Wednesday, October 5, 2016

On Winning and Losing, Politics and Religion

There's a sort of running joke among colleagues in the field of religion that goes something like "as someone who studies religion, politics, and economic discourse, I am incapable of polite conversation."

This being said, I think it's time to take a deep breath and calm down a bit.

There was a vice presidential debate last night.

Before, during, and after the event, American newscasters and social media posts were clamoring to know/claim that one or the other had won the debate.  Afterwards, I offered the following assessment:

Across three social media platforms (facebook, twitter, and instagram) these comments have received 9 likes/hearts so I am *literally* lighting the internet world ablaze with my brilliance.

The post, though, gets at the idea that we are asking the wrong questions (every time I say this, Abbey says some variation of "that's all you ever say"...which is probably true). We ask the wrong questions because we all make assumptions of common ground.

Notice the "we" there - did you feel included or do you feel the urge to push back and wonder which group I'm including myself in? Maybe I'm trying to be relatable, including myself in your group so that we can come to a common conclusion.

So who won the debate?  Some say Kaine, some say Pence, some say this doesn't change anything because we all know who we were voting for.  Our assumptions were set (there I go with all that second person plural again, pay attention to that). But this is where I think the field of religion may be able to help us, assuming we are still relaxed from the deep breath we took at the beginning of this post many small, choppy paragraphs ago. Religionists specialize in examining, questioning, and critiquing ambiguity, assumptions and naturalized contingencies.

"Winning" is an ambiguous word when nobody is keeping score or elucidating rules. However, like the term "religion", we assume to know what it means (there is a definition we take as natural, obvious, or common-sense) until we are questioned a bit on what we assume and why it may matter.

Did Pence win the debate because he acted more in accordance with assumptions about how debates ought to function? Did Kaine win because he successfully achieved his campaign's own goals for the debate? Did we all win because we now have a firmer grasp on the most viable future for our country and a clear way forward?

How are we measuring winning or losing in this instance? Or should we keep assuming enough common ground to move forward without comparing criteria? Maybe we need binaries - a good and an evil, a just and an unjust, a sacred and profane, a winner and a loser - to make sense of the world? But why these binaries? How do we come to agreement on these categories? Their definitions? How do we enforce and reproduce them as natural?

If I had all these questions, I'd ask a scholar of religion.

Thanks for reading.