Thursday, 27 March 2014

ICS Research Seminar: 'On Being First,' Devon Powers, Drexel University

Yesterday's research seminar was very interesting but completely different from what I'd expected from the abstract. It was titled "On Being First" (also titled in the abstract 'On Firstness'), and the abstract talked about competitiveness, historicity, and the author's efforts to "develop a cultural theory of firstness". For the first time in a few months, I was looking forward to the seminar (I hadn't been attending them lately) and felt it was something that might relate to my work (merit-based competitive scholarships, historical perspectives, etc.). It wasn't really about those things, or any of the other things I thought it might be about, so I'll just reflect on my own thoughts of "firstness" here.

First, though, the seminar was actually about phenomenons like "FIRST!" comments on internet articles, being the first music review blog site to post an unknown artist, the contestation of 'first's (an example she used was that Tyra Banks was the first black woman on the swimsuit edition cover of Sports Illustrated, and Beyonce was the first black non-model woman to make the cover a few years later--her point was that there are too many 'firsts' being measured). 

On that last point, she didn't bring up sports statistics or political ones, but they offer so many examples! Seattle was so excited about the Seahawks winning their first Superbowl game this year, but in 2006, Seattle was equally thrilled to be competing in their first Superbowl game. When they made it to the Superbowl this time, they didn't say, "it's our second Superbowl game!" They focused on the current line-up, on their chances against the Broncos, etc. The term "second" wasn't used, because only "first" makes a good headline. 

In terms of political examples of celebrating 'firstness', there are tons of examples, best illustrated in this cartoon: 

My favourite part about this comic is that they don't even mention the fact that Obama was the first African-American President--no, he's the first Democrat to win without Missouri, and the first Democratic incumbent to beat a taller challenger. (Also, Reagan was really the first lefty?!)

Another interesting political first that I'd thought about was Margaret Thatcher. Growing up in the States, I only ever knew her as the first female Prime Minister of the UK. I never heard anything about the mining industry, the IRA, the privatisation agenda--I didn't even know which party she was in (the blue dresses weren't a clue, either, as US Democrats use blue). Of course, it didn't take long for me to learn about the Thatcher legacy once I lived in the North of England--the 'Margaret Thatcher, Milk Snatcher' story is my favourite example of her evil deeds. I remember getting free milk in Head Start--it's a step too far, even for the uber-capitalistic US! At any rate, when Thatcher died, all my family remembered was that she was the first female Prime Minister of the UK. They didn't understand the criticism and downright hatred being expressed in the media, and I found it hard to explain the whole context (they did agree that the milk snatching was terrible, though). It's an example of how "firstness" can be a trivia game summary version of a much more complex, multifaceted story.

Devon Powers also brought up the concept of firstness as a form of promotion, i.e. best of lists and 'top ten' lists. That one made me think of further examples, like the way that Google search results appear in order of (paid advertising and then) popularity.

As she mentioned in the Q&A, this project really could go in many different directions. Even though it didn't go in the directions I thought it would, it was definitely interesting and it was nice to be back at the research seminars again. Next week's involves the world of 'homemade' handicrafts on sites like Etsy. As a fan of "Regretsy", a now-defunct blog by the brilliant April Winchell that mocked the 'fails' (why can't they just use 'failures'?) of Etsy, I'm looking forward to that one, too!

Saturday, 15 March 2014

The Language of (Public) Diplomacy

The U.S. ambassador to Nigeria is trying to pick up Pidgin English, and although the NPR article doesn't mention the term "public diplomacy", that's exactly what he's doing--reaching out to the public of Nigeria with accessible language.

"...though it may not be the language of diplomacy, it reaches people at the grassroots level."

 One thing that struck me about the article was that they call it "broken English", but it's clearly not "broken"--it just follows rules of its own. Broken, to me, implies that they're struggling with it. Their speech is stilted, full of pauses and "how do you say...???"Any English-speaker can speak "broken English" by making a few mistakes with subject-verb agreement, pluralisation and gender (think Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat-speak). This article was the first time I'd seen Nigerian Pidgin English in print, and it's definitely not like Borat. It's much more deliberate, nuanced--the idea that "to like" something would be "sweet their belle"--that's not the kind of mistake that speakers of broken English would make. (As an aside, when I lived in the dorms, I had a Nigerian housemate who spoke British English with me and Pidgin English with her friends--both languages fluently, not 'broken').

I think the stigma of learning and speaking 'broken English' is the only explanation for why ambassadors haven't been doing this before now. It makes sense. As the article points out, Pidgin English is a common second language for millions of West Africans. Ambassadors (and public diplomacy officials) don't have the resources to learn and use the hundreds of local languages--learning Pidgin English would be an efficient move!

I haven't been using this blog to talk about PD, really, but now that I'm finishing up and looking ahead, I'll try to start commenting on PD in the news.