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Africa: Sustainable Development for All? Why sub-Saharan Africa and what is development? Step 1.11: Reading

Africa: Sustainable Development for All?

Africa: Sustainable Development for All? Why sub-Saharan Africa and what is development? Step 1.11: Reading and

Why sub-Saharan Africa and what is development?

Step 1.11: Reading and watching critically

BARBARA FENNELL-CLARK: I'm Professor Barbara Fennell-Clark, Professor of Language and Linguistics, Dean of Chinese Affairs, and Director of the Confucius Institute of the University of Aberdeen. In this course, we wish to raise your critical awareness about the films you're seeing, the text you're reading, and the data you are considering. In this course, we're going to challenge your assumptions about the world, about sub-Sahara Africa, about aid, about a number of things.

We'll be looking at a variety of texts from a variety of sources, a disparate array of data, and a number of images. And what we wish to do here is to make you mindful of the things that you have done subconsciously for many years when you've been looking at texts or watching films or videos. We want to challenge your assumptions, so that you can consciously make decisions about the things you're looking at, the things you're seeing, and the things that you are hearing. So that you can make considered judgments about the world, considered judgments about sub-Saharan Africa, about aid, and about a number of things.

When we read a text or watch a film, we make assumptions that influence our interpretation of what we're seeing. And as practised readers and viewers, we tend to skim over some of the questions that the text or film clearly poses if we look more closely at the language used or the images projected on the screen. We make assumptions about the author, institution, newspaper, publishing house, director, scriptwriter, or film studios. And we often take what they're saying or showing us at face value.

But when dealing with the topic of sustainable international development, which is fraught with questions of political viewpoint, responsibility - also called agency - and morality, we need to look at texts and films with fresh eyes and ask questions more directly about issues such as the angle of the writer or director, where is he or she coming from - quite literally sometimes - and what is prompting him or her to produce this work. And also what influence does that

have on the way the article, book, blog, or script is written, or the way

have on the way the article, book, blog, or script is written, or the way the film is made?

We also need to consider what is actually happening in the text? Who is doing or has done what to whom? Who is taking or concealing responsibility for certain actions? And what is their attitude towards events? And furthermore, how is all that intended to manipulate our interpretation of the film or text?

We will concentrate here on the language of texts, but will pick up issues to do with film when appropriate. There is no doubt that we are all so used to reading the written word that sometimes we no longer see exactly how what is being said has been constructed and what effect this might have on our interpretation. Let me give you an example. The phrase “Genocide in Rwanda”. Where the agents and targets - that is, human beings - have been subsumed in a single abstract noun, genocide.

This sort of language choice is the ultimate in depersonalisation. Where are the people in this phrase? We need to look more closely at who is doing what to whom, and indeed why in these types of constructions. Why the writer chooses not to be explicit about agency here and conceals it or skips over it in some way.

In this instance the writer is focusing on genocide as a process, not on the perpetrators or the victims. He or she is depersonalising the process of killing people. And responsible readers need to ask themselves why.

Now let's move away from this directly shocking example of the role of agency and responsibility and look at some more subtle, but nevertheless still striking examples. In the introduction to Rodney's book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, we find the following statement from paragraph 14 of the Durban Declaration of 2001. "Colonialism has led to racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance, and Africans and people of African descent, and people of Asian descent and indigenous peoples were victims of colonialism and continue to be victims of its consequences."

If we ask the question here who did what to whom, we see again that the word colonialism is the subject of the sentence, not a person or a nation or government. The focus here is again on the process of colonialism, as we might expect in a text focusing on the history of how a situation has come about. And in a conference which aims to bring about cooperation to alleviate the consequences of colonialism, rather than lay blame at any agent's door.

Contrast this with another quote which appears at the very start of Rodney's introduction to

Contrast this with another quote which appears at the very start of Rodney's introduction to his book. "Britain controls today the destinies of some 350 million alien people, unable as yet to govern themselves, and easy victims to rapine and injustice, unless a strong arm guards them. She is giving them a rule that has its faults, no doubt, but such, I would make bold to affirm, as no conquering state ever before gave to a dependent people."

We must take into account that this quote is from 1909, a time when Britain's

place in the world was very different from now. The tone is dramatically different.

It is self-congratulatory and superior, amongst other things. And the agent of colonialism here – Britain - is clearly expressed, because credit, rather than responsibility or blame, is being claimed for the state of affairs discussed.

Note that the vocabulary choice, which sets up a rather stark dichotomy of rulers

and government. Britain “controls”, “strong arm”, “guards”, “conquering state”.

Versus alien people are “unable to govern themselves”, “easy victims to rapine and

injustice”. Rapine means the seizing of property by force here.

We must be alert to this kind of us versus them set-up and probe the point of

view of the writer to establish on what grounds and for what objectives these kinds of contrasts are established in a text. And we should also note the quite literal alienation of colonial subjects in this quote - alien people - and their infantilisation in a phrase such as "easy victims to rapine and injustice," or "unable to govern themselves."

This last quote is in many ways just a shocking and dehumanising as the genocide headline we began with and clearly illustrates how we need to consider a person's viewpoint in what he or she says, shows, or writes. Much of what we're doing in

this course is examining the evidence for and against such an observation or

viewpoint. We need to try to separate out facts based on robust evidence from

opinion or beliefs, which may not be verifiable.

Perhaps we should take a moment to consider what is a fact and what is an opinion. A fact is an assertion that is or can be backed up by hard evidence,

whereas an opinion is simply a belief or a view about something. Writers often

mix fact with opinion, so it's very important for us to be critically aware of what's

going on in a text or film, so that we can make our minds up about what really fact is.

When we examine evidence, we need to ask the question, how reliable is it? How

When we examine evidence, we need to ask the question, how reliable is it? How relevant is it? And is it based on sound research? This is an issue which we're going to return to on a number of occasions throughout the course.