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.



The sociolinguist’s toolkit: Some definitions

Here are some of the must-know definitions in my sociolinguistic “toolkit.”

[Note: This list is incomplete and will undoubtedly expand over time, but for now]:

1. sociolinguistics

2. culture
Culture is a loaded word with many definitions depending on the context in which it is used (in popular reference, depending on the discipline, and so on).  I like Riley’s (2007) definition of culture as “social knowledge.”  For example, even two people born on the same day on the same street will have different cultural compositions because of the diversity of their experiences in comparison with one another, the layers of their socialization and their differential access to knowledge.  In other words, Riley says that each person lunches from a “vast smorgasbord” and the product of their individual trays is analogous to their “culture.”  This idea is in opposition to common ideologies about culture as one’s nationality, ethnicity, or something we “have” or “don’t have.”  However, the insidious use of culture to promote a divisive or discriminatory agenda is still very much at play in public discourse.

3. community of practice (CoP)
In the same way the definition of culture above complicates the notion that culture is something we “have,” the idea of community of practice focuses on how common practices hold social groups together, not social constructs like gender, ethnicity, or nationality.  The latter are what Anderson refers to as “imagined communities” – social constructs that are ideologically motivated, especially for nationalistic purposes.  Looking at groups from the CoP approach illuminates that social groups are held together, so to speak, by shared knowledge and practices.  Language is an important dimension of any community of practice.   Think for example of attending a gathering of people practicing a religion other than your own.  Being a participant observer in that situation, you will see that people will all seem to know a particular prayer by memory, when to sit or stand, and how to behave more generally.  As you engage in the practice(s) of that community, over time it will become so familiar almost as if it’s second nature to you… this is what Bordieu meant by habitus, Scollon&Scollon by historical body or embodiment of practice.

4. narrative
Revived by social psychologists in the 70s and 80s, linguistics began to look at narrative as a specialized speech event with a lot of discursive power, a genre of its own and a force to be reckoned with.  Whether it’s looking at narrative as sites of identity construction on the individual (Schiffrin, de Fina) or institutional level (Linde), fodder for a nexus analysis / “activist sociolinguistic” approach to understanding human behavior (Scollon and Scollon, Rodney), socialization in literacy practices (Shirley Brice Heath), or narrative in multimodal or computer-mediated settings, narrative is an endless field of study as you can find them any number of places in daily life.

5. pragmatics (speech acts / speech act theory)

6. role theory –> positioning –> stance / (identity construction)
Who we are (or consider ourselves to be) has implications for how we present ourselves, how others orient to us, and is constantly changing and shaping talk-in-interaction.  Positioning, derived from the work of Harre and Davies (1991) in social/discursive psychology,  is a theoretical and analytic framework sociolinguists use to better understand identity construction in emergent interaction. As it was originally intended more for narrative, positioning theory is comprised of a “mutually-determining triad” of positions, storylines and speech acts.  [See here for my latest application of positioning theory to conflict talk in political discourse].  So for example, as an immigration advocacy organization (position) faced with unexpected racist/xenophobic commentary from an elected official, you might take a particular storyline (i.e. “immigrants want the same thing as anyone else, the American Dream”) and demand an apology (speech act).  This actually happened recently in DC, see here.

Stance, as outlined by du Bois (2007) is a more recent adaptation of positioning theory which has the advantage of bringing together various types of “positions” one can take in an interaction, including affective, propositional, and interactional.  It also relies on a 3-part process, which says that “I evaluate something, and thereby position myself, and thereby align (with respect to) you” (ibid).  Each approach has its advantages and disadvantages, but are both ripe for understanding how identity is emergent in interaction and not a static thing.

In the working world, having this knowledge facilitates an approach to identity that is fluid and considerate of people’s self identification, not a priori assumptions about membership in macro social categories.  As a mixed race person myself, I know all too well the frustration that goes with being forced to check one box only!

7. discourse analysis

8.  framing / footing
Framing refers to our structures of expectations in interaction.  In other words, it’s what guides us to the appropriate interpretation of “what’s going on” in everyday conversation.  These expectations are culturally-guided, in the sense that they are based on our own experiences and social knowledge.  Even monkeys at play, for example, need to be able to tell the difference between a play bite or a serious attack.  We as humans identify frames using linguistic and paralinguistic cues.  A more recent example in political discourse is Rush Limbaugh’s radio commentary on Sandra Fluke’s testimony advocating for insurance companies and employers to cover contraception.  Progressives interpret his commentary in the frame of hate speech, whereas Limbaugh himself says it should be interpreted in the frame of comedy or sarcasm.

9. geosemiotics –> visual semiotics

10. intercultural (or interdiscourse) communication
The history of cross-cultural communication as an object of scholarly attention began around WWII when the US government realized that it would behoove them to know how to communicate in other languages, if only to gather intelligence on the “enemy.”  It was revived again in the 80s in a business-driven approach to address communication “problems” in a globalizing corporate world.  Scollon would say that these two aforementioned approaches were problematic, in the basic sense that they got the “problem” wrong.  Earlier work approached “cultural” or “language” differences as the end all be all to improving communication across “difference,” often focusing on conflict and miscommunication.  Misunderstanding between people was often described as “cultural” or “linguistic.”  [Note: the Peace Corps continues this approach as it heralds early CCC scholar Edward T. Hall, see my short blog post on this topic here].

To this end, Scollon says “Cultures do not communicate, people do.”  His approach, intercultural or interdiscourse communication departs radically from a priori assumptions about what “culture” is and focuses instead on discourse systems, actions, and practices.  These 3 things vary from individual to individual.  Scollon’s critical approach to language, communication, and social action in the intercultural context shows us that 1) most approaches to CCC are misinformed because 2) “miscommunication” doesn’t actually stem from culture or language, and that 3) looking at actions and practices of social actors is the only way to understand what’s really going on.  Furthermore, his push for an activist sociolinguistics couldn’t jive better with what I envision for the field.

11. nexus and mediated discourse analysis

12. ethnography of speaking/communication/action

13. critical discourse analysis
While discourse analysis is interested in “small d” discourse, CDA is all about the “big D” discourses: how language (re)produces and maintains larger discourses of racism, ideology, and power.