Jose at Thick Culture sent us this design for the Catholic Church’s Archdiocesan Youth Commission logo in 1973 (via The Daily Dish). 


The logo nicely shows how images are polysemic.  That is, the same image can be read very differently by different people or, as this image illustrates, at different times.   Because of the shift in the social construction of the Catholic priesthood–from benevolent child chaperones to evil child molesters–the logo, though likely lovely then, would be very ill-advised today.

Two more good examples of polysemy here and here.

We’re pleased to feature a post by Robert Hariman.  Robert is a professor of Rhetoric and Public Culture in the Department of Communication Studies of Northwestern University.  Robert blogs at No Caption Needed, where we saw this great post:


I am suspicious of references to “the Arab Street,” particularly when the phase is applied–as it often is–to nations and other vast swaths of territory that are not Arab or not exclusively Arab. Several years ago Christopher Hitchens declared that it was a vanquished cliche but he was misusing it himself and not surprisingly as he was blowing the war trumpet for the Bush administration. And he wasn’t speaking of its persistence as a visual convention.

The caption of this photograph at The Guardian says only, “Nowruz celebrations in Afghanistan.” Nowruz is the name of the Iranian New Year, which is celebrated in a number of countries by people of several faiths. The baskets of dried fruits eaten during the holiday provide the only visual connection to the colorful festivities, and you have to know more than the paper tells you to see that. For many viewers, this will a thoroughly conventional image of the Middle East.

That image is one of throngs of working class men massed together in the street. What little business is there is in the open air markets lining each side of the densely packed urban space. We see small batches of everyday goods on display–probably to be bartered for, no less. The open baskets of food are a sure marker of the underdeveloped world. (Imagine how many packages it would take to wrap up all that fruit for individual snacks to be sold in the US; and even in Whole Foods the unpackaged food is in closed bins.) Everything fits together into a single narrative, but the masses of men and boys make the scene politically significant. This is the place where collective delusions take hold, where mobs are formed, and where unrest can explode into revolutionary violence and Jihad.

Which is why I get a kick out of this photograph of another Nowruz celebration.

The caption reads, “An Iranian man skewers chicken for grilling as he picnics with his family.” My first thought when I saw the image was to check and make sure it wasn’t taken in Chicago. This also is a very familiar scene: grass, blankets, families and friends, plastic containers of food, dad getting ready to do the grilling.

What is astonishing is that I was able to see them at all. A typical summer holiday photo becomes a radical disruption of Western visual conventions when taken in Iran and shown in the US. Of course, it wasn’t shown in the US: this, too, is from the UK paper.

In this photo, there is no Arab street nor Iranian masses dominated by Mullahs and demagogues. A middle class tableau reveals that so much of what is in fact ordinary life for many people in Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East is never seen in the US. And it isn’t seen because it doesn’t fit into simplistic categories, outdated stereotypes, and a dominant ideology. All that is shown and implied in the cliches is of course also there, but it is there as part of a much more complex and varied social reality.

As evidence of how things might appear a bit different, notice how seeing the second image can affect perception of the first one. In the second, it seems evident that the family is posing for the photograph. They’re doing exactly what they would have been doing but now with the additional, amused awareness that it is, for a moment, also an act. And sure enough, if you look back to the first photo, you can see the same thing. And if you can see that, they no longer need appear as a mass, or poor, or threatening, or anything but people enjoying a holiday. Much like people in the US were doing this past weekend to celebrate St. Patrick’s day, thronged together, in the street.

Photographs by Natalie Behring-Chisholm/Getty Images and Behrouz Mehri/AFP-Getty Images.

People in Muslim countries don’t think so:


(, via Kevin Drum at Mother Jones and Alas a Blog).

Andrew over at FiveThirtyEight posted about the association between religious attendance and voting behavior. Looking at the 2008 Presidential election, Pew data indicates that frequency of religious attendance is strongly related to likelihood of voting for McCain:


But looking more closely at the data, we can see that the relationship is more pronounced for some groups, such as born-again Protestants and Catholics, than others, such as non-born-again Protestants:


From the original post over at FiveThirtyEight:

The size of each circle is proportional to the number of people represented in the survey. In particular, most of the people who attend church more than weekly are born-again Protestants.

Another interesting thing to look at is the how income interacts with religion to influence voting patterns. These graphs show the McCain vote by income among various religious groups:


Notice that among Jews and the non-religious, increased income didn’t substantially increase the chances of voting for McCain (and those in the “other” category are just confusing). For these groups, being rich doesn’t appear to have been enough to draw them to McCain, whereas for most Christians we see a clear trend: the richer adherents were, the more likely they were to vote Republican. Both Jews and non-adherents started out much less likely to vote for the Republican ticket, and their opposition was strong enough that it trumped what we would expect to see if people voted on a narrow interpretation of self-interest (i.e., “I make $300,000 and Obama says he’ll raise income taxes on incomes above $250,000, so I’ll vote for the other guy”). Presumably Republican positions on social issues, or close association with evangelical Christians, put off some wealthy non-religious and Jewish voters who might otherwise be likely to vote for them based on fiscal policy, but that’s just a guess, since we don’t have data here on voters’ explanations of their candidate preferences.

Pris S. sent in an ad that ran in the Collegiate Times, the Virginia Tech campus newspaper:


Of course, it’s a great example of advertising making people feel as though they aren’t sufficiently attractive so they’ll buy a product. But it’s also interesting because it’s an example of a cosmetic procedure that is increasingly marketed to men as well as women. Women do get laser hair removal, obviously, but so do men. Our standards of male attractiveness increasingly demand control of body hair. Hairy backs and shoulders are a source of ridicule. I have known several men who felt very self-conscious about their body hair, some of whom shaved or waxed some of it. Even chest hair is questionable; most images of shirtless men (in ads, pin-ups, calendars, etc.) show very little chest hair. The “man-0-lantern” chest-waxing scene in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” of course used men’s concern about body hair for comedic effect.

The other thing that’s interesting here is the connection between having body hair (which, as far as I can tell from the ad, could include just about any type, including pubic hair) with being an “ape,” as though we should be ashamed of the fact that we are, in fact, mammals who have varying amounts of body hair. I suspect that it’s also part of the caveman stereotype–having lots of body hair is sort of associated with being less civilized, less fully human or modern. It’s also a beauty standard that is certainly going to be harder for some groups, those that tend to have more and/or darker body hair, to meet, which could bring up some interesting discussions about whose bodies are considered attractive, etc.

Thanks, Pris!

NEW: Andrea G. sent in a link to the line of Mangroomer products, which include electric shavers for back, nose/ear, and “private” hair:



These would be great for discussion new standards of male attractiveness–which increasingly pressure men to shave body and pubic hair, though not their legs or armpit hair, since that type of shaving is girly!–and also as an example of gendered marketing. Notice the very sciency-techy element to the website, with the graph-type lines in the background, the “swoosh” sounds, and so on.

Andrea also sent in this Nads commercial, in which we learn that the product saved a woman from a life of misery, since neighborhood children taunted her for having a beard:

It’s a great example of the social construction of bodies: we think it’s gross when women have beards, but at least in theory okay when men have them. Of course certain groups, such as Mormons, discourage men from growing beards, and in general full beards are relatively uncommon in the U.S. today and might be seen as unprofessional or otherwise inappropriate in some situations. But men usually won’t be openly mocked for growing hair on their faces (Joaquin Phoenix’s recent transformation aside), whereas for a woman, allowing hair to grow and be visible on her face would be socially unacceptable.

Thanks, Andrea!

“Polls have always shown that the vast majority of Americans believe religion is “an important part of their daily lives” — 65% in a recent Gallup poll versus just 34% who said it wasn’t.

But that national average obscures a stunning variety by region.”

via The Wall Street Journal.

More precise data can be found at Gallup. In the comments, Jay pointed out work by John Sides at The Monkey Cage, that re-maps the data using absolute levels and accounts for a full range of responses, showing that “even in the least religious states, there’s plenty of that old-time religion.”religGiven that the dot-plot and map use the same data, it could make for an interesting debate on how to present data and the implications of differing analytic categories.

I stumbled across a blog posting with the provocative title, As an Athiest, I Prefer Hockey that contained the following image.

superbowl-prayer1I realized I had watched the Super Bowl and likely seen this a similar image. I have probably seen images of athletes gathered in prayer hundreds of times, to the point where they have become a taken-for-granted aspect of sport. It could be an interesting start to a discussion of religion and sport. Is this concentrated on sports that are primarily played in the US? Or only particular team sports? I don’t recall ever seen such prayer groups in basketball. Are such sights common in soccer or cricket?

Two readers, Muriel M. M. and Lauren D., sent in this advertisement for the Oslo Gay Festival.

Three thoughts:

First, notice how the narrative reproduces the idea of the goal-oriented sentient sperm.  (We’ve got a fun post on that idea here, and here’s another good one.)  Remember, sperm do not have goals; they do not have ideas; they do not think.  It’s just chemistry.

Second, I think it’s interesting how this video associates anal sex with gay men.  How do gay men have sex?   Well, they must copy straight people as closely as possible.  Therefore, they must put the penis in an opening “down there.”  Ah ha!  I bet they all have anal sex all the time!  I’m sure some gay men do have anal sex, but some surely don’t, and lots of straight couples do!  I bet a lot of lesbian couples find a way to do it, too.  I’m just sayin’.

Third, for what it’s worth: It also occurred to me that, in that this commercial celebrates the infertile sex act, we’ve come a long way from the Christian ethic against wasting your seed.