Normalization is Control: Telling Stories to Survive

President-elect Donald Trump on 60 Minutes

The following is a lightly edited version of a talk given at this week’s annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association. 

In an interview with the Guardian, Homa Hoodfar, a Canadian-Iranian anthropologist, said she survived her time in an Iranian prison by studying her captors. She would lie on the floor and use the end of her toothbrush to scratch observations on the walls.

Through participant observation at a prison, Hoodfar wrote fieldnotes about the interrogations she endured and conversations with other prisoners. When the interrogators screamed at her, she analyzed their word choice. When they hurled threats at her, she considered the power dynamics at play. In all this, being an anthropologist allowed her to tell stories to herself, to reassure herself, to survive through the telling of a story.

In the article, she bravely explains:

I decided, I’m an anthropologist and I’m here, so I can use this as a method of doing anthropological fieldwork. It wasn’t fieldwork that I had chosen, it was not a project I wanted to write, but there I was.

Fortunately Hoodfar has lived to tell this story and was released back to Canada on humanitarian grounds. When I first read this story, I was completely taken aback by the way she mobilized anthropology to survive prison.

This past week, and in some ways since 2001, I find myself staring at a blank screen, trying to write a response to the representation, specifically the misrepresentation of Muslims, in American news media. Hoodfar’s statement that it wasn’t the fieldwork she chose, and yet she had to write about it, really resonates with me. How do I as an anthropologist who works with Muslim youth in Pakistan and the US make sense of this election and its implications for my participants, but also for myself, my family, and colleagues.

So I’ve been trying to draft a short 800-word article for Religion Dispatches, as my attempt to make sense of this current moment, not because I chose this as an anthropological project, but here I am. Here I am listening to Trump’s transition team drop words like Muslim registry or that there is a precedent for internment camps in American history. The news that the KKK has been dropping their newsletter off in neighborhoods within miles of my home. Here we all are thinking about the fact that self-proclaimed white nationalist figures are going to be part of the new presidential advisory team.

In this moment, I wonder what kind of stories we, as anthropological storytellers, can tell? What kind of stories should we tell? And what kind of stories must we tell?

In the wake of the election, I have attended several community meetings at my university. At one, I sat across from two educated white women. Both the younger master’s student and the middle-aged administrative staff member were in tears. The younger woman said she felt shame. The older woman said she was shocked that Trump actually won.

At the same time that we are hearing these feelings of surprise and shock, I’m also thinking about how the news media seems to have done a 180 from the week before the election, where people could not imagine someone with so little experience and such hateful rhetoric could assume the presidency. And yet, 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl’s questions didn’t demand that President-elect Trump respond to the growing protests against his election. Instead, she offered “softball questions” that fixated on his personal feelings about becoming president, “repeatedly minimizing Trump’s most dangerous promises as mere campaign talk.”

The description of the media’s treatment of president-elect Trump as a normalizing tactic leads me to ask: why would they do this? How can they say that the anti-Trump protesters just don’t understand who Trump is, which is what he said to Stahl when asked about the people protesting him. Exactly how are his anti-immigrant, anti-minority, anti-women statements being misinterpreted? Some are describing this as gaslighting. And why are respected journalists, like Stahl, not holding him accountable but rather seem over-eager to present him as a reasonable politician? Why are people eager to normalize this highly unusual political event?

This normalization strategy makes me think of Gramsci and his prison notebooks. Similar to Hoodfar, he sat in an Italian prison trying to analyze the situation that he found himself in. Perhaps his brilliant conclusion can shed light on our current situation. Gramsci explained that control is not maintained through violence and political and economic force, but rather through the ideological, where the values of the elite become normalized as values that everyone can accept, even if they do so passively.

Statements from Trump’s camp about deporting undocumented immigrants, banning Muslims or putting us on a registry, increasing stop-and-frisk programs across the country, and others, aren’t being highlighted as wrong, as unconstitutional, as racist. Instead, we hear the normalization of these racist policies.

Some have described this as a form of obedience testing, to see just how far he can go before more people protest. I’m not sure what’s going to happen, but I wonder if we need to adopt Hoodfar’s strategy and write; not only as survival strategy, but also to make sure these stories don’t disappear. That we continue telling these stories in order that we don’t disappear, so that we might survive.