Who Won the Civil War?

Confederate memorial carving on Stone Mountain

“The winners write the history” is an easy way to highlight that those who have power are the ones who control how history is told. But this adage needs a bit more nuance, as sometimes those who lose end up on the winning side anyway. In the case of the American Civil War, the accounts that we tell in the United States too often legitimize the Confederacy. While some descriptions receive significant critique, such as Secretary Ben Carson describing slaves as “immigrants”, typical accounts are more subtle, hardly noticed by many. For example, narratives seldom refer to the actions of the Confederacy as treasonous, even though Andrew Johnson’s 1868 pardon given to those who fought for the Confederacy describes the rebellion as an act of treason. Continue reading “Who Won the Civil War?”

Cultural Boundaries and Murder

Fazl_MosqueNotions like tolerance and multiculturalism, suggesting that a society should celebrate the variety of cultures present, has many positive elements for encouraging diversity and underrepresented communities. To function, though, multiculturalism relies on the delineation of boundaries for various cultural communities and, as implemented in places like Great Britain in the 1990’s, specific organizations represent clearly labeled communities and become the conduits for government grants and the means for communication with the government. The potential pitfalls of this approach have come to the fore in the response to the recent murder of Asad Shah, whom news reports identify as an Ahmadi shopkeeper in Glasgow.

The tragedy itself is not attributable to these concepts of tolerance or multiculturalism. The person charged with killing Shah has issued a statement in which he accused Shah of claiming to be a prophet and thus disrespecting Muhammad. Apparently, Shah’s identification as an Ahmadi, who generally identify as Muslim while professing to follow Mirza Ghulam Ahmad as a more recent messenger from God, was an impetus for the murder, if the accused killer’s statement is to be believed. Continue reading “Cultural Boundaries and Murder”

Strategic Terms for Black Lives Matter

23025758106_5eed9d2a9c_zMany people have pointed out how the label “terrorist” becomes a useful tool for some to demonize an opposing group, so it should not be a surprise that a few have tried to label the Black Lives Matter movement as terrorist. While the label “terrorist” carries significant emotive weight in contemporary society, other terms and labels that may be less obvious also can be strategic tools for authorizing and deauthorizing groups. We need to be equally alert to those less obvious authorizing and deauthorizing moves, even when individuals and groups with whom we sympathize employ them.

This issue came to my mind when reading a commentary (“Civil Rights Activists, Not Terrorists”) that describes an encounter with a police officer who initially dismissed a complaint about a stolen Black Lives Matter banner with the suggestion that the movement had been labeled terrorist. While the frustration at such a use of the label is significant (notably, the officer backtracked when he could not demonstrate that it is actually on any list of terrorist organizations, making me wonder if someone is suggesting this equation to police officers), the commentary from the minister of the church whose banner was stolen engaged in mounds of authorizing labels. Continue reading “Strategic Terms for Black Lives Matter”

PC Power

7608093198_1fb5281ed3_zBooks can be the best Christmas gifts, at least in my humble opinion. I have already finished one novel that I received for Christmas, Singapore Exile Murders by F. van Wyck Mason. Written, published, and set in 1939, the novel incorporates the responses of Europeans and Americans in southeast Asia to the global events leading up to World War II, making it an intriguing historical artifact based on one person’s imaginings. As a piece of data, the language in the novel surprised me at points, including the off-hand use of terms for African-Americans and Chinese that would be considered offensive today.

Beyond illustrating how what is considered acceptable has shifted in the past 75 years, these problematic terms (by our standards) also illustrate the ways everyday language reinforces, even makes appear normal, social hierarchies. The ways that Europeans and European-American characters use these terms in casual speech places African-Americans (who do not appear as characters in the novel) in the position of menial, hard laborers and Chinese (who are primarily servants, rickshaw pullers, and the like) as clearly inferior. The condescending labels thus socialize people into particular positions of inferiority and superiority by making the hierarchy appear natural, simply the way things are. Continue reading “PC Power”

That Wasn’t the Statue of Liberty: On Expectations and Labels

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My family recently traveled to New York City. If you’re familiar with LaGuardia, our destination airport, you know that it is situated in such a way that it often gives airline passengers a nice shot of Manhattan and other noteworthy sights as they descend.

Upon our own descent, an interesting series of utterances escaped from my seven year old son, for whom this was his first visit to the city. Before the trip we had discussed some of the things that we would do while there, and as he looked out the window as the plane grew closer and closer to the earth, in his mind every span of trees became Central Park, every large skyscraper was the Empire State Building, and every island was Ellis Island, with the Statue of Liberty just too small to see because we were so high, he inferenced. Continue reading “That Wasn’t the Statue of Liberty: On Expectations and Labels”

Inclusivity as a Strategy of Exclusion

webelieve1Interreligious dialogue and notions of tolerance, while suggesting inclusivity, often employ exclusions that identify insiders and outsiders, although these insiders and outsiders are different than the boundaries commonly employed in communities. An interesting example of this paradox is Webelieve2, a board game advertised as encouraging discussion among people with different religious commitments. The game is designed to create an opportunity to “learn about others” and “to connect with others.” While targeted marketing to Religious Studies professorsassumes certain interests inform the study of religion (several of my colleagues and I recently received emails advertising this game), the game also reflects particular assumptions about religion that create a variety of exclusions that seem to counter the instructions’ interest in creating an environment where “people feel ‘safe’ when sharing.”

Continue reading “Inclusivity as a Strategy of Exclusion”

Speaking Strategically About Religion

Large_chess_setOver the last week, many have written about the labeling of ISIS as religious or not, as Islamic or not, both in response to last week’s summit on violent extremism and the recent Atlantic article on ISIS. Defending his administration’s refusal to label ISIS/ISIL as Islamic radicalism or extremism or a religious terrorist group, Obama asserted that he wanted to avoid connecting Islam with groups such as ISIS for strategic reasons, because he does not want to reinforce their self-descriptions that frame the conflict as religious and their ideology as true Islam. Rather than rehashing arguments about ISIS, the question that interests me is the role of strategic notions embedded in all discussions employing labels (really any words) to describe oneself or some other. In many respects, any description reflects particular moves in the chess game that is human society. Continue reading “Speaking Strategically About Religion”

Strategic Identification on Huffington Post

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Culture on the Edge‘s Steven Ramey contributed to the Huffington Post blog last night, thinking about recent violence in North Carolina and Alabama and what’s at stake in the ways we talk about and label the victims and the perpetrators. To read the blog post, check out Huffington Post Religion.

Words (and Peppers) Matter

Dried_spicy_red_peppers_(4888546786)My colleagues have discussed on this blog the significance of labels many times, such as labeling something a restoration, a gang sign, and Paleo, or simply as something different. This concern for the significance of labeling, though, is not limited to the strategies of marketers and politicians or everyday observations. The selection of identifying labels often reinforces the dominant discourse, even when apparently not intended.

Rereading Fred Clothey’s Religion in India: A Historical Introduction (Routledge 2007) for my Survey of Asian Religions course, I noticed a significant example of the power of labels that I had missed previously. One passage in a section on Cochin Jews caught my attention this time. Continue reading “Words (and Peppers) Matter”

What’s in Your Nacho Cheese?

5109081500_1b5459e56d_bBeing Super Bowl Sunday, it is time to think about that staple of Super Bowl parties, nacho cheese. Despite its ubiquity as a term in our society, no official definition exists, according to a recent interview on Marketplace (the economics radio program) with the host Kai Ryssdal and his guest Venessa Wong. You can listen to the interview below. Continue reading “What’s in Your Nacho Cheese?”