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Dyson on King, and different words for different audiences

I was lucky enough to catch Dr. Michael Eric Dyson speaking to the Commonwealth Club of California as I drove to Boston this morning. Dr. Dyson is a professor of sociology at Georgetown, a Baptist minister, and a fearsome cultural critic. His new book, April 4, 1968, focuses on the cultural significance of the death of Martin Luther King Jr.

Dyson’s talk complicates the picture of Dr. King, suggesting that the rhetoric of King’s later years was far closer to the angry language of Reverend Jeremiah Wright than the postracial, hopeful stance of Barack Obama. We can understand King, he argues, as articulating the hopeful vision of postracial America early in his career, but focused on the shortcomings of the American dream later in life.

King’s language, Dyson argues, differed greatly depending on whether he was addressing black or white audiences. While this makes sense and seems obvious, it’s a very different situation than today’s YouTube age, Dyson argues. Had white audiences listened to Dr. King’s speeches to his core, to his community, it’s possible that he would have been considered as radical as Reverend Wright is now portrayed. The media landscape Dr. King encountered made it far easier to speak differently to different audiences than is possible in American media today.

It crossed my mind, listening to this, that while Americans have gotten used to the notion that politicians have to speak to a global audience every time they get on stage, lest they call someone “macaca” or speak about “bitter” rural voters, we’re lots less used to the notion that the world is watching what our media says and does. Chinese anger over CNN’s coverage of Tibet and Jack Cafferty’s comments about “thugs and goons” should have been a wakeup call that news media isn’t just consumed by a local audience, but watched closely by people around the globe for perceptions, biases and language used.

There’s two sides to this new scrutiny. If we want to understand what people in other countries think and feel, we’ve got to watch their media and they’ve got to watch ours. The downside is that, as we start becoming aware of and speaking to the global audience, there’s a temptation to speak more carefully and less directly. It would be a shame if the process of paying attention to what people around the world say and think sanitizes media to the point where it’s impossible to discover people’s preconceptions through their local media.