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.”

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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.

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?

 

What’s a linguist?

When I tell people I’m studying linguistics, I often hear two common misconceptions about what linguists do and who we are:

1) a polyglot, i.e. someone who speaks many languages
ex:  “Oh, so how many languages do you speak?”  “What language do you study?”

OR, my other favorite

2) a structural linguist, a la Chomsky
ex:  “How interesting!  I love Chomsky, especially his more political writings… wow, you must be really smart.”

I’ll give these folks some credit — linguists are interested in language and more than likely know a thing or two about Chomsky.  But linguists come in all shapes in sizes, like economists, doctors, and pretty much every profession or academic discipline.  For those who are more visually oriented, please see this quick and fun slideshow that synthesizes how myself and other sociolinguists answer the question, “What is a linguist?”  I once heard someone refer to linguists as naturally-inclined puzzle solvers, so perhaps we can try to start to thinking about linguists as “language scientists.”

At Georgetown, my stripe of linguistics is of the “socio” variety, i.e. sociolinguistics, which includes analytic approaches such as (critical, mediated, political, or regular ole’) discourse analysis, variation analysis, and ethnography.    As a person, I’ve always considered myself to be more on the “applied” side of things (hence the anti-“knowledge-for-knowledge’s-sake” spiel you might have read in my introduction).  Here’s where it gets confusing, since applied linguistics is the subfield that deals with linguistic applications in the education sector.  I care about education, but about a lot of other things more, which is what I can do as a sociolinguist.  But in particular, I care about the immigrant community, about progressive politics, and how linguistic research can benefit and enhance the two.

So don’t think of me as a grammar Nazi, think of me as a language hippie!