A woman wearing a facemask to help stop the spread of a deadly virus which began in the city rides her scooter through a market in Wuhan on January 24, 2020. Chinese people have since the start of the pandemic reported incidents of racism connected to the coronavirus and its origins all over the world, including in Norway.
A woman wearing a facemask to help stop the spread of a deadly virus which began in the city rides her scooter through a market in Wuhan on January 24, 2020. Chinese people have since the start of the pandemic reported incidents of racism connected to the coronavirus and its origins all over the world, including in Norway.

Is it ok to publish racist representations if your intention was for it to be funny and cute?

OPINION: In the face of criticism far too many people tend to hide behind the “intention” of their words, writes senior researcher Edwin Schmitt. But does it matter that Norway’s national broadcaster didn’t intend for a children’s song to be racist against Chinese people, if in fact it is?

Words matter. For those who study language this is a truism that is likely to receive an eyeroll from many a sociolinguist. Of course, they matter, but it is why they matter in a particular context that deserves attention.

Right now, in the midst of a global pandemic, how we talk about each other and about this disease can be as essential to preventing the spread of Covid-19 as finding a vaccine. Being cautious about the claims we make about the origins of the virus or about the people infected by it is crucial to reducing stigmatization of large sections of the world’s population. Reducing stigma is important because it ensures that everyone feels comfortable asking for assistance when they need it, going in to get tested when they have symptoms and, later on, to go get their vaccine. That is precisely why there is concern among public health experts about rampant rumor and conspiracy theories surrounding Covid-19, not to mention inappropriate tweeting from government officials.

This is not just an issue in the United States. It is dangerous to assume that typically progressive European countries, such as Norway, are somehow immune from creating their own toxic language environment. None of us are immune, we all make mistakes, I do too. It is often true the things we say may not have been intended to cause harm, but, when we learn that they do, a rational thing to do is apologize, hope the offended can forgive you and work together to prevent others from making the same mistake.

It is this issue of intention that I want to draw our attention to, because while words matter, in the face of criticism far too many people tend to hide behind the “intention” of their words. This prevents them, and really all of us, from understanding how the receiver of those words interprets them and how they might cause harm.

Allow me to present an extended story from my relatively new home of Norway before we move on.

A Chinese man in a children’s song

I discovered that the Chinese community in Oslo was upset about a children’s program, Supernytt (or Super New), that aired on the state-owned Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation NRK on May 10th. The program featured a song about the Coronavirus written and sung by a ten year old boy. The final lyrics of the song mentions a man in China living in a house running out of food and soda leading him to eat a bat, which is how he got Covid-19. The words house (hus), soda (brus) and bat (flaggermus) all rhyme in Norwegian. NRK paired this song with a cartoon of what the editors must have thought of as a Chinese man eating and drinking soda, when suddenly an image of a bat appears just as the lyrics describe the man running out of food and soda. Little purple viruses then spin around the man after the lyrics say he ate the bat and got Covid-19.

The Chinese community in Oslo interpreted the lyrics as a racist attempt to pin the origin of the coronavirus on the erroneous claim that people in Wuhan were eating bats from the Huanan seafood market. I was aware that the Chinese community was planning to write a formal complaint to NRK, but I felt it would also be productive if local academics studying China could help communicate the dangerous stigmatism this programming could create. Initially I thought it best if the complaint was written in Norwegian, but my colleagues assured me it would not matter. In my complaint I focused mainly on the fact that we still do not know the origin of the virus but that stereotypes about Chinese people eating bats have given rise to racial prejudice against Asians around the world.

The e-mailed reply, which came quite quickly, turned into an educational moment for NRK’s “information consultant” to translate the lyrics in question (because, apparently, I did not understand them?) and to inform me that the song was intended to be fun and cute; it was not intended to be taken literally. The e-mail also informed me that the May 11th broadcast of the show – the day after the song was aired – briefly clarified that “no one knows whether the coronavirus actually comes from a bat or not, and that if you thought it came from a bat after hearing the song, we don't know if that is true.” As far as I know NRK has yet to publicly apologize or recognize that this could be interpreted as being offensive.

141 complaints – but mostly in English

A week later, it became clear that 141 complaints were filed against the song. In an article about the complaints on sol.no, emphasis was laid on the fact that many of them were written in English. Secretary of the Broadcasting Council Erik Skarrud also pointed out that “several of the complaints are somewhat similar to each other in the wording”.

Probably many in the Chinese community will share my sense of frustration with this response. I interpret this as saying responses in English and responses that are copy and pasted are not significant enough to warrant NRK to issue an apology. I also interpret it to mean that there is no need to reflect upon whether the airing of this program could stigmatize the Chinese community in Norway.

The article also interviewed Hildri Gulliksen, editor of NRK Super, who basically stressed the same points I received in the e-mail from NRK: the song is meant to be funny and cute; the lyrics, written by a 10-year old child, rhyme; it is not intended to be racist or discriminatory. I am sure if they read this article, both Erik Skarrud and Hildri Gulliksen will explain that they were simply describing the situation of the complaints and that it is not their intention to justify the use of racist representations any more than the song was intended to create a racialized stereotype of Chinese eating habits.

Degrees of intentions and awareness

Can you start to see how intention becomes a dangerous smoke screen for avoiding talking about how we stigmatize people during a pandemic?

It is a slippery subject, particularly in a cross-cultural context. The anthropologist Alessandro Duranti argues it is better to think about intentions as a continuum that gives way to complex interactions with other people when we, for instance, hold a conversation, perform a ritual, or even write a song. When we look across cultures, we find that in any language there are specific words and actions that indicate various degrees of intention. Often we find people moving in and out across those different degrees of intention as they communicate with other people. This becomes quite complicated when conversations or actions are interpreted politically, such as through the lens of racism.

For instance, even before the pandemic, my mother always wondered why Asian tourists wear facemasks in places like Glacier Park, Montana, near where she lives. She interpreted it as a kind of prejudice because she thought Asian people were afraid to catch a disease from Americans and that they thought America was unsanitary. After I explained to her that many friends in China wear masks when they are sick to prevent the spread of disease, it made sense to her, perhaps because she was a nurse for 35 years. She found something in common with people who did things differently than her and it helped her understand the intention of their actions.

Finding a shared understanding within cross-cultural communication is exactly what we need to avoid hiding behind our intentions. Alessandro Duranti also explains that it is best to think of intention as a process that “includes an understanding of the role of Others in our perception, thoughts, feelings, evaluations, and actions”. Conflict arises, however, when the speaker (or songwriter) is unaware of or, even worse, just does not care about how the Other might interpret their words and actions.

This was the point of the complaints to NRK: to make the TV station aware that the song was offensive. When I wrote to NRK, I was cognizant of the fact that a 10-year old boy may not have been aware how the Chinese community would feel about his song. I found the lack of awareness among the editorial staff at NRK Supernytt to be concerning. My intention in writing was to encourage them to publicly recognize the inappropriateness of letting the program air as it was designed. Then, they could begin the process of finding a shared understanding and building cross-cultural communication with the Chinese community in Norway. In this instance, NRK failed.

Writing for the reader

In a recent Science Rules podcast, the actor and science communicator Alan Alda, tries to explain some of the principles for good science communication at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, namely: put yourself in another person’s shoes. Alda says this works just as well for writing:

“I’m not thinking as much about what I want to say as I am about how its landing on the person who is reading it, whoever they are, wherever they are, distant in time and space. But the whole idea of this is me regarding not so much the best way to say what I have to say but the best way you have of receiving it”.

This is not just sound advice for science writers, it should be a general principle for all kinds of communication and, yes, this includes songs written by 10-year-olds that are promoted on nationwide television. Such a principle becomes even more important during a pandemic. And, of course, we all make mistakes. I have certainly said things in the past few months I regret, even to close friends. I have tried to apologize and wish the “receiver” of what I said would forgive me (Sorry, Xiaoyue!). The ability to apologize and forgive are some of the most intentional acts a human being can commit to. To recognize our mistakes and build bridges to the future is what we need, right now. And that begins with the answer Alan Alda gave to the final question in his Science Rules interview. What is one thing that everyone should know about communication? “Listen!”

Edwin Schmitt, is an anthropologist focused on social and political contention as well as environmental, energy and public health issues in China and Norway.

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