Yogis and the Politics of Offense

By Matt Sheedy

In a recent exchange over the “Shit Yogis Say”meme, I disagreed with a friend who argued that the clip was offensive to those who dabble in popular forms of Western yoga. My basic argument was as follows. Whenever the social practices of a group are presented as the essence of that group as a social whole, there is a risk of causing offense. For something to be considered “offensive” in a categorical sense, however, it must involve more than hurt feelings on the part of an individual. There must be some notion of a “social whole” in the first place and, what is more, those things that are being lampooned must be considered central to the self-understanding of the group in question.

If we compare “Shit Yogis Say” with the “Shit Girls Say” meme, this difference emerges quite clearly. The latter plays on stereotypes about women like ignorance of technology, proneness to gossip, food and clothing obsession, etc., where certain behaviors and practices are presented as typical of presumably younger, Western, white women. Here there is a sense that these behaviors are essential (or at least normative) qualities of “girls,” thus suggesting that contingent and culturally determined variables (e.g., the imitation of stereotypical media portrayals of femininity) are representative of the social whole. In this sense, the “Shit Girls Say” meme can be considered offensive.

By contrast, the “Shit Yogis Say” meme shows a young woman parodying yoga-related sayings about poses, “oming,” etc., along with certain lifestyle and consumer-related practices, like drinking kombucha and “wheat grass shots.” While there may be some traction here for a feminist critique, the social practices that are being lampooned are relatively new and not well defined, with no clear gender or ethnic basis that marks this community as distinct. More to the point, these practices are not central to the group as a whole, but rather viewed as contingent and variable by many practitioners themselves (e.g., there’s no fundamental relation between drinking coconut water and being a yogi), and are not tied to any strong cultural tradition or set of texts, despite some Hindu borrowings.

At least two points can be taken from these memes in relation to the study of religion. First, whenever we start our analysis from social wholes we not only engage in bad social science, but also get caught-up in emotion-laden arguments that often do more to obscure the issues at hand than illuminate them. Starting from the premise that “Islam is a religion of peace,” for example, does little to explain how the signifier “Islam” is related to issues of context, ethnicity, gender, racism, imperialism, etc., and instead puts forward a tautology that, ironically, ends up perpetuating offensive stereotypes (e.g., Islam = violence) by arguing for their opposite. And this leads to my second point.

When groups are new and not well defined, and where the boundaries of their self-understanding are generally recognized to be unstable, the work of critique becomes that much easier since it focuses the conversation on tangible matters that can be discussed and debated. As many scholars are aware, this instability and contingency is true of all religious formations, yet it remains an uphill battle to speak of older traditions in the same way—unless of course one’s goal is to cause offense in the first place.

What is useful about the yogis meme then, is that it helps to illustrate how social practices are primary for understanding group formations, thus making it easier to parse out issues of gender, ethnicity, etc., without getting trapped in some hopelessly circular debate over ultimate “meaning,” which typically happens when some essence is put forward to represent the social whole.

I, for one, will be starting my next class with the yogis meme for its heuristic value in making clear the distinction between social practices and social wholes… and as an excuse to say “shit” without fear of causing too much offense!

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