On the whole Barry thing

By now if you live in the District you’ve surely heard of the latest Marion Barry scandal.  No, I don’t mean the unfortunate police sting which elicited those (in)famous last words “b**** set me up,” I’m talking about the straight-up race-baiting, anti-immigrant antics and commentary about Asian-owned businesses and Filipino nurses.  And now that I’m not writing about this topic for class, dear readers, I’m excited to share my thoughts more casually with you.

The first point is pretty obvious, but worth mentioning:  Hill (1995) found that public figures are treated differently when it comes to being publicly racist/homophobic/bigoted in general.  They are given a certain level of responsibility above ordinary individuals to maintain a certain demeanor which typically precludes them from being openly racist.  [Why? Voters are one easy reason.]  Unless that’s your shtick of course, in which case an entirely different set of rules apply.

Racists can’t/don’t often admit to being racist.  It’s the equivalent of linguistic suicide, an example of what sociolinguists might call a face-threatening act. Combine this with point #1 and increasingly aggressive journalistic practices, linguists are finding that politicians are developing and using an array of linguistic strategies for getting themselves out of messes their mouths have created. Clayman (2001) calls this “managing interactional resistance” and the subfield of CA (conversation analysis) has made significant contributions as a whole.  Check out more of his work here, many articles are available for free download.

But who has a say in determining if someone said something racist anyway?  

Not the courts, at least here: Chiang (2010) points out that the US stands apart from industrialized nations in not protecting individuals (and groups, as the case may be) from hate speech.  In those countries that do, it’s called group defamation, encompassing libel and slander.   Furthermore, Chiang finds that because free speech so commonly trumps hate speech legislatively, public discussions of whether X was racist or not get distracted by ideological debates on Constitutional provisions.

Erickson once referred to conversations as “trees that climb back.”  If that’s true, perhaps this is a large, public conversation then.   The 24 hour news cycle and sensationalizing angle of media plays a role in this, editorializing till the end.  But while the media may surely be the loudest, the level of public outcry/outrage is important as well.  Dedicated advocates do their best to push back, but the current is unbelievably strong.

In Barry’s (and most cases it seems) the white flag comes as an apology.   Then what????  Another incident, with the media drive stories, advocates adding fuel to the fire, and the saga continues.

In Barry’s case, the story continues to develop.  Who would have guessed that an unexpected hospitalization during a taxpayer-funded conference in Vegas would prompt such a change of heart?  Tune in this morning (5/24) for live Twitter coverage of the press conference where Barry addresses the public on his anti-Asian remarks.

And the fojol brothers.?  Don’t even get me started….

[UPDATE (5/25): Barry has semi-public meeting, won’t allow media in for the “apology” itself.  Also, uses the disparaging term Polack to describe Polish, prompting yet another apology request from the Polish American Association.]

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On identity construction and (applications to) politics

The idea that identities are constructed is one that has jived so well with me that it’s no wonder it’s followed me since my undergraduate studies at Oberlin.  At Georgetown, considering it’s a linguistics program, we’ve been taught that a lot of what is understood more broadly as “identity construction” really happens through language.  It’s co-constructed, emergent in interaction, expressed through narrative, in what we say as much as what we don’t.  You yourself probably made an identity claim of some kind or another at least once in the past hour!

But thiisn’t just a moment of intellectual a-ha-ness: understanding identity construction is a rather useful skill to have in every day life.  Especially in politics.  Here are some readings I’ve found particularly useful in research on political discourse, minority relations in/with government, and intersections with law in the free vs. hate speech debate, and how I’ve engaged with them:

1) van Langenhove, Luk & Rom Harré.  1999.  Introducing Positioning Theory.  Harré R & van Langenhove (eds), Positioning Theory: Moral Contexts of Intentional Action, pp 14-31, Oxford: Blackwell.

Positioning theory is a useful heuristic for understanding identity construction through the lens of narrative.  Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that it’s really based on 3 interrelated concepts: positions, storylines, and speech acts.  So the idea is that the positions we inhabit as social beings influences/are influenced by the storylines we follow in a conversation or the speech acts associated with them.  An easy example from institutional discourse: You can tell a lot about who “has power” in a conversation by speech acts, i.e.  you’ll find the “agenda setter” has special privileges to ask questions, initiate new topics, where other participants could be censured for talking out of turn.  This is certainly true when the “agenda setter” is in the setting (say City Hall) where his/her position is ratified, but what happens when that person if caught off guard, or in a non-traditional setting?  See here to read more about how a politician negotiates his position as “man of the people” vs. “public enemy #1” in an impromptu encounter with protesters.

2) du Bois, John W. 2007.  The stance triangle. Robert Englebretson (ed), Stancetaking in discourse: Subjectivity, evaluation, interaction. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Stance is a very similar approach to positioning theory, also widely used in sociolinguistics, but has the further advantage of addressing how our evaluation of something affects our positioning and alignment (with respect to) someone/thing.  This is especially helpful in studying any sort of conflict talk, where people are playing a game of verbal chess with each other.  I have found both stance and positioning theory usefully applied to political discourse, like in policy situations where politicians are dealing with underserved, minority populations (i.e. LEP/NEP, immigrants, homeless, social service recipients).  For example, they might take heat from social service advocates for cutting those parts of the budget, but might save face by claiming to represent “all residents” as opposed to “the rich.”

3) Chiang, S.Y.  2010.  ‘Well, I’m a lot of things, but I’m sure not a bigot’: positive self-presentation in confrontational discourse on racism. Discourse & Society, 21(3), 273-294.

It should be clear by now that the relationship between identity work and politics is a consequential one.  One’s image is not the same as one’s public record, so politicians expend a lot of resources crafting their public appearance.  Despite this, some matters still remain in the court of popular opinion, so to speak.  Chiang (2010) is a great resource on the topic of racist discourse as it intersects with the ideological free vs. hate speech debate.  This and other research in linguistics demonstrate how the Other is constructed in public discourse and the media and for what purpose.  See here for my own research on this topic.

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.”