Disciplining Discourse of Overwhelming Political Reaction

Or: Why Is there Still So Much Symbolic Violence in American Political Culture?

Trepidation is the word … I’m not terribly politically outspoken, but having dived into the problem of symbolic violence in American political culture, I have to continue swimming. Because what is at stake, in my view, is whether anthropological analysis and inquiry can really contribute to constructive dialogue and mutual understanding, rather than adding to the usual mutual inflammation with which critical academic, “progressive,” or “left-wing” voices and conservative, religious, “patriotic,” “right-wing” voices afflict each other. My trepidation comes from the fact that I have described the violence in the narratives that have moved Americans and shaped power relations, directly in contradiction to the values logically inherent in participant, deliberative democracy. It is clear that conservative political positions will tend to be those that support status quo power relations already historically shaped by violent narratives of exclusion–of Black people, Native Americans, poor immigrants of all sorts, the poorest and neediest in general. (Again, if you think I’m exaggerating, remember how George Washington’s military suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794 resonated so strongly in symbolically legitimizing the early Presidency, Federal power, and the very constitution of the United States as a sovereign nation, within and without its borders.) Thus, in focusing on narratives of violence, I am bringing out into the open symbols and stories that reinforce conservative taken-for-granted  positions. What I want to underscore, though, is that all humans have a tendency to be moved by dramatic, emotionally charged narratives of exclusion, as these have a mythologizing effect of defining the boundaries of ordered society. Defining certain people as outside of the cultural realm is dramatically constitutive of the boundaries of the cultural, civilized realm. To be sure, contemporary American conservative identities–from Tea Party conservatives vigorously seeking to scale back the role of government and taxation on every level, to evangelist Christians working to limit access to abortion or repeal Obamacare for purposes of defending religious freedom–are also strikingly shaped by violent narratives involving exclusion of others, especially involving the criminal justice and healthcare systems and the national security apparatus. Yet, the non-partisan albeit secular ritual–staged nightly on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report–satirizes hypocrisy, political expediency, and the absurdities of ideological political rhetoric, and in this ritualized context, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and their colleagues do not so much raise public consciousness and change daily engagement in democratic life, as they provide a shared experience in which the audience gets taken on a little, entertaining vacation from concerning political realities that many of us are just trying to deal with. These are rituals of political resilience that can create apolitical identity as much or more effectively as they can generate a symbolic focus on critical, thoughtful democratic engagement. Although Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have made extraordinary attempts to mobilize political engagement for a more reflective, critical approach to democratic participation and decision-making, they tend to constitute a small part of a the everyday lives of, at most, a minority of Americans. Secular rituals of exclusion in sports, however, get amplified in 24-hour sports media, on television, online, and on radio, paralleling the media rituals of exclusion in conservative and major progressive outlets alike. The other side is irrelevant or a threat to legitimate orderly, civilized democracy. I’ll admit up front that I certainly find myself on the side of many Democratic, progressive politicians, activists, and policy commentators when it comes to immigration, law enforcement, criminal justice and the prison system, voting rights, foreign and military policy, access to public education, and health care. This is because of the very reasons I’ve already outlined, that so much of our society is driven by violent narratives of exclusion, which have formed unjust ideologies of overwhelming political reaction. Yet, I can understand how and why many conservative Tea Party activitists, for instance, are so thoroughly shaped and moved by the narratives of exclusion in current immigration debates. I think we need a more comprehensive shift of engagement, one which may be ritually structured, but which must use contemporary electronic media in a creative, more effective way, emphasizing deliberation, respect, listening and a concern for mutually understanding the very basis by which diverse people create meaning in their worlds. How can we both invert the narrative from violence to compassionate inclusion and also increase awareness of how such narratives–whether inclusive or violently exclusive–tend to move our practices and beliefs, shaping our political values and engagement. Listen and be more aware of why you’re acting the way you do.