Don’t Shoot, I’m Guilty


It’s me.

I was wondering if after all these years you’d like to think–that we are still pretty guilty of being racist.

Hi, my name is Gautam and I’ll be appearing on this blog throughout this year. I’ll usually try to keep it light and fun and hip and cool and relevant to however the kids these days like to do things around here, but today will be a little different.

Last week, a group that came to stock the East Campus Bridge’s walls with issues that were important to them in the context of the upcoming election came found slurs and malicious threats instead of the typical graffiti and events that you probably ignored. After documenting what was written and as (I’m assuming) fans of poetic justice, they quickly smothered the offending phrases with their own messages.

There is real hurt–individuals do feel unsafe inhabiting the same campus with those that think it is ok to use those words. It really is an injustice. But the question should not really be how we should react to achieve justice. Instead of looking for how we can get whoever painted those words to repent, we should look to making sure no one feels like it is ok to paint it in the first place. Instead of chasing the most obvious carrot hung in front of us by some sadist equestrian, we should buck the trend.

What I mean is that it is really easy to say that it was just one sociopath who just wanted to ruffle some feathers ( know, because that was my first reaction, too). So as a society,  we took some advice from Patrick Star to take all the guilt and externalize it.

But this solves nothing. Individuals are still affected by the presence of hate speech, regardless of who takes the blame. Externalizing the guilt invites me and others to be complacent in saying, “I’m cool. Don’t look at me. I’m not racist. I didn’t write that. I love my one black friend. He says I’m cool, too.” It’s the bystander effect. It happens all the time, but do we want to accept that?

I think real justice will come in a form that will not be obvious to us. Equality should be so ingrained into society that we do not notice it: I’m a PC/Linux guy, but I have to give a lot of respect to Apple for their design. A friend recently swapped out his hard drive for a much faster solid state drive on his MacBook. It’s cool and hip and can load Facebook like 0.3x faster, but now it’s physically way off balance. We don’t realize that Apple expends a great deal of its resources to perfectly plan out the placement of the components and weight it so that it is even. And being a PC guy, I can tell you that DEFINITELY has not been the case for my laptops. We do not realize it because we are not supposed to. In an even world, we are not supposed to know that there is a design in place to compensate for inherent inequities.

Bringing it back, I think we will only know that justice was achieved when we do not have these kinds of incidents. We will only “solve” the problem when there is not an incident to react to. By pushing the blame away, we lose any pull to act, and without that, there is no reason for anybody to change, especially since hate is much easier in anonymity. We will continue chasing one measly carrot while carrying a deadweight for miles unless we buck it and find our own sustenance. Or just curb stomping that horse rider.

So the question becomes: “Since these incidents keep happening, how do we influence others to stop thinking that hate speech is ok?” or “How do we influence people to recognize hate speech as hate speech?” or “How do we influence people to practice not only tolerance but understanding?”

On the flip-side, we know that there are individuals that truly lack empathy. Should we change our behavior depending on where it came from?


We Who Tell Many Stories: Gender and Representation in a Postmodern World

By Michaela Dwyer

I spend a lot of time thinking and talking about gender, art, and ethics, and this week more than usual. So think of this, if you’d like, as a piggyback post—at least in the art and ethics sense—to Nathan’s consideration of photographer Anthony Karen’s fascinating documentary photography of the Ku Klux Klan. This is part of a larger conversation about whether art is and should be political or politicized, which eventually, inevitably, circles back to that dreaded Philosophy 101 query: “what is art?” (see also: “what even is art anyway?”).

These are complicated and increasingly abstract questions already so I’ll jump back into the muck of the tangible. This past weekend I traveled to Boston and to the Museum of Fine Arts to see the photography exhibition She Who Tells a Story: Women Photographers from Iran and the Arab World. The exhibition description gives it to us straight: “These prominent photographers have tackled the very notion of representation with passion and power, questioning tradition and challenging perceptions of Middle Eastern identity. Their provocative work…provides insights into political and social issues, including questions of personal identity…in images of great sophistication, expressiveness, and beauty.” It’s worth noting that expressed as-is, these descriptive statements about the exhibition collectively evade its most (least?) common denominator: women—both artists and subjects—occupying space in a public (artistic, cultural, political) discourse largely dominated by men.

Shirin Neshat, ‘Roja,’ 2012.

Immediately after leaving the exhibition, I purchased the anthology Women Artists at the Millennium. It’s structured as a follow-up to art historian Linda Nochlin’s 1971 critical essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”—which I recall annotating intensely last year. Then, Nochlin wrote at the precipice of postmodernism, the eve of a seismic academic and cultural shift toward the recognition and discussion of identity politics—gender, class, ethnicity, race, sexuality, et al—in a new global society. As a 20-something of the 21st century, I remember my disappointment in Nochlin’s original essay: despite her feminist concerns, Nochlin hadn’t yet gotten with the postmodernist program to deal with contemporary aesthetic practices that were beginning to articulate feminism and women’s experience in new ways—practices like conceptual art, body and performance art, and photography. In the current anthology, Nochlin is still tethered to a white Western artistic canon populated by painters and sculptors; only, this time, a few more women artists are highlighted, and photography gets a mention.

In fact Nochlin cites Iranian-American photographer and filmmaker Shirin Neshat, whose large-scale portraits of Iranian women overlaid with Persian calligraphy are heavily featured in She Who Tells a Story. Neshat’s work explores Iranian expressions of womanhood in the context of strict social, cultural, and religious codes; this treatment is complicated, however, by Neshat’s self-imposed exile from Iran. Nearby in the exhibition is Iraq-born artist Jananne Al-Ani’s 1996 pair of photos (Untitled 1 & 2). Similar in scale to Neshat’s, Al-Ani’s two pieces line parallel walls that the viewer must stand between. When I encountered Al-Ani’s work, I had the distinct physical sensation of entering a potent women’s space. Each giant photograph shows Al-Ani, her three sisters, and her mother in successive stages of hijab—all facing the camera directly, all staring back at us, consigned and compelled viewers, as we meet their gaze.

Jananne Al-Ani’s ‘Untitled 1 & 2,’ 1996.

“Gaze” is an operative word here because, in a way, the work displayed in She Who Tells a Story collectively bucks traditional methods of making and viewing art. There is, crucially, the women-photographing-women dimension, a representational approach that systematically upends what Nochlin and other feminist scholars decry as the “male gaze.” As a woman and as a feminist viewer, I got the most out of the exhibition through this schema; I felt an intimacy with visual narratives that were not my own, but which felt connected to my experience as a woman in a society that I believe continues to be male-dominated. “Seeing is believing,” right?

And the works are indeed nuanced in both their content and mode of expression; what you’re seeing, or what the curator hopes you’re seeing, is not a prescriptive program on the oppression of women in the Arab world, but rather an illumination of their diverse lived experiences—political, politicized, and not.

But I’m uncomfortable even with the direct reference to this possibility of oppression. I’m not only a woman and a feminist viewer, but a white Western woman and feminist viewer standing in a Western art museum and looking (gazing, even) at Middle Eastern women seen through the eyes of Middle Eastern women artists. My understanding of any oppression I feel as a woman in Western society seems to clash with their lived experience—in hijab, in an Iraqi or Iranian town, in families where the role of a woman is clearly defined as subordinate to a man.

A while back, I talked with Caitlin M. Kelly, Kenan’s Graduate Arts Fellow, about what influenced the theme of the exhibition she’s curating this fall. She mentioned Wendy Hesford’s Spectacular Rhetorics: Human Rights Visions, Recognitions, Feminisms. In it Hesford discusses the tendency and danger of Western human rights campaigns understanding and deploying the “‘third-world woman’ as a singular monolithic subject”—a woman in hijab, devoid of context told in her own terms.


Newsha Tavakolian, ‘Dont Forget This Is Not You (for Sahar Lotfi),’ 2010

I feel a bit paralyzed in the gap here—similar to how I felt standing between Al-Ani’s pair of photos. Do I have a “right” to connect to these women because I’m a woman? Do our separate cultural experiences preclude empathetic understanding? Hesford advocates for  “scrutiniz[ing] the objectivist model of visual evidence” that “seeing is believing.” And I think it’s here, in this impulse toward the conscientious absorption of art—and thus our world—where I take comfort. To take serious interest and pleasure in experiences with which we are unfamiliar, and not to automatically believe them as ‘true’ according to a single cultural or political narrative. What we get when we pay for and shuffle through the museum are these complicated layers of representative experience(s); it is our responsibility, despite and in light of our own identity politics, to be critical, to open ourselves up to them, be free within them, and begin to grasp at what feels familiar inside the stories and images of others. In the words of another, one of the exhibited photographers, Newsha Tavakolian:

“I was raised with people trying to tell me what to do and think. Now I want those looking at my work to have their own opinions. I don’t want to enforce any ideas or views upon them. They are free.”

Much Ado About Foreskin

Is circumcision of young boys an affront on their bodily rights?


That is according to a regional court ruling in Cologne, Germany, last spring. This case arose after the circumcision of a four-year-old Muslim boy led to medical complications. The doctor who had performed the operation was taken to court and the court ruled that the boy’s “fundamental right to bodily integrity” had been violated. This ruling caused a lot of hue and cry among Muslims and Jews since they viewed it as an affront to their religious freedom. Although German lawmakers eventually passed a legislation that ensures that parents have a right to have their boys circumcised, this controversy touches on a lot of raw nerves. It is clear that while activists against female circumcision in most countries easily get their arguments across to the targeted societies, intactivistshave a hard time getting theirs across.

I find this particular case to be very interesting for many reasons. Beyond its medical benefits, circumcision means many things to different societies. For Jews and Muslims, circumcision is of great religious significance and has been practiced by these societies since time immemorial. For those African societies that practice it, circumcision is an important rite of passage that signifies a transition from childhood to adulthood. Some American and European societies also practice circumcision; and they too have their own reasons for doing so.

When social/religious practices conflict with personal rights/state laws, which one should take precedence? Does a boy born into a Jewish family have a right not to be circumcised? Obviously, an eight-day old boy cannot exercise such a right, so someone, usually the parent, assumes the responsibility. What happens then when the said boy later decides to renounce their religious beliefs? Or when he decides that the slight loss of sexual sensitivity as a result of circumcision is a big deal for him? Obviously, he cannot reverse the procedure. Could he then possibly sue the parents and the hospital for doing that to him? Or the state for allowing the parents to do ‘such grievous harm’ to his body?

Another twist to the circumcision issue is when national laws or beliefs conflict with the practices of one particular society within the country. Do the majority get to decide for the minority whether they get to keep a distinct part of their culture? While there exists grounds for arguing whether the German court was right in some sense, it is doubtful whether we can say the same about the guys who did this!

The German case has another dimension to it beyond that of the merits/demerits or circumcision and religious/personal rights. The fact that Germany has a long and tragic history of anti-Semitism immediately throws the other arguments out the window. While it is true that in Germany, circumcision is “unfamiliar to the general public, even to most lawmakers”, it is very important to think about the message such a ruling sent to the world about how Germans (or their judiciary) feel about minority groups in their society. To the court, it might have been a straightforward case of what the law allows and doesn’t, but it sure did appear otherwise to the world.


“Shifts ran 24 hours a day, and the factory was always bright. At any moment, there were thousands of workers standing on assembly lines or sitting in backless chairs, crouching next to large machinery, or jogging between loading bays. Some workers’ legs swelled so much they waddled.  “It’s hard to stand all day,” said Zhao Sheng, a plant worker.”

Reading this excerpt, save for the word ‘bright’, one would think that they were reading about the horrible working conditions that existed in factories in Western Europe during the Industrial Revolution. But lo and behold, this is an excerpt from the article “In China, Human Costs Are Built Into an iPad” that ran in the New York Times on January 25th 2012 detailing the horrible working conditions in a Foxconn factory in Chengdu, China. Foxconn is one of Apple’s largest suppliers, assembling iPads and other electronics. Like its 18th century predecessors, Apple has mastered the art of capitalism, milking every last bit of value out of labor in the pursuit of higher profits.
Continue reading “iSlave”

Jail Cell Too Small or Prisoner Too Big?

Ever since the war on terrorism, torture has been a heatedly debated topic in this country. However, a story in The Netherlands provides a unique twist to this conversation.
A Dutch prisoner recently sued the government for “torture” because his jail cell is too small; or rather he is too big. The court ruled against Angelo MacD, who weighs 230 kg (approximately 506 pounds) and is 6 feet and 9 inches tall. In fact, MacD does not seem to be exceptionally obese, but rather just tall, big, and heavy. The court affirmed that the prisoner’s conditions are not inhumane.
His lawyer argued that this violates the conditions of detention outlined in the European Convention on Human Rights. I do not think that this case can be compared to “torture” and I do not think that the prison system is deliberately designed to cause pain to people of a big stature, like MacD.
So how bad could his conditions be?

Continue reading “Jail Cell Too Small or Prisoner Too Big?”