a banner image of graffiti art showing swastikas being thrown in the trash

Swastika Monitoring: Developing Digital Research Tools to Track Visual Rhetorics of Hate

Laurie Gries

Future Research Matters

This collection offers an important opportunity for each of us to contemplate how our scholarship can respond to contemporary matters and uncertain futures. Admittedly, for me this project began as a matter of social and personal exigency. As I heard and read about the post-election surge of hate incidents—students of color being told to go to the back of the bus, women being threatened with p*ssy grabbing, public spaces being vandalized with swastikas—I felt both defeated and angry. I also felt scared—for minorities being targeted, for what felt like a flailing democracy, for the increasing explicitness of racism, heteronormativity, and misogyny. As an ally of anti-oppression activism, I needed to find a way to make my current scholarship matter and matter not just to our discipline but to the public at large. Research into visual rhetorics of hate has always been important, of course, and we need not wait for a crises of hateful acts to motivate such scholarly focus. Yet at a time in which explicit acts of mediated oppression are on the rise, as scholars armed with our own weapons of expertise, we might do well to join the efforts of organizations such as the SLPC, ProPublica, and the AMCHA Initiative to help make sense of circulating, problematic rhetorics. While our own lives may not depend on it, as the data visualizations above indicate, the security and lives of others just may.

Such activist use of data visualization is especially important, I believe, in bringing digital visual production to the center of scholarly work. When it comes advancing the field of visual rhetoric, in the last fifteen years, scholars such as Kimball Miles and Charles Kostelnick have worked hard to study how others have put data visualization to work for various purposes in both historical and contemporary contexts. However, when it comes to deploying data visualization for rhetorical purposes beyond the academy and making our scholarship publically accessible, visual rhetoricians have been far less vocal (and presumably active) about using their expertise with data visualization for civic action. My concern here is that we are missing important opportunities in which our own socio-material practices can come to publically matter. Civic engagement requires rhetorical entanglement, a process that emerges only when our own discursive productions have the opportunity to intermingle with other circulating discourses. Developing data activist tools such as The Swastika Monitor is an opportunity for our own scholarship to become a vital actant, an active mediator with constitutive force to intervene in our local and national communities.

As we move forward from here, then, how might we do more to use our rhetorical expertise to help mold future matters that align with our own social justice visions for collective life? Making knowledge, as Mary P. Sheridan insists in her chapter, is about “helping people understand themselves and their worlds so they can better engage with these worlds.” Such knowledge—especially in a data-driven society in which data visualization is reconfiguring how we take measure, produce policy, acquire control, and participate in public life (see Pentlad)—is dependent on having access to reliable data, access that we cannot leave up to others to generate. Over the next few months, I will be working hard alongside Derek Mueller to make The Swastika Monitor available to the public so that we can better understand how low-level incidents of hate such as swastikas are circulating and impacting our local communities. But this is just one step, among many, needed to produce reliable knowledge about incidents of hate in the United States that can, in turn, become an active force in public life. How else might we begin to harness the rhetorical potential of data, digital visualizations, and technology to confront the ubiquity of discrimination, harassment, and intimidation in the United States?