Zelophehad’s Daughters

A Movie Review and Some Thoughts on Communities

Posted by Seraphine

About a week ago I went to see the recently released documentary on The Dixie Chicks, Shut up and Sing! The movie was quite enjoyable, and much of the reason I enjoyed it was because it had a lot of good music. However, I think what I appreciated about the movie the most was that its messages emotionally resonated with me on a number of levels.

For those unfamiliar with the events the documentary covers: Natalie Maines, the lead singer of The Dixie Chicks, made a comment critical of President Bush the month the Iraq war started (she stated that she was ashamed that the President was from her home state of Texas). Her comment triggered a huge backlash: people (primarily conservative country music fans) burned Dixie Chicks CD’s, boycotted concerts, and created such an uproar that most country music stations refused to play music from The Dixie Chick’s album at the time, which previous to Maines’ comment, was at the top of the music charts. The documentary Shut Up and Sing! examines these events, and it details how The Dixie Chicks emerged from the aftermath of the uproar as a different band (which was, ultimately, something they were happy about).

So, back to my response: On one level, this movie resonated with my own experience as a liberal, Iraq War-critic. No, I didn’t go through the same public scrutiny as The Dixie Chicks, and I would have framed my critique differently, but I relate to the feelings behind Maines’ sentiments. I stopped watching the news early in 2003 because I was so upset by the decisions being made by President Bush and the leadership surrounding him. I can understand why people were bothered by Maines’ comment, but it captured the betrayal I felt at the time: the leaders of the country were using ideals I believed in–liberty, freedom, justice–to act in ways that felt utterly and fundamentally wrong to me.

I also became frustrated with the “you’re either with us or you’re against us” rhetoric that supporters of Bush and of the war used against those who were crticial of the war and the presidency (rhetoric which the movie highlights). I did my best to understand and respect that others had moral convictions that led them to believe that we were right to get involved in Iraq, but it hurt to have these people say I was anti-American or anti-patriotic because I disagreed with them and with my political leader. In effect, they were saying, “even though you think you belong to our community, if you have a voice that is not the same as ours, you do not belong to our community.”

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the issue of enforced agreement within communities as well as the issue of exclusion. To a certain extent, you want homogeneity of belief, opinion, and pratice in a community because without the bonds created by similarity and unity your community will disintegrate. And sometimes you have to remove members from a community who are doing things that will harm the community. At the same time, I believe that healthy communities are ones that have ways that allow for disagreement, dissent, and questioning voices. It seems, though, that many communities have difficulty negotiating this issue of dissent from within. I’ve seen this over and over again in the church: people with unorthodox beliefs or questioning voices, no matter what their levels of activity and service, get labeled as “unfaithful.” And I’ve seen efforts to, if not completely exclude them from the community (since your average church member doesn’t have this power), make them feel as if they don’t belong in hopes that they’ll go away (I’m talking here about a variety of specific instances, not the church as a whole).

I guess what I’m wondering: why is it that questioning voices are often labeled as “disloyal”? When did agreement come to mean loyalty? Are there alternate ways of thinking about loyalty that would allow those who often find themselves in a space of questioning or disagreement to still find a place as a loyal citizen of the community? Also, how should we think about this issue of exclusion and inclusion? How far should we tolerate behavior that is destructive to a community before we start to think that exclusion is the best tactic?

Ultimately, I enjoyed Shut Up and Sing! because The Dixie Chicks didn’t “shut up and sing!” Despite the criticism (and the insults and the death threats), they didn’t abandon their personal convictions. I’m the first person to say “there’s a time and place for everything,” including dissent, critique, questions, etc. But I still do believe they have their time and place.

I also appreciated what the movie revealed about The Dixie Chick’s thoughts on the issue of communities and exclusion. On one hand, they were willing to walk away from the country music community because the country music fans, in effect, abandoned them. And in the end, The Dixie Chicks decided that there were other communities of music fans that would have them and where they would be happier. On the other hand, they refused to allow the critiques of their patriotism to stand. They insisted that they were still members of the community that is America, and insisted that they had a role and place in that community, even if it was at times unpopular. This movie increased my resolve to do my best to figure out how to claim the communities that I do belong to (i.e. the church, feminism, etc.) and to not let others who find me threatening define my relationship to these communities.

11 Responses to “A Movie Review and Some Thoughts on Communities”

  1. 1.

    Great post, Seraphine. Context is important – obviously – criticism of the Commander in Chief during wartime has always been particularly vulnerable to censorship and public condemnation. In fact, many of the U.S. Supreme Court decisions limiting the First Amendment freedom of speech were handed down during wartime (or in response to the overzealous activities of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The professor who taught my Civil Liberties class would exclaim “thank goodness for the Jehovah’s Witnesses – they played an integral role in shaping our First Amendment jurisprudence” when we’d come across such a case).

    Anyway, I’ve often wondered about context and loyal opposition with respect to the LDS Church. In my experience, any sort of criticism or negative perceptions about anything remotely significant must be couched in so many qualifiers and apologies that it can’t be taken seriously. And the people who do unequivocally proclaim their disapproval of Church leaders or policies are easily characterised as troublemakers and labeled as an enemy of the community. I guess it all turns on the definition of “loyalty”. I think most people in the Church take “loyalty” to mean you musn’t criticize.

  2. 2.

    Man, I just read my comment over again and I sound like such a know-it-all in that first paragraph. Lame. Your post did remind me of the freedom of speech and Jehovah’s Witnesses cases, though. I remember being secretly glad that the JWs were taking the heat instead of the Mormons :)

  3. 3.

    ECS, FWIW I loved your first paragraph! I’m always glad to see you add your lawyerly expertise to the conversation. It’s intriguing to garner a few insights from a field I know nothing about.

  4. 4.

    Aw, thanks, Eve!

  5. 5.

    I think the analogy is interesting, Dixie Chicks:Country Music Fans, Feminists:LDS Church?
    I have been thinking along these lines as well, and I’m not sure where I fall. From my experience, I would like to see a lot more feedback, or “questioning voices.” I think it would resolve a lot issues at the local level. (I’m not sure how useful it would be at the top level)
    However, the idea that somehow the church is like the government seems to be a stretch. We are a community by choice, and for those who don’t choose the way of the community, they can leave. (At least I think that’s what I gathered from Pres. Packer’s talk
    about which way we “face” God or man?
    Again, I think I can see both sides, it seems to be a matter of perspective.

  6. 6.

    First of all, I’d like to say how proud I am of you for watching a movie about country music. :)

    I really enjoyed your thoughts, though I’m not sure I have much to add. Reading this reminded me of a question that’s been on my mind lately: is it fair to say that those who express dissent care less about the community or the institution than those who don’t? I’m thinking that when the Catholic church, to give one example, does or says something with which I disagree, I might express that disagreement, but I’m unlikely to spend a lot of time and energy doing so. Because while I have a great deal of respect for the Catholic church, it’s not my community. It’s not my faith. I have a lot to say about the LDS church, on the other hand, precisely because my membership in it is so important to me, because it’s such a central part of who I am. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that all my complaining is necessarily a good thing. ;) But I’m puzzled when people assume that I must not care about the church as much as they do simply because I’m unhappy with some aspects of it.

  7. 7.

    I will play the Devil’s Advocate. I am incredibly bothered when celebrities speak out on politics. Whether they’re conservative or liberal. However, it does appear to me that those who speak out in a liberal sense are more disdainful of “the masses” than the conservative celebrities. Many, like Barbra Streisand, appear to feel that “I” (collectively) am not smart enough to decide on my own that I prefer the conservative candidate. If I do that, then I am stupid.

    I am not a country music fan. I am a Barbra Streisand fan. I love her music. I despise her approach to championing liberal politics.

    I feel that celebrities possess an unfair advantage and since we are in essence supporting them by buying their music, they should have some respect for dissenting opinions from their own. I think they should keep their mouths shut.

  8. 8.

    ECS, I, too, love your lawyerly insights. :) And you’re right that context is important. Your thoughts on context got me thinking: are there any contexts in the church in which disagreement is okay. And I couldn’t come up with any (aside from the scenario you point out where you have to add lots and lots of qualifiers).

    jessawhy, you’re right to point out that the government and church are different, and that we can’t draw an exact parallel there. And there are many more situations where I feel comfortable questioning the government than I do questioning the church. But I do agree with you that I wish that there was at least a little more room for questions and disagreement in the church.

  9. 9.

    Lynnette, I knew you would be proud of me. :)

    annegb, you’re right to point out that the issue of free speech differs slightly for celebrities than it does for your average person. I’m okay with celebrities speaking out (they are every much a citizen of this country as the next person, and have the same rights and privileges), but at the same time, I think they need to be willing to accept the consequences of their actions.

  10. 10.

    Maines made the statement in London….I can’t say I respect her for that.
    If a celebrity is using their fame in order to make a political statement, I think they need to accept the public’s reaction to it with grace. Maines was a musician/performer, and was famous for it. Once she used her fame to do something besides what she is selling it is not her personal life anymore.
    I think that what she said upset many, but not all, of her fans. I think that fans had every right to show her that they didn’t like what she used her fame for….to further her own personal politics since it differred from their own.
    Celebrities publicly help causes all the time. Sometimes health issues, charities, and politics. They should be willing to be judged by their fans for it…….or else be content to NOT use their fame to further their own causes.

  11. 11.

    JKS, I agree with you at least partially (which is why I said in my last comment that celebrities have to be willing to accept the consequences of their statements).

    At the same time, I thought what happened to the Dixie Chicks was representative of some larger problems I saw reflected in the culture at large (which is one of the things I was trying to point out in the post). And I think it’s okay to critique those larger patterns.

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