Mascot Ragnarok, pt. 1 -- Representation without representation


This post is a follow up to the AS Elections series: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

This post series of posts is going to be a rather odd one. The first few sections I wrote under the intended title of "AS Elections 2015: Representation Without Representation," addressing the initial mascot stupidity and the messaging of the WWU Associated Students. Then some shit went down, and things became, well, problematic. I can't in good conscience keep the rest of my thoughts under the same title, so I'm adding this intro by way of disclaimer. Yes, I have another post about the racist pricks who decided it would be "top kek" to "joke" on anonymous social media about lynching people. I also have some criticism of the WWU AS, though, and more importantly I don't want one criticism obscuring the other. Since the AS did some questionable things first (and I'll make a hub post with a timeline, maybe) this critique comes first. Here we go:

I.

Last year, as a sort of farewell to my alma mater, I wrote a series on the current elections for the board of the Associated Students. Why? The short answer is as follows.
  1. The Associated Students of WWU is one of the largest, best-funded Associated Student organizations among colleges of a similar size. The AS budget is around $2.6 million, according to the Budget Office.
  2. The WWU AS is largely run by students, with a minimal amount of non-student support staff. While there is some bureaucratic cost to this—high turnover, lots of part-time positions over more consolidated full-time positions—it's definitely a good opportunity for students to get involved.
  3. The WWU AS has the potential to greatly shape student life on campus. Western has no Greek system and no football team, so extracurricular campus activities are largely the province of Associated Students proper, or one of the hundreds of student-created, student-led clubs.
  4. The 2015–2016 elections for the AS Board of Directors had the lowest voter turnout in the history of the Associated Students, a pathetic seven percent.
  5. The AS Board had for some time, including among the candidates who ran (mostly unopposed) for office in 2015, talked a big game about representation and student empowerment, particularly for diversity's sake. While the 2015–2016 Board is probably the most diverse in AS history, seven percent isn't even a majority of the students of color, assuming only students of color voted in the election!
And now, at the behest of a professor in the Communications Studies faculty (cue all the jokes), some in the Associated Students board members are discussing a change to the school mascot, because Vikings are too violent and masculine and white. (Cue more jokes.)
The idea of changing the mascot was brought up at an Associated Students Board meeting earlier this month. Abby Ramos, the AS Vice President for Diversity, said that this conversation started in the summer to discuss changing the mascot to be a more inclusive figure.


Ramos and AS President Belina Seare received a letter from communications studies professor Michael Karlberg regarding the mascot.

“I think this mascot also reflects a sort of hyper masculine, hyper violent sort of image which is doubly problematic. I think we really ought to reconsider,” Karlberg said.


[...]

“I was trying to invite a conversation about whether or not the mascot supports our commitment to diversity, our commitment to create a more safe and attractive and inclusive environment on campus,” Karlberg said.


Ramos had a personal interest in the matter, and decided to reach out to Karlberg when she assumed her position as vice president of diversity,


“[The mascot] doesn’t portray students of color on this campus and it can be very exclusive to students who are potentially looking at coming to Western,” Ramos said.

It's not much of a shock, really. More interesting, though, was this Facebook post on the Associated Students official Facebook page:


Asssociated Students of Western Washington University

We would like to address a Facebook post made by KIRO 7 News that centered on the student-run effort to create a discussion about changing Western's school mascot from a Viking to something more inclusive and representative of our diverse student population. Thought this effort is in its initial stage, it stems from Western's committment to creating a safe environment for students of all identities.

The post, pictured and link[sic?] to below, features a poll asking followers to share their opinions on this student-run effort. However, the options of the poll are extremely problematic. Not only do some of these poll options trivialize this important effort, but they also discourage students, or anyone, from trying to speak out and make positive changes.

Most importantly, the poll opened the door to (and essentially encouraged) extremely hateful comments which caused the student organizers of this effort to feel unsafe.

This is unacceptable. KIRO 7 has been notified and we've asked them to take down this post.

The Associated Students is here to create a safe and inclusive environment for all students on and off campus at Western.

Here is the link to the post: [link]
This post has since been deleted―KIRO 7's poll, however, is still up. I tried reading through the 1000+ comments for examples of "extremely hateful" ones, and while there was a decent amount of "darn PC gone wild!" and "whiny liberal students!" belly-aching, and one ignorant ass pontificating about BlackLivesMatter for some reason, I didn't see anything that seemed like extreme hate. Just general old-person grumpiness. Then again, 1000+ comments, so I invite any screenshots that prove me wrong.

Let's also get the minor stupidity out of the way. This was a follow-up comment on the AS' Facebook post:

The Associated Students' main concern is with the students' safety. Because of KIRO 7's post, student organizers expressed feeling unsafe. Confusion has arised from the headline of their post stating that Western was involved in the organization of the dialouge, however it is still in it's initial stage. We are not condemning KIRO 7 for creating a dialogue or halting conversation, we are asking them to respect the concerns of students involved and clarify information. We apologize if students have felt silenced in this matter, we are currently working to create a safe environment for students to discuss this matter.
  • The AS complains that the KIRO poll "opens the door to" extremely hateful comments... that is, it's possible that one could logically go from reading the poll to posting hateful comments. I'm thinking options (A) and (C) motivated this complaint.
  • It's actually unclear whether it was actual "extremely hateful" comments, or merely the "opened door" for such comments, which made students feel unsafe.
  • Because of this, the AS apparently contacted KIRO and asked for the poll to be taken off Facebook, "to create a safe and inclusive environment for all students on and off campus at Western."
Feelings of unsafety are unacceptable, apparently. I also want to highlight the incongruity here. The original post by the Associated Students declares that the KIRO post is "problematic" because of the poll options, which included "trivializing" options and threatened the sense of safety of the "student organizers." The follow-up comment—which was immediately below the main post—reiterates this complaint in brief, then immediately switches to addressing "confusion" that KIRO created with the article headline—"Report: Western Washington University considering mascot change."

Okay, but the blurb, clearly visible beneath the headline on the Facebook post, accurately states: "Some students and a professor at Western Washington University are discussing changing the school's Viking mascot because it [sic] some see it as too aggressive." Thus the headline is an example of synecdoche—the usage of the whole to represent some part. And considering how much the Associated Students of WWU try very hard to produce a resemblance of representation of the student body as a whole, I find their objection to KIRO's not-actually-inaccurate-in-context headline terribly ironic.

Note also the assertions:
We are not condemning KIRO 7 for creating a dialogue
This is true by construction; that is, the Associated Students denies in the original post that what KIRO created even is a dialogue. Indeed, they just see it as an open call for "extremely hateful comments."
We are not [...] halting conversation
At least, that's my interpretation. The other interpretation, "We are not condemning KIRO 7 for [...] halting conversation, is just obviously false, per the original post: "[S]ome of these poll options [...] discourage students, or anyone, from trying to speak out and make positive changes. [...] This is unacceptable."

I tried going through the many, many comments on KIRO's post to see if I saw anything "extremely hateful," and gave up before I saw anything. Sure, there were a lot of snarkily dismissive comments, and a few "PC police gone too far" types, and a weird digression about BlackLivesMatter, but nothing extreme. (I've seen extreme comments. Just go to Breitbart or similar. No end to the awfulness.) Notably, some of the shares of the article were more ridiculous/profane, but you'd actually have to be Facebook friends with those people or actively click on the "### shares" link to see any of them. In any event, what if KIRO carefully moderated its own comment thread? It can't control reshares... so should it be held accountable for what third parties say?

II.

So what do the members of the Associated Students Board have to say?



Helloo peeps! In regards to the recent article that was published by the @TheFrontOnline, imma just say this:The Board has taken no stance [1] however, there has been a concerted effort to echo the efforts of many students who have been silenced by the popular opinion that its a [2] positive rep. of @WWU students. Plz be critical as u engage in the discourse about our current mascot; a YT, hyper-masculine, dominant male[3]


Well, this won't be the first time I've parsed the politically-loaded language of an Associated Students President, though this time it's more annoying because Twitter.

Notice, first of all, that this is coming from @ASWWUPresident, the official Twitter account of the office of the AS President. Now, each President inhabits this account to their personal specifications, so that's nothing new; but that doesn't negate the account's "official" voice. Similarly, when Ethan Glemaker wrote a blog post about the "Tribal Disco II" incident in 2013, it was as the AS President. (No matter that it was content-free nonsense.)

Now notice the tension between the first tweet, asserting that "the Board has taken no stance"; the second tweet, an indirect claim that "there has been an effort to echo the efforts of many students" rather than that "we have made an effort to echo"; and the third tweet, that the mascot is "YT, hyper-masculine, [and a] dominant male." From "no stance" to weasel-word-a-palooza, in just over 400 characters. By the way, 'YT' is slang for "white," apparently.

"Critical," too, has a subtly different meaning. I think it probably refers, not to something like "critical thinking," or holding one's personal biases in check while thinking on the merits of various arguments, but to critical theory. In this case it would be critical race theory. Now CRT is a big bad bogeyman for right-wing types, but even an impartial interpretation of CRT shows that it takes a very specific definition of racism as given. According to the UCLA Department of Critical Race Studies:
CRT recognizes that racism is engrained in the fabric and system of the American society. The individual racist need not exist to note that institutional racism is pervasive in the dominant culture. This is the analytical lens that CRT uses in examining existing power structures. CRT identifies that these power structures are based on white privilege and white supremacy, which perpetuates the marginalization of people of color.
The critical-theory heuristic, then, could be described as:
  • "White" ~ "racist"
  • "Whiteness" reproduced in society ~ "racism" reproduced in society
Where the relation '~' means "is pretty much equivalent to, but not exactly equivalent if someone presses me on it." Er, maybe that's uncharitable. How about:
  • There is a socially-constructed concept called "Whiteness."
  • This concept is inextricably bound up in a larger complex of racism.
  • Any cultural representation coded with "Whiteness" must, through some quasi-transitive property, also reproduce this racist complex to some extent.
  • Therefore, one should necessarily value non-White representations over White representations; conversely, one should criticize White representations.
I think reading Roland Barthes' book of blog posts journal entries, Mythologies, helped me to better frame this heuristic. (Review forthcoming.) In Barthes' case he was using a nascent critical theory, inflected with Marxist philosophy, to critique the bourgeois and petit-bourgeois cultures of 1950s France. For the most part he has lots of interesting and insightful things to say. Unfortunately his philosophical lens sometimes leads him to make embarrassing statements like that the metaphoric pairings of (bleach, fire) and (detergent, lifting-away-of-dirt) is just as capitalism intended, except that they're fairly natural descriptions since that's what each thing does, chemically.

Okay, so that was a lot of words and a tangent to say that the AS President has already all but implied a stance. Oh, and the official Associated Students account retweeted her so the conversation is already primed. Ironically, unlike the actual elections, I expect that lots of students will hear about this (because the mascot is tied to sports, and SPORTS) and vote on the issue like they never did for the actual AS Board. Oh well.

III.

Something should be said about the professor in question, too, since (contra the Associated Students) he started this whole thing. Dr. Michael Karlberg is in the Department of Communications Studies; more accurately, he's the chair of the department. He's also either a member of the Baha'i faith, I think? In any case he's been published in a lot of Baha'i affiliated journals. (For those who don't know, Baha'i is a 200 year old religion that is mostly about peace and love and getting persecuted by more militant religions.)

He even has a page on "Bahaikipedia," a wiki for Baha'i things:
The main focus of Karlberg's work is on the problem of "normative adversarialism" -- or the cultural tendency to structure social institutions in competitive or conflictual ways -- which results in widespread social injustice and ecological degradation. He argues that this normalization of conflict and competition serves only the short-term material interests of a narrow segment of the global human population, yet it has been rationalized and widely accepted as common sense through the propagation of flawed assumptions regarding human nature and the social order.

He further argues that the hegemony of the culture of contest can never be overcome through a culture of oppositional protest, because oppositional strategies of social change are part of the culture of contest itself. He therefore advocates a non-adversarial model of social change that recognizes the unity and interdependence of the entire social body, and employs constructive means to promote radical social transformation.
Huh. He's like the anti-Brin. Well, it certainly explains his opposition to the Viking mascot.

Somewhat strangely, his faculty page is much emptier than it used to be (that is, on 21 November), and his Publications page (for example, the link on his Bahaikipedia entry) returns a 404 error. I really hope he didn't get sent death threats too; but for what I think about those, see the next post. Spoiler alert: fuck those fucking fucks.

IV.

Anyway, what should be done about the mascot? As noted in the Front article, the issue will be put to a vote of the student body at large. I'll make the following prediction:
    • More students will vote on the mascot-change issue than voted on the AS Board in 2015. Really, it wouldn't take much, since again, only seven percent of the student body voted in the AS elections. Talk about a low bar to clear.
     I was about to make this prediction too:
      • Even less risky, the administration will do nothing about it. Or at least, the students' votes alone won't get anything moving. The mascot is, beyond a branding thing and therefore a somewhat expensive change, a touchstone for alumni, that is, people who donate a portion of their hard-earned post-graduate salaries to the school. If they don't like the idea, it just won't fly.  
      But wouldn't you know it, President Bruce Shepard confirmed it even before this post left draft mode.
        However, I can't get away with making no suggestions. Let's face it; the face-and-horned-helmet logo kinda sucks. It's generic and much too football-ish for a school with no football team. Plus it doesn't even have a mustache or a beard. In freakin' BELLINGHAM. Unacceptable. In fact, I think the administration has been edging away from that logo for a while, in favor of this cooler and more broadly-applicable Viking longboat:


        But if there's still the issue of cultural representation and not wanting to evoke violence, then my vote is for a different kind of Viking:


        Let's make this happen, people!

        This post is part of a series called Mascot Ragnarok, about the controversy in Fall 2015 surrounding a proposed change—hardly even a proposal, at that—to the mascot of Western Washington University, a stylized Viking warrior. The controversy exploded into racially-charged threats against students of color at Western and specifically at the WWU AS President and VP for Diversity, both students of color themselves. You can find a timeline of events and additional posts in the series at the hub page.