Sunday, June 29, 2014

Earth Sciences Communication Initiative

I am traveling for the next few weeks to attend the International Society for the Study of Argumentation Conference in Amsterdam. Instead of a longer, more in-depth piece, I hope that you may read a few blog pieces that I've written for the Earth Sciences Communication Initiative. This is a long-running research partnership that I've had that focuses on the intersection of the environment, politics, communication, rhetoric, and advocacy. More information on the group can be found on

Harm to Animal and Plant Life as Motivation
This article explores the potential threats of climate change to animal and plant life. More specifically, it addresses how these threats are conceptualized as motivation for taking action towards environmental protection. These might not be as successful rhetorical strategies as appealing to direct threats to ourselves or future generations, but they still reflect a potential opportunity for change.

Polarizing/Politicizing the Climate Change Debate
This is a topic I've written about a few times before. The article addresses how political loyalties can trump considerations of environmental protection, making short term benefits more convincing than long term ones.

Creation Care: Uniting Science with Moral Imperatives
In response to Pope Francis I's recent discussions of climate change and environmental stewardship, this article addresses the creation care movement and how it marries environmental concern with a moral imperative to act. You can read my four part, intensive critique of this movement here (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4).

Climate Change is No Joke. . . or Is It?
This article interrogates the use of humor as a potential tactic in promoting forgiveness and action. Instead of condemning and punishing people for environmental crimes, the comic frame could allow for a more positive, productive engagement with environmental topics.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Donald Sterling as a Modern Day Earl Butz

It is impossible to ignore all of the online and offline discussion of the owner of the LA Clippers, Donald Sterling's racist remarks. He noted in a private conversation to his girlfriend that he didn't want her "associating with black people," and specifically bringing them to basketball games. The hypocrisy in Sterling becoming rich off of the labor of black bodies has been addressed better elsewhere, so I wish to address another important part of this discussion: the apologia. Using Kenneth Burke's guilt-redemption cycle, this post will discuss the similarities of Sterling's remarks to the racist statements of Earl Butz, and how these statements implicate the larger American public in the persistence of racism.

Donald Sterling and the Clippers's logo
Earl Butz was Secretary of Agriculture in 1976 who eventually resigned his position after racist comments emerged. This site has the full timeline of the events including the offensive joke. A scholarly article was written about that event by Dr. James Klumpp and Dr. Thomas A. Hollihan called "Debunking the Resignation of Earl Butz: Sacrificing an Official Racist." The title reveals some important terms and information that will inform this comparison between Butz and Sterling. I will also highlight some important differences that reveal modern racial tensions. Butz was "sacrificed" as Klumpp and Hollihan say, as a part of Burke's guilt-redemption cycle. This cycle describes how pollution, or some type of disorder, is introduced into an order, which creates guilt and a subsequent need for purification, purging, and redemption.

Earl Butz, retrieved from this site
For Butz and Sterling, the pollution was their racist statements that shattered the values of equality inherent in their respective social and political orders (government and sports). Both of these institutions are supposed to value equality, all Americans, and their constituents. As public figures, their voices can be seen as stand-ins for the groups that they represent. Butz was "sacrificed" by the Republican Party, who wished to separate their public appearance from racism. The NBA also separated itself from Sterling by banning him from the organization, fining him $2.5 million, and urging him to sell the team. The sacrifice can come in many forms, but it must make the punishment commensurate to the crime committed. Considering that the pollution for each was the potential crumbling of national organizations, the punishments were made quite prominent, public, and severe.
Some prominent reactions to Sterling's statements
Another important similarity between the two are the separation between public and private. Klumpp and Hollihan address this dichotomy by nothing that officials are sometimes seen as not have the right to privacy: anything said even in private could destroy a public persona, one's reputation, and career. Some were quick to jump to Sterling's defense such as columnists at Fox who pointed to the "thoughts" of Sterling as harmless and a personal right. Some articles went as far as to implicate the girlfriend (who recorded the conversation) as the real criminal. In the aftermath of the announcement, Mark Cuban echoed the words of a Fox News reporter about whether convicting people for statements in private could be a "slippery slope" to the thought-police.

Though some of these concerns were raised, there has been overwhelming support for Sterling's punishment. One might say that it was a "success" in some ways in that an athletic profiteer who undermined his own team and the values of the NBA (and perhaps, the country) would be receiving a just punishment. However, Klumpp and Hollihan raise a point of contention with these types of guilt-redemption activities. They note that by creating a sacrificial goat out of Butz and Sterling, we as a nation do not have to address underlying and persistent racism that we may all (or at least most of us) be guilty of. Instead, we can claim that wrongs have been righted and that racism is an individual issue that does not have to be addressed on a societal level. They note that these overt punishments of racism create a culture that "tolerates private racism and its consequences” (p. 11). Jon Stewart adeptly addresses the issue of post-racial society in his critique of Sterling and the recent SCOTUS decision to uphold Michigan's ban on affirmative action.

Retrieved from the Daily Show

What is to be learned by the Donald Sterling incident? One thing is perhaps most important: racism still exists. There is no magical, post-racial world because we have a black president. People haven't stopped being murdered because of their race, people haven't stopped trying to make relevant the KKK, and people still use the n-word. This is only the tip of the iceberg, however, as racism against other minorities, especially immigrant populations, is also a common American theme. Is this what America is all about? We need to take examples like Butz and Sterling and open our eyes to the underlying problems from which these individuals stem. Structural racism is happening and continues to happen; we cannot remain blind to it and only care when individuals break norms of keeping racism a private endeavor. All racism needs to be addressed, and we have a lot of work to do.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Dorian's Descent: All Art is Quite Useless

Dorian's Descent is a new stage adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. Dorian's Descent is a musical that has added an element to the story: the Devil. In this article, I wish to explore the narrative elements of The Picture of Dorian Gray through Walter Fisher's narrative probability and narrative fidelity, the Faust trope, and how the character of the Devil is a narrative disaster. Although I did enjoy the show and thought the singing was quite impressive, the actual lyrics, words, and acting were sub-par, especially compared to a few other musicals and adaptations I have seen in Los Angeles. I will be discussing the play and the book in detail (i.e., spoiler alert!), so I encourage readers to read the book or acquaint themselves with the story.
Poster for Dorian's Descent
The Picture of Dorian Gray is about a young man, Dorian Gray, who becomes obsessed with a portrait that Basil Hallward has painted of him. It shows him in his youth and his prime, characteristics that he realizes, once prompted by his friend Lord Henry Wotton, will fade. In a state of hopelessness, Dorian wishes that the painting might age instead of him, for in its current stage it only serves as a reminder of what he would lose. Without explanation, the painting does begin to change as Dorian becomes involved in the hedonism of Lord Henry's lifestyle. Dorian scorns Basil, engages in illicit sexual activity, murders, and experiments with various vices. The picture ages, its face is marred by a snarl, and the brow is furrowed in perpetual anger and disdain. Eventually disgraced by the harm he has caused, Dorian attempts to absolve himself by stabbing the picture. The two reverse, leaving Dorian himself dead, aged, and hideous and the portrait returned to the beauty which Basil painted.

The picture and Dorian from the movie adaptation
Dorian's Descent infuses a rock opera theme onto the story, which pairs nicely with the descent into hedonism and sin. The element of the Devil, however, removes a very powerful and meaningful part of the play: Dorian's agency, choice, and self-mortification. In the play, the Devil appears and makes an explicit Faustian deal with Dorian so that he may stay young and the portrait may age. The character is doubly unnecessary. First, Lord Henry already serves as the Faustian Devil, the foil to Basil between which Dorian must decide. Having the Devil character undermines Lord Henry's role as the tempting, evil character that lives a sinful, yet seemingly fulfilling life. His presence mirrors the Devil, instead of captivating Dorian's attention in his own right. Furthermore, the Devil as a mystical, magical character removes the potential for Dorian's choice. The supernatural can seem to constrain the choices and available actions of humans, making Dorian's descent into hedonism part of the Devil's plan instead of a meaningful choice of evil over good, Sir Henry over Basil, self over others.

The Devil makes a deal
The beauty of The Picture of Dorian Gray is the unspoken Faust trope. Any one might utter an "I wish . . . " or make selfish requests, placing oneself squarely in the shoes of Dorian, connecting and identifying with him in finding himself in a peculiar situation. Walter Fisher described two elements of narrative rationality (or the logic of stories): narrative fidelity and narrative probability. Narrative fidelity is the perception of how faithful a story is to reality (or the audience's world). Although one might think that this would preclude fantasy, science fiction, or non-fiction from having fidelity. On the contrary, stories such as Harry Potter have high narrative fidelity because they seem real and possible, despite their fantasy elements. We could imagine, though we may not have seen or experienced it, a secret world hidden within our own (thus justifying its lack of presence). Though we may not have experienced or believed possible a changing portrait, we can faithfully imagine our lives as confronting something wholly un-explainable and what our reactions to it might be. The element of the Devil fully violates this type of realismo mágico (think Guillermo del Toro) where it could be possible, and makes the subtle Faust trope seem more like a cliche.

Sibyl Vane's forgotten lyrics
Perhaps most disappointing for me was the changes to the Sibyl Vane character, Dorian's brief love. Before his shift into full hedonism, Dorian fell in love with an actress. Her devotion to her art and her skill in bringing love to life in her performances captivates him. In his courtship of her, however, Dorian destroys Sibyl's ability to act. I have copied her confession after a particularly terrible performance of Romeo & Juliet below, which is one of the more beautiful passages in the book.

"Dorian, Dorian," she cried, "before I knew you, acting was the one reality of my life. It was only in the theatre that I lived. I thought that it was all true. I was Rosalind one night and Portia the other. The joy of Beatrice was my joy, and the sorrows of Cordelia were mine also. I believed in everything. The common people who acted with me seemed to me to be godlike. The painted scenes were my world. I knew nothing but shadows, and I thought them real. You came -- oh, my beautiful love! -- and you freed my soul from prison. You taught me what reality really is. To-night, for the first time in my life, I saw through the hollowness, the sham, the silliness of the empty pageant in which I had always played. To-night, for the first time, I became conscious that the Romeo was hideous, and old, and painted, that the moonlight in the orchard was false, that the scenery was vulgar, and that the words I had to speak were unreal, were not my words, were not what I wanted to say. You had brought me something higher, something of which all art is but a reflection. You had made me understand what love really is. My love! My love! Prince Charming! Prince of life! I have grown sick of shadows. You are more to me than all art can ever be. What have I to do with the puppets of a play?"

Sibyl has so greatly fallen for Dorian that she cannot pretend to love as she once did. This confession is made all the more beautiful when she takes her life after Dorian rejects her love. In the play version, Sibyl is a singer whose voices makes Dorian fall in love. Substituting singing for acting makes sense in the musical, but it is the other change that ruins it for me. Instead of falling out of love, causing Sibyl to ruin her craft, the Devil character makes Sibyl forget her lines before a show. The audience loses this beautiful insight into Sibyl's innocence and thus undermines her death as the tipping point in Dorian's sanity. This change further supports my comments below about Dorian's actions being orchestrated and not of his own choice.

Retrieved from this site
Dorian's Descent is an interesting adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray, but its creative changes served only to undermine the beauty, simplicity, and complicity of the book in an attempt to be unique. Without our ability to empathize with Dorian's decisions, which we believe are of his own accord, the audience can only observe and cannot be active participants in the narrative. We are not convinced that this could happen to us, that we would make such a deal with the Devil, or that we are only a few steps away from falling into sin ourselves.

Although this is not the shining review that I'm sure the fledgling play is hoping for, I hope that they take to heart the immortal words of Lord Henry: "There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about." Certainly this adaptation has given me and I hope any readers some food for thought about how narratives are updated, adapted, and changed in the pursuit of artistic creativity and to teach us about issues that plague society.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Bryan College Controversy: Religion on (Scopes) Trial

In 1925, a small town became the center of national attention. It housed the court case John Thomas Scopes vs the State of Tennessee that addressed the teaching of the Bible in science education. In 2014, this same small town of Dayton, Tennessee is undergoing a similar controversy where science and religion meet in the realm of education.

Image retrieved from Biologos

 Bryan College, founded in memory of Williams Jennings Bryan after the Scopes Trial, has issued a new statement of faith that faculty must sign. This clarification in BC policy is receiving heated backlash from faculty and students. Due to the stricter statement, BC may lose 25% of its faculty. BC students have released a petition against the new statement and BC faculty has voted no confidence on the school’s administrators. This new statement of faith is not changing the stance of BC, which aligns with its namesake’s opinion on the immorality of evolution and the truth of biblical creationism. Instead, this change highlights the literalism of the Bible by further polarizing acceptable belief systems. This article will explore these changes in light of the ever-present dichotomy of science and religion, with the context of the Scopes trial, and the actual teachings of Bryan. In short, BC is working against two of the characteristics of Bryan’s teachings (the potential for interpretation and the importance of populism) and in essence, abandoning its namesake.

Clarence Darrow (left) sitting with William Jennings Bryan (right) before Scopes Trial. Retrieved from this site.

 Bryan was the prosecutor in the famous 1925 trial, arguing in favor of fining Scopes for teaching that humanity descended from a lower order of animals. The Butler Act, which Scopes was tried for violating, declared the immutability of the Bible and the inerrancy of the Genesis account of Adam and Eve. This was and still is an important element of fundamentalism, the values on which BC was founded. In the cross-examination day of the trial, however, Bryan compromised literalism but noting that “I believe everything in the Bible should be accepted as it is given there: some of the Bible is given illustratively. For instance: "Ye are the salt of the earth." I would not insist that man was actually salt, or that he had flesh of salt, but it is used in the sense of salt as saving God's people.” Bryan also said that the six days of creation were “not six days of twenty-four hours.” For Bryan, the statements in the Bible were accurate descriptions, but what was more important was not individual interpretations but the values that the Bible upheld.

In Bryan’s summation of the trial, he proposed a strict dichotomy between religion and science, saying that one was the path to Christ and the other would crucify Him. In the 1920’s, and perhaps not until the intelligent design movement of the 1990’s, the idea that evolution and creationism could be rectified was perhaps outside of the purview of many Americans. But, many faculty members at BC do ascribe to labels such as “progressive evolutionists and theistic evolutionists and old-Earth creationists.” The previous BC statement of faith noted that “the origin of man was by fiat of God.” Interpreting fiat to be an all-encompassing act of creating the world, some professors at BC married religion and science and incorporating evolutionary theory into their personal beliefs and classroom teachings. They have taken the words of the Bible illustratively, so they are able to stay in line with the statement of faith.

Different forms of creationism. Retrieved from this site.

The new statement of faith, however, undermines these creative interpretations. Now, faculty must agree that “all humanity is descended from Adam and Eve. They are historical persons created by God in a special formative act, and not from previously existing life forms.” This statement puts many jobs at risk because it removes faculty that believe in any evolutionary history of humanity or of Adam and Eve as symbolic placeholders.

Upon a recent trip to Dayton in March, I had a conversation with a priest and an archivist at BC’s library. We were all reading through documents about Bryan, the trial, and the founding of the college. The priest was in the archive reading for clarification on Bryan’s teachings about biblical literalism. He was concerned that many of his closest friends, the best faculty at the school, and devout, loyal Christians would be unable to sign the new, stricter, and, at this point only proposed, new statement of faith. The priest was concerned that many great, Christian teachers would be lost and hard to replace. Although they may have had more creative interpretations of some biblical phrases, the priest considered their marrying of physical observation with biblical teachings as in line with Bryan’s teachings.

Logo of BC student newspaper. Retrieved from the Brian Triangle website.

BC students are also in agreement. They noted in their petition that they are saddened that BC “will alienate faculty, our brothers and sisters in Christ, by requiring them to affirm a negative on an ancillary matter of faith.” For the populous of BC, the tightening of the statement of faith only serves to divide rather than unite people of faith that have the common goal of teaching Bryan’s creationist values.

The archivist gave me a card for her husband’s creationist non-profit and seemed unconcerned with the changes. Although she said that some faculty taught evolution or believed in it, what was important was that the Genesis story was still taught at BC and the values of it were fully ingrained in all parts of its curriculum. She noted that if students had issues with particular professors and their more creative interpretations, they could easily take classes with a more fundamentalist professor. The campus was an open place where at least variations on creationism were discussed freely. The new clarification would place this openness in jeopardy. BC is surely staying within its rights to clarify its statement and to fight for literalism, especially within a threatening, secular environment. This statement is adopted, however, against the wishes of its students and faculty, making the authorities at BC domineering and elite over the wants of its people. Bryan’s values of populism, the will of the people over the elites, were once in opposition to the elitism of science that would remove all mention of Christ from classrooms. Now, BC wishes to do the same, but to strip its students of all access to evolution, despite that it awards biology and environmental science degrees.

What is at issue here is the extreme polarization of science and religion that is shrinking the opportunity for middle ground, mutual respect, and open deliberation. I do not mean to argue that creationism is a valid scientific explanation, but simply that people should not be so quick to judge people for staying true to religious ideals while incorporating scientific and material evidence in their belief systems. As more and more people take note of scientific evidence for evolution, there is more vocal push back from religious fundamentalists that distance themselves from intelligent design perspectives. Adopting new frameworks and stretching current ones is incredibly difficult. Attempts at marrying them and making sense of one’s religious convictions in light of science is something to be valued, not disdained.

BC student protest image. #hearmyvoiceBC. Retrieved from this site.
BC cannot avoid the protests and disagreement from their own students and faculty, nor from the general public about the favoring of religion over science. As the students said themselves, “the clarification promotes factionalism at the cost of honest debate and discussion.”  This decision, perhaps in response to more prominent attention to the issue, is minimizing the space for education about scientific explanation for origins. BC was created when creationism and evolution simply could not be rectified. But, now, it is clear that BC is isolating itself from its students, faculty, the potential partnership of science and religion, and illustrative biblical teachings, in contrast to the teachings of its namesake. We will never know what Bryan would say about this iteration of the human origins controversy. But, I would put money on the will of the people over the BC elites that work risk compromise and biblical values in favor of fervent literalism.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

What do Elliot Rodger and Tal Fortgang have in common?

I had previously started writing a piece in response to the Tal Fortgang “check your privilege” article. I wanted to discuss the plethora of space and attention the media (and society) gives to the white, male, cisgender, able-bodied, heteronormative perspective. I briefly stopped working on that article when news of UCSB’s campus attack became public. I immediately thought that Elliot Rodger’s story was perhaps more deserving of being critiqued. This was when I realized the great similarities between these two men (albeit very far away on the violence spectrum) that can be linked to underlying societal de-valuing of trans- and cis- women. I will address these two situations separately before critiquing the reinforcement of hegemony that allows us to avoid blaming ourselves for the rampant presence of continuous threats of rape and death.

For Tal, being told to “check his privilege” is the worst part of his college experience. Tal’s rejection of his inherent privilege denied the negative experiences of others (at college or elsewhere) of racial discrimination, violence, and sexual assault. The stories of so many women, especially transwomen and women of color, are forever swept under the rug, but the whining of a Princeton-educated, non-struggling story of Tal are lauded as examples of how society is forcing white people to feel guilty “just for existing.” It is quite disheartening to know that one’s story will not be believed simply because one does not have the access to media forums in which to express them. Or, even when those stories are told, they are often the white, cis-woman perspective. Or, when women are threatened, we still rely on the charity of men to raise the alarm and offer suggestions.

I praise the strong, powerful women at other institutions, such as USC and Northeastern (my current and previous institution of higher education) that have shared their story and fought back against institutions that deny women the right to say no, and their legal recourse against perpetrators. I was not strong enough to tell my story. Even with my high level of privilege, I was terrified of the consequences of reporting my sexual assault by a trusted friend at Northeastern. The word “survivor” never rang true for me. “Survivor” would imply that I had faced a natural force, like a tsunami or a disease, and overcame the event and devastating effects.  I didn't, though. I was faced with a human force, a man in complete control of his actions, a friend, who I had given my trust to, had made a conscious decision to act, devalue our friendship, and violate my body. This is, unfortunately, the story of so many women in collegiate settings, but so few are given the space to share their stories, or feel that they can freely and without consequence equally access our rights.

Retrieved from this site
Elliot Rodger’s story is also garnering national attention, including his manifesto where he declares his hatred of women and need to enact revenge through murder. Despite such plain, obvious language, some people have come to Rodger’s defense by displacing blame from his white, male privilege to mental illness. One of my colleagues at USC, Francesca Marie Smith, argued that mental illness can be used as an argumentative strategy to undermine the culpable of agents in a given situation. Examining the 2011 shooting of Gabby Giffords, she concluded that a focus on the mental capacity of Jared Lee Loughner derailed larger conversations about the societal pressures and political polarization that may have fueled the attack.

Elliot should not be memorialized, lauded, made a hero, or removed from blame. This was a calculated, terrorist attack on women as a whole because he had been told “no.” He believed he had a right to the female body as sexual property and projected his own shortcomings on the failure of (female) others. People should not watch his videos or read his manifesto: let us not immortalize a misogynist who decided to take life instead of realize the privilege in his own.

Retrieved from this site
These two stories began and ended very differently. Tal has certainly upset people with his lack of awareness and care for the stories of others, but Elliot has murdered. I do not wish to equate these stories; I am not making claims about “all men.” I am instead commenting on the attributes that they share and what this says about our society.

Both are inherently linked to race and gender, because they laud the white, male perspective over all other bodies. Yes, Elliot was mixed race, but there is no denying his feelings of privilege and superiority that accompany this perspective. Both believe in the power of their privileged body to make decisions and that they have the right to remove of agency from others. Tal and Elliot are not allowed to be told “no,” especially not by people of color or women. Tal cannot be told to “check his privilege” and Elliot cannot be denied sex. These are the autonomous decisions of others that put into question the privilege that Tal and Elliot could not even recognize they had (being blind to their own condition and the conditions of others). 

Retrieved from this site
These men are just two chapters in the larger story of a society that allows their privilege to continue unabated, that celebrates and defends them, and that prevents us from looking inward at our own complicity. If it the fault of people who question Tal’s struggle, Elliot’s mental condition, or my inebriation, then society as a whole is declared “not guilty.” We can live in the façade of a world where these events are mere peppered outliers in a properly functioning society, instead of symptoms of a diseased organism. Walking down the street or taking public transportation is an opportunity for women to be yelled at, groped, followed, threatened, or even worse. Even spending time with trusted friends and family members can lead to the violation of the female body. Althusser's police officer defines the power structure and everyone's position in it by addressing someone, "Hey you!" When I walk down the street and am called "bitch" while being grabbed from behind, that also defines me without my permission, reaction, or ability to subvert.

Many more stories of struggle and healing at Project Unbreakable
We cannot let these stories be drowned out by the mob quick to defend the current system. We must give space and attention to those that are fighting for change and awareness of larger issues. We perhaps cannot change the minds of current misogynists or denialists who will resist at all costs the crumbling of the society that preferences them. But, with increased effort, we may be able to usher in new generations brought up in a society that recognizes the issues that face the majority of us and fosters a culture that is actively trying to change it.