Professor Anne Hansen Talks Journalism and Religion
“My whole life is organized by the New York Times,” Professor Anne Hansen laughs, after I ask her about the role journalism plays in her life. She immediately emphasizes her admiration for journalists, saying, “I have a lot of respect for journalists… They have to do a faster kind of research and it’s very important that it’s done.” With that, we began a discussion of the importance of journalism, Hansen’s experiences as a source, and her advice for better reporting on religious issues.
Katherine O’Brien: What issues/topics would you be comfortable speaking about with Journalists?
Professor Anne Hansen: Buddhism, the Cambodian Diaspora, and Cambodian genocide.
KO: Have you been approached by journalists before? What do those conversations normally look like for you?
AH: Yes, I have… People have talked to me about various issues regarding Cambodia, or Southeast Asian studies. A journalist from Singapore reached out and did a series of interviews with me about Southeast Asian Studies and Asian Studies in general in the U.S…. what people studied and why, what are the main institutions, and so on. I’ve had interviews like that. Sometimes people call me about contemporary political events. Sometimes I can say something and then I’ll refer them to someone else who may know more. The Phnom Penh post interviewed me about a book that had come out about Cambodian religion. Over the years I’ve talked with quite a few journalists and enjoy it.
KO: Have you had any particularly memorable interactions with journalists?
AH: My most memorable interviews were a series with the National Enquirer about Angelia Jolie’s tattoos. The reporter called me up on a Friday afternoon and said she had just sent me photos of Jolie’s new tattoos and wanted to interview me about what they meant. Of course, they were what we call amulets. They had Pali configurations and different kind of diagrams and syllables of Pali scriptures, mantras, on them. I’ve written about these in my book on colonial Buddhism. It’s a type of amulet or a tattoo often done by monks on people’s skin. People will get them all over their bodies, often soldiers. They’re supposed to keep you safe; they’re protective amulets.
Angelia Jolie has a really strong connection to Cambodia. She came back and the paparazzi caught these pictures of both Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. This was a year and half ago or so. The reporter had sent me these blurry photos and wanted me to interpret them. It was a Friday afternoon, and I just thought, ‘Why should this be important to anyone?’ I just kind of made fun of the whole thing. And she started crying. She said, “This is my first job and my editor told me I have to file a story on Angelina Jolie’s tattoos by Monday morning.” And I just felt really bad for her. So then, I just had to talk to her about the tattoos,
The photos were too blurry, but I e-mailed a friend of mine who works on amulets and tattoos in Thailand anyway. He actually sent me a photo from a Thai newspaper of Angelina Jolie getting the tattoos from a Thai artist, who does celebrity tattoos. So, she got it done in Bangkok, which is probably much safer, by this really well-known celebrity tattoo artist and former monk.
Angelina Jolie runs a non-profit in Siem Reap. I put the journalist in touch with a monk there who is one of the most famous young amulet producers. He doesn’t do tattoos, but he does the amulets that you can wear. He’s actually so popular that there’s a line out of his door. He could interpret the photos, as she got better ones. I think Jolie got another tattoo a week later or so. I told her she had to speak with the monk to get an exact interpretation of what the syllables mean. In the end, I think that this National Inquirer Reporter was interviewing by Skype this very tech-savvy young monk in Cambodia. Usually, the interviews aren’t like that!
KO: That’s hilarious! Speaking of Buddhism and Cambodia, what advice do you have for journalists who cover Buddhism? What are some common mistakes people make when describing Buddhism?
AH: There is an essentialist view of Buddhism, especially American Buddhism. People will often say, and I’ve been asked this question when I’ve been interviewed, “Are you a practicing Buddhist?” Well, what is the answer to that? From who’s perspective? There is a perception that Buddhism is connected with meditation, and that it’s about a sitting practice. Well, there’s a lot Buddhists in the world who do not practice meditation. Of course, there’s many who do. But, there’s also many who would say being a Buddhist is about being a moral person, it’s trying to follow the Eightfold path, or it’s about giving food gifts to the temple to make merit for my ancestors, or it’s about community events. There’s a lot of answers about what it means to be a practicing Buddhist.
Also, I’ve been reading a lot about the Rohingya from both journalists and scholars. People often think that Buddhism is supposed to be peaceful. If you think about the history of the modern Buddhist nations, such as Sri Lanka, Burma, Myanmar, Cambodia, they’re not very peaceful. The statement is generally along the lines of: “How could they do that? They’re Buddhists!” There’s this conception that religious people are consistent with the ideals of their tradition, and also that they’re consistent. Just because people say they’re Buddhist doesn’t mean they’re practicing ideal Buddhist ethics.
KO: I feel like there is a limited view on most religions, and the concept of religion in general. Do you have any reflections on that?
We make the mistake of treating religion as though it is a separate entity. We’re at an impasse on a lot of issues because we have this perception that the religious and the secular have different paths and values. I think we’re not going to find a way to resolve these issues while talking past each other. This might mean people are more willing to accept some religious people’s values. Some people who are fundamentalists have their own sacred world. In a lot of public discourse, we are not open to that. We’re not able to take their experience as seriously because we think of the religious and the secular as two different worlds, and we just talk past each other.
Most people who are religious studies scholars view that quite differently. If you really started trying to think about how central some issues are to some religious people, there might be a way of talking to each other differently, so that we could have a more productive discourse. We only think that there can’t be a compromise, but maybe there could be. Once we begin working towards that, and accepting people’s faith as important to them, we will be able to have a productive conversation.