Identity in Law and in Practice: An Interview with Simon Tam of The Slants (Part 1)

theslantslogoLast week the Edge posted a brief piece on the case of the Portland-based rock band The Slants, and their effort to register their band’s name, and thus brand, in the US.

And then we got a comment — it turned out to be from the band’s bass player and founder:

blogcommentOver the next couple of days this led to a series of tweets and emails and resulted in the following questions, posed by us here at Culture on the Edge, to Simon, concerning identity and the band’s ongoing efforts to register a name that, at least according to the US government, is inappropriate because it can be read as a racial slur.

The issues are so central to what we, here at Culture on the Edge, have been discussing that we’re really quite pleased to post this two-part exchange. Continue reading

Social Media Is Out of (Your) Control, So Is Life

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Liking a post and favoriting a tweet serve as excellent examples of the complexity of life that is out of our control in ways that we often don’t realize. The meaning of liking, favoriting, etc., clearly shifts depending on the context. Sometimes clicking the star or thumbs up literally means that I like something; sometimes I want to say that I hear you, acknowledging someone’s comment or post. This varied meaning is true throughout language. Words and symbols have a range of meanings that also can shift radically over time and place (a computer used to mean “one who computes;” a Swastika is a positive symbol in multiple cultures today). That simple click (like other forms of communication) has other complexities, too, that illustrate the lack of control that any of us have.
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“Why would we have that playing at Tennessee?”

leninWhile not aiming to trivialize ongoing conflicts elsewhere in the world, I couldn’t help but make a connection between the above article and a video making the rounds of social media, in which the University of Tennessee’s football coach sniffs out the source of the song “Sweet Home Alabama” playing while his team practices — a song much associated with one of his team’s arch rivals (which, yes, happens to be where I work). Continue reading

And Our 12 Points Go To…

eurovisionvotingLike Wimbledon, I watch the Eurovision finals each year — we started doing it a few years ago. I was in Greece during the finals back in 2009 (“This is our night!”) and, since then, have gotten a kick out of the finals, especially the hour long voting ritual once all the songs have been performed, when local hosts, presumably from each country’s own telecast, “call” into the host city to reveal who their country voted for. That the awkward time delays in almost all of these reports makes it seem like a 1970s interview from halfway around the world, coupled with the fact that each country’s local host presumably wants to get as much as they can from their 30 seconds on air with the estimated 180 million viewers worldwide, while the event’s hosts back at the venue squirm on-air because they just want to hear their votes so they can speed things along, makes it all the better. Continue reading

“We Sing for the Japanese, and the Chinese, and all the Dirty Knees”

Picture 8 Have you heard the recent story, in the US, about musicians seeking to trademark their band’s name — The Slants — and how the US’s patent & trademark office has refused on the grounds that the term (presumed to be a reference to so-called Asian eyes) is “scandalous or immoral”?

But it can mean a variety of things, no? Continue reading

You Made Me the Individual That I Am Today

driverstestA story the other day on National Public Radio’s morning show was on the US Republican party’s ongoing efforts to recruit more voters from the Latina/o community.

Give it a listen. Continue reading

Is the Decline in Christianity Overstated by the Pew Survey?

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Steven Ramey’s post originally appeared on the Huffington Post Friday and is republished here.

Christians Decline Sharply as Share of Population” is a big headline of the Pew “America’s Changing Religious Landscape” report published this week, but the data in the survey tells us more about changing ways that people respond to surveyors. Therefore, the consternation and celebration of commentators may be overstated. Both the Washington Post, which emphasized that decline of Christianity and the growth of “secular” attitudes, and the Times of India, which celebrated the increase in Hindus as Christians declined in the U.S., may be overstating the significance of the results. In contrast, the Atlantic argued against the narrative of rising secularism, asserting that the U.S. is still a predominately Christian nation and still religious, with over 70 percent of the population identifying as Christian and 44 percent of those who identified as unaffiliated asserting that religion is very or somewhat important to them. These differing assertions miss the strategic nature of identifications and the limits on what a survey can measure.

The Atlantic article emphasized the increasing number of individuals leaving the religions in which they were raised, suggesting that people are “choosing their own beliefs.” While the language of choice and freedom fits with the U.S. national identification as a land of freedom, people are not simply free to choose any religious identification that they want. The IRS and federal courts still determine what counts as a religion and thus receives tax benefits and legal protections/limitations. Efforts to claim that a strip club is a church to circumvent the rejection of their permit application and that smoking marijuana is a religious practice have been met often with skepticism. On a personal level, many perceive pressure from family and peers that can influence how they identify.

The limitations on choice are also apparent in the survey itself. The initial Pew question specifies general groups, “Are you Protestant, Roman Catholic, Mormon,
Orthodox such as Greek or Russian Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, agnostic, something else, or nothing in particular?” Overall, less than two percent of those surveyed responded with “something else.” When few vary outside of those eight broad groups and three unaffiliated categories, the limited nature of choice is apparent. Within the confines of the survey, respondents also are limited to one religion, even though some in the United States and other parts of the world identify with two or more religions, such as an Episcopalian who also identifies as Zen Buddhist. Moreover, when responses were not specific enough, such as a specific denomination for Protestants, surveyors assigned those vague denominational responses to set Protestant categories “based on their race and/or their response to a question that asked whether they would describe themselves as a ‘born-again or evangelical Christian.'” Survey respondents had to fit into the specific methodology of the survey itself and the assumptions behind it.

From the IRS to those who produce surveys, these constraints on religious identifications are typical of any identification. You can identify however you want, but if others (family, peers, employer, government) do not recognize that identification, your assertion (like a vague survey response) is not very productive. All of this highlights how any identification, including religious affiliation, is strategic, as people respond according to how they want others to perceive them and what identification best produces that perception. The strategic nature of any identification provides a different, partial explanation for the Pew survey results. The changes over time in the numbers claiming a religious affiliation should be seen as, first and foremost, a change in perception of what affiliation is socially acceptable and useful. Such a change, then, may be less about shifts in practice and belief than social perception and pressure. (Self-reports about practice or belief are also strategic and may not capture significant change in thought or practice.) Despite the media articles that the Pew report generates, the data tells us very little beyond changes in how people are willing to present themselves to anonymous surveyors. That change is itself an interesting development, but its implications are much more difficult to define than a simple reference to growth or decline of differing groups.

 

Photo credit: Boarded up church in Warm Springs by McD22 via Flickr (CC-BY-2.0)

Words We Choose From a List

Picture 22In honor of Don Draper’s departure from our TV screens last night I thought I’d share a piece of advertising that makes evident that it’s not the words you use but how you say them. Continue reading

“I Was an Orphan. I Grew Up in Pennsylvania…”

Picture 21Tonight is the series end to Mad Men, the story of the early years of Madison Avenue ad men (and women). When last we saw him, the protagonist, Don, had given away his car to a young scam artist, offering him a new start, and was seated alone at a bus stop, his belongings in a big paper sack. His ex-wife, Betty, had been diagnosed with lung cancer but was going back to school anyway. His onetime boss and then partner, Roger, was playing an electric organ in their freshly vacated offices while Peggy, once a secretary but now an integral part of the creative team, had rollerskated her way into a new found self-confidence and a new office, armed with some erotic Japanese art.

peggy Continue reading

An Apology for Etymology

Picture 5I was asked a question at a recent presentation I did up at the University of Chicago, concerning why the etymology of technical terms is a focus in an intro book that I wrote (and which I use in my own 100-level classes). Given my persistent critique of quests for origins it seems odd, or so the question might go, to focus on the origins of words, no?

etymology (n.)
late 14c., ethimolegia “facts of the origin and development of a word,” from Old French etimologie, ethimologie (14c., Modern French étymologie), from Latin etymologia, from Greek etymologia “analysis of a word to find its true origin”

Good point. Why do I talk about etymologies in that book? Continue reading