My personal blog–like my website in general–is intended to serve academic purposes, even when I’ve engaged in some light political satire. However, over the past week I’ve been rattled, though not surprised, by the scandal surrounding Trump’s comments on women and how this election cycle has become a pitiful and disgusting cycle of ignorance and dehumanizing discourse. So I want to touch on one ray of light in this entire process, for out of the political decay all around us, an important and pressing set of social issues are being raised (finally!) for public discussion far beyond the walls of academia and activist groups. Just watch this video:
I’m sharing this widely viewed video, not simply as another political statement (yes, I want to see Clinton in the White House), but because Michelle Obama–like her husband–is one of the most amazing public figures in this country, a voice of reason and integrity. Over the past year I have been dismayed and disgusted by the various political voices that I’ve heard and by the divisions and xenophobia increasingly defining America. But when I look at someone like the Obamas, I am inspired, encouraged, and oddly I even have a glimmer of hope for the future.
And let me add, that fighting for women’s rights–human rights no less–should be something that stands above partisan politics. As a society, we should (and yes this is a moral statement, my purely academic hat is off for a moment) fight for the rehumanization of the dehumanized, to protect the personhood and value of each member but especially those members of society that face attempts at disempowerment by those who would claim power on the shattered lives of those they are willing to crush. If a society cannot, or will not, stand for the oppressed and fight for the respect for all of its members, then that society should not exist. I believe that was a founding principle of the Declaration of Independence.
As an immigrant to this country, I have found the Obamas to be one of the greatest inspirations I’ve had for wanting to stay here, to naturalize and to become a fully integrated member contributing to my community. When I hear the hateful and ignorant comments by someone like Trump or his supporters (and even by some who have pulled their support for him!), it makes me want to run for the border, to escape a rising dictatorship founded upon xenophobia and hate. But then I watch a speech like this one by Michelle Obama, and I am reminded that there is still good in this country, that the amazing principles and values of this country are still alive and embraced.
This semester I am teaching a course on “Theorizing Religion and Violence”–and one of the key principles we’ve discussed is the idea that violence is not just action. Acts of violence are framed through social structures, structures reinforced by processes of socialization. Many scholars have explored systemic or structural violence, of course. However, as I’ve told my students social structures are do not simply exist. Rather, structures are centered upon and legitimized by conceptual frameworks or worldviews (to evoke a now classic term, habitus). What Michelle Obama attacks here is not simply acts of violence against women, nor social structures or policies that oppress women. She gets at the heart of the problem; i.e., the “thingifying” of women, the violation of personhood (to evoke Robert McAfee Brown), the transformation (to evoke Simone Weil) of a subject into an object.
Objectification–i.e., dehumanization–is not simply an act of disempowerment. It certainly does disempower one group (be that an ethnic, racial, gendered, or religious group), but it also empowers another group. Power is a kind of capital, a currency that is moved from one ledger to another, from one pocket to another pocket. It doesn’t just disappear, it is claimed by other social actors. So when a political figure engages in the dehumanization of women, and subsequently trivializes such dehumanization, we need to ask: What is gained and for whom? How are social structures shaped, directed, or dismantled? What concerns, perspectives, or values are obscured so that other interests are brought to the foreground of public attention?