more Culture Digitally scholars reflect on the election and our scholarship going forward

Below is a second wave of comments from Culture Digitally scholars, grappling with the U.S. election and its implications for our scholarship. (First post is available here.) Read through, or skip to contributions from Mary Gray, Kate Miltner, Ted Striphas, Ilana Gershon, P. M. Hillier, and Mike Ananny

As we said yesterday, we know the scholars in this community cannot address every issue that’s likely on the horizon, but we think our work touches a surprising number of them. The kinds of questions that motivate our scholarship — from fairness and equity, to labor and precarity, to harassment and misogyny, to globalism and fear, to systems and control, to journalism and ignorance — all of these seem so much more pressing now then they did just a few days ago. If we’re going to have four years of a Trump presidency and all that goes with it, and one way we can respond is through our scholarship, we want to start today in stridently moving that forward.

Tarleton and Hector

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Mary Gray – Pedagogy of Queer Ruralities

I spent a great deal of the last decade in some of the overwhelmingly white, rural and poor counties that came out in force to vote for Trump on Nov 8. That was my base for the fieldwork I did that informed my arguments in Out in the Country. I made a case, through the vantage point of queer and questioning rural young people, that material dependency renders queer visibility in the rural United States a complicated and vexing identity to claim. Registering as familiar—being someone’s child or cousin or neighbor—was how queer-identifying and questioning young people made their communities habitable. They did it through connecting with other communities of difference and marginalized identities. And they found ways to work the boundary publics of their local stores, parks, schools and digital media to find each other and be seen and heard locally. As much as I feel pained by how racism and calls to protectionism and exclusion played out in those regions, I am just as certain that the coalitional politics of places like rural Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, among other disregarded “red” or “fly over” states, hold key political lessons that we must learn if we are to have any hope of an inclusive, democratic future. There’s nothing like moving to a bastion of blue politics—Massachusetts—to convince me of how desperately we need the political strategies of queer folks who’ve weathered red states. Their tactics will save our bacon Tuesday, November 3, 2020.

Put another way, the thing helping me feel like the world will be ok and move forward in a positive way next week and the week after that:

Every young person I’ve worked with in the types of rural counties that voted for Trump are far more like the typical, loving kids we assume come only out of liberal or progressive parents and communities. The truth is that the electoral map is primed to bend toward a radical progressivism. These rural young people live in more diverse communities that will only deepen in hue and texture the next 5 years, defying the efforts of their forbearers to ethnically cleanse them with “Sundown” laws. These young people are not protectionist nor hunkered down with anger and fear–those are positions that their elders have taken because they feel under siege and the nation state and private sectors alike have abandoned them as lost causes. We have to find a way to make sense of the hatred that surrounds these young people but we would be foolish to assume that it defines them or those many unregistered voters in their towns—young and old—who are disenfranchised and left to fend for themselves, absent of political support and solidarity from better-funded progressive movements in urban centers.

What rural young people and their city peers voting in the next election need are economic opportunities that consider them deeply—don’t just tell them to move to leave their hometowns or “skill up” as if that was the remedy to growing economic disparities and inequality. They (we) need models of adults struggling to understand each other’s fears and pain without dismissing each other as stupid or gullible. How about a conversation that sounds like “I recognize how privileged I am that I no longer have to worry about my health/economic security/food security/educational opportunities…what I can do to change things so that that is equally true for you and your family?” That will be the beginning of a political movement that brings democratic process and justice to a greater portion of the electoral map. There is no substitute for compassion when it comes to non-violent collective action. This is how coalitional queer politics works in rural communities. It’s worth following their lead.

Some of us have weathered way too much direct anger to be the frontlines of this effort. This is ABSOLUTELY a time for self-care, if ever there was one. For anyone who’s had the privilege of feeling safe and secure from physical and financial threat, this is the time to make a difference in the lives of those who rarely feel that comfort. We can take turns, tag-team style, so that none of us get exhausted and lost along the way. But let’s be sure to listen and learn from those struggling in the same rural areas that we may be ready to write off (again) as they have weathered far more abandonment and marginalization than many reading this missive likely have or ever will.

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Kate Miltner

The weekend before the election, I gave a short talk at a non-academic conference about how the values of technology companies/institutions contribute to inequitable representations of raced and gendered bodies on networked technologies. However, as I was writing the talk, I was concerned that it would be old news: this material is foundational in my academic (and even social) circles, and perhaps it was too obvious a point to make.

Instead, a wide variety of people came up after the talk and expressed their surprise about the research featured in the presentation. The work that I feared was too obvious was eye-opening to people outside my academic bubble, and it is this realization that has inspired no small amount of contemplation on my part since the results came in on Tuesday night.

Over the past 36 hours, I have been thinking about a way forward, about how I can personally make a difference as we head into what will be an arduous battle to protect the rights and safety of the marginalized and vulnerable groups in American society. As a researcher who focuses on technology, gender, race, and inequity, I realize that I have something to offer in this coming fight– but only if I can reach people outside of my educated, left-leaning world.

Seth Lewis wrote about the “filter bubble” election yesterday, and I think that academia in general has a filter bubble problem. I don’t mean this in the sense of blue Facebook/red Facebook or New York Times vs. Fox News—which is not to say that those things aren’t an issue, because they clearly are. However, we frequently preach to the same choirs, over and over; the people who know our work and who agree with our ideas are usually not the people who should be hearing them, who need to access to them. The (pay)walls of the Ivory Tower are still fortified.

I feel strongly that in order to make a bigger impact, to make a bigger difference, we need to do a better job of reaching out to the communities who would benefit most from the insights of our work. How do we do a better job of engaging with the public, in engaging in a social justice praxis? How do we turn our work into tools for marginalized groups to help defend themselves from persecution, and how do we do a better job of amplifying their voices in our positions of privilege?

Combating the toxic extremism, racism, and other forms of injustice we will be faced with in the coming months and years will require some serious coalition-building. How can we as researchers be a meaningful part of that effort? I hope that at least part of the work that we embark on in the coming weeks and months helps to answer this question.

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Ted Striphas – Shoulda Seen it Coming

This Presidential election cycle reversed the old Marxist shibboleth: it began as farce and ended in tragedy. But let’s not over-romanticize either of the choices. Both President-elect Trump and Secretary Clinton were deeply problematic candidates. Even Clinton, whom I supported, I supported with gritted teeth. I would have shared in the sense of progress and possibility had the first female President of the United States been elected, but neither candidate played fair in this election. Clinton didn’t lose the election. The American people did.

I write this from the National Communication Association convention in Philadelphia, where the mood is despondent, but resolute. And here as elsewhere, there’s a lot of finger-pointing about who or what tipped the balance of the election to produce such a stunning upset. It was the white working class. It was the men. It was the evangelicals. It was the third party candidates. It was their supporters. It was the over-reliance on big data. It was Twitter. It was the Facebook filter bubble. It was Mark Zuckerberg. Several commentators on Culture Digitally have pointed out how singular causes are insufficient to explain the Trump victory. They are correct, and from a scholarly standpoint this needs to be our baseline: resist the too-easy explanations that allow one factor, or even one set of factors, to elide the complex whole. Trump was elected for all of the reasons listed above. And he was elected for none of them.

How to move on? That seems to be the question on everyone’s mind right now, at least among those who feel wrecked by the Trump victory. Mobilizing against Trump is an utmost priority. Yet, it seems to me we should be asking at least one additional question: how did so few of us foresee the outcome?

We’ve been down this road before, in the 1970s. Thomas Streeter is right to have mentioned Stuart Hall, who, along with several of his graduate students, published a book called Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order. It is perhaps best example of Cultural Studies produced in the English-speaking world. This is so because it predicted, among other things, the rise to power of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, not to mention the new dimensions of race, ethnicity, class, and nationalism her administration both embodied and amplified.

There is, to my knowledge, no comparable work predicting Trump’s rise. And so, add to the long list of responsible parties: we, the scholars. This election should compel us take a good, hard look at our intellectual practices, and to ask difficult questions about the directions in which we’ve been headed of late. Have Actor-Network Theory, Speculative Realism, Object-Oriented Ontology, STS, or other theoretical flavors-of-the-month managed to produce insight—indeed, foresight—comparable to what Stuart Hall and his colleagues produced 40 years ago?

I pose this question not with the intention of rejecting these scholarly movements wholesale, but rather to ask if they’re up to the task of grappling with a deeply and profoundly complex political context whose outcome was, after a period of many years, the election of Donald J. Trump. Indeed, perhaps it is time people returned to Cultural Studies, whose critical, politics-first approach, coupled with its refusal to allow theoretical and methodological formalism to substitute for analysis, has fallen somewhat out of favor in the contemporary academy, particularly in the United States—the country that just elected Donald Trump.

Perhaps the two events are not unrelated.

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Ilana Gershon

In the past, I have taught an undergraduate class on the anthropology of democracy every fall that there is an election.  Teaching this class in Indiana is challenging, my classes have students from all over the political map. I spend a lot of time addressing how important it is to find ways to have civil conversations across political divides. This is the first fall that I decided not to teach the class. There were a number of reasons why I choose not to, but in the aftermath of this election, one reason stands out for me in particular. The last time I taught this during an election cycle, a Republican student came up to me and asked me not to always circulate newspaper articles from such a lefty paper. I was confused – what paper? She answered: The New York Times. I was so surprised that I asked her what counted as a down-the-middle or acceptably objective news source for her, but she had no answer to that question. I didn’t want to teach the course again during such a heated moment (although I teach it other semesters) until I could figure out for myself how to address the fact that what I considered a newspaper of high quality that aims for even-handed coverage was something half my class probably thought was hopelessly biased.

I bring this up because I am so struck by how much of this election revolved around contradictory understandings of what counts as evidence and what counts as expertise. Newspapers and magazines in unprecedented numbers endorsed Hilary Clinton, or anyone who wasn’t Trump. I believe that only six newspapers endorsed Trump. Yet this did not persuade those voting. Indeed, as far as I can tell, many news stories about Trump were discredited precisely because the putatively liberal media was reporting these stories. Trump consistently in his rallies told people that journalists all lied, and that they couldn’t trust media outlets. Pollsters got things wildly wrong this time, and in part because more people hung up on them immediately upon hearing they were being polled.

At the same time, we had one of the most experienced candidates running against a victorious candidate who has no experience in public office.

I am left wondering what counts as evidence and what counts as expertise for Americans who vote these days. I think that this is only a small part of the story. I can’t help seeing the election as a referendum on neoliberalism. Trump is so resolutely against neoliberal economic policies, against free trade and free flows of people, and against the stable contracts between businesspeople/corporations that neoliberal businesses require in order to function. And Clinton was so clearly a spokesperson for established neoliberal principles that some on the left were uncomfortably voting for her. So perhaps what counts as knowledge for the American electorate is only one small part of the pie. But this is what has me more baffled than anything else about what just happened. What counts as persuasive for half the country? So when asked to think about where I should direct my expertise, I can’t help wondering what many who voted on Tuesday think it means to establish expertise or provide convincing evidence.

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P. M. Hillier – My Dad Voted for Trump

My dad’s a decent fellow. Navy veteran, served during the Vietnam War. Worked a series of jobs from bank security to driving a truck, doing none of them for no other reason than to shelter, feed, clothe, and sometimes entertain a family, and to fund his own minor interests, most of all his real love, golf. He’s a boaster, occasional liar, and has always bought more rounds of beer for the table than anyone else. He loves the Pirates and Steelers, but never in that obnoxiously obsessive way. It’s fine if they lose and he doesn’t give a shit who you root for. He’s been suckered out of good money by con men in his life, promising riches in undiscovered oil or a stake in a new invention, and it wouldn’t surprise me to hear of his involvement in another get-rich-scheme before it’s all said and done. He plays the lottery, even the pick three. He gave my eight-year-old daughter his old military dog tags. She thinks he’s pretty cool. I tell her nothing to dispute that view. A gift to my dad or to my daughter? I don’t know.

My dad’s thrilled Trump won, but I had to coax that out of him. He’s been afraid to show his affection for Trump to anyone, especially his kids, lefties two of us are, largely because my dad would just prefer to avoid confrontation these days. He had a Trump yard sign for the last month of the election, though, and he said several neighbors visited him after the election to share their own excitement.

Is my dad a racist? I guess that all rests on what you consider a racist to be. Is my dad unaware of his lifelong white privilege? Yep. Is he ignorant to the lives and voices of POC? Yep. Is he sometimes shallowly judgmental of cultural and religious backgrounds that appear different from his own? Yep. Will he pop out “but I know black people so I can’t be racist” when he thinks he’s being accused? Yep. I know ticking even one of these boxes makes him a racist to many, in that his worldview reinforces the structure of a society in which anyone who’s not-white is positioned as an outsider, too often a threat. He’s contributed to the power of exclusion in that way.

Is my dad sexist? Yeah, he’s an essentialist when it comes to gender. He’s of course not alone. I wish that wasn’t the case. Is he misogynistic? I can tell you he, like so many others, loathed Hillary Clinton. I’m not defending him, but I do think it’s possible to dislike HRC for her politics alone with absolutely nothing to do with her as a woman. That’s what my dad will tell you. And to be fair, he’d vote for Sarah Palin over any male Democrat you can name. My dad would probably like to sleep with Sara Palin, too, and I know that aspect makes him a misogynist to many eyes.

Did my dad vote for Trump because he’s a racist, sexist, misogynistic, bigot who wants to return to a time in America that never existed except on TV? Sure, in good part. My dad’s never expressed any admiration or even a dislike for any President, of any time, but the U.S. with Obama in office lasted way too long for him. For my dad, I think Trump and, yes, all his vulgar rich-white-male-privileged generational ways stands as a welcome corrective. And Trump isn’t a politician! Finally, seriously, someone my dad can identify with in politics! This is the first time in HIS lifetime he’s seen himself reflected in office. I think that’s something a good number of people in this country can understand, even if they’re appalled at the reasons why.

I’m not defending my dad. He’s played a role in the genuine national nightmare to come. But I’m a little more upset at the people who demanded Clinton be the nominee at the expense of the alternative (yes, I’m talking Sanders) and who have for far too long now treated anyone who doesn’t share their own worldview as uneducated scum. And they continue very loudly today, as many liberal pundits and left-leaning personalities (I’m talking Aaron Sorkin) demand a spade be called a spade, that Trump voters be called out for being the racist misogynists that they are. “It’s THEIR fault! Look at who and what they voted for!”

Is screaming to someone that they’re a racist or sexist ever going to get them to see the error in their way? Seriously? How does that not cause a person to retreat, fight back, and, yes, vote for Trump? Can I add my name to the list of people who think this is a fundamentally flawed strategy? Save a disturbed few, racists and sexists generally don’t like being called those names, perhaps because they don’t see themselves that way.

In terms of political strategy, where’s the compassion? Where’s the liberal tolerance I know these pundits and tweeters demand from others? Why can’t this particular cultural group be treated with understanding as well? I’m not saying RESPECT another when they hold an abhorrent view, but when the group who holds these views is so obviously large, shouldn’t a bit of sympathetic analysis be in play? Can we not appreciate we live in a brutal world? The vast majority live paycheck-to-paycheck, a missed one away from tragedy, which of course doesn’t excuse bigotry but also isn’t the kind of condition that lends itself to brotherly love. Do we not have evidence all around that the only thing you should be concerned with is yourself? Simple example, if your car gets stolen the first thing people will ask is if you left the keys in it. If so, it’s YOUR fault, end of. Few people care about anyone else beyond their own family because the very structure of society seeks to prevent it. Individual in-service on unconscious basis isn’t a social solution here.

I wish my dad hadn’t voted for Trump. But Trump wasn’t HIS fault, and it’s condescending at best to call my dad a misogynist or racist, even if he is one, because he’s the kind that’s a heck-of-a-lot-more socially complicated than the cartoonish bigot your privileged education imbibed. I’m not asking people to respect him or his fellow Trump voters, but I am please asking otherwise-decent liberals to rethink their strategy of shame and humiliation. Individuals have all kinds of flaws, and, again, I well know some of those flaws are detrimental to other people. No one should tolerate hate. But I think the stakes in all of this are social forces, and if we want to change this racist, sexist world – count me in here – I don’t think repeatedly telling this many people they’re wrong or uneducated is going to do a damn bit of good.

Want to change things? Help create an economic system that doesn’t keep people in a perpetual state of anxiety. Forget changing individual hearts and minds. Change the way people LIVE. Work on making life easier and more comfortable for ALL. That’s the central task right now and will remain in the months and years to follow, not dismissing a great many people as narrow-minded or ill-informed. Change the system and we’ll change hearts and minds along the way.

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Mike Ananny – Teaching on Day 1 of Trump (cross-posted at the Social Media Collective)

I didn’t have a chance to contribute to this collection yesterday because I was trying to figure out how to prepare a lecture on the networked press to a class of undergraduates I’d never met before. Months ago, I agreed to give a guest lecture in Henry Jenkins’s Communication & Technology class and it never occurred to me that November 9th would be such an ominous day.

I hadn’t slept the previous night as I tried to quell a dizzying headache and nausea, thinking about what I could possibly say to students about how a field I’m supposedly an expert in got everything so wrong. I spent the morning avoiding news coverage, deeply angry at an institution I’m supposed to be invested in. Instead, I played with different lecture openings, looked at old slides, arranged and rearranged arguments I’ve made countless times before. I thought that I’d just rely on a PowerPoint deck I knew well, get through the 90 minutes, and return to my fog.

Time eventually ran out, I bundled up my preparation as it was, and made my way to campus.

I walked into the room still unclear about what I’d say. I didn’t know these students (I was the guest lecturer) and, after seeing several “Make America Great Again” t-shirts on campus the previous day, I wasn’t sure what they’d be feeling. I mentally prepared myself for everything from tears (theirs and mine) to being drawn into an encounter with celebrating Trump supporters.

I began class. I asked them to put away their laptops and had the lingerers in the back come up to fill out the front row seats.

I started honestly: I told them that I didn’t really know how to begin, that I’d never led a class like this on a day like this, and that I wasn’t even sure this was where I wanted to be right now. Their smiles, nods, and knowing glances at each other put me at ease.

I asked them why they studied Communication. I told them why I did. I told them that our jobs as Communication scholars was to figure out why people act together, build meaning, and share consequences. And I told them that there was never a more important time for us to be world-class at what we did. I told them that we can’t make the mistake fish make: they don’t know what water is because they’re always swimming in it. We can’t not think critically about media because it’s all around us and we think we have little power to shape it.

I asked them to take out a piece of paper and free-form write for 7 minutes on two questions: what do you want from online news? And what do we need from online news? They wrote and I stared out the window.

When the time was up we talked about similarities among their individual desires, where they thought those desires came from, how hard it was to define a “we”, and whose responsibility it was to differentiate a want from a need. All of their comments were peppered with stories from the previous night: how confused they were about what was happening, how unexpected everything was, how disconnected they’d felt from pro-Trump parts of the country. It was exhausting, they said, to have to individually create media worlds that challenged what their instincts made them want. They didn’t know what a public might need from the news. They assumed that the news media knew. And they talked about “objectivity” and “balance” and “neutrality” in all the ways students usually do when they first start thinking about journalism.

I then went old-school. We talked about James Carey’s transmission versus ritual models of communication. I channeled my advisor Ted Glasser to argue that the press exists in traditions not nature (news is never found, it is always made). We looked at the history of the AP Style Guide to see the contingency of language: e.g., how it took the New York Times a long time to call women anything other than “Miss” or “Mrs.” (“why were woman ever defined by their marital status?” one female student said) and why the Times called gay men “longtime companions” instead of lovers or partners in AIDS plague obituaries. We talked about the difference between writing “illegal” versus “undocumented” immigrant. We talked about why the AP captioned an image a young person of colour wading through chest-high water carrying food as a “looter” versus why the Agence-France Presse said two white people in a similar photo were “finding” bread. We talked about gender, and orientation, and race and I claimed victory when one student said “it seems like objectivity is just a construct.” Yes, yes, yes.

We then looked at Pew stats on social media and the news. We looked at data, asked questions about where it came from and what it meant, and tried to write headlines for stories that might be written about the findings. One student said she was “angry” at her Facebook algorithm for keeping from her news about the rest of the country; she’d assumed that her feed of Hillary supporters was similar to everyone else’s. She didn’t understand why a friend in Georgia texted her to say she was nervous about Trump winning because Hillary’s impending win was “all over social media”.

One student asked when news organizations began endorsing candidates and whether such endorsements mean anything anymore. We looked at Pew’s stats about how Republicans, Democrats, and Independents use social media differently, questioned their significance, and started asking questions about the people who weren’t showing up in social media statistics. For me, the best conversation came just as class was about to end. I asked “if many people are getting their news from social media, why don’t platforms endorse candidates?” and one student replied “because they think they’re being neutral and objective, just like the press thought it was.”

I know there are ongoing debates about the empirical bases for filter bubbles and how it’s incredibly hard—and dangerous—to track media circulation using media effects methodologies. That wasn’t the point of our discussion. It was to be fish who noticed and thought about the water. It was to ask new and uncomfortable questions about platforms and news. It was to demand different kinds of data. It was to challenge the wisdom and sincerity of tech leaders who say they’re running technology companies, not media companies. It was to refuse to accept that media systems are only the responsibility of individuals tasked with figuring out the differences between what individuals want and publics need. It was to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past: eras not when “we” thought it was okay to run sexist, homophobic, racist media systems but when those with the power to make such systems thought such failures were acceptable artifacts of chasing the myth of objectivity.

I’ll be honest that teaching hasn’t always been the favourite part of my job. I do it, I’m not terrible at it, I sometimes admire and learn from some of my students, and every now and then I get a high from a class well taught or a student who “gets it” and helps us both see the world differently. But yesterday’s class reminded me of what it sometimes felt like to go to church. Teaching felt like a form of communion: a way not only to transmit information but critically, reflectively, constructively figure out what it means to live together. This is the spirit of the media systems we need now more than ever, that I’m re-energized to help build through teaching and scholarship.

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