Broader Movement Part Deux

You probably didn’t hear this story about “Hizzoner” Mayor Vincent Gray.  Heads are rolling at the Wilson Building, making for a continuous media frenzy around the investigations at the expense of most else. [No, ribbon cuttings don’t count, Mr. Gray]. But regardless of being yesterday’s news by now, this “story” is worth re-examining for a few reasons. What am I talking about? See for yourself:

There’s an old maxim in politics: When the going gets rough, it’s time to get tough on immigrant convenience store clerks. Especially those who speak limited English and sell rolling papers and individually wrapped cigars to pot smokers in a poor part of the city. (Alan Suderman, Washington City Paper)

One reader commented, “Is this even legal?”

Good question. I’ll be honest: I’m not a lawyer, and despite having read the DC Language Access Act more times than I can even recount, it’s a question I’m not qualified to answer. What I can say though, is that it’s extremely, extremely shady.

Let’s examine the evidence:

It did not seem like many of the foreign-born clerks would be able to read the letters without some assistance, as they often appeared to have no idea what the mayor was saying. Majett said it’s a common ploy for immigrant clerks to claim poor English skills whenever dealing with the DCRA. “We always get that,” he said. And Gray said they were still getting the message. “They don’t speak English well, but they understand this is an enforcement visit,” he said.

We have a few problems here:

1) DC government was interacting in an official capacity (i.e. “enforcement visit”) with constituents who are protected under the DCLAA, 2) knowing full well that “they don’t speak English well.” But here’s the clincher: 3) In saying “we always get [immigrants “pretending” not to speak English],” DCRA and other government agencies have found an excuse to unilaterally violate the Act.

I bring this issue up not to draw any more attention to Gray’s administration, but to think about the implications of this and other anti-immigrant discourse in the public sphere. How can Gray, or any Mayor for that matter, achieve “One City” with this kind of behavior and rhetoric? How can people like me hope for a “broader language access movement” (as the title suggests) when we can’t get basic things right?

On (Re)Constructed Discourse, KONY2012 and DC as Activist Playground

A week or so ago, my 13 year old cousin posted a bizarre looking link on my Facebook wall.  At the time I had no idea what “KONY2012” referred to and I shrugged it off as spam or a pesky virus.  A day or so later, I realized my ignorance: This Kony business was everywhere.  But in no time at all, commentary on my wall went from guilt-inducing command (“you must watch this!”) to more critical extrospection (“should we watch this?”).

From a sociolinguistic POV, much of the debate centers around issues of voice, authorship, and representation, showing that it’s not about what is being communicated, but who is doing the communicating in the first place.  Invisible Children, the organization behind the 30-minute documentary, gave instructions for viewers to support the cause by spreading the video and donating to the organization.  This strategy is by no means groundbreaking:  advocacy organizations and campaigns have quickly tapped into the affordances of a web3.0 world with virtual engagement strategies (like us, retweet this, sign on if you support… the list goes on. But the explosiveness of the Kony2012 campaign raised concerns about the limitations of mere awareness, and more importantly, the fallacious thinking behind slogans like “speaking for the voiceless.”

Rosebell Kagumire, a Ugandan journalist and longtime activist uploaded Youtube video with a powerful message, saying: “If you’re showing me as voiceless, as hopeless, you have no space telling my story, you shouldn’t be telling my story.”

In one of her many best-selling books, Professor Deborah Tannen argued that what linguists had long termed reported speech was a misnomer, replacing it with the idea of constructed dialogue.  Why constructed dialogue?  She argued (quite successfully, I might add) that when we repeat someone else’s speech, it can never be quite as it was and will be shaped by the lens of our own experience.  Something like Geertz’s issues with the practice of using manuscripts to report the happenings of another place, the copy of a copy of a copy erodes the original.

Onion Parody of the White Savior Complex

Ms. Kagumire goes on to say that the video campaign simplifies the narrative of Africa and waters down the complex socio-political situation in Uganda for Western consumption.  Journalist Teju Cole doubles down, saying that tactics like those of KONY2012 and other activism are fueled by the “White Savior Industrial Complex.”  Because it is motivated by white guilt (as a consequence of privilege), he says that activism (especially on the African continent) tends to serve activists’ emotional needs  themselves more than the cause(s) they support.

I haven’t been to Uganda, or anywhere in Africa for that matter, and this post isn’t meant to be a history lesson.  My interest lies in the discourse surrounding KONY2012 and its implications.  Even here in DC.  Much in the way that “Africa serves as a backdrop for white fantasies of conquest and heroism” where any person can become a “savior,” DC is treated as a loca-national activist playground, according to the Washington Peace Center.  In their “Principles of Organizing in DC” they make the case that transient national groups use the symbol of DC as a soapbox for issues that are oftentimes already being advocated on a local DC level.  Thus the Principles document is meant to serve a guide for out-of-town activist groups, a blueprint for how to “support important and inspirational national protests while also empowering DC communities in order to strengthen and unify our movement as a whole.”

So what does this have to do with constructed dialogue?  In my mind, Tannen’s concept could be expanded to more than reported speech, perhaps to (re)constructed discourse.  The KONY2012 video is as much a (re)constructed discourse about the plight of Uganda, watering down it’s complexity for the consumption of White Western eyes.  The appropriation of DC as a sociopolitical playground serves as an analogous example. In these cases, local struggles are reformed into national or international issues, thereby downplaying local efforts to organize around issues resulting from colonization and globalization. This happens through the reconstruction of narrative discourse, either through online media campaigns (such as the KONY2012 video), or the spectacle of protest in the Nation’s Capital.  The language used to tell these stories reconstructs the discourses of others for a new audience, to the benefit of (inter)national organizers.  Thus, we might speak of (re)constructed narrative or (re)constructed discourse as necessary vocabulary for linguists in the postcolonial milieu.