Occupy vs. Decolonize: Semantics or More?

Perhaps the so-called Occupy Movement has fallen out of the public eye in this world of the 24-hour media cycle.  But last I checked, even the DC Occupiers are alive and well, planning weekly actions, teach-ins and even producing a nightly radio show.  Nevertheless, considering I’m both in student mode, and presently studying linguistics, I’m curious: What does a linguist have to say about the Occupy (Language) Movement?  What can the field contribute?

Professor H. Samy Alim from Stanford University wrote an op-ed for the NYT calling for  an “Occupy Language” movement.  In the same way that Occupy has transformed the way we think about politics today, shifting the public discourse to issues of government corruption, corporate greed and environmental degradation, he proposes that the Occupy Language movement could “expose how educational, political, and social institutions use language to further marginalize oppressed groups; resist colonizing language practices that elevate certain languages over others; resist attempts to define people with terms rooted in negative stereotypes; and begin to reshape the public discourse about our communities, and about the central role of language in racism and discrimination.”

But Alim asks, “What would taking language back from its self-appointed “masters” look like?”

  • Reconsider the use of the word occupy itself.

Alim could not have predicted this, but just recently, several committees of the Occupy Oakland movement joined together to form what they are calling Decolonize Oakland, citing Occupy Oakland’s “failure to fully address the ways that race, gender, and sexual oppression intersect with capitalism in the lives of Oakland’s communities of color.”  In this case, it wasn’t just that appropriating the word Occupy aided in the erasure of a history of White occupation of indigenous lands, but that it also “continues through gentrification, military occupation by OPD and ICE, predatory practices of Wall Street banks.”  Other regional encampments are now reconsidering their own use of the term.  As Alim so dutifully noted, we must be “ever-mindful about how language both empowers and oppresses, unifies and isolates.”

If there’s anything you pick up from anthropology 101, it’s the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which suggests that our language influences our thought, and ultimately our behavior.  Whorf’s 1956 article “On the relation of habitual thought and behavior to language” he shows that the way we think about words influences the way we behave toward their referant.  Drawing from his work at a fire insurance company, he noticed for example, that when someone sees a gasoline tank labeled “empty,” they might be more inclined to smoke nearby them or even flick a cigarette in that general vicinity, despite that full tanks are far less combustible than empty ones.  The point here is that language is powerful, influencing our thought and behavior.  Calling someone an “illegal” or “illegal alien” is not only pejorative, it is dehumanizing.  It is no coincidence that hate crimes toward Latinos have spiked so dramatically in recent years, no thanks to polimigra campaigns initiated by Arizona’s Sheriff Arpaio and other copycat legislation.

But he says this Occupy Language movement should concern itself with more than just the words we use, but also with “eliminating language-based racism and discrimination.”

With this suggestion in mind, I would add a third action item to the list, namely:

  • Promote language access awareness and advocate its legislation at your local level

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, prohibits discrimination of the basis of race, color, or national origin in government (or government funded) programs.  Since then the national origin clause has been interpreted to include discrimination on the basis of language (see Clinton’s Executive Order 13166).  But language access advocates working on the ground know that enforcement on the federal level can be a tangled and messy process.  And despite these legal protections, their clients were still unable to access critical services due to language barriers, affecting their ability to speak with teachers, police, healthcare providers and more.  That’s why in 2004, a group of concerned social service workers came together and were able to successfully advocate for the passage of the DC Language Access Act, in many ways a model piece of legislation that has been replicated in only a handful of other local jurisdictions.  What this example illustrates is that denying someone access to public services because of their language preference is a clear form of language-based oppression and discrimination.  Certainly an Occupy Language movement could get hip to that…

With a keen awareness of the connection between language and discrimination, (applied socio)linguists could play a key role in working with others toward a more just linguistic ecosystem, by continuing to “speak to the power of language to transform how we think about the past, how we act in the present, and how we envision the future.”


Making sense of Pete Hoekstra’s Super Bowl ad: A “discourse identity” approach

During the Super Bowl, viewers are socialized into understanding that the spectacle is not just the game itself, but also the multi-million dollar ad spots during the commercial breaks.  This year the most notorious of these was Michigan GOP Senate candidate Pete Hoekstra’s racially charged political ad, what ABCNews referred to as “the slur heard ‘round the country.’”

The scene opens with the music of a gong, as an Asian woman in a conical bamboo hat rides her bicycle down a dirt path, alongside a field of rice paddies.  She stops, looking into the camera as she smiles, and says in mock broken English “Debbie spend so much American money.  You borrow more and more, from us. Your economy get very weak. Ours get very good. We take your jobs. Thank you Debbie ‘Spend It Now!’” The scene cuts to Hoekstra, saying “I think this race is between Debbie ‘spend it now’ and Pete ‘spend it not.’  I’m Pete ‘spend it not’ and I approve this message.”

The media backlash was almost immediate, characterizing Hoekstra as a “racist,” criticizing him for capitalizing on Asian stereotypes and perpetuating xenophobic sentiments toward China.  Yet he was not the only one to receive the fury of media attention – many wondered who this young Asian actress was and why she would subject herself to such degradation.  In the end, Hoekstra took the ad off of his website and somewhat sarcastically apologized, stating that any insensitivity was intended for the “liberal left and their reckless spending, not the Asian community.”  The actress, Lisa Chang, was shamed into issuing a public apology, where she expressed regret “for any pain that the character [she] portrayed brought to [her] communities.”  The Hoekstra ad and ensuing media fiasco raise important questions, such as:

1)  What content (spoken, written, or audio-visual) is appropriate (or not) in the context of campaign or attack advertisements; if inappropriate, who receives the blame (or not), and most importantly, who gets to decide these things in the first place?

2)  Why did some viewers, including pundits, journalists, and other “experts,” find it more appalling for the Asian actress to participate in the advertisement than Hoekstra?

3)  Why were these two the only ones punished by the media for their involvement, when an entire team (including writers, producers, camera operators) was responsible for the production as a whole?

In Scollon’s 1996 article “Discourse identity,” he makes a compelling case for understanding news media through the careful breakdown and analysis of discourse identities (i.e. the various combinations of social-interactive and production-reception roles). Taking examples of Hong Kong print media as case studies, Scollon advocates the “discourse identity” approach as a method for unraveling the complexity of roles we take in discourse.  The approach is particularly useful in cases of mismatched identities, he argues, because we are perceived negatively when our discourse identity is incongruent with our expected social role.  Moving forward I will address the questions above by beginning this process of unraveling the discourse and social identities of the actors involved in the Hoekstra ad to show the negative consequences of mismatched identity.

A visual semiotic approach would certainly confirm the critiques of Hoekstra’s ad – the gong in the introduction, the conical hat, the actress’s broken English, and the discourse on jobs being sent oversees all make use of stereotypes about Asians and Chinese, in particular.  In other words, that the ad capitalized on cultural stereotypes through visual and discursive means is clear.  But who is held responsible and by whom?

Pete Hoekstra Lisa Chang Media critics
Social-interactive role Framer, player Player Framers? Players? Observers?
Production-reception role Author, animator, principal Animator Judge

Lisa Chang, despite being merely a player in the spectacle who animates a stereotyping and racist discourse, is perceived negatively.  To use Scollon’s terminology, this to me insinuates that there is a perceived mismatch in identities – visibly as an Asian(-American) woman, Chang is expected not to be a player in a racially degrading discourse.  As a consequence, media critics treat her as though she were author, animator and principal – considering criticism for negatively portraying her “community.”   Hoekstra, on the other hand, explicitly approved the ad’s message but is judged similarly to Chang.  This doesn’t take into account that he is a player and framer of the discourse, in addition to being author, animator and principal of the discourse. Furthermore, there was little to no attention paid to the many others who contributed to the production of the ad by media critics.  Detangling the discourse identities of the two faces in the ad draws attention to the many others responsible for its creation.

Lastly, the media plays several important roles in this discourse: 1) in the reception role as judges, and 2) in the social-interactive as potential framers, players and/or observers.  Further analysis might analyze the social-interactive roles media networks or organizations adopt in relation to a bit of “news.” For example, do they air the ad without participating in the discourse (players) or do they take a position on the discourse (framers)?  Does Fox editorialize certain topics more than MSNBC, and vice versa?  What about a racial-justice-oriented publication like ColorlinesWhat role can the media play in maintaining or changing racist discourses?


“Culture” à la Peace Corps: A case study of intercultural training materials

This year the Peace Corps celebrates its 50th birthday.  The federally-funded program has sent nearly a quarter million Americans around the world, since it was signed and enacted into law by President John F. Kennedy.  While many friends of mine are current or past Peace Corps volunteers, I got into a heated debate with a friend about it just before she left for Panama.  The argument went something like this:  “You should really do it, Noelle.  If you don’t travel to other countries, you’ll never get out of that DC mindset, you’ll never be cultured.”  “But why do I need to travel to ‘be cultured?’  Do I not ‘have’ culture just as I am?  What do you mean by culture anyway?”

Though we never resolved the debate, I found myself wondering recently if and how my friend’s understanding of the elusive term “culture” might change through his Peace Corps service.  What is it that she will have gained from her time in Colombia – is it really “culture?”  Our debate is symptomatic of a larger issue and so the question we might ask here is: How does the Peace Corps define “culture” and when is it invoked?  How does Peace Corps use the term to prepare their volunteers to live abroad? In what follows,  I take a critical look at “culture” as it is used and appropriated by Peace Corps in their “Culture Matters: Cross Cultural Workbook[1].”  I will make use of key readings in the field of  intercultural communication by Scollon and Scollon (1997, 2012) and Piller (2007).

As part of their pre-departure training, volunteers are given a “Cross Cultural Workbook” – a 266-page crash course in “what to expect when you’re crossing cultures” to help prepare volunteers for the “toughest job you’ll ever love” (1).  A caveat in the introduction claims that “while it impossible to talk about culture without generalizing” (2) it warns readers from making a priori assumptions and generalizations about cultures.  Nevertheless, the document proceeds to do exactly that.  From my reading of the document I find many of the prevailing views of “cross cultural communication[2],” which have been addressed and problematized in the study of intercultural/interdiscourse communication pioneered by Scollon (1997, 2003, 2012) and others, including:

1) culture as national identity (Piller, 2007: 211); “stereotyping interculturalism” (Scollon, 1997: 5)

2) culture as “predictive” or “normative” (Piller, 2007:212)

3) emphasis on miscommunication, and that being rooted in “cultural difference” (ibid.)

4) “lumping” and “binarism” (Scollon and Scollon, 2012:4)

5) non-empirical; use of constructed examples abstracted from social interaction (ibid.)

Throughout the manual, quotes from Peace Corps members, staff, and others are inserted in the sidebar that illustrate the points above.  In this quote by a PCV (Peace Corp Volunteer) stationed in Korea, culture is synonymous with nationality (“Koreans are…”), rather than the prevailing social scientific understanding of identity, on the basis of any social category (race, gender, nationality) as an abstraction or social construction.  In addition to falling prey to Scollon’s “stereotyping interculturalism,” the text also treats culture as “predictive.” Thus, we can understand how Koreans “live their lives” because they are Confucian and all people who believe in Confucian principles act in X way.  This idea is similar to what Scollon and Scollon (2012) refer to as “lumping” and “binarism.”  By saying that “Koreans are…” the author(s) essentialize(s) and reifies/y the social category of “Korean,” implying that all Koreans are alike (i.e. “lumping”).  Lastly, by juxtaposing the lifestyle of “Koreans” with her/his own, the author(s) discursively draw(s) the boundary between Koreans and Americans (i.e. “binarism”).

In this second example, we see another common pitfall of the cross cultural communication approach:  The use of constructed examples rather than empirically-driven ones.  Despite being a thought-provoking scenario, it is problematic for many reasons – namely, in which country is “prejudice against Black people traditional?”  Racism and discrimination is hardly a “tradition,” it is a behavior; an action that cannot be essentialized as a lifestyle or characteristic of a macro social category.

In conclusion, I would like to return to the idea that “it is impossible to talk about culture without generalizing.”  Scollon and others, through mediated discourse analysis and its methodological arm of nexus analysis have demonstrated that this simply is not the case.   Furthermore, if the Peace Corps took a mediated discourse analytic approach, perhaps they would come to the conclusion that what is often written off as “cultural” misunderstanding is actually linguistically based.

[1] Peace Corps “Culture Matters: Cross Cultural Workbook,” http://www.peacecorps.gov/multimedia/pdf/library/T0087_culturematters.pdf, Intercultural Press, accessed on February 5, 2012

[2] Using Scollon’s (1997, 2012) distinction between cross cultural communication (CCC) and intercultural communication