The Politics of Activism: On Rhetoric and Power

By Andie Alexander

“So are you a political activist now?”

I’m not the kind of person who often posts on Facebook about politics. After all, I’m still a grad student hoping to get a job one day, and there’s no telling what sorts of ideas people could formulate about me based solely on my Facebook posts. With that always in the back of my mind, I tend to keep my posts mostly about the academic study of religion (well, that, and pictures of my dogs, obviously, because they’re adorable). However, over the past few weeks, I have been sharing significantly more news articles and reports on my Facebook page. In the wake of this exponential increase in the number of political articles and photos from the Denver Women’s March (see above) on my page, folks were somewhat surprised with my seemingly sudden interest in politics. So much so that some have even called me a political activist.

When others heard these comments about my newfound activism, some agreed in a positive way, while others maintained that I was not a political activist and that I was just sharing information. However, what struck me about these comments was not whether I really am/am not a political activist — to me that misses the point. Rather, I am more interested in this label or designation of “political activist.” For the more I thought about it, I realized that this identifier rarely has a positive connotation. Continue reading “The Politics of Activism: On Rhetoric and Power”

Response: Center and Periphery

Picture 3Earlier this week Stephen S. Bush responded to one of my posts on his recent monograph, Visions of Religion. In my post I suggested that Bush’s work arguably props up the status quo in our field, and as such he could resort to rhetorical enthymemes that leave certain assumptions unstated and unargued — particularly since sympathetic readers in the mainstream of the field already share those assumptions. In his response Bush claims that I’m unfair to him, since he did provide argumentation for the assertions or assumptions I claimed were unstated or unargued. In addition, he objected to my characterization of his work as representing the center of the field. According to Bush, my work — which focuses on discourse analysis, ideology critique, and power — is closer to the center of the field, and his work — which includes a focus on experience and meaning — is more likely to be considered passé and thus on the periphery. Continue reading “Response: Center and Periphery”

On Science


“From this point of view, science…is rhetoric, a series of efforts to donna harawaypersuade relevant social actors that one’s manufactured knowledge is a route to a desired form of very objective power.”

Donna Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective” in Feminist Theory Reader: Local and Global Perspectives (2013)

 

Academic Style and the Voice of Authority

9780199387403

I recently finished reading Stephen S. Bush’s Visions of Religion: Experience, Meaning, and Power (Oxford University Press, 2014). The book argues that scholars of religion who focus on power (e.g., those who use the theories of Foucault or Bourdieu) to the exclusion of the role of religious experience and symbolic meaning of emic discourses do a disservice, and that all three — power, experience, and meaning — should be included in an account of religion. He attempts to offer an argument as to why all three are important, and to counter objections that the different approaches are intrinsically at odds.

One thing that struck me about Bush’s writing style was how often he made a number of explicitly normative claims, as well as a number of “should” statements, which were put forward as if they were self-evidently authoritative. Consider the following passages. Continue reading “Academic Style and the Voice of Authority”

Do Bathrooms Matter? Revisiting “The Bathroom Problem”

Target Rainbow Bullseye

On the heels of North Carolina’s recent decision to require transgender people to use public restrooms that correspond to their identified sex at birth, Target has just released a new policy indicating that transgender people may use restrooms in its stores that correspond to their present gender identity. While this initiative has received strong support from many corners, it is also not without controversy; most notably, the American Family Assocation (AFA) has called for a boycott of Target on the grounds that this policy “endangers women and children by allowing men to frequent women’s facilities.”

With these claims in mind, there is some importance to my inquiry in doing a bit of fact-checking. As the evidence suggests, transgender people are no more likely to be sexual predators than anyone else, and yet as a group they experience disproportionately higher levels of discrimination and harassment in public venues (and in bathrooms, in particular). Moreover, in response to those who claim that Target’s policy will invite sexual predators of all gender identities into bathrooms, the data indicates that people are no more likely to be attacked in a bathroom than anywhere else, rendering most of the safety arguments relatively void. Continue reading “Do Bathrooms Matter? Revisiting “The Bathroom Problem””

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”

What Should You Be on Halloween?

512px-Minstrel_PosterBillyVanWare_editA culture is not a costume. That sentiment has become a common theme on social media and student newspapers (here from James Madison University and here from Chapman University, for example) with the approach of Halloween. The sentiment makes sense with people, primarily identified with a majority community, masquerading for fun as a stereotyped member of a minority. The history of using minority images for entertainment and benefit of majorities is long and painful, including the blackface minstrel shows of a century ago. Such costumes reinforce the costumed person’s majority status as he/she masquerades as something other, thus demonstrating differences in power.

However, accusations of cultural appropriation also can become assertions of power and control from some in minority groups. In the video embedded below, the narrator describes cultural appropriation as “when you hijack a part of a culture without permission, not out of respect or tribute.” Continue reading “What Should You Be on Halloween?”

Good vs. Evil Makes a Good Story

10346022996_3f96743f5f_oDarth Vader vs. Luke Skywalker, Sauron vs. Gandalf, Voldemort vs. Harry Potter. Stories are full of good and bad characters, sometimes complicated with the redemption of a character like Darth Vader, but what does it take to maintain such a stark division between good and evil?

Continue reading “Good vs. Evil Makes a Good Story”

This Job Would Be Great If It Weren’t For The Students

Graduation

As a person who works at a small, Catholic liberal arts university that has a mission to serve underprivileged students, I am often intrigued by the manner in which discussions about the educational rights of the underprivileged weave their way through the academy.  I’m interested precisely because it seems that almost every scholar I know can talk about how enraged they are about the barriers that exist for underprivileged students, but few seem to openly connect this to the fact that the ways we are groomed to think about our own jobs simply reproduce these very same inequities. Continue reading “This Job Would Be Great If It Weren’t For The Students”

You Are What You Read, with Leslie Dorrough Smith (Part 2)

For a new Culture on the Edge series “You Are What You Read” we’re asking each member to answer a series of questions about books—either academic or non-academic—that have been important or influential on us.

2. Name one of your favorite theory books.

512fyAWdIqL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Bruce Lincoln, Holy Terrors: Thinking About Religion After 9/11 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003)

This is one of my favorite theory books because of its approach toward and definition of religion. The definition, which has four parts, revolves around the first component: the foundation of religion, Lincoln asserts, is discourse. What makes religious discourse different from other types of discourse is that it appeals to a transcendent source (the most familiar version of which is “God”), which subsequently sets that claim beyond effective human critique significantly increasing the political weight of such claims. The other three components (practices, communities, and institutions) come to life only insomuch as they are socio-structural manifestations of that discourse. Continue reading “You Are What You Read, with Leslie Dorrough Smith (Part 2)”