American Exceptionalism

Still not about teen pregnancy, my apologies. I’ve managed to convince myself that talking about it will lead me to write about eventually.
However, this article caught my eye this morning. It’s from Feministe, and I thought you might enjoy it. It makes me think of those damn chain emails that always irk me so much and then spark posts where I try to say something like what is written below but fail miserably in my attempt.
And thus, written by guest blogger S.E. Smith, is “American Exceptionalism and You.”
Enjoy:
Talking with a lovely Canadian the other day, we were discussing a really common problem we encounter on the Internet: The assumption that all readers are from the United States, and thus have a detailed understanding of issues that pertain to the United States and are deeply interested in these issues.
There’s a term, ‘American exceptionalism,’ that is used to describe some of the interesting social and political attitudes that surround the United States. Officially, it has to do with the idea that the United States is somehow exceptional or special, occupies a special position on the global stage by virtue of its accomplishments, deserves a special place in history because it’s just so darn unique. None of these things are true, but they directly contribute to the way the United States engages in foreign policy and interacts with other nations, behaving as the self appointed playground monitor that can do no wrong.
And this plays out in the way that people in the United States interact with the rest of the world as well. There’s a dominance that happens; US English is assumed to be the primary mode of communication, for example. Sites assume that readers can access Hulu videos (only available in the United States, but you already knew that, right?). Or that all readers are up on current political events in the United States. There’s also an implication that everyone from the United States has shared values and life experiences that acts to erase many people.
This very term, ‘American exceptionalism,’ speaks to the special place that the US thinks it occupies. Did you know that there are 36 countries in the Americas? That the Americas span two whole continents and the Caribbean? That US English is not the only language spoken in the Americas? Yet, the United States has coopted this term, ‘American,’ all for itself. Some people have even taken special care to weaponise this term in the immigration debate, demanding that the United States should be closed to people who aren’t ‘American.’
Assuming that everyone is from the United States doesn’t just erase the identities, interests, and concerns of people who are not from the United States. It also makes it fundamentally challenging for people to engage with content on US-centric sites. The assumptions that they will know about things slung about quite casually with no context or background get really frustrating; who wants to Wikipedia their way through a blog post to understand what in the hell is going on? Not I, that is for sure.
And I note that when people who are not from the United States write, they often do so with a global audience in mind. They explain things as they go along. They provide context and information so that people can understand what they are reading. They add insight and commentary. They do not assume that readers will understand the ins and outs of their political systems or will know the titles of laws by heart or will understand coded references to historical events. As a reader in the United States, I still sometimes feel a little bit lost, in part because of the ignorance cultivated by the way I engage with media, but at least I am not completely at sea.
When I go to the front page of overseas newspapers, often it’s US news that dominates the headlines. The 2008 election was covered in exhaustive detail in publications all over the world. Yet, Britain recently had an election, and it received barely any coverage here in the United States. Many US readers couldn’t tell you what a ‘coalition government’ is, let alone why it matters. Australia has an election coming up this year, but you probably wouldn’t know that if you read the news in the US exclusively.
US newspapers report news in the context of ‘how this pertains to the interests of people in the United States.’ Foreign newspapers don’t do this. They assume that readers might actually want to know about things that are going on in the world, even if they do not directly related to events going on at home.
There’s an othering that happens here too. When I read news stories about things that happen in other countries, it’s all about the Other. Over There. Those People. And The Horrible Things They Do. No matter that the same horrible things happen here in the United States, no matter that the United States might actually have some culpability in those horrible things, some involvement in a history of colonialism and exploitation.
That othering crosses over to interactions online as well, with people regarding nations outside the United States as abstract, exotic places. A certain amount of patronising seems to develop. Even on sites that supposedly have an international bent, the assumption is that everyone is from the United States, as though people from other regions of the world can’t access the site, or are perfectly happy to remain on the margins, to allow other people to write about their nations and their experiences. Sometimes it seems like everything must be filtered through the US lens.
Considering what happened the last time someone at Feministe tried to point out that the United States is not the centre of the world, I’m sure this will be tragic to hear, but, folks? The United States is not the centre of the world. And the widespread insistence on centreing experiences and concerns that are primarily relevant to people in the United States, and to referring to these things as ‘American,’ effectively ignoring the existence of the 35 other countries in the Americas, is really a significant barrier to conversation, not just here, but on many sites across the Internet.
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