You Are Doing Theonormative Harm
For those unfamiliar with the situation underway in eastern Oregon, I recommend this piece, as I will be citing it later. And, before I begin, allow me to reflexively declare that I am a male, white, educated Quaker; I recognize that I am one who has the social capital to perpetuate theonormativity and benefit from it.
It may be time to start teaching classes on how to be responsibly internet active. The internet has become a quagmire of opinions, fallacies, and user-generated ‘laws’. My favorites are that of Poe’s Law and Godwin’s Law.
Godwin’s Law is fascinating, really. Attorney and author Mike Godwin avers that: ‘As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one’. Hitler was undeniably one of the most atrocious examples of human aggression (standing out amongst the other genocidal despots of the 19th and 20th centuries), so drawing such an analogy is tempting, as a trump-card, in an online ‘debate’.
I would aver that ‘terrorist’ has become one of our next go-to trump cards. And it is a very problematic one, at that.
Before I continue, please allow me to clarify so as to avoid being misunderstood. I think many of the recent events in the United States are rightly raising the question of what we label as terrorism. John Stewart’s passionate explication of the Charleston Shooting summarizes many of my – and my generation’s – thoughts on the matter: we need to liberalize our definition of the term ‘terrorist’, and apply it when it is fitting to a situation regardless of the nation, creed, religion, or race of the actor.
I would also like to say that in no way, shape, or form do I support those illegally occupying Malheur land. Though, it should be, and has been, said that considering that land as ‘legal property’ of the USA, and not those indigenous to the land is problematic, as well (Dunbar-Ortiz, 2014). I am one who is inclined to label this situation as terrorist activity on the grounds that it is:
- An individual acting with/for – or – a group of individuals;
- Committing violence against land and/or civilians (indigenous children are not going to school, currently);
- So as to push or establish a political agenda.
But herein lies one of the many problems: there is no single canonic definition of terrorism. In my Social Problems and Public Policy class, one of the assignments I have my students reflect on is to search out various definitions of the word. Miriam-Webster and the Oxford Dictionaries differ; both differ from the FBI definition; and the endless amalgamation of colloquial definitions – let alone other peer-reviewed or established ones – are staggering.
Moreover, we live in an arguably post-postmodern society (Yurner, T. 1996), where grand narratives have been so eschewed, and authority so challenged, that we are left – somewhat – to devise or compile our own definitions (cf. Baudrillard, 1981). The symbolic-interactionist in me says that this was a largely unavoidable evolution of our society. I am still weary of the implication that this holds: that those who are loudest, quickest, set the pace for internet discourse. Hashtags are very useful tools for spurring social action; they are mere tools, and when used irresponsibly, are very problematic, to the point of damaging the very cause they seek to spur.
In light of these preceding points, the ‘situation’ (as I will refer to it) in Malheur County, Oregon is astoundingly troublesome. A recent post on CulAnth – the journal of the Society for Cultural Anthropology – highlights one perspective from my field. Dr. Bendixsen’s analysis is astute. He posits, after a comprehensive recap of the situation itself, that neo-agrarian rhetoric, when mythicized, holds potential to bolster anti-governmental support.
Bendixsen’s conclusion, however, I consider a launch pad. He asks: ‘Can the label of terrorist stick to the American farmer or rancher’? I think the analysis needs to extend into semiotics. To further this already complex issue, certain hashtags have sprung up on the internet as witticisms to critique the situation. These hashtags have gained in popularity before being fully checked. The two such terms that I find most problematic with the situation in Malheur are #YallQaeda and #YeeHawd.
To return to my previous point on terrorism, our society quickly, and generally, associates terrorism to Islam, resulting in the spikes in Islamophobia which some in our society exploit to their benefit. Elements of the Arabic world – its language, politics, and religions – are no-ones toys to use as they see fit to lambaste people who oppose their political ideologies. This is, in fact, the definition of cultural appropriation: the illegitimate acquisition, and use, of cultural capital. The Western monopolized association of jihad to physical warfare (as opposed to the spiritual struggle within oneself against sin), is evidence enough of the problematic nature of non-muslims manipulating it for internet cultural capital.
Ultimately, all the hashtags #YallQaeda and #YeeHawd end up doing is reify our societal association of the Arabic world to terrorism. Or, though they associate the Malheur occupiers to terrorism, they do so in such a way as to create social distance between them and other, more palatable (read: non-Arab/non-muslim), white people (cf. Bourdieu, 1989).
Further, I would opine that the co-opting/willful manipulation of terms associated with the Arabic/Islamic world (#YallQaeda and #YeeHawd) is yet another facet/manifestation of theonormativity. I recognize the irony in my use of a term that does not have a canonic, peer-reviewed definition. A simple google search of ‘theonormativity’, depending on one’s browser history, will probably find a link to a clip from Chris Steadman talking at Georgetown University, as well as blogs, op-eds, and yours truly, on this site. Without a canonic definition, we must first define our term.
Like heteronormativity (which is a scholastically established term), theonormativity is a port-manteau. Theo- refers to a (very narrow) set of references to a deity, which is then amalgamated with -normative, which means ‘to establish as a norm’. Theonormativity, I argue, is the sum of all of the covert and overt, micro- and macro-level actions, statements, and beliefs that normalize one, very narrow, performance of [ir]religiosity.
How does this all relate? What does theonormativity have to do with Godwin’s Law? And what do both have to do with the situation in eastern Oregon, and the use of #YallQaeda and #YeeHawd?
How I see this in relation to the recent response to the ‘situation’ in Malheur can be articulated as questions: what position of privilege do non-Arabic whites and non-muslims have in co-opting, and willfully manipulating, words associated with the Arabic/Islamic world? Does calling the Bundy brothers ‘YallQaeda’ and using the manipulated ‘YeeHawd’ not reify the existing status quo association of Islam and terrorism?
As previously stated, American society has theonormatized the perceived Islamization of terrorism; that is, ‘terrorist’ appears to be a term reserved, by the mainstream news media, for muslims. One tweet quipped:
Today I learned: plural of armed black people is thugs plural of armed brown people is terrorists plural of armed white people is militia
— koush (@koush) January 3, 2016
Whilst the founder of ClockworkMod’s tweet is overtly about racial discrepancies and labelling theory (Mead, 1934), simply swapping in religious terminology does not invalidate the analogy. This returns us to Godwin’s Law, the takedown of terrorist posited above, and, via the exploration of the American Islamization of terrorism, begins to allow us – tenuously – to thread theornormativity into the tapestry. Thankfully, I am not alone in recognizing the limits of using these hashtags.
This is where I can return to my opening, that we need to be responsibly internet active. I am an adamant fan of puns, witticisms, Spoonerisms, and other forms of word play for humor. But I want to caution their use when they may hold problematic associations. Calling for a liberalization of the definition of terrorism to be extended to include non-brown, non-muslim individuals is a good and noble endeavor. But it is, inevitably, hampered by a neoliberal manipulation of words from Arab/Islamic root.
Baudrillard, J. [Trans. S. F. Glaser]. 1981. Simulation and Simulacra. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
Bourdieu, P. (1989). Social Space and Symbolic Power. Sociological Theory, 7(1), 14–25.
Dunbar-Ortiz, R. 2014. An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (ReVisioning American History). Boston, MA: Beacon Press
Mead, G. H. 1934. Mind, Self, and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Yurner, T. 1995. City as Landscape: A Post Post-modern View of Design and Planning, Taylor & Francis: London
Photo sourced from Wikimedia Commons.