But I also speak other languages, and trust people who speak to me in those languages.
First, I speak geek. I am an unrepentant lover of science fiction, native to personal computers since the era of the DOS prompt, frequent quoter of nerdy movies and television, admirer of the beautiful simplicity of physics and the amazing symmetry of maths. Geek is a second tongue for me.
I also speak the language of popular culture. Frankly, we all do to greater or lesser degrees. I know what Mad Men is all about. I 'get' a good number of the gags when Saturday Night Live lampoons MTV, BET or Lifetime. I have enough of a working knowledge of the Twilight series, The Jersey Shore and much of modern popular music to understand a passing reference to them (and know they hold no real interest for me).
But when I interpret, I am told to dress up my language. We struggle in the public history world with this awkward concept of 'agency voice.' We quake in fear at the concept that we as individuals speak in some mystical, disembodied voice on behalf of our agencies or institutions. But this gussying up our prose, this abandonment of a cultural vernacular for some perceived cultural high ground could be severely destroying our ability to communicate with a modern audience.
We can't speak to an audience in a language they don't understand. Speaking more slowly and louder doesn't work. Just because an audience might listen to Lady Gaga doesn't make them unable to understand, appreciate and come to care for large historical concepts and truths. Sometimes we need to speak in the very words our audiences share with each other, that we share with each other everyday.
So what might this look like? Simple: imagine if Lady Gaga performed a power-anthem to accompany the women's suffrage movement of the late 1910s...
|From the folks who brought you Too Late To Apologize, the latest in vernacular public history.
This video is nothing new per say. Yet it is still powerful. Watch it ten times, twenty times, a hundred times. Each time you'll find another small, powerful detail. Did you catch the note from the Senator's mother telling him, "Huzzah and vote for Suffrage"? Did you catch the doubt in the woman's eyes as she proudly declared she didn't need to vote? Did you notice how the protesters in front of the White House were a spot on match for the real women who stood there fighting for their rights? The piece is outrageously powerful, even on the hundredth viewing.
How can we foster more creative ways of sharing the vast world of history with the public in the language they speak instead of the stilted and foreign voice we think our institutions should speak with? How can we reach an American public where they already are, instead of fruitlessly demanding of them that they try to understand a language they don't speak natively?
I'm not sure. But I think it looks something like a tribute to Lady Gaga featuring Thriller-esque suffragettes, a brooding Woodrow Wilson and a struggle for freedom embodied by men and women acting to make the world better. I think it looks like Ben Franklin wearing a mock AC/DC tee-shirt and shredding the guitar while Thomas Jefferson sings his grievances to the King. I think it speaks in the language of the modern world, the vernacular of the culture we live within. That history will gain far more traction than anything in 'agency voice' could ever hope to, I guarantee.