Sunday, January 22, 2012

The subtext of "funny" prayer in school demotivationals/editorial cartoons

Two images, one a little older and one more recent, have been making the rounds in the never ending "prayer in schools" debate (primarily in the context of the US, but there are some here in Canada who would make the same sort of arguments). The first is a "demotivational", which started making the rounds a few years ago:

Oddly enough, the image is for a Halloween costume
The second is a little more recent, based on the comments of one of the current nominees for the Republican party:
This is funny, right?

So each of these is supposed to be humourous because they involve juxtaposition or the "left turn", both are elements of comedy. Neither image is what a "normal" person would picture as being representative of what they imagine reinstating school led prayer, would look like. Further, it illustrates the tacit special privilege that is present in the debate, that the kind of prayer would be that of those seeking to reintroduce it; Evangelical Christians. Thus, additional humour is to be found at the idea of poetic justice towards those who seek so strongly to reinstate school mandated prayer. I think both of these visual commentaries are effective in invoking such thoughts, but at the same time I understand the subtext which is present in both of these (and similar visual commentaries) which results in ridiculing the outlier.

The juxtaposition of both images is supposed to be in stark contrast to what one would normally associate prayer in schools to look like, namely:

This could be a scene from "Pleasantville".

The issue I have comes with the inherent "otherness" that is invoked to show how ridiculous (or dangerous even) the idea of school mandated prayer is supposed to be in so diverse a society. By what basis is a teacher, a school principal or school board supposed to decide what form the prayer is supposed to take? How could one possibly accommodate the myriad religions out there? Well one of those "clever" editorial cartoons posits:
Couldn't add even one "Celtic" deity, eh?
 Again, it invokes the sheer complexity, and thus functional absurdity, of school mandated prayer. Except that this and the above commentaries are funny precisely because they denigrate other forms of prayer, or that they recognize that there are folks who do not belong to the overt object of fun, Christianity. In essence it is using a number of significant aspects of non-mainstream religions, or theistic perspectives to ridicule the idea of prayer in schools. Of course, it then tacitly ridicules these outlying forms of religious expression. Dancing in a circle as a form of worship? Positing polytheism as a functional religious perspective? Utter absurdity! And there in lies the tacit fear mongering, invoking the "other". Look Christians who want state mandated prayer (but who are usually adamant about the state staying out of everything else), you want to put prayer back in schools. This is fine, but then your kid could be offering a prayer to Odin, as not every child is a Christian and therefore other religious perspectives (regardless of their merit) will be reflected. The best way to hammer this point home? Drag out the freaks and weirdo's to scare the panicky members of the RR into seeing the unintentional consequences of their desires. So it becomes a binary issue: either allow all forms of prayer in schools, or let none and maintain the default secular nature of the school system.

Of course, these commentaries also operate on the basis that the sort of folks who want prayer reinstated, who are overtly campaigning for the privilege to be given exclusively to Christians (and as always, to a lesser extent members of the Jewish religion; but not, of course, Muslims), are then going to allow pluralism. It is precisely pluralism that they are railing against, so they would never accept this as a legitimate reason not to pursue state mandated prayer, because only the Christians will be given the special privilege to do so. As such, the intedned object of ridicule, the religious right, are actually outside of the picture; they know what they mean, what kind of prayer they want, and what deity they're praying to. Which leaves us with the problematic depiction of the outlier, and the bitter irony that those who try to pass themselves of as "progressives", do so in a way which betrays their own prejudice.

What strikes me as the most baffling of all is the use of such imagery, by the very outlying religious minorities which they tacitly ridicule. So many seem to think that the "joke" is on the RR, but fail to see that they too, or more specifically their non-mainstream religious practices/perspectives, are the real objects of ridicule and derision.


No comments:

Post a Comment