Long-Haired History

My department has a new website, with updated faculty photos. If you have known me for awhile, you might notice that my hair is a bit longer, now past my shoulders. By comparing photos of me as a faculty member, or even as a teenager, anyone can demonstrate that my hair is longer now than it has ever been in my life. That is a demonstrable fact about the past.

Of course, the length of my hair is not particularly interesting. As with most narratives (which is what histories present), the more intriguing issue is the explanation why. Why, at this point in my life, have I allowed my hair to grow? A friend who had not seen me for over a year commented on my hair last week, giving me the opportunity to create a narrative about my hair. My explanation was that I have not gotten my hair cut since becoming a full professor this past August. But, my own explanation is not necessarily complete. In fact, any of us tell stories, like our identifications, strategically. Perhaps (to create a narrative about my narrative), my response was a way to emphasize my recent promotion. The length of the hair was just the opportune time to insert that personal tidbit into the conversation, or perhaps that explanation was said in jest. Continue reading “Long-Haired History”

Who Has Been Radicalized?

People commonly use the term “radicalization” to explain how individuals could commit certain horrific acts of violence. News reports about the person believed to have carried out the Manchester bombing have focused on when he (and possibly his brother) became radicalized, and both the Trump and Obama administrations have discussed how to combat radicalization. In these examples, radicalization refers to a process in which people develop “extreme” commitments to a particular viewpoint and sacrifice many things, even their own lives, to further that viewpoint, often using violence against others. Continue reading “Who Has Been Radicalized?”

Is the Media Free?

Much public discussion today includes concerns about the freedom of the press. People fear that some politicians and businesses exert pressure to cover them favorably, especially as some have denounced the mainstream media. We can consider, however, whether the media of any form is really free.

Pierre Bourdieu in a 1996 series of essays entitled On Television (English translation by Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson published in 1998) wrote: Continue reading “Is the Media Free?”

Embarrassment and Naturalizing a Gender Binary

When we go to a new doctor’s office or meet someone new, most people identify my younger son as female. He has let his straight, black hair grow longer, reaching a bit past his shoulders now. He is also small for his age, quiet (in public), and generally shy, and his name (being Chinese) does not suggest a gender for most people in the United States. These markers, it seems, lead people to mislabel him.

While he seems unfazed by this, others are not. When people discover their error, they suddenly become extremely apologetic and embarrassed. But why? It is an understandable mistake, and neither he nor my wife or I take offense at the mistake. Of course, they do not know that it is not a big deal to him, so the common assumption/fear may be that someone will be hurt or angry over the error, but that does not seem to be the whole situation.

We all assume that we can identify a person’s gender. The 1990’s Saturday Night Live skit “It’s Pat” (see one example here) featured a gender ambiguous, nerdy character and highlighted how uncomfortable others are if they cannot identify someone’s gender. Ambiguity about such an “obvious” binary is unsettling for many. While we assume that the difference of gender is naturally significant and readily identifiable, the assumption that everyone easily falls into one of two genders is inaccurate, as the recent posts on social media about the different chromosomal combinations of X and Y highlights. We have similar issues about ethnicity and race, assuming that we should be able to visually identify someone’s heritage, which creates problems for multi-ethnic people and makes the discovery that someone is “passing” as a member of a race/ethnic group when their ancestry does not conform to the social construction of that group into a newsworthy event. Continue reading “Embarrassment and Naturalizing a Gender Binary”

Effective Outrage

A whirlwind of political actions and responses has overwhelmed many of us over the past few months in the United States. Almost everyone seems to be outraged about something. Some are outraged at Trump’s attempt to ban people from entering the US, his cabinet and staff selections, and various other statements and actions he has made, while others express outrage at the responses to Trump, from filing lawsuits to protesting physically. What does all of the outrage accomplish, besides exhausting everyone involved?

Expressions of outrage often contribute to the construction of groups. When Bill Maher, to much applause from his audience, thanked Trump in November because Trump “exposed evangelicals, who are big Trump supporters, as the shameless hypocrites they’ve always been” (see clip below), Maher’s assertion of outrage identified evangelicals as the opposition to those who, like Maher, opposed Trump. By associating two issues, the outrage encouraged people who agreed with Maher’s politics to join his opposition to groups whom he identifies as religious. A similar correlation can be found in statements critiquing the marches and protests following Trump’s inauguration. People have expressed outrage that the signs and speeches were vulgar and hateful. For example, the Federalist website highlighted elements of the Women’s March that it deemed problematic, even warning that their description included “vulgar and sexually graphic content.” These expressions attempt to combine people uncomfortable with public discussions of sexuality with Trump supporters. Thus, expressions of outrage used emotional responses to unite people with some similar positions against a caricatured Other. Continue reading “Effective Outrage”

Immigration and Two Forms of Identification

Recognizing identifications as narrative constructs or fixed identities organizes the world in particular ways that inform the debate over the immigration order that Trump issued last Friday, shutting down admission of refugees for 120 days and banning citizens of 7 predominately Muslim countries from entering the US for 90 days. Certainly, one aspect of the debate hinges on a person’s willingness to generalize an entire nationality as a threat, as some have asserted that everyone from those countries hates the United States, but these two models of identification also serve different functions in different settings.

Continue reading “Immigration and Two Forms of Identification”

A Cup Full of Meanings

unity-cupToday is Election Day in the United States. (If you have not voted yet, please take the time to do so if you are eligible, and then take the time to read this.) In the midst of this divisive election, when many of us have expressed strong disagreement with others over social media, if not in person, how do we restitch the social fabric in order to work together towards common goals despite all of the ways that we disagree with each other?

The new green Starbucks cup, which features a drawing of diverse people made of one continuous line, becomes an interesting corollary of this challenge. While Starbucks presented their green cups as a “symbol of unity as a reminder of our shared values,” not everyone has seen it that way. Stephen Colbert quipped (at 3:40 at this link) that it was appropriate for Starbucks to produce a cup featuring “people drawn with one continuous line because what says Starbucks more than like a line that goes on forever.” Other responses have been less humorous, as some have complained about the “political brainwashing” that the cups represent, and others have associated the green of the cup with the promotion of Islam and the similarity of the general design (at least in the eyes of some) with the Arab League flag. Continue reading “A Cup Full of Meanings”

Building Broad Support (or the Appearance of it)

event_347A New Jersey fundraiser last weekend titled “Humanity United Against Terror” provides an excellent example of one of the tricks of building cooperation. The Republican Hindu Coalition organized the event that featured Bollywood stars and an address by Donald Trump. The event had a range of interesting incongruities, including signs suggesting that Trump would ease speed up immigration  and images depicting Hillary Clinton and Sonia Gandhi (leader of the Congress Party in India) as demonic. My focus, however, is the framing of the event, contrasting the title and general purpose to its content, which in large part served as a political rally for Trump’s campaign. Continue reading “Building Broad Support (or the Appearance of it)”

Illusions, Magic, and the Perception of Reality

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Why do we see this image of the Penrose Stairs as being impossible? Optical illusions, such as this one, and magic tricks function because of at least two structures, perhaps we should call them limitations, related to our perception of reality, namely bodily structures (our sensory system) and conceptual structures )the frameworks around which we organize those perceptions). Considering these limitations becomes important not only for our perception of illusions but also for the work of observation and description that informs much scholarship and public discourse.

These reflections came out of watching David Blaine perform his ice pick trick in a conversation with Neil DeGrasse Tyson with Pharrell Williams and Scott Vener in their OtherTone Studio. Continue reading “Illusions, Magic, and the Perception of Reality”

On Metaphors

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“. . . . We know (or think we know) that history is a perplexing, incessant web of causes and effects; that web, in its natural complexity, is inconceivable; we cannot think about it without resorting to the names of nations.”

From “A Note on Peace” 1945 by Jorge Luis Borges, included in Selected Non-Fictions.

 

Photo “Jorge Luis Borges 1951” by Grete Stern, public domain