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.

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.

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 source:

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)


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 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).

Thursday, March 26, 2020

What Kind of Problem is the Coronavirus?

"All problems can be stated as problems of communication." So wrote the philosopher Richard McKeon in a classic essay, "Communication, Truth, and Society" (1957). Notice he didn't claim that all problems ARE problems of communication, only that they "can be stated" as such. Without using the word, in the current jargon of communication theory he was referring to how we "frame" problems, what aspects we select and emphasize as we think and talk about them.

For McKeon, you frame a communication problem by considering "what is said and how what is meant might be influenced by communication." That is, you begin with what people are saying about a situation from their different perspectives and engage them in a deliberative discussion to seek agreement on what is going on and what needs to be done. The communication frame is really a meta-frame because it acknowledges the conflicts among different ways that people are framing a complex problem and the need to resolve those conflicts through communication in order to move forward together.

The current crisis certainly fits that description. The COVID-19 pandemic is a complex problem, really a multitude of problems that that become apparent as you consider the situation from different points of view. In a biological frame, the problem is a new virus that causes illness and death, and to solve that problem we need effective vaccines and medical treatments. In a public health frame, which relates microbiology to social behavior, the more urgent problem is that the virus transmits easily and can only be contained by practices such as social distancing and disinfectant cleaning. By now we've all learned that "flattening the curve" of disease transmission by these means is necessary to prevent the medical system from being overwhelmed--a frame that shifts the focus to problems like equipment shortages and overstretched health care providers, and from there to systemic failures that have caused the shortages and left us unprepared for an emergency the medical and public health systems should have anticipated. Shortsighted political leadership let it all happen.

And then ... all the other problems! Cries of pain arise from everywhere. Sick people who can't be tested for the virus because tests are unavailable. "Essential" workers who risk exposure. Homeless people especially vulnerable. Parents needing to self-isolate or work remotely with kids home from school. Kids who can't play with their friends. Slow or no internet. #zoomfails. No carrots or toilet paper at the supermarket. Neighbors worried about joggers who breathe too hard, spewing who-knows-what as they run through the neighborhood (really). Disorientation, anxiety, loneliness, domestic conflict and abuse. Stock markets tanking. Businesses and nonprofits facing ruin. Millions thrown out of work and without health insurance. All of these problems causing still other problems, and so it goes.

"What is said" includes all of that and more. How can we put it together? Meta-frames compete to dominate the discourse. Right now, the public health frame is clearly on top. In that frame, regardless of all other problems, the first thing we must do is to flatten the curve. On the advice of public health experts, governments invoke emergency powers, ordering businesses to shut down and everyone who can to "shelter in place."

Rising to compete with public health is an economic frame in which you can argue that the public health "cure" will be worse than the pandemic disease if it leads to economic collapse, as many fear it will. In a right wing version of this frame, public health solutions carry unacceptable costs in personal and economic freedom, and liberals are using the pandemic--essentially just a really bad flu season that we could weather--as an excuse to expand government regulatory power and social entitlements like universal health care. (The argument strongly resembles right wing climate change skepticism, with public health experts standing in for climate scientists in the role of liberal tools.)

More mainstream versions of the economic frame admit the need for strong public health measures (COVID-19 is NOT the flu!) but look for ways to limit the economic damage. Public health arguments compare short term economic shutdown to cancer chemotherapy or medically induced coma--harsh measures unfortunately necessary to save the live of a patient who will hopefully recover as a result. In the economic frame you worry that short term economic shutdown will impoverish a generation and you look for some compromise to minimize the damage.

Interestingly, it seems to be this moderate economic position that most often pivots to the communication meta-frame: We need to talk about this problem. Public health measures are necessary but we can't let them go too far. We need to find some compromise that saves the economy. This argument is perhaps necessitated by a power equation. Right now, the public health frame rules the discourse. When you don't have the power to dictate a result, you call for "communication." As I write, the United States Congress has communicated in its own peculiar way and come up with a compromise in the form of a huge economic stimulus package that leaves harsh public health measures untouched but answers many economic cries of pain--though not all and probably not very equitably.

The communication meta-frame has some power insofar as it is embedded in democratic political institutions and the culture at large. McKeon noted a cultural shift that was becoming apparent as he wrote in the 1950's, more than six decades ago: a growing tendency to see the problems that we face as problems of communication. McKeon speculated that society's awareness of communication problems had grown "as a result of the invention of instruments of communication and the massive extension of their use" -- a process that has only accelerated in recent times. He argued that we should state our problems as problems of communication in a pluralistic, democratic society that wants to solve problems without suppressing the diversity of viewpoints, and that we need to cultivate the art of deliberative rhetoric as a means to that end.

The alternative would be an authoritarian system that knows the one, officially "right" truth and does the one "right" thing, without discussion. It may be hard to hold on to the communication frame at a time when the one right thing to do seems obvious, as determined by experts, and in truth, problems are not always best stated as problems of communication. We don't need to communicate about a simple math problem. Some problems are like that. Other problems, including most of the real problems that we face, are complex and involve multiple conflicting interests, values and technical capabilities. Those problems need to be stated as problems of communication and we need better ways of talking about them.

Further Reading

McKeon, R. (1957). Communication, truth, and society. Ethics, 67, 89-99.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Social Distancing, Technology, and Loneliness

Public health measures being implemented to limit transmission of the pandemic COVID-19 coronavirus are creating a surreal moment across the US and in many places around the world. This global event implicates communication in several ways. A communicable disease is bringing us all together, much of the world, in battle against a common enemy (ah, those war metaphors), even while it divides us with travel bans, restrictions on social gatherings, and panic that fuels antisocial behaviors ranging from stealing face masks to hoarding toilet paper

Right now the situation is profoundly ambiguous and the solution to that problem of uncertainty is universally acknowledged in principle (if not always in practice) to be information -- clear, accurate, reliable, transparent, uncontaminated by rumor, disinformation, conspiracy theories. My inbox is flooded with messages from organizations all professing their deep concern for my health and well being, apologizing for their disrupted services, and offering advice. Information is getting out, to be sure. but the uncertainty remains. How long will this go on? How dangerous is it, really? What should I do?

In answer to what I should do, today's keyword is social distancing -- stay at home, avoid crowds, keep your distance to avoid catching the virus or passing it to others. No hugs or handshakes allowed. Suddenly everyone is working from home, teaching online with course management and videoconferencing systems, "zooming in" or "skyping in" to meetings. The Zoom videoconferencing app has reached #1 in the Apple App Store. Large organizations like the International Communication Association are moving their annual conferences with thousands of participants to online virtual conferencing systems.

In addition to concerns about the persistent "digital divides" that inequitably limit access to these various online systems, it's easy to imagine that the systems themselves will soon be overwhelmed and start crashing, but it doesn't seem to be happening yet. If these systems largely all keep working through the crisis, we will have crossed a huge threshold. The technical possibility having been proven, the question will be how users evaluate the experience. Will we all "go green," avoiding unnecessary travel by shifting to remote work and virtual conferencing, or will we recoil from all this social distancing, more convinced than ever that there's no substitute for face to face communication?

As a term for communication, "social distancing" is ambivalent at best. It may be what we have to do at the moment but it's not generally a happy thing. The term doesn't have a long history. It's not in the Oxford dictionary. A Google Ngram search shows it originated in the 1950's as a term used by social psychologists to describe people's psychological sense of distance from others as well as their physical spacing in social situations. The usage curve rose steeply in the 1970's (the heyday of "intimacy" and "closeness" as terms for good communication) and again since the early 2000's, when it seems to have entered the medical and public health fields in its current sense of a method to prevent disease transmission. Suddenly it is everywhere. In a Lexis-Nexis search I found "social distancing" in 1,209 news articles in February 2020 compared to just 8 articles in February 2019. A Google web search returned almost 59 million hits for "social distancing" (in quotes).

The newer, disease prevention sense of social distancing collides with its older sense of psychological separation between people. One Twitter user quips, "It’s good to know I wasn’t unpopular in high school... everyone around me was just practicing #SocialDistancing really early." Adding "loneliness" to the Google search with "social distancing" gets more than 97,000 hits. Some of the highest ranked results address the likelihood that the current public health measures may be damaging our mental health even as they protect our physical health. And the physical protection can be self-defeating because a lot of people are lonely nowadays, and loneliness can make us sick. Writing in The New York Times, Abdullah Shihipar describes this as the "Isolation Paradox" and argues we need creative solutions, including the use of communication technologies, to protect vulnerable people from the effects of isolation:
For solutions, we can look to countries where people have been dealing with coronavirus for some time. As the BBC reported, people in China are turning to creative means to stay connected. Some are streaming concerts and gym classes. Others are organizing virtual book-club meetings. In Wuhan, people gathered at their windows to shout “Wuhan, jiayou!” which translates to “Keep fighting, Wuhan!” A business owner packed 200 meals for medical workers, while a villager in a neighboring province donated 15,000 masks to those in need. 
For those of us who know people, especially elderly people, who may be isolated, get connected. Check in daily and look for ways to spend time together, either through a FaceTime or WhatsApp call, through collaborative gaming or just by using the telephone.
A Scientific American article advises, "[w]hether you are quarantined, working remotely or just being cautious, now is the perfect time to practice using technology in socially healthy ways" and goes on to offer "a few suggestions for how to connect without contact." Among the suggestions are video chatting, liking social media posts, and using various apps to connect with friends and loved ones.

Los Angeles Times columnist Nita Lelyveld raises a question: "We text and order food on apps. Why does coronavirus social distancing feel different?" In response she points to the difference between voluntary and involuntary isolation and expresses her hope that the current enforced isolation will rekindle our appreciation for the pleasures of human contact:
It’s one thing to work from home because you feel like it and you can. It’s another to be told that you cannot go spend the day with your co-workers in the office. It’s one thing to stream a movie by choice or to choose to watch a basketball game on TV. It’s another to be told that you should not go to a movie theater, that you can’t go to a basketball game, that concerts have been called off. 
It’s one thing to order in food because you want to put on your comfy clothes and curl up on the couch. It’s another to be told by the experts that it might be best not even to see or greet your delivery person but to have your order left at the front door. 
It’s so different to know that you can step out into a crowd again whenever you’re tired of the couch and of texting. Now that crowds are canceled, I am longing for them. 
Right now, already, I want nothing more than to go out to eat with friends, to hug a neighbor, to hold a hand. Instead my neighbor stands on the sidewalk and I stay on the porch and we wish each other well from a safe distance. 
I’m hoping we get to the other side of this without large-scale tragedy. There’s no way of knowing yet if we will. 
But if we do, I’m hoping that the experience of social distancing gives us pause and makes us realize how much we have missed company, not just the company of those we know and love but of strangers.