Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Omissions: #MeToo, Critical Identity Theory, and the Religious Studies Classroom

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Leslie Dorrough Smith, Avila University

As a person who teaches gender theory courses in addition to the usual religious studies regimen, I was prepared for having the #metoo conversation about systemic harassment and prejudice with my students last week. While that happened, perhaps the most unexpected feature of the conversation was the student who mentioned that she’d like to talk about the #metoo movement but wasn’t sure that it was apropos to our religious studies class. She knew that we spoke a lot about gender, race, sexuality, etc., but could we bring up that topic “in here”?

This conversation got me thinking about how we often fail our students in a religious studies setting by focusing too much on traditional conceptualizations of religion (that is, one grounded in beliefs and worldviews) even when we claim to take a critical approach. To be perfectly clear, by “failure,” I do not mean that we fail to indoctrinate students to take a particular position on various social issues. Rather, what I mean here is that we employ a highly-compartmentalized treatment of gender, race, class, and the like, wherein such topics are addressed with some finality (often once, in a particular week, later on in the semester), thus implying to students that religion is only sometimes about these most common methods of social power and categorization.

In fact, taking seriously that religion is a rhetorical strategy by which one group authorizes its claims over others means that we are always already talking about the various social modes of persuasion and habituation used to justify our classification practices. Under this more critical reading of religion, religious studies is about how human power strategies are deployed (via the very rituals, beliefs, ethics, and other “classic” categories that often populate our discipline’s syllabi) specifically in the name of regulating social groups; race, gender, sexual orientation, class, etc. are simply the names we give to our most popular forms of regulation.

From this perspective, the question then becomes whether humans consistently make transcendent appeals to justify the power relationships that they forge. This was the very question I asked my student when that #metoo conversation proceeded, for I hoped to help her understand that whether religious groups use the words “sexual harassment” or make moral claims against it is largely irrelevant if their role in their respective cultures involves endorsing the very power relationships that makes sexual harassment possible. With that said, we then talked about the power arrangements that sexual harassment both creates and endorses (misogyny, patriarchal authority, locating women’s worth and identity in their sexuality, etc.), and then asked whether we could find examples of religious groups that promote those same principles. Focusing on our own culture, we were then able to see how many major American religious groups promote such power differentials even when they simultaneously condemn harassment’s many forms.

As is often the case when studying culture, that opened up another conversation about what it means when a group actively says it promotes one thing but through its behaviors contributes to something entirely different (another post for another time, perhaps). But what I hope she came away with was the ability to re-hone her own inquiry such that she is able to ask the more etic question regarding whether transcendent appeals are ever used to justify strategic world-building activities rather than the more emic approach that uses religious insiders’ own claims (“Sexual harassment is a disgrace to God”) as the measure of their social engagement. For in the end, failing to ask questions in this way is a failure to ask about the various ways that humans constitute culture. And as I hope we know by now, if you’re not talking about culture, you’re not talking about religion. 

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