Saturday, February 23, 2013

Are We Responding to Fox All Wrong?

After the University of Missouri - Mizzou expanded a policy recognizing the holidays of diverse religious traditions, Fox News specifically railed on the addition of Pagan/Wiccan holidays, characterizing the whole thing as an excuse for students to be lazy more days of the year and basically calling Wicca a fake, childish religion.  There were some really nasty factual errors as well, such as claiming Wiccans were given "the most holidays" at 20... the policy actually only outlines 8 Wiccan holidays (Christians, not including Catholics, get 11).  Furthermore, the guide itself is primarily about suggested accommodations and understanding... some of the holidays (although none of the Wiccan sabbats) are marked with a work restriction and a suggestion to avoid scheduling major exams to accommodate students who will be participating in things like all-night vigils who may just be too tired to work effectively.

That's just a little summary... it's the response I'm writing about today.

Pagans who saw this spot decided to start some petitions and write some letters calling on Fox to apologize.  More interestingly, there were Pagans who backlashed against the petitions on the basis that Fox is a joke, that only stupid uninformed people watch it anyway, and so we should just cool down and direct our energy to more important things (what important things we're supposed to be directing our energy toward that would be markedly inconvenienced by signing a petition I have yet to figure out).  Most of the ire was directed toward the fact that people would actually be offended by anything Fox News says at this point.

Here's why that's an awful way of looking at it:
  • Fox News has a lot of viewers.
  • Although I would bet I disagree entirely with the beliefs of the average Fox News viewer, believing them to be objectively stupider than, say, an NPR listener is incorrect.
  • As a growing group of religions which are systematically disadvantaged, we really do need to be paying attention to the amount of incorrect information about us, especially through major channels.  For many people--people who control school boards and other small but important legislative bodies, people who vote for those small but important legislative bodies--this is the only information they're getting.
  • This particular piece made mistakes which are not only factually incorrect, but factually incorrect in specifically harmful ways.
Fox News has a LOT of Viewers

I don't think I need to go that much deeper into this.  Yes, it's crap, but it's crap a lot of people watch.

Fox News Viewers aren't that Stupid

Although I would agree that most Fox News viewers are less informed than they should be, blanket-characterizing them as "stupid" has some really nasty effects when combined with this "it's just Fox News" attitude.  First, it implies that these are objectively unintelligent people, which is simply not true.  Fox News viewers may be uninformed in several areas, but most other people are, too.  In the more left-wing communities I roll in, people are regularly uninformed about things like vaccines (which do not cause autism, for the last fucking time), pharmaceutical drugs (which may be overprescribed sometimes but which are generally speaking a damned good thing), raw milk (not that great for you), and diet (fruitarianism doesn't prevent cancer and vegans do not regularly live to be over a hundred).

We also need to realize that Fox News--and other news outlets--are a huge part of this problem, and by basically rolling our eyes whenever they say something shitty we are allowing the Fox News viewers who aren't stupid remain misinformed.

To use an example, my grandma is a Fox-News-viewing conservative who I fully expected to pitch a fit when she discovered I was queer; she didn't, and has taken the whole thing rather well.  Again, she is misinformed on key issues, and she looks at things through a lens I fully disagree with, but she's not stupid.

Fox News Viewer often have Power Over Us well as every other religion or lack-thereof out there that isn't in one of the socially-acceptable-to-conservatives category.

Keep in mind that this isn't just about grandma sitting at home in front of the TV all day.  We're talking about people who could just as easily be running school boards, or who are judges or in the legislative bodies of small towns.  There was a guy on the school board at my high school who fought fervently for people with HIV and AIDS to wear identifying garments (basically, T-shirts that say "I have AIDS") to school.  This guy held 1/7th of the power in that board, and although it's obviously a human rights violation, people living in villages the size of mine, who are surrounded by conservatives who think of queer people as a disease in and of ourselves, don't always have the ability to challenge that.  That school board had no difficulty banning pentacles; it wasn't enforced, but it was on the books.

These are things that are really easy to think about when you live in a big city, as many Pagans do, but remember that plenty of us don't, and so even one or two greatly misinformed people can wield a lot of power over us.  Furthermore, even living in a big city doesn't mean you won't be affected.

There are people who have lost their kids over practicing Wicca because of the bigotry and misinformation held by judges.  Again, this is not just your grandma smugly nodding to a television while having no real power.

And although it's true that there are people who will be bigots no matter what Fox News says, challenging misinformation can still help by increasing the number of people exposed to that information who can say "Uh... really?" when things like this come up.

The Mistakes Here Are Specifically Harmful

Wicca and other forms of Paganism are often portrayed as childish pseudo-religions monopolized by teenagers and socially awkward people.   Although there's nothing wrong with things like table-top gaming, mocking Wiccans as a bunch of table-top gamers is a way of saying Wiccans are childish.  Mocking Wiccans as rural midwives is a way of painting Wiccans as backward hicks, and of course, God-forbid you're divorced, that paints an image, too.  Using these in a diatribe proclaiming how silly Wicca is makes a mockery of the religion, and the effects of that are not insignificant.

These messages aren't just insulting to Pagans and Wiccans, but to basically every one of those groups because they can so easily be used to paint this picture of backward, childish, fickle people.  They are exactly the sorts of messages that cause us to be taken less seriously in very serious situations... custody battles, discrimination lawsuits, prison ministry, equal treatment for religious observances, equal treatment of marriages, equal treatment of places of worship for tax reasons, and so on.

It's really easy to laugh at Fox News because it's so easy to not take seriously, but keep in mind that many people do take it seriously and that can really cause problems. So yes, when things like this happen we need to actually do something about them by calling them out for it rather than just laughing it off.