Thursday, July 28, 2022

What Does a Mask Communicate?


a medical face mask on the floor


I started writing this post two years ago and left it unfinished. I wasn't sure what point I was trying to make with it, and then I got distracted from blogging by, well, let's blame it on the pandemic and the general craziness of 2020, which for me and my wife included downsizing and moving from our home of 30 years in Boulder, Colorado, to a condo in Center City, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (It was a happy move for us, but the timing during a pandemic was awkward.) Then there was the general craziness of 2021, and now, ta-da!, the general craziness of 2022. Through it all, some of the craziness has involved tensions around masks and mask-wearing, and I've been wanting to get back to reflecting on masks as a communication problem. So, two years later and for what it's worth, here we go. 

One way to state the problem (maybe not the best way, but I'm going with it for purposes of this post) is: "What does a mask communicate?" In communication theory, this question can be approached from the tradition of semiotics, the theory of signs and meaning. From a semiotic point of view, a mask communicates when it it means something to someone—that is, when it functions as a sign. Semiotic theory gives us concepts that are useful for breaking down the complex ways that a sign can have meaning. 

In this post I'm going to explore a little of that complexity of meaning, but first I'd like to open a tiny time capsule from 2020, found in my first draft of this post, a vignette of mask-wearing and meaning in the early months of the pandemic, which I then bring up to date with a brief note on the present:

Boulder, Colorado, May 14, 2020:  As I run to the barbershop, the heavy rain lets up and I pull back my jacket hood, revealing three months growth of shaggy gray hair. Just reopened under new public health rules after weeks of lockdown to stop the spread of Covid-19, the shop has announced that customers must wait outside and in order to be admitted must use hand sanitizer and wear a... OH, SHIT! I FORGOT MY MASK! "Sorry," I say to the casual young guy behind a small table that partially blocks the shop entrance, "I left my mask in the car. I guess I was distracted by the thunderstorm. I can run back and get it..." No problem," he says while spraying sanitizer on my outstretched hands, "we'll lend you a mask." 

Half hour later: Looking good on top and grateful for it, I add a big tip to the bill, drop my borrowed cloth mask in the hamper by the door, and step into the bright sunshine and fresh air of a spring afternoon in my Colorado town. As I walk the two blocks to my car I'm self-conscious of not wearing a mask, which we're now officially required to do in public. I pass people on the sidewalk, some with masks and some not, and exchange glances with several. One man (also not wearing a mask, I notice) veers briskly into the street to avoid me. Safely back in my car, I say to myself, "Okay, this is what we are dealing with now. Don't forget that mask again!"

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, July 28, 2022: On my daily walk through the city and along the Schuylkill River, I see maybe 1 out of 25 people wearing a mask, plus a few carrying one hanging from an arm, at the ready. I still carry a mask in my back pocket, just in case. Masks are no longer required in public, even indoors. However, with Covid-19 recently surging yet again (the sixth wave?) I've been thinking I should wear the mask more often in crowded indoor places. 

Through the last couple of years, wearing a mask has communicated a lot of different things to different people in different contexts, yet with some core of meaning that remains much the same. Ironically, the basic function of wearing a mask these days is mostly about not communicating something, namely the "communicable" disease of Covid-19!  But, while we may avoid communicating a virus by wearing a  mask, we cannot avoid communicating some meaning, however vague or unknowable it may be. It's an axiom of communication theory that "you cannot not communicate." That is, when you are in the presence of others, anything noticeable about you or your actions potentially "says" something to somebody, regardless of your intentions. Efforts to avoid communication, for example by avoiding eye contact, merely communicate that you are trying not to communicate. Wearing a mask is no exception. It's very noticeable, especially so because because it hides the face, which is normally a main focus of attention when we interact. So, wearing a mask in the presence of others (or not wearing one when others do) is definitely communicating, but what exactly it is communicating in a given situation can be hard to know. Yet there is, as I said, a core of meaning that remains much the same.  

A couple of recent academic articles by semiotic theorists are helpful for thinking about this problem. The Italian semiotician Massimo Leone (2021) points out that in any situation the meaning of wearing a mask "is threefold, like the meaning of any communicative device: (1) what I mean by wearing a mask; (2) what is meant to people by wearing a mask; and (3) what is meant by the mask itself."    

Not wearing a mask can communicate just as well as wearing one, and just as unintentionally. On that spring afternoon in Boulder in 2020, I was clearly nervous about not wearing a mask, I think for at least two reasons: (1) I was worried about disease transmission; and (2) I was worried that other people, not knowing I was mask-less by mistake, would assume I was cavalierly putting them in danger by resisting the public health order to wear masks. That was not the person I wanted to be or the message I wanted to be sending in that situation. I may have tried to correct the misimpression by screwing up my face in frustration, to what effect will never be known.  

Leone argues that the core meaning of the mask itself is inseparable from its essential protective function. These are medical masks, quite different from the more decorative or symbolic kinds of masks worn around the world for traditional religious rituals or carnivalesque events like Mardi Gras. Prior to the pandemic, protective masks were mainly associated with doctors and nurses in hospital settings or with workers needing protection from contaminated air in places like mines and construction sites. Such masks can be colorful or otherwise decorative, even fashionable, but the primary reason for wearing them is still for protection. In this they differ, says Leone, from hats and sunglasses, which also have a protective function but often are worn primarily for reasons of self expression and style. In the absence of a pandemic, masks are unlikely to persist as a popular fashion accessory. It's possible, however, that the practice of wearing masks for protection from disease or air pollution, which was already common in some Asian countries before the pandemic, will continue to some extent in Western countries.  

Beyond the core meaning derived from the mask's function, what is communicated by wearing a mask depends a lot on context and has shifted over time. Very early in the pandemic, if you saw someone wearing a mask you might have assumed they were sick and should be avoided. Advice from public health authorities in the winter and spring of 2020 was inconsistent and confusing for a number of reasons, including uncertainty about how the coronavirus was spreading and the effectiveness of masks for preventing it. There was also, initially, a worldwide shortage of masks, and some messaging discouraged us from wearing them unless we were sick, to preserve the existing supply for health care workers who absolutely did need them.  

As the public health case in favor of mask-wearing became clearer in the spring of 2020, efforts to increase the supply of masks multiplied and the meaning of wearing a mask shifted.  Another recent article about the semiotics of mask-wearing by Mickey Vallee (2022), a Canadian media scholar, discusses how a "global mask-making cottage industry," which he associates with the anti-consumerist DIY movement, emerged along with messaging that promoted mask-wearing as "a caring gesture" that we do collectively to protect each other (not just ourselves) and to "flatten the curve" of virus transmission. 

Mask-wearing as a symbol of social solidarity was already common in Asian societies where masking during public health emergencies was an established practice. Interestingly, the now-familiar protective mask was invented in China during an early twentieth century pandemic, and in that cultural context the mask acquired connotations of medical modernity and pride in China as an advanced nation. With the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, masking became a world-wide practice.

Even then, however, public health orders that required masking stirred political controversy in the US, and the meaning of the mask was caught up in some of our cultural contradictions. On the one hand, "we're all in this together" is a slogan that appeals to many Americans. On the other hand, many Americans don't like being told what to do, especially by elite authorities such as public health officers. 
In 1918 and 1919, as bars, saloons, restaurants, theaters and schools were closed, masks became a scapegoat, a symbol of government overreach, inspiring protests, petitions and defiant bare-face gatherings. All the while, thousands of Americans were dying in a deadly pandemic. (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/03/us/mask-protests-1918.html)
Similarities to the US situation in 2020 and 2021 were not unnoticed by observers. As the pandemic wore on, right-wing populists gathered cultural strands of rugged individualism and anti-intellectualism to create a backlash against masks and public health restrictions on freedom in general. Still our malevolently clownish president through 2020, Donald Trump sowed confusion and sparked conflict in his own party by officially endorsing the public health advice to wear masks while also pandering to the right-wing resistance by mocking mask-wearers and declaring that he himself would not wear one. 

In an increasingly polarized environment, not wearing a mask in some American places clearly communicated that one was loyal conservative Republican, while wearing a mask equally clearly communicated that one was not. As an anti-Trump liberal Democrat, I felt that wearing a mask signaled my solidarity with like-minded others. This semiotic logic would obviously pose a problem for right-wingers who wanted to wear masks to protect themselves against Covid-19 yet didn't want to be mistaken for gutless un-American liberals. Masks like the one pictured below offered a solution to this problem. 


Semiotic theory says the mask is polysemic, meaning that it can have a lot of different meanings, some of which are highly contested. As public health orders have receded since 2021, the political heat around masks has gone down, yet differences remain. Searching Twitter a few minutes ago for the phrase "wearing a mask means" turned up numerous comments, including the following;

Kim Burrell should be ashamed of herself for peddling anti-mask and anti-vaxx nonsense when it's Black folks who've been hardest hit by Covid. To imply that getting vaccinated and wearing a mask means you don't "believe enough" is the same backwards mentality that keeps Black folks from seeking therapy. (@FountainPenDiva)

I take a medication that makes me exceptionally scent-sensitive. Wearing a mask means fewer migraines. (@dewsterling)

Wearing a mask means you've died.
Spiritually. (@johnsville14)

In Vietnam, wearing a mask means you love your Country. (@Sinh_MD)

Not wearing a mask means you're a selfish entitled git. (@Margo1hand)

Not wearing a mask means that you choose a stalled, unhealthy, selfish society. (@GalNooks)

At least wearing a mask means that people won't mistake me for a conservative. 🙃 (@salmliam)

We were pummeled with terror for 2 years. For the first year it was QUITE scary for sure! Then we were also told that wearing a mask means you're a good person and showing your face means you're not. The messaging purposefully divided and othered. They don't want to be the other. (@DrJamesOlsson)

Or maybe wearing a mask means he can assess risk? Or maybe he has a health condition? Or maybe a close relative is in a high risk group? I know it's hard for you to believe that someone might wear a mask bc they care about someone other than themself. (@BabblnBostonian)

Lol all that wearing a mask means is that you probably aren’t a little bitch. No need to ascribe grandeur, just means basic courtesy and respect for life. Actual pro-life. (@SullySparks1)

Wearing a mask means you get to inhale your own essence and who doesn’t want that? 🥰 (@_BlurtBobain)

He'll, if I'd have known that wearing a mask means I "don't trust" the Invisible Man in the Sky, I'd be wearing a mask 24/7. (@file_49)

Angry woman asked me why I'm "wearing that piece of garbage on my face" and I said "because I love you and want you to be ok".  It turns out telling angry strangers you love them makes them quiet.  Mental note to self. (@tamalama67)

At what point did people start assuming wearing a mask means you're sick, as opposed to wanting to prevent sickness lol  (@StrewthQueen)

Further Reading

Leone, M. (2021). The semiotics of the anti-COVID-19 mask. Social Semiotics, 1-7. https://doi.org/10.1080/10350330.2020.1868943 

Vallee, M. (2022). A mask between you and me. Media, Culture & Society, 44(5), 903-921. https://doi.org/10.1177/01634437221077175 

Friday, July 8, 2022

Review of "Banning Words: Problems With A Movement" by Amardo Rodriguez (Public Square Press, 2022)


Image source: https://m.media-amazon.com/images/I/41hCXAbHZZL.jpg

A new book by Amardo Rodriguez, professor of communication and rhetorical studies at Syracuse University, is well worth reading for the outside-the-ideological-boxes, communication-based argument that it makes against campus speech codes that ban the use of certain words, such as the N-word (his prime example). 

In the history of American education, conservatives have traditionally been the most vociferous advocates for banning things -- books, ideas, words, or people -- that they regarded as indecent, immoral, unpatriotic, subversive, or otherwise dangerous to society. The tradition continues with current efforts to ban teaching that promotes what is misleadingly called "Critical Race Theory" or that normalizes nontraditional sexual and gender identities. (A law recently enacted in Florida was dubbed "Don't Say Gay" by critics.)

However, the impulse to ban things has never been a monopoly of the political right. Ideological censorship, surveillance, and purges of "class enemies" and dissidents have been staple policies of left-authoritarian regimes in other countries, and conservatives have lately complained that something similar has been going on in American universities that are dominated by left-leaning faculty and students. The specific target of these complaints is often campus speech codes that ban "hate speech" or language regarded as racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist, or otherwise injurious to traditionally oppressed and underrepresented groups. 

Conservatives ironically find themselves opposing campus speech codes with the same "freedom of speech" arguments that liberals traditionally used against conservative bans. Now it is political progressives who defend restrictions on the freedom to speak in socially harmful ways. 

Conservative polemics on the subject bristle with horror stories about speakers being shouted down on campuses and professors being investigated, "cancelled" or disciplined for using banned language in the classroom. In one case, a professor was fired when he insisted on quoting the N-word as it appeared in appellate court opinions covered in a law class that he taught. He clearly was not using the N-word either casually or hostilely as a racial epithet. He was reading it from legal opinions in which it was used factually by judges ruling on legal cases about the word's use. Nevertheless, students in the professor's class were outraged and demanded action against him for racist speech. Campus administrators sided with the students, and he was ultimately fired. 

Rodriguez cites this and similar examples in his book, "Banning Words: Problems With A Movement," but his argument against banning words on campus escapes the polarized ideological dynamics of conservative versus progressive. Instead, he uses communication theory to argue that banning words relies on false assumptions about language and communication that can only serve to stunt our development as human beings. 

"At the foundation of this new trend of banning words on college campuses," he argues, "is the assumption that words and symbols form the foundation of communication" (p. 97), that words have certain definite meanings regardless of context or intent, and that "because words can allegedly inflict harm, just like how a weapon can harm, restrictions are necessary" (p. 13). In contrast to this "transmission model of communication," Rodriguez explains,

Communication theory has long rejected the notion that human beings are empty receptacles who can be filled up with messages. It now uses a model that stresses transaction rather than transmission... that human beings are always filtering and processing everything. Consequently, how one person perceives, experiences, and makes sense of something can be very different from how another person does. Communication is about recognizing, navigating, and transacting our different meanings of things. (p. 73)

Speech bans are intended to support campus "diversity" policies, but "for advocates of hate speech laws and codes, diversity resides in boxes and groupings" (p. 93). For Rodriguez, these policies actually deny and repress diversity, rather than support it:    

No doubt, human diversity is about race, ethnicity, religion, gender, disability, and sexual orientation. But human diversity is also about our different temperaments, backgrounds, circumstances, sentiments, ambitions, resources, prejudices, values, beliefs, fears, ethics, politics, and tribulations. It is also about our different rationalities, sensibilities, spiritualities, modalities, pedagogies, ideologies, and epistemologies. (p. 87)

And human diversity in this fuller sense is essentially related to dialogical forms of communication:

Diversity makes communication possible and valuable. Communication has meaning only to the extent that speaker and listener have different thoughts. Communication is about recognizing and engaging another perspective. In other words, in limiting and diminishing communication, these new bans limit and diminish diversity. The flourishing of diversity is bound with the flourishing of communication. Only through communication can our full diversity appear in all its fecundity and possibility. Rules and regulations will always diminish diversity. Both do so by strangling communication. For with rules and regulations, nothing is open for negotiation and deliberation. There is only submission. Finally, that diversity is bound up with communication means that communication demands vulnerability—owning the limits of what we can understand. That we are physically incapable of understanding most things completely and absolutely means that we must always allow for the possibility of a view or position that is different to our own. These new bans end this possibility. We are to assume that there is only one correct course of action when dealing with certain words. Communication is unnecessary. In this way, these bans make for less diversity by making for less communication. (p. 93)

Rodriguez acknowledges the essential place of power in communication, which is important because the rationale for campus speech codes relies on the idea that they are needed to counteract the power to dominate and demean others that has traditionally accrued to whiteness, maleness, and other socially privileged identities. But instead of empowering members of traditionally oppressed groups, he argues, speech bans actually disempower them by casting them as helpless victims who are unable to control and negotiate the meaning of their own experience, and who therefore require institutional protection from harmful speech. 

Indeed, he argues, speech bans only serve to strengthen the institutional power of "the neoliberal 'all-administrative university'" (p. 80), which is inherently hostile to diversity despite official pronouncements to the contrary. "The reality," he writes, "is that no institution can genuinely promote diversity and remain an institution" (p. 129). What institutions require is not diversity but conformity to rules. As an exercise of institutional power, speech bans ultimately depend on violence to enforce conformity:

Hate speech laws and codes represent an order that impedes human development. By imposing this order under the threat of sanction, communication becomes impossible. We must submit and conform, or else face the consequences. (p. 82)

Here Rodriguez emphasizes how institutional power stifles communication, but elsewhere he is clear that communication always has a political dimension:

Then I discuss how language is political. We are always fighting over language, as in who can use what language, what language is appropriate in what context, what language belongs to whom, what language should govern the public square, what language best describes a situation, and so forth. Because language is always political, it is always about power—as in, who decides whether to call a person a terrorist or a freedom fighter? (p. 134)

In this light, speech bans are more than an expression of institutional power. They express the rising power of historically oppressed groups to control language via institutional rules:
[The N-word] is about power. It is about Black folks, after 350 years of slavery, Black Codes, and Jim Crow, finally having any power to impact how White folks use language. For this reason, many Black folks have no intention of giving up this newfound power. (p. 134)
I think the author's point is that this power comes at a cost because it produces mere outward conformity in speech that fails to express what people actually think and feel. Thus it prevents "the kind of honest and difficult communication" (p. 67), the genuine dialogue about race, that is arguably needed to produce social change. 

The power that Rodriguez refers to is real and reflects clearly recognizable norms of language use. As a notable example, Rodriquez, a Black man, uses the N-word in his book freely and without apology, whereas I, a white man, have avoided it in this review, substituting the euphemistic "N-word" even when quoting his book. You could say this is merely performative on my part, or you could say it follows a rule of etiquette, and, as such, counts as an expression of respect. I have no problem with following a formal rule that requires me to show respect for people who have always deserved it but have long been denied it. 

The communication theory of genuine dialogue teaches that the "honest and difficult communication" that is the gold standard of human relationship, if we achieve it at all, is only possible in brief moments and cannot be expected all the time. For the most part we have no choice but to rely on routine communication practices, including formal etiquette, to get along. But social routines are always about power, as Rodriguez points out, and the struggle for social change plays out in ongoing fights about what is appropriate. 

Institutional rules, such as bans on words, are not the same as social norms, but they are justified in terms of social norms, they influence social norms, and in some ways they are easier to fight about than social norms, just because they are clearly explicit and enforceable. In that regard, they may have the potential to serve as instruments of social change, even granting the strong, thought-provoking case that Rodriguez makes against them. 

Monday, May 9, 2022

Empathize ... or Fight?

a woman's fist

Under the headline, "I’m Pro-Choice. But I Don’t Think Pro-Lifers Are Bad People," the linguist and New York Times opinion writer John McWhorter explains how his experience years ago as a graduate student eating meals with a group of Republican law students and listening to the talk that went on among them changed his attitude toward Republicans:

But some years later, after having spent hours on end listening to these law students discuss issues political, against my inclination I could not help starting to notice that they usually made a kind of sense....These were earnest, intelligent people who simply processed the world through a different lens than mine.

Referring to the current flare-up of the abortion issue as the US Supreme Court seems about to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that established a constitutional right to abortion, McWhorter's point is that those who stand with him on the pro-choice side of the issue should not demonize those on the pro-life side. These are not ignorant or bad people; they are earnest, intelligent people who process the world through a different lens than ours, and who sincerely believe that the right to life of a fetus outweighs a woman's right to reproductive freedom. So, we should empathize with their strong feelings on the issue, even while continuing to disagree with their priorities as we process the world through our own, different lens. 

I don't question the validity of McWhorter's point, taken on its own as a matter of principle, but he has little to say about what it means in practice in our current situation. In my head, I can empathize with McWhorter's empathy for anti-abortion activists, but then I hear another voice warning, in response, that yes, we should assume that our opponents are mostly earnest, intelligent people--and for that, that they are all the more dangerous in battle!

And battles there are. On the day McWhorter's column appeared, The New York Times editorial board declared: "Americans are about to lose a constitutional right. It’s worth fighting for." The editorial points out that if the Supreme Court rules as expected, the abortion fight will go on in state courts and legislatures across the country. With abortion bans already passed in many states and proposed in others, abortions could be illegal in more than half of the states in a few months, and "the anti-abortion movement isn't stopping there" but will be pressing for a national ban. There will be legal disputes between conservative states trying to restrict abortions outside their borders and liberal states trying to provide access for women from states where abortions are banned. "For the foreseeable future, the real battle for reproductive freedom will be fought in the states, by regular Americans, and their state and local representatives, who are trying to protect this fundamental right while they still can."

The editorial doesn't demonize abortion opponents but neither does it make a point of empathizing with them. It focuses on their apparent goals and strategies, the policies they are pushing for, and legislative strategies for opposing them. The communication practices of the pro-choice side are framed entirely in terms of "pushing," "fighting," and "battle." Despite their metaphorical violence, we can assume these terms refer to the usual political communication practices of organizing, fundraising, campaigning, protesting, petitioning, lobbying, and legal advocacy. Part of what is required is mobilizing large numbers of people and motivating them to act for the cause. Anger can be a great motivator, and demonizing the other side can be a great way of arousing anger (on both sides though, but the other side is angry anyway). So, is McWhorter telling us not to do that?

Not explicitly. He doesn't really say anything about political communication strategy. He's apparently talking about how we should personally feel toward people we disagree with. One communication model would argue that if we can empathize with people on the other side (and they with us, a big "if" in this case), as McWhorter feels we should, we all may be more willing to engage in a communication process that addresses the legitimate concerns of both sides through dialogue, negotiation, and compromise. This approach is always worth trying in moments when it seems possible, but despite evidence that the broader public would be open to compromise on the abortion issue, the anti-abortion movement, with major victories now in sight, clearly is not.  

Like it or not, then, we find ourselves in a "battle," and the battle frame entails a different communication model in which empathy for the other side has smaller and more instrumental roles to play. The current war in Ukraine may be a far-fetched analogy, but one function of empathy in that situation is illustrated by Thomas Friedman's argument that the US should avoid "boasting" about our indirect contribution to Russian military losses because of the unpredictable reaction it might provoke from a "humiliated" Russian president Putin. Friedman's empathy for Putin's vulnerability to humiliation is meant to inform a communication strategy against him, not to soften our feelings toward him. 

Are there ways of engaging in political "battle" while still honoring the validity of McWhorter's admonishment against demonizing those who disagree with us? McWhorter is right, after all. Demonizing the other side may be a convenient rhetorical strategy for mobilizing our own side for battle, but it is seldom an honest expression of the truth about our opponents, most of whom are probably earnest, intelligent people. Our anger toward them may be perfectly justifiable as well as motivationally useful in the current situation, but there should be limits on how it is expressed. Even in war, there are rules. 

A rule that is often proposed for political conflict is "civility," but critics have argued that the norm of civility is inappropriately used to stifle legitimate expressions of anger in public discourse. "The expression of anger is essential to public life," argues Karen Tracy in Challenges of Ordinary Democracy (Penn State Press, 2010). Rather than civility, Tracy proposes "reasonable hostility" as "a defensible ideal of communicative conduct" that "take[s] seriously the need for passionate, angry expression as well as the importance of respectful expression" (p. 202). 

Not so much a matter of how we personally feel toward our opponents, reasonable hostility is a matter of how we talk to them and about them, with tokens of respect even in the expression of passionate anger. There are probably many good techniques for striking this balance in discourse, and a useful job for communication researchers is to identify them and cultivate their use. Two techniques that Tracy mentions are using formal names and terms of address, and using "argument metalanguage"--terms from argumentation theory such as issue, claim, reason, argument, and assumption--to describe what both sides are saying. 

These are not ways of empathizing; they are ways of fighting while conveying the basic respect for opponents that empathy demands.  


Friday, May 22, 2020

My Path to the Constitutive Metamodel

Portions of this post are adapted from the text of a chapter to appear in Practicing Communication Theory: Exploring, Applying, and Teaching the Constitutive Metamodel, edited by Marc H. Rich and Jessica S. Robles, forthcoming from Cognella. 

This post recounts the intellectual journey that took me to my 1999 article, "Communication Theory as a Field" (hereafter CTF), in which I first presented the (in)famous Seven Traditions of Communication Theory. Much of what I've been writing in this blog grows out of ideas in that article. Warning: this is a theory-heavy piece. If I were Paul Krugman writing about economics in The New York Times, I'd call it "wonkish." It's mainly for communication theory wonks. 

CTF proposed that we think of communication theory as a field of "metadiscursive practice" - a field of discourse about discourse, dialogue and debate across a range of intellectual traditions for the purpose of informing and cultivating the ordinary metadiscourse about communication problems and practices that already goes on in society. This is the “constitutive metamodel” of communication theory, so-called because it is a model of models that would constitute the field as a conversation about alternative models for constituting the practice of communication. According to this metamodel, communication theory aspires to have a practical function in the world. By developing and disseminating through society the various traditions of thought in which communication has been conceptualized, the practice of communication theory enables people to reflect on problems from multiple perspectives as they deliberate on how best to communicate. 

One confusion people sometimes have about CTF results from their assumption that its scheme of seven theoretical traditions is a model of the communication discipline in which the traditions represent subdisciplinary areas of study. On this interpretation CTF is oddly out of sync with the field’s current structure, much of which is simply missing from the metamodel. Where, for example, is the media studies tradition? What about the public relations tradition? In truth, however, CTF was never intended to represent the disciplinary substructure of communication studies. Instead, it was one thread of a larger project on communication as a practical discipline (Craig, 1989). Elsewhere I have told the story of how that larger project emerged from my personal struggles with the science-humanities divide in communication studies, beginning as an undergraduate in the late 1960s (Craig, 2006). The following paragraphs trace my thinking on communication theory through the 1980s and ‘90s to the 1999 publication of CTF. 

My work on the idea of a practical discipline began around 1980 and centered on the premise that communication is a field of practical activities that can develop into practical arts with the assistance of systematic research, theory, and criticism. The Aristotelian art of rhetoric was a model that we could update by incorporating techniques of modern science and applying it to modern communicative activities to create a practical discipline of communication. 

My theoretical interests in the 1980s were mainly epistemological. Steeped in the philosophy of science, I was trying to articulate the specific kind of knowledge that a practical discipline would produce and how it would differ from traditional conceptions of knowledge in the sciences, arts, and humanities. I was reading in social science metatheory, pragmatism, hermeneutics, rhetoric, and critical social theory and wondering how to position a practical discipline among those categories. As always, I conducted my education in public by having my theory seminar students read the very things I was struggling to understand. 

From the early 1980s into the 2000s I worked intermittently on a book about communication as a practical discipline that I never managed to complete. Material written for the book was spun off as convention papers, articles and book chapters, but my working outline of the book kept changing as I explored different aspects of the idea of a practical discipline. The first decade’s work culminated in a major essay (Craig 1989) that I intended to revise as the first chapter of my book. Another spinoff, Grounded Practical Theory (Craig and Tracy 1995; 2021), grew from (and rather outgrew) a section of the methodology chapter. CTF in 1999 was yet another spinoff from the book project, culminating a line of work that began in the early 1990s.

Early draft outlines of my book-in-progress in the 1980s included chapters on the history and concept of the communication discipline, practical theory, methodology, and a shifting array of subsidiary problems like prescriptivism, authenticity, and intimate arts, but no chapter squarely focused on the subject matter of communication theory. Filling that gap became a priority for me around 1990, probably for several reasons. I became the founding editor of a new journal, Communication Theory, and worried about what it should publish. I took a faculty position at Colorado, where communication theory became my main teaching responsibility, and I worried about what to teach. Amid all of that, I worried that my writings on communication as a practical discipline had had a lot to say about practical and discipline but notably very little about the concept of communication! I was reading work by James Carey, Stanley Deetz, W. Barnett Pearce, Robyn Penman, John Peters, Gregory Shepherd, Stuart Sigman, and others, all interrogating the concept of communication, centering the communication discipline on that concept, and advancing some variation of what I came to call a constitutive model of communication. 

By 1994, my book outline included a chapter on communication theory that opened with the point that definitions of communication reconstruct communication problems and practices and went on to list a series of “traditions” of communication theory (rhetoric, semiotics, cybernetics, media theory, social psychology, and dialogue). The chapter outline claimed that tensions among the traditions defined central problems of communication theory and concluded that other traditions (nonacademic, nonwestern) also should be engaged. In a 1994 Speech Communication Association convention paper, I reviewed the literature on the constitutive model of communication and argued that the transmission model was still useful for some purposes. Influenced by Carey’s (1989) discussion of the reflexive relationship between communication theory and culture, I argued that communication theory should respond to the problem of communication as it is variously experienced in contemporary societies, and that theory should interpret, critique and suggest alternatives reconstructions of communication as a cultural practice. 

In 1994-1995, I was evidently grappling with some questions that that convention paper had left unanswered. Methodologically, how could the reflexive relationship between theory and practice be operationalized in a practical discipline, and how could the multifarious contents of communication theory be adapted to the purposes of such a discipline?  I was already thinking in terms of theoretical traditions, but the idea of a tradition was undeveloped. Influenced by Talbot Taylor (1992), I began to see metadiscourse as a key concept for relating theories to each other and theory to practice, but my research in discourse analysis (which had been going on since the late 1970s) led me to interpret the concept differently from Taylor. 

By the time of a March 1995 colloquium talk at Colorado, the title and a rough outline of “Communication Theory as a Field” had emerged, using concepts from Taylor’s (1992) critique of language theories to conceive the broader field of communication theory as one in which: 
"…communication theories are mutually relevant (constitute a field) because they are relevant to a common practical world; they present alternative ways of conceptualizing communication problems and practices; theoretical metadiscourse draws topoi from, and becomes a source of topoi for, practical metadiscourse, and produces both theoretical as well as practical innovation.” (unpublished handout dated March 8, 1995) 
In that talk, I sketched seven traditions (rhetoric, semiotics, social psychology/psychology, social psychology/sociology, phenomenology, cybernetics, and media theory) and posed, as a discussion question, “Which commonplaces of practical metadiscourse are appealed to, and which are problematized, by each tradition of communication theory?” 

It may have been while preparing that colloquium that I set out jogging one morning, as I have often recounted, my head roiling with nebulous thoughts on the traditions of communication theory and returned home an hour later with a list of seven traditions that I promptly wrote down. The memory is vivid and makes a fun anecdote but is a bit misleading. I must have had some epiphany on that day’s run but by then I had been toying with lists of traditions and pondering metadiscourse, etc., for some time.  Critical theory was not yet on my list of traditions, probably because I was still seeing it as an epistemological stance without a distinct concept of communication, a view I eventually rejected. The list of traditions continued to evolve as the manuscript of CFT developed slowly through the following two years.  

I presented a more fully developed version in October 1996 as the Second Annual Lecture in Human Communication at Indiana University. In that version, the last three traditions were now Social Psychology, Interactionism and Critical Theory, and each tradition was presented along with a sketch of commonplaces that it appeals to and challenges, practical problems that it orients to, and conflicts with other traditions that suggest research problems. That November I submitted a partial draft for presentation at the International Communication Association convention the following May. 

In the spring of 1997, I continued working on the manuscript while teaching a doctoral seminar on communication theory that followed the essay’s outline and assigned readings and student presentations on each of the seven traditions. The semester’s final reading was a draft of CTF that presented a rough version of the metamodel in one table and a half-completed matrix of arguments across traditions in a second table. I completed the manuscript, submitted it to Communication Theory on June 10, 1997, and received, dated October 26, 1997, one of those daunting “revise and resubmit” decisions accompanied by three detailed peer reviews, all very thoughtful, which raised good issues that took me some time to address in a revision that was finally submitted in mid-1998. 

It wasn’t until a second revision, submitted that fall, trying to clarify the paper’s organization, that I formulated the metamodel’s two principles: the constitutive model as a metamodel, and communication theory as metadiscursive practice. Another minor revision submitted that later fall was accepted by the then-editor of Communication Theory, James Anderson, in December 1998 and, after some final tinkering, appeared in print the following May. The rest is history. 

References & Further Reading

Carey, J. W. (1989). Communication as culture: Essays on media and society. Winchester, MA: Unwin Hyman.

Craig, R. T. (1989). Communication as a practical discipline. In B. Dervin, L. Grossberg, B. J. O'Keefe & E. Wartella (Eds.), Rethinking communication; Volume 1: Paradigm issues (pp. 97-122). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Craig, R. T. (1999). Communication theory as a field. Communication Theory, 9(2), 119-161. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2885.1999.tb00355.x

Craig, R. T. (2006). A path through the methodological divides. Keio Communication Review, 28, 9-17. http://www.mediacom.keio.ac.jp/publication/pdf2006/review28/01_Brenda%20DERVIN.pdf

Craig, R. T. (2015). The constitutive metamodel: A 16-year review. Communication Theory, 25(4), 356-374. doi: 10.1111/comt.12076
 
Craig, R. T., & Tracy, K. (1995). Grounded practical theory: The case of intellectual discussion. Communication Theory, 5(3), 248-272. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2885.1995.tb00108.x

Craig, R. T., & Tracy, K. (2021). Grounded practical theory: Investigating communication problems. San Diego: Cognella.

Taylor, T. J. (1992). Mutual misunderstanding: Scepticism and the theorizing of language and interpretation. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.


Friday, May 8, 2020

War as a Model (Not Just a Metaphor) for Communication

Earlier I raised the question, "Is Communication the Solution to War and Violence?" A little thought revealed that the answer isn't going to be simple. The idealistic belief that war and violence always arise from breakdowns in communication and can be prevented or resolved by good communication is attractive but unfortunately simplistic. I do think communication can serve to build more peaceful relationships, and finding better ways to do so is a worthy goal for communication research to pursue, but a realistic approach to the problem has to grapple with complexities.

Is communication the opposite of violence? Not necessarily! For one thing, violence can be a form of communication when it carries messages. For example, nations can use military attacks not just to fight wars but also as warning signals to prevent wars. As I demonstrate below, it can even be argued theoretically that communication, far from being the opposite of war and violence, is essentially war by other means. If that were true, then the language of war wouldn't be just a metaphorical way of talking about communication that critics think is overused. If communication is essentially war by other means, then we should literally be using war as a conceptual model for understanding and guiding the practice of communication. I myself don't buy that argument in the end, but I do think it has something to contribute to the more complex understanding of communication that we need.

To be clear, the war model of communication is not widely known. You won't find it in current textbooks. By no stretch is it a trendy idea or, in my judgment, likely to become one. In fact, I have found exactly one communication theorist who has seriously defended this idea in print, though he marshals a formidable array of classic and postmodern thinkers to back up his position.

Stefan Sonderling, an associate professor of communication and media studies at the University of South Africa and a former journalist, has written a dissertation and several articles on the theme that communication is war by other means. In the following I sketch my interpretation of his argument (as presented in the three articles listed below under Further Reading) and I conclude with some brief critical comments. With Sonderling's theory "on the record" for further discussion in this blog, no doubt I'll have more to say about it in future posts.

Sonderling's argument in a nutshell is that communication is inherently warlike, which is a good thing in his opinion because war is better than peace. 

Communication is warlike, for Sonderling, because it has developed through human evolution and history as part of the ongoing struggle for survival that has bred "the agonistic character of human nature" (2013, p. 3). Human nature is agonistic (prone to conflict) because the struggle for existence has always required competition for scarce resources, and the winners in that competition are usually the fiercest and best resourced warriors. Since prehistoric times, warfare has been "a universal and constant feature of human life" (2014, p. 155). It's true that the struggle for survival is not purely competitive but also requires cooperation with others to secure collective resources and defeat enemies. Love and kindness for the in-group, hatred and cruelty for the out-group would seem the ideal pattern, but the reality is mixed. Even within cooperative groups there are conflicting interests and struggles for power to establish social hierarchies and set the terms for cooperation. We fight with our friends and our enemies. We are an agonistic species. 

Conflict in the struggle for existence is not always overtly violent. Much of it goes on symbolically through other forms of communication, now ranging from international propaganda and information wars to snits and snubs in everyday talk and competitive virtue signaling (or just making ourselves look good) on social media. Theories often picture communication as a basically cooperative activity in which we can achieve understanding and agreement with each other by following established rules of language and interaction. Against those theories, Sonderling cites postmodernist writers such as Michel Foucault, Jean-François Lyotard and Pierre Bourdieu to argue that the underlying reality of human interaction, underneath whatever veneer of politeness and affection, is a fight, a warlike struggle for power and control, an adversarial game in which the object is to win (2013, pp. 2-5; 2014, pp. 160-165). 

If this war model of communication has always been true, postmodernist theory asserts it is especially useful for understanding the "postmodern condition" of our present world. In the postmodern condition, partly because of developments in communication and media, unified cultures and belief systems have increasingly broken down, leaving society in a fragmented state of "conflictual diversity" (2013, p. 2). As Sonderling writes (2013, p. 14), "Any attempt to understand the postmodern world, globalisation and the spread of communication technology is confronted with a perplexing paradox of integration and fragmentation." He concludes (2013, p. 15) that "one could describe the postmodern world as a return to the Middle Ages or as a neomedieval age" of disorder and constant warfare.

But Sonderling goes further. For him, the war model of communication is not only true, it is good because it can foster renewed appreciation for the positive value of war as a structuring principle for life. Here he parts ways with postmodernist theorists like Lyotard whose relativistic stance toward diversity and dissent in society leaves us with no moral basis for mounting a defense against real "mortal enemies" such as international terrorists (2013, p. 13). Sonderling aligns himself with a tradition in Western thought going back to the ancient Greeks that has celebrated warrior virtues and war as a noble way of life. As he writes (2012, p. 67), "From the time of antiquity, war was always considered to be synonymous with life, strength, well being and expansion, while peace was associated with rest, stagnation and death." While death is the inevitable end of every human life, war gives life and death a clarity of purpose and meaning. Forcing us to draw clear lines between friends and enemies, war creates the experience of powerful human bonds: "Human beings can only gain a proper sense of their humanity through war and strife. A world without enemies is also a world without friends, hence it is no longer a human world..." (2012, p. 66).

Maybe the most provocative thread of Sonderling's argument is his attack against peace discourse, claiming that the ideal of peace is not only unrealistic but deeply deceptive and evil in its consequences. "The idea of eternal peace is a utopian myth, because the decisive process that shapes individuals and social life is the dynamics of power relations" (2012, p. 66). As long as humans unavoidably tangle over power and control, there will be wars as there always have been. War is the ultimate resolution of conflicts that can never be resolved by mere communication because they are not caused by misunderstandings but by clashes of real material interests in the struggle for survival. Peace discourse is deceptive because it denies the reality that power and violence are the basis of society. Far from being the opposite of violence, peace actually depends on violence. "Peace is synonymous with predictable social order that can be achieved through repressive law-enforcement" (2012, p. 69). It only exists where there is a monopoly of power strong enough to suppress violent conflicts. In effect, peace discourse is an effort to gain power by deception. It demands that we talk about conflict in the the peaceful, therapeutic language of "dialogue" and "conversation" and that we must stop using the violent language of "war" against "enemies." It "assumes that by manipulating, distorting and directing language, people will not be able to think about defending themselves against danger, ensuring their own domination and being rewarded with a peaceful life" (2012, p. 72). In this view, the ultimate evil of pacifism is that it denies us the right to defend ourselves against enemies.

In sum, Sonderling's argument is quite a rant, and the case that he makes for a war model of communication has serious weaknesses, but he is right about some things. He is probably right that there is an "agonistic" streak in human character that has always been there and is not going away, and that pugnacious streak will continue to run through much of our communication. He is right that conflicts generally arise from incompatible interests and commitments, not just misunderstandings, and that conflict resolution cannot be achieved by merely talking nice or expressing ourselves more clearly but has to address the real matters at stake. He is right that communication theory cannot ignore the power dynamics that are always at play in human relationships, and that "peace" is a structure of power, not the absence of power. In this regard, the postmodernist take on "conflictual diversity" in society may be a good starting point for thinking about what peaceful communication would look like, but Sonderling is right to reject postmodernism's relativistic celebration of diversity and dissent. If peace is a structure of power, then the goal of communication has to be a just peace, not peace at any price. We cannot entirely avoid moral judgment and taking sides, fighting for what we believe to be right, or, in extreme circumstances, even going to war. Sonderling is right to be critical of peace discourse to the extent that it denies these realities. 

But none of this justifies Sonderling's unqualified celebration of war as a positive good. He quotes the title of Chris Hedges' poignant 2003 book, "war is a force that gives us meaning," but he fails to note that Hedges saw this attraction to war as a temptation we should resist, not a positive good we should seek. War is no longer, if it ever was, exclusively an arena in which heroic warriors battle courageously to defend their countrymen. Yes, there are heroes, and yes, courage in battle and willingness to sacrifice one's life to save others in a just cause are admirable qualities, and we should be thankful to those who do so on our behalf. But most of the carnage and destruction caused by war, especially modern war, is not suffered by those brave warriors. For many of its victims, and indeed for many of the warriors, war is not a force that gives them meaning; it is a senseless catastrophe. War, at best, is a necessary evil, not something we should celebrate for itself. If fighting spirit and warrior virtues are insistent and sometimes admirable human tendencies that we should cultivate in peacetime, they can be channeled into nonlethal activities like athletic competitions, political activism, or battles against natural forces that threaten us (climate change?) as recommended by William James in his famous 1906 essay on "The Moral Equivalent of War." (Though admittedly, James's "warfare against nature" may not be the best way of framing climate change action or anything else.) In any case, the virtues that Sonderling celebrates are quintessentially male virtues, and his world view seems perfectly masculinist. Feminism has made us aware of other virtues that are worth cultivating in people of all genders. 

As for models of communication, Sonderling isolates one human tendency - agonism - and arbitrarily treats it as the essence of humanity. True, power dynamics operate in all human relationships. Theories of relational communication generally identify power as one dimension along with affection or closeness as a another dimension, and much else also goes on in human communication. I'm sure we can find a legitimate place for agonism in our models without implying that communication is always warlike or that it should be as warlike as possible

Further Reading

Hedges, C. (2003). War is a force that gives us meaning. New York: Anchor Books.

Sonderling, S. (2012). Eternal peace of the graveyard: The language of peace discourse and the construction of the global humanitarian concentration camp. Communicatio, 38(1), 64-83. doi: 10.1080/02500167.2011.627566

Sonderling, S. (2013). To speak is to fight : War as structure of thought in Lyotard's postmodern condition. Communicare : Journal for Communication Sciences in Southern Africa, 32(2), 1-19. https://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/sabinet/comcare/2013/00000032/00000002/art00002

Sonderling, S. (2014). Communication is war by other means: Towards a war-centric communication theory for the 21st century. Communicatio, 40(2), 155-171. doi: 10.1080/02500167.2014.918900

Saturday, April 25, 2020

#WeSeeYou and #Sawubona (Part 2)

image
Image source: https://rochemamabolo.wordpress.com/2018/03/12/sawubona-more-than-just-a-zulu-greeting/

In Part 1 we saw how the Twitter hashtag #WeSeeYou has evolved since it first appeared on Black Twitter in 2009. Initially, #WeSeeYou was mostly a somewhat playful way of calling out another person's pretentious, hypocritical, or evasive behavior, such as sneaking a look at someone or denying a personal failing that was obvious to others. A decade later the hashtag is still used in that way, especially on Black Twitter, but by now has been taken up by a wide range of Twitter users to express different, sometimes contradictory meanings including condemnation, contempt, recognition, solidarity, gratitude, and sympathy.

Searching online for connections between #WeSeeYou and African American culture, I found that the phrase "we see you" (not just the hashtag) does seem to have some cultural resonance in fields ranging from popular music to religion. One connection that turned up and seemed especially promising as a potential source of cultural insight was sawubona--a Zulu (Southern African) social greeting term that translates as "we see you."

I've found very little about sawubona in English academic literature. The word appears in Google Books searches from the 1960s on, in Zulu language textbooks, tourist guides, and some ethnographic writings. Its occurrence in English has grown rapidly since the end of the South African apartheid regime in in the 1990s, as the following chart illustrates.


Lately, sawubona seems to have become something of a buzzword in commercial contexts, where it can serve as a branding device to associate an enterprise with authentic indigenous roots of Southern African culture. For example, the South African Airways in-flight magazine is Sawubona.

The image at the top of this post was taken from the blog of Roche Mamabolo, "an author, blogger, entrepreneur, mentor and most of all, a teacher" who runs an entrepreneurship consultancy in South Africa and Botswana. Mamabolo introduced the concept sawubono in a 2018 blog post:
Sawubona, is an ancient isiZulu greeting which means: We see you. It is equivalent to Hello and Namaste. 
So when we meet and greet I would say “sawubona” [we see you], and you will respond by saying “yebo, sawubona” [yes, we see you too]. 
Why do we say “We” see you even when it is just me, a single individual person greeting you and why do you respond by the same when it is just you, a single individual person greeting me? 
In Zulu tradition, the “I” is connection to an ancient lineage of ancestors which my ancestors are always with me. 
So when I meet you, not only is myself meeting you, but my ancestors whom I’m representing meet you too. 
So sawubona [we see you] means me and my ancestors see you, and your response means you and your ancestors sees me too.
Mamabolo goes on to explain that sawubona "is more than just a greeting, it also means: we see each other, we acknowledge each other, we recognize each other ... a deep witnessing and presence [that] invites us to communicate." Drawing a business lesson, he concludes: "as entrepreneurs, we need to not only greet our customers, but we need to acknowledge them, to recognise them, to witness them, their feelings, their aspirations."

Bridget Edwards, a South African psychological consultant and author, offers a similar explanation of sawubona, except she translates it as "I see you" (rather than "we see you") and derives a more self-focused lesson: "it is only when we actually ‘see’ ourselves and acknowledge our own inner greatness that we have the capacity to recognise this in another."

In the United States, sawubona has appeared in discussions of multicultural education and ethics of artificial intelligence as well as organizational leadership. Although some sources link sawubona to the larger theme of African Ubuntu philosophy, none that I have found explores that connection in any depth.

#Sawubona is also used as a Twitter hashtag, but (interestingly) almost never in conjunction with #WeSeeYou. I've found only four tweets with both hashtags, one of which is my own tweet announcing Part 1 of this article. The others relate to transgender rights (a movement that has understandably embraced #WeSeeYou) and to the "Sawubona Award" given by the Pan African Network, an organization that supports Pan African multicultural education. Here they are:


These tweets use #WeSeeYou in positive senses of recognition, celebration and solidarity. A larger number of tweets, but still only a few dozen, many of them from that same Pan African Network, combine #Sawubona with the phrase (not hashtag) "we see you." Most of those tweets are celebratory in a Black cultural context. Many more tweets use #Sawubona without #WeSeeYou or "we see you." They are quite various and hard to generalize about, but many of them come from South Africa and have a commercial reference, including popular music. Quite a few others come from a religious context of African or African American Christianity.

~~~~~~~~~~

So, what can we conclude from all this? And so what ... why should we care?

Recall that this mini-investigation began out of curiosity about the hashtag #WeSeeYou, just because it seemed to have so many different meanings. A little sleuthing traced the hashtag to Black Twitter, where it was first used in 2009, and so I wondered how its origins might be connected to African American culture. The typically teasing, somewhat jocular tone of those earliest tweets might suggest some relation to traditions of verbal sparing in African American communities, but why "we see you?" Where did that phrase come from?

To that question I've found no definite answer. For a while I thought #Sawubona might be the key to a deep connection between #WeSeeYou and African traditions. That remains a possibility, and the connection (perhaps traceable through Ubuntu philosophy) may be obvious to cultural insiders or scholars better informed than I am, but I haven't found any academic literature on the question. In current usage, #Sawubona is closely related to positive senses of #WeSeeYou, such as recognition and solidarity, that have appeared on Twitter through the last decade, very unlike the unmasking of pretension and hypocrisy featured in the earliest uses of #WeSeeYou on Black Twitter. #Sawubona is a recent trend that partly has to do with South African national branding. Clearly, #WeSeeYou did not originate directly from #Sawubona.

My best guess at present is that the most direct cultural source of #WeSeeYou is African American Christianity or Christianity in general, traceable to the biblical passage (from Matthew 25) that I quoted earlier: "Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?"

This Christian sense of "we see you" as recognition and caring for others is pretty different from the early use of #WeSeeYou on Black Twitter, but it is quite possible for a culturally available expression to be taken up and used ironically in verbal play. Maybe that's where #WeSeeYou came from. That really is just a plausible guess, not a research finding, but I probably haven't emphasized enough how common the phrase "we see you" is in Christian discourses. The Christian connection is not a minor thread, and it also helps to explain other senses of #WeSeeYou that we observed on Twitter, senses like recognition, celebration, appreciation, solidarity, sympathy and support.

A search for the cultural origins of #WeSeeYou is not a search for its "true" or "correct" meaning in metadiscourse, because there is no such thing. Every common way of using #WeSeeYou is valid in the discourse communities that have adopted it for their own purposes, whether they be police supporters, right wing conspiracy theorists, or transgender activists. There is much more here to explore, if one is interested. For example, in the discourse of the #MeToo movement, #WeSeeYou is often paired with another hashtag, #WeBelieveYou, which adds another thread of meaning.

I think we should care about this, if only to better appreciate the creative richness of ordinary human culture and communication.

Monday, April 13, 2020

#WeSeeYou and #Sawubona (Part 1)



Source: https://www.facebook.com/AFROPUNK/photos/10156323918651623

Research is not always about matters of urgent importance. Sometimes we just get curious about something that may turn out to be interesting. This and the following blog post (Part 2, coming soon) are about a Twitter hashtag that puzzled me and the progress I've made in understanding it. A hashtag is a form of metadiscourse that self-comments on a tweet, highlighting a theme that the tweet shares, or invites sharing, with other tweets. It tries to link a tweet to some larger conversation. These blog posts represent a certain way of analyzing Twitter and related discourse. They have nothing directly to do with the current global health crisis, though recent tweets that I'll quote refer to the pandemic. There's no escaping that for now, I guess.

This is research in the raw. If you can correct any errors or add something to what I say here, please comment!

So, my curiosity was sparked when I noticed that the Twitter hashtag #WeSeeYou is currently used with several different, even quite opposite meanings that can be negative or positive in tone. On the one hand, it can be affectionately teasing, sarcastically mocking, seriously accusatory, or downright paranoid. On the other hand, it can express praise, admiration, gratitude, solidarity, or compassion. It can also threaten or brag. In any of these uses, #WeSeeYou claims to represent the collective voice of an implied "we," not just an individual's opinion.

A little digging finds that this hashtag has some affinity with African American culture and that it specifically originated on #BlackTwitter, but now it is widely used and the range of meanings has shifted. Lately, #WeSeeYou is sometimes linked to the Zulu (Southern African) greeting sawubona, which translates as "we see you," has itself been used as a hashtag, and clearly resonates with some senses of #WeSeeYou. I was hoping that #Sawubona might be the key to unlock a deeper relationship between #WeSeeYou and African American communication culture, but (spoiler alert!) the link remains elusive to this culturally limited White researcher and this pair of posts will leave us with more questions than answers.

Evolution of #WeSeeYou on Twitter

Figure 1: Recognizing Health Care Workers (2020)
Figure 1 represents a Twitter genre that has become very common in recent years, using #WeSeeYou to express collective recognition, gratitude and support for an admired person or group, in this case health care workers during the current crisis.

Figure 2: Compassion and Help for Cancer Patients and Families (2020)
#WeSeeYou can also mean "we see your suffering or need and want to help and support you," as Figure 2 illustrates. This type of message has also become fairly common on Twitter. It hints at the possibility that one source of meaning for "we see you" might be the following biblical passage:
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”
(Matthew 25:37-40)

Figure 3: Negative Uses of #WeSeeYou (2020)

The tweets in Figure 3, which were grabbed from the same recent Twitter searches as Figures 1 and 2, illustrate some ways the hashtag is used to call out or criticize. Each tweet says of its target , "we see you for the failure (or liar, fake, hypocrite, etc.) that you really are." These include tweets by conspiracy theory fans like @bradphelps317 (third from top), in this case alluding to the theory that the Apollo moon missions were a hoax that the government continues to cover up.

The original uses of #WeSeeYou (illustrated in Figure 4) were interestingly different from the above examples.

Figure 4: First Uses of #WeSeeYou (2009)

Two things strike me about these earliest instances of #WeSeeYou I was able to find using the Twitter search function. One is that most if not all of these tweets from mid-2009 appear to be written by Black people. (Even the one from @Apollo13bot is actually a retweet from a since-deleted account called @soblackrates.) This was no longer quite so true a few years later, but scrolling through a sample of #WeSeeYou tweets from 2012, you'll find that many of them still closely resemble the ones in Figure 4. #WeSeeYou clearly originated on #BlackTwitter and spread from there. 

The other thing that strikes me about the tweets in Figure 4--and this quality also continued to be prominent for several years later--is that most if not all of them call out some contradiction between appearance and reality with more-or-less gentle irony. Targets include people caught looking at someone or farting in class, playing on words, denying some truth, or trying to look like something they aren't. #WeSeeYou means we see your pretense and who you really are, usually not as a harsh condemnation but more as a wry comment on some human foible. @DJJedi's tweet (bottom of Figure 4) seems not to fit this pattern but is ambiguous. The tweet is a shout out in praise of Keith Olbermann (a liberal TV commentator) but it's not clear to me if #WeSeeYou refers to Olbermann himself or to the hypocritical politicians Olbermann was criticizing in the linked story. 

Later on #BlackTwitter, some #WeSeeYou tweets of positive recognition, resembling those in Figures 1 and 2, expressed support for the #BlackLivesMatter movement of protest against police killings of Black people. There were not really a lot of such tweets, but Figure 5 shows a couple of examples.

Figure 5: #WeSeeYou and #BlackLivesMatter (2014)

Ironically, this positive genre of #WeSeeYou soon became very common in connection with the pro-police counter-movement of #BlueLivesMatter, as illustrated by Figure 6. 

Figure 6: #WeSeeYou and #BluelivesMatter (2015)

#Sawubona: The Missing Link?

No only did the hashtag #WeSeeYou originate on #BlackTwitter, the idea of "we see you" seems to resonate more broadly in African American popular culture. Before it showed up on Twitter, the theme appeared in rap music. The logo at the top of this post belongs to an Afropunk-themed Facebook pageEssence.com currently presents "We See You, Sis," a video series "aimed at celebrating Black women who make an impact online."

Searching for a link between #WeSeeYou and African American culture, I soon came upon the concept of sawubona, which, as I mentioned earlier, is a Zulu greeting term that translates to English as "we see you." Could this be the cultural link I was looking for? We'll explore that possibility in Part 2 (coming soon).