Tuesday, January 18, 2011

MMA and Masculinity - Interview on the Canadian Broadcasting Centre with Pedro Mendes

I was fortunate to be interviewed by Pedro Mendes of the Canadian Broadcasting Centre a few days ago regarding mixed martial arts and its connections to masculinity.

Mendes was particularly interested in MMA and its attendant social influences because the sport is continuing its push into Canada, and more specifically, into Ontario.

The interview lasted around 30 minutes, but with limited time for his piece, they packaged it into a podcast that lasts approximately 4 minutes. Click on the link, below, to listen in:

A Man's Guide to MMA, or How Manthropology learned to stop worrying and love mixed martial arts

Mendes features a podcast every Tuesday titled, "
Manthropology: A weekly look at what it means to be a man in the 21st century" (Facebook group). Listen in via the following options:

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Saturday, January 15, 2011

Teaching Sociology: Reading Media Critically and Cultural Relativism

The past two semesters for my "Cross-Cultural Relations" courses -- all taught online -- I have required students to complete an assignment initially conceptualized in the following blog post:

How American Media Uses Violence Against Women in Afghanistan to Veil the Public

Here is how I actually present the assignment:

First read this TIME Magazine story,
Afghan Women and the Return of the Taliban (warning: graphic image; be sure to read all 4 parts). Then, before reading the second assigned article, answer the following questions:
  • What was your general response to this article? You may focus on any type of response you had – political, emotional, intellectual.
  • Did this article influence you to think one way or the other about the United States’ role in Afghanistan? If so, how so?

Now go into your Supplemental Readings folder, download and read the article titled Unveiling imperialism: media, gender and the war on Afghanistan. Then answer the following questions:

  • How did this essay illustrate the United States’ historical and ongoing role in creating a social environment where Afghan women and girls were (and are) regularly victimized?
  • What does this article say about Afghan women’s lives before and after United States intervention in Afghanistan?
  • What would the authors of this essay say about the TIME Magazine article?
  • And finally, after reading this research-based article, how do you interpret the United States’ motivation for being in Afghanistan?

Of course responses vary among students who put in different effort levels and have differing levels of insight. However broadly speaking, the assignment seems to be effective in getting students to see very divergent viewpoints on Afghanistan's socio-political dynamics and the media we receive (and don't receive) that cover those dynamics.

The Los Angeles Times has an OP-ED published yesterday (1/13/11) that is a good supplement for this assignment: "
In Afghanistan, a woman's place is at the peace table: Let women play a bigger role in the country's affairs and see what happens to the peace process," by Ann Jones, which points out how current Afghan President Harmid Karzai -- who the United States supported in his ascent to Presidency -- perpetuates women's exclusion from political influence. In fact, the article shows a growing trend in how the U.S. supports patriarchial Afghan leadership and regrets doing so years later:

Modern ideas, including the idea of equality between the sexes, have been at the heart of Afghan cultural struggles for at least a century. In the 1920s, King Amanullah founded the first high school for girls and the first family court to adjudicate women's complaints about their husbands; he proclaimed the equality of men and women, banned polygamy and the burka and banished ultraconservative mullahs who undermined the moderate Sufi ideals of Afghanistan. His modern ideas cost him his crown, but Amanullah and his modern, unveiled queen, Soraya, are remembered for their brave endeavor to drag the country into the modern world.

Thousands of Afghan citizens have shared Amanullah's modern views, expressed later by successive leaders, kings and communists alike. But in 2001 the U.S. — and by extension the entire international community — cast its lot with Hamid Karzai. We put him in power after a power-sharing conference in Bonn, to which only two Afghan women were invited. We paid millions to stage two presidential elections, in 2004 and 2009, and looked the other way while Karzai's men stuffed the ballot boxes. Now, it seems, we're stuck with him and his ultraconservative, misogynist "traditions," even though an ever-growing number of Afghanistan watchers now identify the Karzai government as the single greatest problem the U.S. faces in its never-ending war.

And what has Karzai done for the women of Afghanistan? Not a thing.

That's the conclusion of a recent report issued by the Human Rights Research and Advocacy Consortium, an association of prominent aid and independent research groups in Afghanistan. Afghan researchers conducted extensive interviews with prominent male religious scholars, male political leaders and female leaders at the local, provincial and national levels.

The report notes that Karzai has supported increasingly repressive laws against women, most notoriously the " Taliban-style" Shia Personal Status Law, which not only legitimizes marital rape but prevents women from stepping out of their homes without their husbands' consent. The report points out that this law denies women even the basic freedoms guaranteed all citizens in Afghanistan's 2004 constitution.

In addition to these important points, an earlier part of the article addresses Resolution 1325, which Jones refers to as "...the most enlightened edict ever passed by the United Nations Security Council." More from the article:

Passed on Oct. 31, 2000, the resolution was hailed worldwide as a great victory for both women and international peace. In a nutshell, it calls for women to participate equally in all processes of conflict resolution, peacemaking and reconstruction.

The resolution grew out of a recognition that while men at the negotiating table still jockey for power and wealth, women who are included commonly advocate for interests that coincide perfectly with those of civil society. They are concerned about their children and consequently about shelter, clean water, sanitation, jobs, healthcare, education — the things that make life livable for peaceable people.

It's been nine years since I started doing aid work in Afghanistan, and I am frustrated by the lack of progress toward a peaceful and livable society.

Yet whenever I present my modest proposal for the implementation of 1325 to American big men who lay claim to expertise on Afghanistan, most of them strongly object. They know the theory, they say, but they are precluded from throwing their weight behind the resolution by delicate considerations of "cultural relativism." Afghanistan, they remind me, is a "traditional" culture when it comes to women. Westerners, they say, must respect that. [emphasis added]

This presents an opportunity to discuss the sociological concept of cultural relativism (named directly in this article). Considering the ways violence against women manifests in certain parts of Afghanistan (and other parts of the world), particularly those parts under Sharia Law, as well as the lack of power women hold across multiple institutional spheres, how culturally relativistic should the United States be in setting Afghan policy?

And furthermore, if the United States does intervene under the declaration of safeguarding and empowering Afghan women -- thereby not employing the concept of cultural relativism -- how should such an intervention actually look such that it is not a superficial veil that masks other international motivations?

See what kind of independent, critical thinking skills students can muster.

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Friday, January 14, 2011

The Social Construction of Beauty and Nationality

Caught this store on Honolulu. So Brazil gets associated with beauty, and beauty gets associated with musculature for men (well, 2 mannequins) and sex for women (quite a few more mannequins), and these associated perceptions get further institutionalized through a small business all the way in the middle of the Pacific. Hmm...doesn't Brazil have outrageous levels of plastic surgery?

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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

What if Jared Loughner had a Latino Last Name?

Over at "All Things Considered" on NPR, Daisy Hernandez explains the political fallout that would have likely emerged had Jared Loughner been Latino. Hernandez's viewpoints illustrate how our society operates as part of a social system, where an individual's actions are attributed to different causes based on racialized perceptions, and that result in differing, racialized policy efforts:

I wasn't the only person on Saturday who rushed to her Android when news came of the Tucson shooting. I wasn't looking however to read about what had happened. My auntie had already filled me in — "Someone tried to murder una representante. People have been killed," she'd reported. What I wanted to know was the killer's surname.

My eyes scanned the mobile papers. I held my breath. Finally, I saw it: Jared Loughner. Not a Ramirez, Gonzalez or Garcia.

It's safe to say there was a collective sigh of brown relief when the Tucson killer turned out to be a gringo. Had the shooter been Latino, media pundits wouldn't be discussing the impact of nasty politics on a young man this week — they'd be demanding an even more stringent anti-immigrant policy. The new members of the House would be stepping over each other to propose new legislation for more guns on the border, more mothers to be deported, and more employers to be penalized for hiring brown people. Obama would be attending funerals and telling the nation tonight that he was going to increase security just about everywhere.

Hernandez then goes on to state the social significance of a gay, Latino man coming to the aid of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, given Arizona's current political climate revolving around immigration:

It's painfully ironic that a gay Latino man came to the aid of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in the storm of gunfire. Daniel Hernandez, an intern with the congresswoman, ran to Rep. Giffords and helped to stop the bleeding. If a judge hadn't blocked provisions of Arizona's SB 1070 law, the intern's surname would have easily qualified him as a target for police under different circumstances on Saturday.

But because Loughner comes from the majority group in the United States (and Arizona),
his actions are not attributed to his social in-group, but instead to a unique mental illness that does not typify white males to a significant degree in the popular public consciousness. This perspective that does not associate Caucasians, or more to the point, political conservatives, with Loughner in any way is present in Sarah Palin's perspective:

Acts of monstrous criminality stand on their own. They begin and end with the criminals who commit them, not collectively with all the citizens of a state, not with those who listen to talk radio, not with maps of swing districts used by both sides of the aisle, not with law-abiding citizens who respectfully exercise their First Amendment rights at campaign rallies, not with those who proudly voted in the last election.

Really, had Loughner been Latino, would Palin be expressing similar sentiments? Or, would she be staunchly using the tragedy to heighten a culture of fear and drive American immigration policy in line with a nativist agenda? And seriously, for a former Vice-Presidential candidate to say that "Acts of monstrous criminality stand on their own" and are unaffected by any variety of other social circumstances is rather naïve. Agreed, we all have individual power, choice, and autonomy.

Likewise, we are all significantly influenced by our social surroundings. Automatically discrediting political ideology from Loughner's actions is as absurd as automatically attributing his actions wholly to his political beliefs and/or political loudspeakers. Considering that an assisination attempt was made on Congresswoman Giffords (an obvious political figure), political ideology should at the very least be explored as one variable that contributed to this tragedy.

Picture via
NPR (story also available for listening via podcast).

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Monday, January 10, 2011

Movie Review: The Fighter

On Saturday, I went to see The Fighter, a movie staring Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, and Amy Adams. The film recounts the real-life experiences of boxer, Micky Ward and his family en route to the pursuit of boxing greatness.

Unfamiliar with Ward’s boxing and family history, I cannot say how accurately the film narrates this period of his life. However, the film is a beautiful tale exemplifying the tensions that run through family, work, the criminal justice system, the boxing industry, and the working-class community of Lowell, Massachusetts in the early 1990s.

Based on the film’s trailers, one might expect a typical “underdog overcomes the odds” sports flick, supplemented with a tangential love interest and spattered family conflicts. While the sporting “underdog” narrative definitely exists, boxing is used more as a medium through which a deeper familial story is told.

The Fighter Trailers:

Christian Bale gives a phenomenal performance. Playing Micky Ward’s older brother, Dicky, Bale effectively illustrates how substance use turns into a coping mechanism when one’s identity is wrapped up so heavily in an erratic athletic career. Outstanding movie.

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Sunday, January 9, 2011

Distancing Mass Killings from Systemic Patterns

Criminologists have long lamented the ways that white males suspected of committing mass shootings and being serial killers are typically profiled. As the public discourse continues to develop regarding suspected shooter of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, 6 deceased and 14 additional wounded victims,
Jared Lee Loughner, we are seeing the typical pattern emerge among those on the conservative side of the political spectrum: the violence can be attributed solely to mental illness, and not to any systemic influences tied to political ideology.

Attempts to distance Loughner's alledged attack from right-wing political ideology have grown largely because Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik pointed out the possible ties between exaggerated, vitriolic political discourse and the violence that has now been thrust upon someone who was once targeted symbolically by Sarah Palin (see picture, top of post).

Now in reading through the posted explanations by those on the conservative right, we see an intensified attempt to maintain the typical explanation for mass violence committed by white males - the alleged white male suspect is an individual anomaly with mental illness who has no ties to any institutional groups and/or their influence.

In contrast, mass violence perpetrated by individual minorities is typically tied to the perpetrator's minority culture, weather that be a said culture of poverty, culture of terrorism, drug culture, etc.
SocProf explained this phenomenon first:

This list is quite long and definitely establishes a pattern of political violence. But if every incident is treated as an individual act, taken in isolation, and explained by reference to individual characteristics of the perpetrator, then, the social, political and cultural background disappears, leaving the emerging social movement unexplained and unaccountable.

It is a common phenomenon, long studied and explained by social psychology that when individuals from our in-group or privileged individuals commit questionable acts, these acts are explained individually. When individuals from out-groups, or groups that are socially unpopular, commit questionable acts, these acts are explained as part of group membership, as categorical. The former are exceptions, the latter are representative. That is how racial and ethnic prejudice persist and how white privilege is preserved. One only has to imagine what media discourse would be, had the shooter been non-White, Latino or Muslim.

It is not difficult at all to now find data illustrating this phenomenon while browsing through the comments of various news stories. Liz Halloran recently penned a piece on NPR titled "'Vitriol' Cited As Possible Factor In Arizona Tragedy" that as of 5:00pm Hawaii Standard Time has 2,701 reader comments. Here are few that demonstrate how individuals are trying to distance these violent actions from right-wing ideology (obviously, this is not a representative example, as I have not conducted a full content analysis with coding and accounting for "rec's"; these are simply a few examples):

  • Rhetoric is not the issue here...this was a lone nutbag, with his own mad view on things, hell bent on killing many. It's a shame that both sides are trying to reap some kinda political points for this. (Sunday, January 09, 2011 8:16:15 PM).
  • I listened to this Sheriff again this morning and he is completely out of line and is using this tragety to promote a political agenda and I hope the good people of Pima Co. remember this when he is up for re-election... Freedom of speech cannot be closed down because there are unbalanced people that will twist the meaning of what is being said into a call to kill people... This event was caused by this man's mental illness period. (Sunday, January 09, 2011 2:32:35 PM).

And this from Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash, "You know, his favorite books are 'the Communist Manifesto' and 'Mein Kampf.' I think it's important that we recognize that this is an individual that had -- that has mental challenges, and we need to act appropriately in dealing with him and making sure that justice prevails here" (emphasis added), contrasted with the following from Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md (FoxNews):

Far too many broadcasts now and so many outlets have the intent of inciting, and inciting people to opposition, to anger, to thinking the other side is less than moral. And I think that is a context in which somebody who is mentally unbalanced can somehow feel justified in taking this kind of action. And I think we need to all take cognizance of that and be aware that what we say can, in fact, have consequences.

Without jumping to conclusions, it is reasonable to entertain the possibility that exaggerated political discourse was a significant component in this tragedy. Shouldn't all possible contributors to physical violence be explored in order to prevent future violence? By being immediately defensive about the possible connections between vitriolic political rhetoric and physical violence, rational attempts to uncover all the underlying causes of violence are thwarted.

Suggested reading: "Climate of Hate"

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