Monthly Archives: February 2014

Making People Count: Thoughts on Homelessness, Statistics, and Communication Ethics

"Homeless Man in Snow" by flickr user Paulo Ordoveza

“Homeless Man in Snow” by Flickr user Paulo Ordoveza

Even as a qualitative scholar, I frequently work with statistics. I do not gather many numbers myself, but I rely heavily on the data collection efforts of others. Because I am most often writing about homelessness, I regularly consult documents like the Annual Homelessness Assessment Report to Congress or the State of Homelessness in America Reports to help describe the scope of the issue.

Earlier this month, for the first time, I participated in the process through which these statistics are compiled – the national Homeless Point-In-Time (PIT) Count. This count is conducted annually* and functions as a one night census for homeless people. My participation led me to some valuable reflection on some of the ethical questions associated with the gathering of this kind of data.

Teams of volunteers are dispatched across our nation’s cities on count night to determine how many people are sleeping in emergency shelters and how many are sleeping in places considered unfit for human habitation. Demographic information is also gathered as part of the count, and all of this information is sent from local communities to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

On the night of this year’s count, perhaps serendipitously, I attended a seminar in which we discussed the relationship of rhetoric to communication ethics. Much of this discussion revolved around Emmanuel Levinas’s concept of the “trace,” the distance we cannot ever fully bridge between people in a communicative encounter. Spoma Jovanovic and Roy V. Wood describe the trace as a place where we “feel the indescribable depth of the difference between the self and the other.” Seyla Benhabib has similarly described the encounter as facing “the ‘otherness of the other’ . . . to face their ‘alterity,’ their irreducible distinctness and difference from the self.”

It is in the trace, in how we choose to address the difference of others from our selves, that an ethics of communication is established. To believe that we can ever fully know another person, or to believe that we can fully know what is best for that person, opens up possibilities for all kinds of communicative violence (e.g., verbal abuse, invasions of privacy, control, silencing). Compassion and kindness and understanding emerge when we acknowledge the unreachable, the unknowable, in the people we encounter.

Every time I encounter someone other than myself, I face the trace. This is true as I speak, as I write, and as I am silent.

With my head full of these ideas, that night I trekked through snow banks, looking under bridges, in tunnels, in parking lots, in wide open spaces, and in abandoned buildings for people who do not have homes of their own. As I walked, I wondered: What does an ethical encounter with a homeless person look like in the middle of the night? How could I acknowledge the trace, to respect the distance between us, even as I invade the space he/she/they had turned into a place of rest and respite?

When a PIT team encounters homeless people on count night, we are under instructions to awaken them. We must then conduct a brief interview, asking for demographic information like age, race, gender, etc. Some of the questions are quite intrusive, asking about sexual orientation, histories of mental illness, military service, and more. We enter people’s resting spaces, we wake them up, and we ask them personal questions in the middle of the night. For reasons I hope are obvious, this can feel threatening (and frightening) to the people the teams encounter.

"They count, will you" by Flickr user Neon Tommy

“They count, will you” by Flickr user Neon Tommy

The statistics we gathered on count night are essential for so many reasons. Federal funding decisions are tied to these numbers, as are policy proposals and decisions at all levels of government. The count also helps establish how widespread is the problem of homelessness. In fact, in the 1980s, homeless advocates fought to establish a homeless count because, they argued, no one would believe it was an issue of national concern without one. Journalists, politicians, advocates, scholars, and homeless people alike depend on the information gleaned from the PIT Count process.

I engaged in this process as an advocate and a scholar, as a person who cares deeply about the power these numbers have and about the circumstances of the individual people these numbers represent. My team did not, this night, encounter any people sleeping outside in our assigned geographic area. I’m grateful for this, because it meant people had found shelter from the -15 degree cold of that night. It also meant that I didn’t have to resolve the ethical questions that were swirling around in my head. I did not have an encounter in which I was asked to ignore or disrespect the unknowable distance between me and the people experiencing homelessness in my city that night.

As usual, I still have more questions than answers. I maintain that the PIT Count is critically important and I wonder how it might be changed to prevent the intrusion of volunteers into the space and lives of people sleeping outdoors. I believe advocates need to continue to have conversations about how to respect the trace amidst these institutionalized processes. In the academy, I believe we must recognize the trace even in the statistics we use to represent collective “others.” And as responsible communicators, I believe we need to understand not just what our numbers represent, but the means by which they are gathered.


* HUD requires the count every other year for communities receiving federal funding to address homelessness. Many communities, like mine, conduct the counts every year.

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Laboring for Love of the Game: Northwestern Football Players Spur a Union Movement

Kain Colter, Northwestern University quarterback.

Kain Colter, Northwestern University quarterback.

A group of football players at Northwestern University has filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to certify as a labor union. Their goal, according to spokesman and Northwestern quarterback, Kain Colter, is not to attempt to get college athletes paid. Instead, they seek to improve the conditions under which they play by gaining access to medical care paid for by their schools and guaranteed scholarships despite injury. College athletes, Colter explained in a press conference, provide a service to their schools, which at times gets in the way of their education. The players are supported in their endeavors by the U.S. Steelworkers Union. Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern’s popular football coach, has tweeted support for his men as well.


Even as Northwestern has continued to insist that football players are not employees, athletic director Jim Phillips said in a statement that:

We love and are proud of our students. Northwestern teaches them to be leaders and independent thinkers who will make a positive impact on their communities, the nation and the world. Today’s action demonstrates that they are doing so.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has responded to the petition by saying that football players are student-athletes and not employees, as per the definitions stipulated in the National Labor Relations Act. This is because student-athletes voluntarily participate in sports and the purpose of college is not work, but an education. As a result, the NCAA maintains, football players have no right to unionize. A 1953 legal case did classify athletes as employees of a university, forcing the University of Colorado to provide compensation for football injuries. In response, the NCAA invented the term “student-athlete” and forced universities to adopt it, perpetuating the idea that athletes could not be employees.

The response of the NCAA has eerie resonance with graduate student unionization drives wherein university administrators clung to the idea that graduate students were apprentices. As rhetorical scholar Thomas A. Discenna has shown, this definition classified graduate assistants primarily as students and not employees. Obviously, the Northwestern case hinges on the definition of “employee.” Rhetorical scholars remind us that definitions function as arguments, not mere reflections of an objective reality. And both sides in this case will shape definitions about what “employee” means. For instance, the NCAA insists that the fact that football players receive scholarships mean that they’re students, not employees—a contentious point.

Colter in a statement to ESPN shifts the locus of discussion from the definition of “employee” to making visible the labor of football players. Indeed, that sport is a type of labor is often overlooked. (Much as graduate assistant teaching and grading is often invisible to university administrators.) Discourse surrounding college athletics, and even athletics in general, perpetuates the idea that athletes should be motivated by “love of the game,” while demanding medical protections undermines the apparent authenticity of the desire to play for love of the game. College athletes, the saying goes, should be thankful for the opportunity to don school colors and play for their team.

Throughout his statements on the drive to unionize, Colter has made visible the impact of football on the body. An attempt, I contend, that helps listeners to see sport as a type of labor. A particularly dangerous type of labor with lasting effects—a rhetorical move that dovetails with recent discussions about concussions in football. Football is also a labor that takes a great amount of time and practice, as Colter makes clear. While football players may, and often do, love the game, they’re still performing work. This work is precarious as well, given high injury rates and short careers.
Likewise, by arguing that football players are already paid to play for their schools through scholarships Colter equates playing football with a common definition of labor, that one receives wages as a result of performing it. He argues as well that providing the service of performances in football games for their schools oftentimes requires players to miss class, actually getting in the way of the educational goals espoused by the NCAA. Scholarships are granted for athletic, not educational, abilities. One can’t, he argues, skip practice to go to class. Here, we see Colter undermining the “student-athlete” label given by the NCAA by showing “athlete” and “student” to be at odds.

I applaud the unionization drive of Northwestern athletes, and I hope it begins to reform a broken NCAA system. (However, it is important to note that even if successful, the impact of this case may be limited given different regulations for public and private schools.) While this may eventually spiral into a broader discussion about paying student athletes, I am immensely sympathetic to Colter’s claim that having “a seat at the table” would be a significant win against the “dictatorship” that is the NCAA. It is important to realize, however, that while the work football players perform is dangerous, all work exists in hierarchies of value often linked to other forms of privilege. Even as we applaud their efforts, we should remember the unionization drives of those facing other types of precarity like deportation who may not have access to the lawyers and press coverage that this high-profile case has received.

The next step is an NLRB hearing, which will determine whether football players are employees with the right to unionize. This hearing is set for February 18. Regardless of the verdict, there will likely be appeals. It will be months, if not years, before this high-stakes case is resolved.

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Struggling, Resilient: The National Congress of the American Indians Gives Washington Some Alternatives

The National Football League’s 2014 Super Bowl broadcast included many controversy-sparking commercials. The one commercial it didn’t . . .


. . . also ended with such a pregnant pause. Late last year, Rhetorically Speaking ran a two-part post on the recent developments in the on-going controversy over the the NFL’s Washington franchise, its outspoken owner, and its heavily scrutinized team name. In 2013, and its allies mounted a renewed campaign against the term “Redskins” by appealing to Congress, to the NFL, to team sponsors, and, via web links and airwaves, to public opinion.

On Super Bowl weekend, the National Congress of the American Indians contributed to the public debate by releasing “Proud To Be,” a two-minute viral video circulated online as “the #BigGame commercial the NFL would never air.” Shot and edited in a style reminiscent of advertising powerhouse Wieden+Kennedy—the firm behind Nike and such politically-charged and unabashedly nationalist Super Bowl spots as Chrysler’s “Halftime in America” and this year’s Coca Cola spot, “It’s Beautiful”—the video presented an artful, emotional, at times blunt and blistering critique of the Redskins name and mascot.

We might debate the truth behind particular claims forwarding the video, implying the NFL or Fox had rejected the commercial—after all, even 30-second Big Game spots run for several million dollars and it is unlikely that the NCAI could have funded such a statement or even intended the spot to air—but its online presence was massive, with over 1.5 million YouTube views in its first week online and an accompanying Super Bowl weekend Twitter campaign aimed at capitalizing on the nation’s attention to keep the ChangeTheMascot movement growing.

The “Proud to Be” spot adopts a simple yet affective premise and structure. A montage of images of Native individuals, past and present, plays against a simple list of tribal titles, names, social roles, and adjectives that might describe Native Americans, and a swelling musical soundtrack. “Proud,” the narrator begins, “Forgotten,” he counters, “Indian.” These are descriptors of a people, both as individuals and as communities. The words are mentioned in brief stanzas, grouped in reference to  specific tribes, then individual qualities, then historical figures, then family roles. “Sitting Bull, Hiawatha, and Jim Thorpe” are followed by “Mother, Father, Son, Daughter.” The list follows an almost cyclical structure, beginning against the image of a rising sun and working towards a sunset near the video’s end. The mid-way point, at one minute in, includes adjectives like “Underserved” and “Struggling,” with images of weather-beaten reservation lands, a child rummaging through rubbish, and an overweight, slumped figure against a military mural. The list suggests honesty and admission of blemishes. Not all words for the Indian are glowing, but they are included all the same, suggesting candor and truth. Then the list begins to cycle back on themes, listing even more tribal distinctions, more social roles, more famous figures. We see powwows and regalia over and over again, each distinguished with a different name. It is a strategy of copia, going on and on and cycling back on themes to stress the vast diversity of Native American peoples before climbing to an assertive final note: “Unyielding, Strong, Indomitable. Native Americans call themselves many things. The one thing they don’t . . .” and the increasingly rapid music and image montage cut to black. The pregnant pause gives way to a slow fade on the Redskins helmet logo and a football that stay on the screen in silence. The argument here is simple: despite all of the terms that the commercial has shared, it will not stoop to saying the derogatory word. The NFL and viewers nationwide should do the same.

There are many things we might deconstruct about the video. The inclusion of American flags, Native American soldiers and veterans, and blatant references to athleticism and football echo the shameless nationalism we’ve come to expect from Super Bowl ads over the past decade. The images of precocious children might strike some as pandering for sympathy. The pause at the end of the list functions enthymematically, inviting—or even subtly coercing—the viewer to fill in the blanks of the argument and thus take part in its construction.

For the ongoing discussion of the Redskins name controversy, however, we might consider how the “Proud to Be” spot echoes the strategy used by sportscaster Bob Costas in his October 13 comments. In my earlier post, I argued that Costas had introduced a new tactic in the debate by suggesting that neither those supporting nor those opposing Native American mascots at large were incorrect and rather bracketing the term “Redskins” in a tier of its own, separate from all other potentially offensive or controversial mascot names. Costas presented a list of other Indian mascot names to demonstrate how “Redskins,” as a term, differed—how it was particularly egregious and worthy of concerted reflection. “Proud to Be” utilizes the same strategy. It presents a copious list of other, acceptable alternatives, to demonstrate that just this one term is problematic.

It is unclear if this new strategy will change minds or mascots, but it has certainly spread and helped reinvigorate the anti-Redskins debate.

Of course, while Costas spoke to a broad television audience, the NCAI may be “preaching to the choir.” Their description of the video as “the #BigGame commercial the NFL would never air” suggests awareness that regardless of the video’s editing and music and art, the people in charge of the final decision have made up their minds and are unwilling to hear further arguments. And so the campaign, like so many these days, has moved to Twitter and Facebook and hyperlinks. Perhaps the NCAI is simply rallying a base. Perhaps they are following the maxim, attributed to Gandhi, that in fighting any status quo, “first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” By suggesting that the NFL is shutting them out, the NCAI seems to realize they are, at the least, no longer being ignored. They are, in their own words, then, both “struggling” and “resilient.”

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China, Japan, and Voldemort

This post was co-authored by Ashley Hinck and Judy Y.


During January 2014, China and Japan continued their recent criticisms of each other’s regional policies. But this time, they took a different approach: Harry Potter metaphors.

Liu Xiaoming.

Liu Xiaoming, Chinese ambassador to the UK, published a January 1, 2014 op-ed in The Telegraph, criticizing Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s recent visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, which enshrines 14 WWII Class A war criminals. Liu wrote,

“In the Harry Potter story, the dark wizard Voldemort dies hard because the seven horcruxes, which contain parts of his soul, have been destroyed. If militarism is like the haunting Voldemort of Japan, the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo is a kind of horcrux, representing the darkest parts of that nation’s soul.”

Liu calls Japan’s actions a “serious threat to global peace” and calls the international community to “high alert.”

Keiichi Hayashi, Japanese ambassador to the UK, responded with another op-ed in The Telegraph. He says,

“East Asia is now at a crossroads. There are two paths open to China. One is to seek dialogue, and abide by the rule of law. The other is to play the role of Voldemort in the region by letting loose the evil of an arms race and escalation of tensions, although Japan will not escalate the situation from its side.”

Hayashi ends by calling for dialogue between China and Japan.

Newsnight 1

While it may seem funny to hear Harry Potter references in serious, carefully planned diplomatic discourse instead of conversations among 12-year olds, China and Japan’s references to Voldemort are in fact quite serious and strategic.

First, Harry Potter references work to gain the attention of a Western audience. For them, the Harry Potter metaphor is familiar, even if the detailed regional history of Asia is not. By calling Japan Voldemort, and the Yasukuni Shrine a horcrux, China offers a simplified version of the bitter history between two nations. Since the territory dispute could be traced back to the mid-nineteenth century and the history textbooks in either nation fail to reflect the entire truth, a reference to the world’s most popular fantasy novel saves a tedious record of time and events and easily appeals to Western audience.

Liu’s op-ed virtually repeats the major arguments in China’s previous diplomatic discourse. The Voldemort metaphor, however, marks a new rhetorical style in contrast to the conventional dry and dogmatic statement. This strategy not only justifies China’s claim to the sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands by reminding the world of Japan’s brutal invasion in WWII, but also argues that Japan’s intent is to take over the world. Voldemort’s goal throughout the Harry Potter novels was to gain complete control over the wizarding world through any means necessary. Each time Voldemort was killed, a horcrux would allow him to begin his evil plan again. China argues that Japan’s militarism is just on the horizon. Calling the Yasukuni Shrine a horcrux indicates that Japan has not fully repented her sins in the past and the enshrining of convicted war criminals would re-open the door for Japan’s militaristic actions.

Japan also picked up the Voldemort metaphor to develop her own version of Sino-Japanese relations. In response, Japan refutes China’s claim that Japan is Voldemort and instead argues that China is actually adopting Voldemort’s evil goals. Hayashi seeks to redefine Voldemort’s most important characteristics, shifting from the presence of horcruxes, to an escalation of conflict at the expense of dialogue and democracy. Hayashi asserts that militarism is a ghost, not a horcrux: it might be haunting, but it cannot come back to life.

Second, China and Japan’s Voldemort references serve to identify the other as “evil.” In China and Japan’s references to Voldemort, they adopt a level of discourse that assumes that the other is completely evil, with no reason to trust the other side. Consequently, the disagreement over the Yasukumi Shrine or the Senkaku Islands becomes a question answerable only through dichotomies: evil vs. good, right vs. wrong. A discourse reduced to questions of evil vs. good leaves no room for dialogue, compromise, and negotiation. Adopting such dichotomous language demonstrates the increasing tension between China and Japan.

Voldemort. Image property of Warner Bros.

Voldemort. Image property of Warner Bros.

While such vitriolic language may be typical in domestic media and political commentary in each country, such accusations are not often seen in diplomatic discourse. On the other hand, a polarized description of the world and constructing an evil other as the enemy are common strategies in war rhetoric. Targeting an international rather than a domestic audience while using this type of rhetoric indicates that both China and Japan urge their audiences to take sides.

The stakes in the dispute are high for both Japan and China. Both nations are seeking to break the restrictions caused by post-war geopolitical structures. Japan attempts to revise the Peace Constitution and achieve normalization of the army. China hopes to break the First Island Chain to acquire more freedom along its coastline. For Japan, the normalization of the army is like a closure of the past, while China seeks the start of a new future. Calling the other side evil justifies each country’s geopolitical goals.

At a time when both Japan and China are looking to gain support from the international community, convincing Western audiences may be an important goal. Ultimately, the question becomes, why aim to reach Western audiences by using evil vs. good language? We believe there are at least two reasons for this choice. First, they might have learned it from the West. If George W. Bush could successfully wage the war against terrorism through an “us vs. them” argument, why can’t an East nation use a similar strategy? Second, historically, both China and Japan have been portrayed as a threatening evil power to the Western audience, and especially American audience. Invoking the public memory of a Pearl Harbor Japan or a Communist China would push the United States to take a side in the dispute. Whichever reason, it is clear that Western audiences may be hearing more from China and Japan in the coming months. Who knows—we may be hearing about metaphors from The Hunger Games next.

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