February 14, 2011

Culture Quiz…Go: The Perception of American culture in Public Dipolmacy

This week’s Saturday Night Live episode (hosted by Russell Brand) highlighted a couple key ideas about culture and its importance in America and abroad and how American culture is perceived both internally and externally. Within the opening skit, Billy O’Reilly quizzes President Obama on American culture. The implication here is that American culture revolves around old time television shows such as the Andy Griffith Show and other Hollywood icons. Today, Hollywood icons are increasing becoming known as ‘international’ rather than American because these productions have saturated international markets. American Actors premiere their movies in cities around the world, not merely in Los Angeles or New York. In Zaharna’s chapter entitled, “Communication, Culture and Identity in Public Diplomacy”, she offers that spreading American ‘cultural’ products such as movies and television shows actually highlight cultural differences, and generally not in a positive manner, between Americans and the rest of the world. Maybe the problem here is that cultures are always changing, which inherently complicates how others perceive cultures, or maybe the problem is that internationally cultural differences are perceived as being negative in some way. For example, last week the government of Iran banned foreign food shows in an effort to protect its citizens from becoming too westernized. This clearly says something about how powerful the cultural diplomacy of food is but also leads one to question what America’s culture is and the power of its influence around the globe.

Former Cultural Affairs officer and blogger extraordinaire, John Brown postulates that American culture, which contributes to the American identity, is a culture of ideas rather than traditions. In Russia, the educational system is designed to rear children into Russian cultural beings who appreciate high culture. Inherently, Brown and Zaharna illuminate the vital importance culture has in communication of ideas between two publics. Zaharna discusses Edward Hall’s notion of low and high context communication types. Regardless of whether America communicates ideas via low-context and Russia communicates ideas with more high-context (or which ever other country), it is first profoundly important that the American government start actively recognizing culture’s formal existence and its power (even if it consists of ideas, it still is the foundation from which Americans communicate). The hesitation for the government to recognize culture is that American culture is so ambiguous and fluid (because of its diverse population consisting entirely of migrants), whereas other governments manipulate their cultural values to appear more constant. An American recognition of culture internally could ameliorate cultural disparities globally and help government officials learn that public diplomacy is all about how states not only verbally and non-verbally communicate but also how states perceive other states (which again is cultural). This, however, will take time. Greater efforts to properly listen to high context communication around the globe could also help improve the perception of American culture (by employing more bi-cultural individuals) and therefore lead to a more secure American public from non-state actors like Al Qaeda. The American government certainly has some food for thought, which it hopefully will take to heart.

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