The Pledge of Allegiance and Interaction Ritual

Per Smith wrote a short response to a Salon article about a court case in Massachusetts challenging the inclusion of ‘under God’ in the Pledge of Allegiance. Per is right to note that ritual is about action and the solidarity it potentially creates. I believe the arguments about ritual and solidarity, and in this case I believe the Pledge of Allegiance can effectively foster an imagined national community (if it did or does is another question). I believe it probably fails for a lot of people who don’t feel particularly included or excluded, that it actively excludes a good number of others, and that the 1950’s addition of ‘under God‘ made the ‘indivisible’ that follows a happy irony for anyone teaching sociology of religion in this day of increasing ‘nones.’

One of my favorite exercises when I teach sociology of religion is to have the students recite the Pledge as they know it, including “under God,” and then in its pre-1954 language, without the phrase. Some students do hesitate. It makes them uncomfortable. The thing is sacred, after all, and I’m asking them to profane it (for science!). Once we’ve done it, we then talk about how this national prayer establishes religion in our culture, and about how it is potentially as divisive as it is unifying.

I’m not even sure why, but yesterday in my Research Methods course I started to recite the Pledge from somewhere in the middle, right before indivisible (oh right, we were talking about the individual as an indivisible unit of analysis). I said something like, “you know what indivisible means, right, like in the Pledge of Allegiance, one nation, something, something, indivisible…” Probably half of the students gave me a funny look and said, “under God!” One student, I think joking, said to me, “that’s un-American!”

Per suggests we focus on the efficacy of the Pledge rather than its meaning, and argues that daily recitation bound generations of Americans into national community. I agree*, and here I want to apply his argument about the efficacy of the ritual to the interaction ritual I just described. All those years of reciting that pledge, of saying “under God” in the context of affirming patriotism resulted in our classroom interaction. The student didn’t say, “what are you, an atheist?” She said, “that’s un-American.” My skipping over “under God” started our own little interaction ritual because of the meaning she (as a joke or not) attributed to my mumble. I focused on the student, the class focused on us, and I riffed for a minute or two from my sociology of religion lecture about the addition of that divisive phrase. But this was a Methods class, so I assure you we got back to our discussion of units of analysis right away (i.e. This is no dispatch from the front lines of the culture war).


*l also think we need to focus on the contested meanings of rituals, especially of those rituals supported by the state. I doubt very much that Per would disagree with me on that point as he was arguing against those who might call ritual meaningless, which it clearly isn’t (hence the court case).



Irresponsible Media: and Civil Conversation in Syracuse

Last night I ranted on Twitter, just a little bit, about something has been doing regularly for some time now. They will, about once a day, run a ‘Your Comments’ story highlighting comments on stories they’ve run earlier. Here is the one I was reacting to last night. Nearly all of the comments on are made by folks with pseudonymous usernames. Like many web comment sections, ‘discussions’ after stories tend to be dominated by the loudest, angriest, nastiest voices.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what’s going on at these boards, including writing an article about it with a colleague of mine. I’ve come to see these comments sections as a site of competition between regular posters to make the most outrageous post. It’s championship trolling, and you win by being meaner than all the other competitors. Users have long rewarded one another for the meanest posts, with ‘likes’ when allowed them, or with positive feedback in the form of ‘+1’ comments or ‘right on!’ sort of replies. You can see a hierarchy of posters, some who are considered clever by many, and others who are regularly attacked for their views. My take is that most of the ‘top posters’ are the meanest, most reactionary readers who seem to devote the most time to crafting their forum identity.

I don’t really expect to do much about that, and they’ve always been pretty good about deleting the most blatantly bigoted posts and banning the most regular offenders. The competition was contained to the comments sections, and you could pretty easily ignore it if you weren’t an interested sociologist like me. But, now, that’s changed.

When starts rewarding posters by highlighting comments in later ‘news’ stories (they show up in the news feed just like everything else, and @syracusedotcom tweets them out) the community of posters steps up its game, trying to get the status attached to being shared. Unfortunately, the game they play is mean spirited and depressing. Are all the comments that privileges mean and ignorant. No. Is that a pretty good way to get noticed, and elevated. Yes, I’d argue that’s a pattern I see. I think that shares stories they know will upset their easily angered commenters as a way to get page views, and then they write about comments, the more provocative the better, as a way to get more page views, and then they start over. They’ve got to convince potential advertisers this is a page people see.

(The “Ha ha ha” which is the first highlighted in the story I shared above is a great example of the rude condescension that regularly appears in the comments, and sure enough, put it in a post they then shared on Twitter.)

You might say these things could just be ignored, and maybe that’s true. It’s less true now that one of the primary media sources in the city is privileging the condescending, mean spirited, blather of pseudonymous posters and making sure it becomes part of the civic conversations we have in this place. As a transplant to the Syracuse area, I know that my impression of this city has been negatively affected by the regularly disgusting, negative comments on those boards. I should know better because I’m always teaching about and striving for representative samples when I try to learn about social life. certainly is not a representative sample of this city, and I’ve come to know many people who are very optimistic about this place. Unfortunately, I’d guess very few of them take the time to combat the angry trolling on Quite frankly they are doing more important, good, cool things. does not help this city, or people working to make it a good place to live, when they give these comments such visibility.

It’s a shame. It should stop. should be more responsible.

Some extra comments. The Post Standard employs very good journalists, many of whom I follow on Twitter and have interacted with quite a bit. This is not a problem with their work, which I often find really wonderful. This is the negative outcome of a desperate media company trying to survive and taking what I’d call the low road. did respond to my Tweets, and asked that I email them about comment moderation. I will.

You Think I’m Fat? Well, you can’t drive!

So, I started it. I admit it. I could have just let the bad driving move go without responding, and it would have been as if it never happened. Instead I started a road rage ritual that ended strangely.

So, here’s the scene: I’m driving on a 4 lane road here on the west side of Syracuse, going west in the inside lane. It was about 11am, and there was a lot of traffic. I tend to drive right on the speed limit, or even a little bit below (I was being tailgated immediately prior to this little episode). As I approach a green light, a BMW enters the road very slowly from a parking lot on the right, and quite near the green light. The BMW is probably going 10mph, and drives across the outside lane to turn into the inside lane, cutting me off. I hit the brakes as I approach the green light and say to Joy, “what’s this guy doing?” as I stop nearly on his bumper. I think, maybe, he was stopping at the green light because he wanted to get into the left turn lane which was already handling more cars than for which it had space. You have to go with the traffic, though, you can’t just make up your own rules of the road. What’s the point of laws and norms, right?  (more…)

Where nobody knows your name: communities of the anonymous

Anonymity is often identified as a key variable for explaining the quality and content of online interaction.  I’ve done it myself in this article written with Le Moyne political scientist Dr. Delia Popescu and appearing in Information, Communication & Society.  Anonymity is conceived by some as a cause of the well known Internet activity of trolling or flaming, but others see it as the key ingredient of what they view as the revolutionary potential of the Internet.  Revolutionaries are thought to be empowered by their ability to hide from authority figures, while Internet bullies are portrayed as those cowering behind unidentifiable screen names and tossing insults they likely wouldn’t in a face to face setting. Of course, these claims need to be considered skeptically. Governments, or the more powerful revolutionary factions, can shut down the Internet if they choose, and the government still has tanks and tear gas. Anonymous trolls, like Reddit’s Violent Acrez, can be tracked down, site administrators can delete accounts, and we hear as much about bullying on the non-anonymous Facebook as we do on other websites.

The offline consequences of Internet anonymity are only part of what is sociologically fascinating about online social life. In terms of web mediated social interaction, if we stop after pointing out that screen names are often not ‘real’ names, I think we miss some of the richest action on the Internet. I spend a lot of time on the web forums of the Syracuse Post Standard reading the threads that appear after most articles, and sometimes commenting. (more…)