Friday, October 24, 2014

Honey Boo Boo and Class Porn

TLC has canceled "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" today as a result of the family's mother, June Shannon, dating a convicted sex offender. The reaction to this news has been a mix of disdain, condescension, vitriol, and ironic humor, much like general responses to the show itself. People love to hate and love to love Honey Boo Boo and her family. This week's story and the show's cancellation simply mark a high point in our culture's distorted fascination with a particular kind of reality television. I call it "Class Porn," and it has two distinct but related genres.

The first genre is that to which "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" belongs. I call this genre "Poverty Porn." These shows represent the sense of humor that is unique to our cultural moment. Popular humor (especially in online contexts) has become deeply ironic. The trend of "hate-watching" shows demonstrates the complicated relationship Americans (especially young Americans) have with their entertainment media. 

More than this, however, Honey Boo Boo and her family provide a mental salve for the deep economic inequalities in American society by offering poverty as a spectacle. They reinforce our stereotypes about class, reassuring us of the moral superiority that comes from a privileged economic position. "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" obscures the complicated picture of American poverty by exploiting its subjects for a national audience. We consume it with little regard for the exploitation of individuals who create the spectacle for us, and absolve ourselves from the moral complicity in the systems which create vast inequality and the diminishing of human dignity. 

The second genre is "Wealth Porn," a collection of shows featured mostly on the Bravo and E! networks. These shows focus almost exclusively on the conspicuous wealth of celebrities and would-be celebrities. Instead of engendering moral outrage at the insanity of multimillion dollar houses, faux charity galas that set the stage for nearly-scripted personal confrontations, and narcissistic personalities being praised for their net worth, these shows also function as mental salve. Once again, by holding them up as spectacle, viewing audiences are able to dissociate themselves from the moral evils of excessive wealth. These shows are watched less ironically than their Poverty Porn counterparts. Even as spectacle, the narratives of these shows suggest that such conspicuous wealth is either enviable or just normal. Once again, all involved in creating these spectacles are not individuals with a dignity and personhood that demand more of them than rampant consumption. Instead, they become even more famous and more rich by simply being famous and rich on television, playing the part of the Rich Other whom we hold at arm's length so as not to see our own consumptive appetites reflected in their eyes. (When I ask my students who Jesus means by "the rich," they often tell me the Kardashians or the Real Housewives.)

Our television habits in this regard are exploitative and escapist. We participate in systems of injustice and have sought and consumed a diet of class spectacle in order to obscure that participation. 

Saturday, October 18, 2014

In praise of slacktivism

My friend (successfully) defended his dissertation last week. At one point in the three hour defense, one of his committee members used the word "slacktivism" without irony. The concept seems to have leaped out of its digital confines in blogs and tweets and into a serious academic setting.

This is due in no small part to the summer of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, which raised $115 million, according to the organization. As fast as social media filled with videos of people dumping icy water onto themselves, it also filled with critiques and commentary on the trendy form of donation.

It has become quite popular to point to such efforts as a symptom of the general shallowness of our online lives. Virtual actions such as signing petitions, sharing links, or using specific hashtags are categorized as "slacktivist," a somewhat paradoxical combination of "activist" and "slacker" which relies on a sharp distinction between virtual and non-virtual social action.

My problem with using the label "slacktivism" in order to critique virtual social action is twofold: 1) It assumes a robust non-virtual social action with relatively well-defined forms and goals, and 2) it assumes an understanding of virtual acts as less real than non-virtual actions.

Our assumptions about non-virtual social action: When people accuse others of "slacktivism," they appear to have in mind a non-virtual counterpart that contributes more robustly or more directly to the issue at hand. I take public demonstration (protests, strikes, large and public fundraising events, etc.) to be the ultimate non-virtual social action. It is the standard against which we measure virtual actions like sharing a link, for instance. Simply sharing a link, the critique goes, is just not as good as, say, attending a protest, presumably because it does not require as much (time? energy? effort?) from the link-sharer. Thus while the action may be activism, its lack of personal risk and "real" effort necessitates the addition of "slacker," making it "slacktivism."

In college, I spent a significant amount of time working to end the death penalty in Maryland. One rainy fall afternoon, a group of about forty abolitionists from different organizations gathered outside of Maryland's death row. More specifically, we were on a rather desolate city street under an overpass. We held signs, we chanted, we sang. Some of us prayed. After about an hour, I had a troubling thought: What is the purpose of what we're doing? 

I had no problem understanding what it meant to write to legislators, to accompany death row inmates themselves through letters, or to raise awareness on campus. On that rainy and in nearly every other public demonstration I've attended, I couldn't shake the feeling of anticipation. In my more honest moments, I could ask another question: What am I/are we waiting for?

As far as I can tell, the anticipation is for one of two things, either a significant amount of people to witness the demonstration in person or, more commonly, for a significant amount of media attention. The problem is that American culture does not seem to have spaces for the kind of direct social action that we imagine when we judge virtual action. I am not convinced that my standing on a street with a sign is better for a cause than sharing a link to a well-argued piece to hundreds of people online. I am also not convinced that the many people who will re-share that link are doing so in lieu of the non-virtual social action we idealize.

Frightening as it may sound, it's possible that the robust social space we believe is essential to democratic life may not actually exist, or if it does, it may not exist where we think it does.

Our assumptions about virtual action: There pervades in moral critiques of the internet a double-talk that assumes virtual activity forms us in real (and usually negative) ways, while at the same time maintains that our behaviors online aren't as "real" as those offline (to the extent we're really ever 'off'). We can't have it both ways, and it seems pretty clear that virtual actions are both real and formative.

If this is the case, shouldn't we be less dismissive of altruistic, outward-looking actions online, no matter how small? Dismissing so-called "slacktivism" relies on a view of social action that is mostly about results. For many systems of ethics, however, there is much more to consider than consequences. Virtue ethics, for instance, maintains that the often small, repetitive actions in a person's life cultivate habits that are either virtuous or vicious. If this is true, then even the smallest actions online (which we should take to be real actions), contribute in some way to the formation of one's habits.

By leveling the criticism of "slacktivism" at virtual social action, we delude ourselves into idealizing an alternative that, more often that not, does not exist. We also undermine the reality of virtual space, the practical effect of which is that we won't be capable of reflecting upon it and its effects. Onward, slacktivists!

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Media and the Church

Over the past couple of weeks, I've been in several conversations--both virtually and non-virtually--with people--both Catholic and non-Catholic--about the Synod on the Family. Fueled in large part by a draft relatio (report) at the end of last week, we find ourselves in the bizarre situation of a rather robust public discourse on one of the Catholic Church's oldest and most obscure internal practices.

And this one has been marked by drama. Over at Crux, John L. Allen's piece bears a headline calling the Synod a "soap opera." The cast of characters, emotions, and overreactions by almost everyone in the scene seems to bear out Allen's analysis. (Although until someone gets slapped in the face--as legend has St. Nicholas reprimanding Arius--the Council Nicaea in 325 CE still takes the cake for drama.)

Mediated as it is by press conferences and interviews, many folks are tempted to blame the media for exaggerating or even creating the drama. Not far behind blaming the news media is the tired refrain of blaming new media for the nefarious effects of up-to-the-minute information.

But is our situation a new one? Yes, of course...and no, of course not.

In the late 19th century, there prevailed the idea among some American bishops (known as "Americanists") that their situation in the US was unique. This compelled them to think and say things about individual liberty and the place of the church in society that did not sit well with the Vatican. In 1899, Pope Leo XIII issued an encyclical letter, Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae, basically telling them to get in line.

What seems to us like a pretty boring historical moment in the relatively short history of the American Catholic church was a hot topic in 1899. All kinds of newspapers--some Catholic, many not--published articles and editorials, offering analysis of both the encyclical and the Americanist position. People were blamed; names were called. Everyone read it as soon as it could all be printed.

The Americanist controversy had issues and concerns that were different from the Synod on the Family. What obtains today, though, is the public desire to have knowledge of and weigh in on the workings of the Catholic Church. Both situations have another similarity: a pope unafraid of the media of his time. We do not think of the encyclical as a particularly modern medium--it has all the trappings of pre-modern, aristocratic models of public discourse. It is, however, effectively an "open letter," one that could communicate the teachings, desires, and concerns of the church to a wide audience. And Leo loved them.

For his part, Pope Francis has been a veritable master of the media of his own time. Opting instead for the medium of interview, Francis has captured the attention of the entire world. People who did not care about the Catholic Church three years ago care about it now. And on twitter and facebook, and in bars and classrooms, the name "Francis" is on the lips of young people.

Many people want to talk about the "Francis effect," a kind of hopeful change in tone that has affected the theological discourse and pastoral inflection of the church. But this effect is not just internal; Francis has re-invigorated the desire for media that is focused on the church from the outside as well.

This reinvigorated desire carries a promise and a challenge. The promise is that younger Catholics and young people in general might find the space to engage intelligently with the church. This intelligent and vigorous engagement might actually keep them in or bring them to the church. At the very least, it may serve to raise religious literacy in America, something of which we are sorely in need.

The challenge is that, much like the church itself, the media must find ways to draw young people into careers that can give it a future. This challenge will only be met through creativity and openness. News outlets must be creative enough to move beyond 'using' new media to focus on shaping it. They must also be open enough to listen to millennials instead of dismissing and lamenting them.

Our media change and evolve, and although at a much slower pace, so do religious institutions. Instead of seeing them at odds, assuming the worst of one or both, we should enter bravely into the spaces of knowledge, debate and dialogue before us.