all abortions. The likelihood of a fetus looking like this doll when aborted is very low. This decision, then, is strategic in that the fetus is as far along as possible without being illegal to abort, thus appearing much like an infant. 91.8% of fetuses are aborted in the first trimester, (or less than 13 weeks) which makes their appearance closer to an embryo, only called a fetus at 12 weeks.
Retrieved from this blog

These visual choices are strategies to associate a fetus with an infant, one of the most (if not the most) vulnerable population on the planet.This is paired with cries to protect those who cannot protect themselves. The power of the visual and the associations that come from it can serve to overpower logic and the verbal by calling upon the aesthetic and the visceral. This is in part the strategy of laws that require ultrasounds before allowing access to abortions. The law provides a visual connection that the woman/mother and fetus/child share. If one sees the ultrasound images, one might be less likely to abort, directly associating the images on the screen with a potential life that cannot be avoided. The efficacy or ethics of this law could surely be debated, but the point I'm making here is the ingrained power of the visual to elicit emotion and its role as an anti-choice strategy. Facing visually one's actions is tantamount to removing agency if it clouds the judgment of agents. The intended purpose of this law is certainly to halt abortions or at least give women pause (or immense guilt). The woman, then, cannot make a personal decision of her own thought without the visual pressures of the potentially aborted fetus. The ultrasound and 3D doll images present that problem: that the fetus is a potential life, baby, and child experienced and seen as true.

The 3D doll can be purchased by whomever might want one, and I would hope that it would not be used as a persuasive tool to encroach upon agency. The larger issue for me is the laws that force the power of visuals on women making important, stressful, and life-changing decisions. Certainly images and narrative hyperbole about well developed fetuses (past the second trimester) being aborted are questionably moral actions. One cannot, however, stop them from being used in public forums, protests, and billboards. Something that should not be allowed, however, are deceptive images and unnecessary invasive practices forced upon women before receiving a potentially life-saving medical procedure.

As an informed public, scholars, and voters, we must all consider the potentially deceptive qualities of visuals and the arguments that they are making. For the ongoing abortion controversy, visuals and they employment are extremely important in helping the anti-choice movement portray women seeking abortions as murderers and masking invasive, sexist laws as protective statues. There are many intriguing documentaries about this issue, specifically as realized in America. I would particularly recommend Unborn in the USA that does directly discuss the visual strategies involved in the debate.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

USC Fence and Visibility Politics

Retrieved from
Responding to security concerns regarding an on-campus shooting in the fall of 2012, the University of Southern California (USC) built a chain-link fence around its campus for the start of the 2013 spring semester. The main section of USC’s University Park Campus was enclosed and ushered in with it new security protocols. Previously, the campus was a free space to walk through at any time of day. Now, anyone wishing to enter campus must negotiate the new openings around the fence. USC affiliates and visitors alike are subject to the gaze of security guards who check identification at specified gate entrances after 9pm. In spite of USC’s presence that extends outside of the main campus area, community members and non-USC affiliates are restricted from accessing campus spaces. The previously unfettered access of the community to campus spaces has been replaced by prominent visual and physical barrier to movement and agency.

The fence has been justified as a security measure to protect students on campus during certain hours. USC does have a primary importance in protecting its students, but choosing to isolate community members because of a few representatives influences the entire community. The consequence of such a symbolic action is to conflate a few violent individuals with the community and to reinforce narratives that off-campus spaces are not safe. This physical division operates as a linguistic turn from the USC community to USC vs. the community. This “us vs. them” mentality occurs through labeling the community as separate from USC affiliates. Carrying a USC ID card provides one access; without it, bodies are turned away and disciplined from entering. In creating this distinction, the community is labeled as violent, criminals, trespassers, unwelcome, and the other. “These names shape our relations with our fellows. They prepare us for some functions and against others, for or against the persons representing these functions. The names go further: they suggest how you shall be for or against” (Burke, 1984, p. 4). The fence helps establish hierarchies in naming that teach USC affiliates how to respond to and treat community members. These rules only operate between 9pm and 6am, but the labels last longer. Symbolic naming reconstructs the relationship between the community and USC that cannot be changed by the hour of the day.           
Foucault's Panopticon as surveillance
In restricting the movement of the body, USC also controls when those bodies can be seen, have a presence, and occupy certain spaces. Control over the body, or biopower and biopolitics, is a power over the movement of the body, its ability to be seen, and to be heard (Foucault, 1982; Hollinshead, 1999). Casper and Moore (2009) refer to “hysterical blindness” where institutions or people either choose not to or are somehow restricted from seeing or being seen (p. 10). “Hypervisuality” is this opposite, where people are targeted, heavily observed, and monitored (Casper & Moore, 2009, p. 10). This “complex system” of sight and obstruction means that powerful political entities can control who can see and who is seen (Casper & Moore, 2009, p. 10). At USC, bodies of students become marked, by carrying a marked ID, and those of community members unmarked as the “other,” not welcome within campus spaces (Phelan, 2004). Visitors to campus can apply for single-entry access for a specific purpose, creating a temporary mark of approval and access by institutions of power. The body receives either acceptance or denial at the fence border based on its membership in the Trojan Family. As Greg Dickinson (2002) notes, “the subject comes to known itself in some more or less coherent way depends on an ability to locate itself” (p. 7). Locating oneself either inside or outside of the campus borders changes how one defines membership, identity, and body autonomy. Knowledge of surveillance by guards also contributes to one’s ability to locate oneself within the political power structure as a target or threat worth monitoring.

There are concerns that these policies endanger community members while offering little extra protection for USC. Vice President of Student Affairs Michael Jackson published an updated campus policy online that said, “We are taking these steps because we care about the security and safety of our students, faculty, staff, guests and neighbors” (para. 4). It is an interesting rhetorical decision to separate “guests” of USC from its “neighbors,” but certainly these are fluctuating categories. The real importance in this statement is that somehow the construction of the fence will not only add protection for USC affiliates but also to the community members. To the contrary, the Los Angeles Times reported on January 13th, 2013, that blocking the USC campus off from non-students, faculty, and staff poses a risk to community members. For example, community members exiting the Exposition/USC stop on the new Metro Expo line used to be able to walk through “the safe, well-lit shortcut through campus” to catch buses at prominent Jefferson Boulevard stops (Jennings & Xia, 2013, para. 9). Now, community members have to circle the entire USC campus or change their regularly traveled public transportation routes home. The construction of the fence not only places the community under additional surveillance, but it also directly influences the movements of the community, with yet unseen benefits for USC. A Daily Trojan letter to the editor echoed these concerns noting that “as a university we should not sacrifice freedom of movement for relatively little or no added security” (Brown, 2013, para. 4).

Though erected and implemented for supposed safety and benefit, borders oftentimes exacerbate economic, class, and racial divides by establishing rhetorical divisions in identity and membership. How bodies are restricted in their movement, displaced, or undervalued also restricts voice and visibility in terms of the powerful and the powerless. Surveillance, monitoring, and the construction of boundaries are all ways that bodies are disciplined and controlled. These barriers to full cooperation and integration, both physical and symbolic, construct an environment where identity is defined through one’s relationship with institutions of power. USC’s fence highlights the modern implications of race, borders, and visibility, where hierarchies still enact biopower and violate political autonomy. 
Retrieved from Mutual Responsibility
A petition has been started to “Take down the USC gates.” This petition notes the importance of welcoming, opening spaces, and condemn the “us vs them” mentality that the fence represents. The petition includes a space for comments and a letter addressed to USC President Max Nikias and the Provost Elizabeth Garrett. The petition is nearing the 500 signatures needed to be sent to Nikias and Garrett. The power of such a petition may be limited in terms of practical changes, but the petition is itself symbolic that the USC community is in part against the policy instituted by the administration. A lack of student support and involvement, however, many indicate that many are already accustomed to the surveillance and limitations that it imposes. Some may be optimistic about the future of surveillance, but it appears that great action and effort to shift notions of visibility are needed to reclaim privacy and personal autonomy.

Brown, N. (2013, January 22). In response to security measures. Daily Trojan. Retrieved from
Burke, K. (1984). Attitudes toward history. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Casper, M. J., & Moore, L. J. (2009). Missing bodies: The politics of visibility. New York, NY: New York University Press.
Dickinson, G. (2002). Joe’s rhetoric: Finding authenticity at Starbucks. Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 32(4), 5–27. doi:10.1080/02773940209391238
Foucault, M. (1982). The subject and power. Critical inquiry, 8(4), 777–795.
Foucault, M. (2012). The history of sexuality: An introduction. New York, NY: Random House Digital, Inc.
Hollinshead, K. (1999). Surveillance of the worlds of tourism: Foucault and the eye-of-power. Tourism Management, 20(1), 7–23. doi:10.1016/S0261-5177(98)00090-9
Jennings, A., & Xia, R. (2013, January 15). USC rolls out the unwelcome mat. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from
Phelan, P. (2004). Unmarked: The politics of performance. New York, NY: Routledge.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Dangers of Pervasive Skepticism: Creationism, Anti-Vaccines, and Climate Deniers

A recent LA Times op-ed by Pat Morrison addressed importance similarities between science-deniers that affect more people than just believers. Creationists and anti-vaccine advocates affect the collective intellectual and physical health of those around them due to their rejection of scientific evidence. Though this is an important point, it only scrapes the surface of larger issues surrounding pervasive skepticism and the borrowing of scientific authority.

In associating science with faith, deniers of current scientific knowledge present themselves as "true" science. These groups portray themselves as fighting against hegemonic elites that wish to silence minority opposition. Anti-vaxxers claim the right to abstain, equating scientific practice with replacing parental control. Creationists point to gaps in scientific research and claim that science requires a greater leap of faith than religious explanations.

Retrieved from Ape, Not Monkey

 By appealing to scientific standards of skepticism, re-testing, and a progressive search for knowledge, science-deniers can pose as legitimate scientific inquiry. Creationists use this platform to enter science textbooks, school boards, and even university faculty. Anti-vaxxers use this platform to flood public spaces with literature, websites, and non-profits.

Other skeptical groups, such as climate deniers, also appeal to “scientific” facts and gaps in evidence to forestall legislative action. Democratic Senator (CA) Barbara Boxer held a committee about the President’s Action Plan that was met with much controversy over Dr. Judith Curry’s testimony. In this testimony, Dr. Curry misrepresented Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s reports on current scientific evidence and cherry-picked statements of uncertainty about current predictions.

Morrison’s original comparison begins to uncover this larger, pervasive issue of skepticism that ignores scientific evidence and authority, and replaces it with a facade of scientific inquiry. The key mistake in the piece however, is the piece’s ending that states, “Ignorance is curable by education, but willfully ignoring the facts can be contagious — and even fatal.” To assume that education is the missing link between science accepters and deniers is to oversimplify the argumentative frameworks that each occupies.

Those who believe in creationism tie their beliefs to every action of their lives as a guiding force. The origin of humanity is not merely an issue of fact, but of the definition and explanation for one’s entire life. Rejecting creationism or not fighting for its inclusion in schools is viewed as a betrayal of faith and submission to the elites of science that denies alternative explanations.

Retrieved from Vaccine Truth

 Anti-vaxxers are focused on protecting their children and the children of others, an extremely powerful motivating factor. Simply presenting new information or facts may not deter strongly held beliefs influenced by celebrity moms or one’s peers.

Those who deny climate change may find themselves more fiercely loyal to a political party or economic influences than long-term environmental protection. More science and data may fall on deaf ears, as other priorities overshadow and complicate accepting new information.

Kenneth Burke, rhetorician and scholar, wrote in Attitudes Towards History, “The shift to another attitude, requiring a different rationalization, does involve ‘conflict.’ Insofar as we do not ‘travel light,’ we thus assemble much intellectual baggage, and the attempt to reshape this to new exigencies may require considerable enterprise” (p. 184). To replace the baggage collected over one’s entire life with new, contradictory exigencies nearly requires rejection. Introducing new information or repeating old information through education is rarely enough to shift rationalizations for action and behavior.

Skeptics do not “ignore the facts;” they simply do not respect the facts lauded by scientific frameworks. Instead, they replace with their own facts such as the importance of God’s role in human origins, the autonomy of parents over children, and the benefits of short term party loyalty over long term environmental protection. The issue is not, then, ignorance, but of warring frameworks that are currently empowered by a skeptical culture to reject scientific authority. Instead, the focus should be on separating what is science and what is not, giving skeptics a voice, but not allowing that voice to be labeled scientific.

The culture of skepticism is damaging scientific enterprise and Morrison is right to point out the wide effects that skepticism has. The conclusion, however, is not to rely on education, but acknowledging alternative viewpoints while minimizing their influence.