Objectivity is a keystone of journalism that extends to institutions like
; the idea that we can somehow remove our selves from the things we think about and the contexts we exist is a bizarre USian fantasy akin to the classist racist American dream.
Rachel McCarthy James, “Objectivity and Neutrality,” Feministe, September 30, 2010
Usually when I post excerpts of blog posts, it’s because I intend the portion to function as a representation of the whole. I’m not doing that here, and what I’m talking about shouldn’t be considered a reaction to the original post; rather I want to talk about a tricky little bit of language used in the quoted sentence.
That bit of language is James’ idea of objectivity as a “bizarre [American] fantasy.”
You see, because I’m not American, I understand James to be speaking about America as distinct from other countries. Which makes the sentence just plain odd, or even ignorant. Does James really believe that elevating objectivity in the fashion she speaks is peculiarly American, and rare in places outside the United States? My initial reaction on reading this was to puzzle over what differences there might be between the way America regards objectivity in comparison to Australia. (And America may indeed value objectivity more, but that’s not the kind of claim that should be dropped into a sentence as common knowledge.)
But in all likelihood, James is doing something I often see Americans doing: using the adjective “American,” when they really mean something like “the society around me.” In this understanding, she’s not saying anything about America in particular, she’s just commenting on her experience of life, which happens to be in America. This formulation posits the American experience as normative to the extent that it doesn’t have anything to say about the worth of non-American perspectives; it just treats them as if they do not exist.
I think that’s a bizarre concept for a non-American to understand. In the rest of the world, we tend to be reminded fairly regularly that our country is doing things differently to other countries, and so if we refer to a quality as being of our society, we are usually saying that quality distinguishes us somewhat from other societies.
Americans use that formulation as well; think of the affirmation that “America is a land of immigrants.” That’s not saying that no other country is “a land of immigrants,” but it does rely on the fact that there are countries that are not lands of immigrants. But Americans are able to slip between the two understandings — America as an exception, and America as a norm — so easily as to make the distinction almost unnoticeable. If someone complains about the quality of American schooling, for instance, are they thinking of comparisons of test scores among OECD countries, or are they thinking of the lousy experience they had going to Rutherford B. Hayes High School?
When, a long while ago, I first realized that Americans sometimes used “America” as a normative adjective in this way, I struggled to work out the thought process behind this. It’s part of the insularity that America is well-known for, something equally mystifying to a non-American. (But if you think “insularity” explains much in terms of America, you’re being overly simplistic. Yes, America is an insular place, but foreign characterizations of this quality are more often instances of kneejerk anti-Americanism uninterested in understanding the society responsible for it.)
One way to try to understand the way Americanness is universal for Americans is to remember that non-Americans aren’t as globally aware as we like to think. As an Australian, I know a moderate bit about Anglophone Commonwealth countries, and a little bit about South East Asia and Europe, but beyond that, there’s much about foreign cultures that I have no idea about. But the best way I intuitively understand the all-encompassing, immersive quality of American society is to think of being in the all-encompassing, immersive Anglosphere.
I learned a few foreign languages in high school, so I can string together a couple non-English sentences, but I have no idea what it is to be a non-native English speaker, and no matter how much I try to imagine myself in a Chinese or Portuguese speakers shoes, I will never intuitively be able to grasp being not naturally fluent in the dominant global language.
And as an Anglophone, I use the adjective “English” in exactly the same way as James used “USian” above. When I comment on a feature of the English language, I’m almost never talking about a quality that distinguishes it from other languages. I’m just talking about the only language I’ve ever known.
And so, I should be clear. Just because I think the American conflation of the distinctive with the normative is abrasive doesn’t mean it’s wrong. In fact, when I’m in the States, I find the country’s isolationist quality oddly seductive. It’s strangely liberating when the entire world exists in the destiny manifested from sea to shining sea. It’s not so much an embrace of ignorance as it is entering a world where different knowledge is necessary to function.
But, if you ever needed telling, I’m not an expert. I’m trying to feel out some odd parts of American culture that are hard to characterize, let alone reliably explain. If you think I’m way off-base, tell me. Even my best thought through ideas are sometimes nuts.
1. There are also some other ideas in this sentence that I’m not interested in exploring at the moment, most specifically the “classist racist” bit.
2. This is not meant to be an aspersion on any real life Rutherford B. Hayes high schools, which for all I know may be universally excellent.
(Cross-posted at the USSC.)