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Article

Propaganda and Rhetoric  

John Oddo

Propaganda was first identified as a public crisis following World War I, as citizens discovered that their own governments had subjected them to deception and emotional manipulation. Today, it seems no less disturbing. Accusations swirl decrying fake news, spin, active measures, and, again, propaganda. But with nearly every accusation there is also a denial and, more important, a counteraccusation: that propaganda is merely a label applied to messages one dislikes, a slippery word that says more about the accuser’s politics than it does about supposed defects in communication. The slipperiness surrounding propaganda has fascinated scholars for over a century, as they have grappled with whether and how it can be distinguished from other kinds of rhetoric. One crucial sticking point concerns propaganda’s means of persuasion. It is commonly supposed that propaganda relies on falsity, emotion, and irrational appeals. However, adjudicating what is true and reasonable is not as clear-cut as it may seem, and much work attempts to differentiate manipulation from legitimate persuasion. Another key concern is the morality of propaganda. Some theorize that it is intrinsically wrong because it seeks its own partisan agenda. But others argue that partisanship is characteristic of all advocacy, and they wonder whether propaganda can and should be employed for worthy democratic purposes. Finally, scholars propose different models for how propaganda works. One model features a propagandist who deliberately targets a passive audience and attempts to move them for selfish ends. But other models see propaganda as a more collective activity, something that audiences pass around to each other, either purposefully or without any design. Difficult as it is to define propaganda, however, scholars do agree on two things: It is enormously powerful, and it shows no signs of slowing down.

Article

Becoming Chinese: Sinicization, Nation, and Race in Xinjiang, China  

David O'Brien and Melissa Shani Brown

“Chineseness” is often depicted in public discourses within the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as an identity that blurs together varied notions of shared cultural heritage, as well as common descent, within discourses of a unified national identity. This combines what might be called “ethnicity” (as cultural heritage), “race” (as common descent, physical or intrinsic characteristics), and “nation” (as territory and political state) in complex ways. And yet, a standard position within Chinese discourses (and often replicated in non-Chinese scholarship) is that historically informing the present, Chinese notions of “ethnic difference” are based on differences in “culture,” thus precluding “racism.” This characterization in part derives from the narrative that Chinese history was an ongoing process of “sinicization”—namely “backwards,” “barbarian” ethnic groups eagerly assimilated into the “more advanced” Han “civilization,” thus becoming “Chinese.” However, there are numerous scholarly challenges to this narrative as historically inaccurate or overly simplistic, as well as challenges to the positioning of this narrative as not “racist.” The idea that an emphasis on civilization versus barbarism is “cultural” and not “racial” delimits racism to a narrow definition focusing on “biophysical” difference. However, wider scholarship on race and racism highlights that the latter rests on diverse articulations of hierarchical difference; this includes and mobilizes cultural difference as an active part of racist discourses predicated on the acceptance of ideas of the “inferiority” versus “superiority” of peoples, as well as notions of “purity” within discourses of homogeneous imagined communities. Increasingly, “being Chinese” is being conceptualized in PRC official rhetoric as a culturally, and racially, homogeneous identity. That is, not only is Han culture being positioned as emblematic of “Chinese culture” generally but also it is being asserted that all ethnic groups are descended from the Han and are thus genetically bound by “Chinese bloodlines.” Such discourses have repercussions for ethnic minority groups within China—most clearly at the moment for Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities who are positioned as “infected” by “foreign influences,” namely their religion. This is particularly clear in the contemporary sinicization campaign in Xinjiang (XUAR: Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region), a region in northwest China that has gained increasing international attention due to the government’s use of “re-education” camps in a program it argues is designed to eliminate terrorism. The accompanying sinicization campaign involves a combination of propaganda emphasizing “Chinese socialist characteristics” and “core values” that should be adopted, an emphasis in the media on Uyghurs engaging in Han cultural practices as a demonstration of their loyalty to the state, as well as the removal of many visible signs of Chinese Islamic history and Uyghur culture. The turn toward politically policing culture is hardly new in China; however, the increasing emphasis on racial notions of identity—foregrounding physical appearance, genetics, lineage, and metaphors of “bloodlines”—is an attempt to turn a national identity into a “natural” one, something that raises urgent questions with regard to how China deals with the diversity of its population and the stakes in being, or becoming, “Chinese.”

Article

Globalization of Formal Debate Training, Civil Society, and Democratic Institutions  

David Worth

Despite myriad sponsoring organizations and formats around the world, student debates at multiple educational levels share some fundamental characteristics. A better understanding of these characteristics can illuminate the activity and the cultural and civilizational assumptions that constitute debate, as well as debate’s relationship to democratic thinking. Debate pedagogy exists as a part of forensics, an Aristotelian term for speech and debate. While oral disputation has classical roots, contemporary debate assumed a more recognizable form with European and British practices in the modern era. Debate then grew tremendously in the United States. Argument models, competition structures, and assumed fundamentals of the activity developed in the 20th century in the United States have been extended into the global debate community. The 2020 World University Debating Championship featured in-person debates between 1,177 students from 243 universities in 50 countries. Formal debates between college students from competing schools is promoted as a tool for critical thinking instruction and empowerment. Generally, this instruction is carried out by advisers, coaches, faculty, alumni, and volunteers. In some cases, debate aids self-education: Students run their own debate teams, using the structure to supplement their normal curricular education. College debate is intrinsically international. Debaters often travel internationally to compete. The events are international in scope and the issues debated are international by nature. Debates that focus on current events or perennial philosophical questions cannot avoid international elements and implications. Economics, interconnected international politics, international media, social media, and other forces ensure that debates cross borders conceptually if not physically, and even critique of borders has been a feature of intercollegiate debate for many years.

Article

Bella Figura: Understanding Italian Communication in Local and Transatlantic Contexts  

Denise Scannell Guida

Bella figura—beautiful figure—is an idiomatic expression used to reflect every part of Italian life. The phrase appears in travel books and in transnational business guides to describe Italian customs, in sociological research to describe the national characteristics of Italians, and in popular culture to depict thematic constructs and stereotypes, such as the Mafia, romance, and la dolce vita. Scholarly research on bella figura indicates its significance in Italian civilization, yet it remains one of the most elusive concepts to translate. Among the various interpretations and references from foreigners and Italians there is not a single definition that captures the complexity of bella figura as a cultural phenomenon. There is also little explanation of the term, its usage, or its effects on Italians who have migrated to other countries. Gadamerian hermeneutics offers an explanation for how bella figura functions as a frame of reference for understanding Italian culture and identity, which does not disappear or fuse when Italians interact with people from different countries but instead takes on an interpretive dimension that is continually integrating new information into the subconscious structures of the mind. In sum, bella figura is a sense-making process, and requires a pragmatic know-how of Italian communication (verbal and nonverbal). From this perspective, bella figura is prestructure by which Italians and some Italian migrants understand and interpret their linguistically mediated and historical world. This distinction changes the concept bella figura from a simple facade to a dynamic interplay among ever-changing interpretations and symbolic interactions. The exploration of bella figura is relevant to understanding Italian communication on both local and transnational levels.

Article

Sara Ahmed’s Critical Phenomenology of Communication  

Rachel Stonecipher

Sara Ahmed is a feminist philosopher specializing in how the cultural politics of language use and discourse mediate social and embodied encounters with difference. She has published field-shaping contributions to queer and feminist theory, critical race and postcolonial theory, affect and emotion studies, and phenomenology. Since the publication of Differences that Matter: Feminist Theory and Postmodernism in 1998, her work has epitomized the value of contemporary feminist cultural studies to speak to and against the masculinist traditions of continental philosophy. Unequivocally inserting feminist politics into the rarified air of academic theory, it crosses the sexist boundary which corrals feminist thought into the category of “studies” while opposing it to male-authored philosophy—the latter automatically authorized to speak on the social and material “Real.” In doing so, her work sits squarely within discourse-analytical traditions that seek to expose how various epistemic scenes – activism, the media, and academia, to name a few -- sediment false authority on such issues as happiness, utility, and the good. Moreover, in contesting New Materialism’s search for some monist “matter” beneath experience, she traces how those linguistic moves impose insidiously singular concepts of what social “reality” is, and how it unfolds, for real people. As a field, communication studies concerns itself centrally with matters of social influence, scale, and power, such as the electoral effects of political speech, or the ability of a message to morph as it reaches new audiences. Turning a critical eye upon the (re)production of cultural norms and social structure through interpersonal and institutional encounters, Ahmed’s oeuvre explores the discursive logics and speech acts that sediment or transform the social meanings of race, gender, and other differences.

Article

Globalizing and Changing Culture  

Hans J. Ladegaard

Although there is no exact definition of globalization, and relatively little empirical evidence on how it affects people’s lives, most scholars argue that it reflects an increasingly mobile and interconnected world. People travel for pleasure or work, or they migrate to other parts of the world. They also communicate with linguistic and cultural others, either face-to-face or via modern communication technologies, which requires them to use a global lingua franca (English). This leads to greater interdependence and a sense of sharedness, but also to more intergroup conflicts. Thus, the world has become more interconnected, but also more fragmented, and social and economic inequality both within and across nation-states has become more visible. The importance of culture as an analytical concept in (intercultural) communication research is another pertinent topic in the literature. Some scholars have argued that culture has lost its potency as a meaningful analytical concept and therefore should no longer take center stage in communication research. Others claim that culture will always be salient and influence behavior. How and to what extent globalization changes culture has also been discussed extensively in recent years. Some scholars argue that globalization leads to sameness and uniformity, and ultimately to the end of the nation-state. Others disagree and posit that globalization leads to a strengthening of the nation-state and of the cultural values we associate with it. A meaningful way to test theoretical assumptions about globalization and culture is to analyze communication and work practices in global organizations. Research from these contexts suggests that globalization has not led to cultural assimilation and uniformity. Employees in the global workplace and student sojourners use national stereotypes as a frame of reference when they communicate with cultural others, and they demonstrate high awareness of cultural differences and how they impact their communication, study, and work practices. Recent research on cultural change and globalization has included a critical dimension that questions a world order where the increase in power and cultural and economic wealth in developed countries happens at the expense of poor people with no voice and little visibility living in developing countries. Critical (intercultural) communication research considers these imbalances and also provides a critique of Anglocentric research paradigms, which do not include the cultural and linguistic experiences of non-Western cultural others.

Article

Health Literacy and Health/Risk Communication  

Michael Mackert, Sara Champlin, and Jisoo Ahn

Health literacy—defined as the ability of an individual to obtain, process, understand, and communicate about health information—contributes significantly to health outcomes and costs to the U.S. health-care system. Approximately one-quarter to one-half of U.S. adults struggle with health information, which includes understanding patient education materials, reading medication labels, and communicating with health-care providers. Low health literacy is more common among the elderly, those who speak English as a second language, and those of lower socioeconomic status. In addition to conceptualizing health literacy as an individual-level skill, it can also be considered an organizational or community-level ability. Increased attention to the field of health literacy has resulted in debates about the definition and the best ways to assess health literacy; there is also a strong and growing movement within the field of health literacy research and practice to frame health literacy less as a deficit to overcome and more as an approach to empowering patients and improving outcomes. As health-care providers have recognized the importance of health literacy, workshops, and training programs have been developed and evaluated to improve the care of low-health-literate patients. Similarly, health promotion professionals have developed best practices for reaching low-health-literate audiences with traditional and new digital media, which can also increase access for patients with hearing or visual impairments. Additionally, recent policy changes in the United States, including those related to the Affordable Care Act, contribute to a greater focus and regulation of factors that impact health literacy. Researchers and practitioners together are advancing understanding of health literacy, its relationship to health outcomes and health-care costs, and improved strategies for improving the health of lower health literate patients. Development and review of health literacy pieces can aid in shared decision making and provide insights for patients on various health-care services.

Article

Public Discourse and Intergroup Communication  

Mikaela L. Marlow

Discourse analysis is focused on the implicit meanings found in public discourse, text, and media. In the modern era, public discourse can be assessed in political or social debates, newspapers, magazines, television, film, radio, music, and web-mediated forums (Facebook, Twitter, and other public discussion). Research across a variety of disciplines has documented that dominant social groups tend to employ certain discursive strategies when discussing minority groups. Public discourse is often structured in ways that marginalize minority groups and legitimize beliefs, values, and ideologies of more dominant groups. These discursive strategies include appealing to authority, categorization, comparison, consensus, counterfactual, disclaimers, euphemism, evidence, examples, generalizations, rhetorical questions, metaphors, national glorification, and directive speech acts. Evoking such discourse often enables prevailing dominant groups to reify majority social status, reinforce negative assumptions about minorities, and maintain a positive public social image, despite deprecating and, sometimes, dehumanizing references.

Article

Discursive Approaches to Race and Racism  

Kevin A. Whitehead

In the wake of what has been called the “discursive turn” or “linguistic turn” in the social sciences, research at the intersection of language and communication and race and racism shifted from being largely dominated by quantitative and experimental methods to include qualitative and particularly discursive approaches. While the term “discursive” potentially encompasses a wide range of modes of discourse analysis, discursive approaches share a focus on language use as social action, and as a constitutive feature of actions, events, and situations, rather than as merely a passive means of describing or transmitting information about them. When applied to the study of race and racism, such approaches have examined ways in which language functions to construct, maintain, and legitimate as well as subvert or resist racial and/or racist ideologies and social structures. Research in these areas has made use of a range of empirical materials, including “elite” texts and talk (media texts, parliamentary debates, academic texts, etc.), individual interviews, focus groups and group discussions, “naturally occurring” talk-in-interaction from conversational and institutional settings, and text-based online interactions. Although these different data types should not be seen as strictly mutually exclusive, each of them serves to foreground particular features of racial or racist discourse(s), thus facilitating or constraining particular sorts of discourse analytic findings. Thus, different data sources respectively tend to foreground ideological features of racial discourse(s) and their intersection with power and domination, including examination of “new” racisms and the production and management of accusations and denials of racism; discursive processes involved in the construction and uses of racial subjectivities and identities; interactional processes through which prejudice and racism are constructed and contested; and the everyday interactional reproduction of systems of racial categories, independently of whether the talk in which they occur can or should be considered “racist.”

Article

Prejudiced Communication  

Janet B. Ruscher

Prejudiced attitudes and stereotypic beliefs about outgroups can be reflected in language and everyday conversations. Explicit attitudes and beliefs may be expressed through use of group labels, dehumanizing metaphors, or prejudiced humor. More implicit attitudes and beliefs may be leaked through variations in sentence structure and subtle word choices. Empirical work shows that such prejudiced attitudes and stereotypic beliefs can spread within ingroup communities through one-on-one conversation as well as more broadly through vehicles such as news, the entertainment industry, and social media. Individuals also convey their prejudiced beliefs when communicating to outgroup members as message recipients. Outgroups who are members of historically disadvantaged groups, in particular, are targets of controlling or patronizing speech, biased feedback, and nonverbal behavior that leaks bias.