Giving Context to Words


Earlier this month, the United States commemorated the Fourth of July, a holiday marked by traditions such as fireworks, cookouts, parades, and NPR broadcasting a reading of the Declaration of Independence. This year, NPR added something new to the mix: tweeting, in addition to reading, the full text of the document.

With this social media endeavor came some surprising reactions. Several Trump supporters interpreted either the Declaration or particular lines therefrom as an affront to Trump and a justification for calls to defund NPR. When NPR tweeted references to the tyrannical English king, replies included, “Propaganda is that all you know how? Try supporting a man who wants to do something about the Injustice in this country”. Some individuals tweeted suspicions that NPR’s Twitter account had been hacked.

Most amusing was one tweet that, in response to an introductory tweet from NPR that linked to the spoken recording of the Declaration and an image of the centuries-old document, accused NPR of having “never been balanced on your show.” This tweeter was among those glad that NPR might be defunded.

These confused and angry tweets were roundly mocked by the media, and to be sure, it is telling that readers assumed Trump was the person being described by phrases such as: “a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.” Indeed, it seemed as though those most inclined to proclaim their patriotism were those most offended by the Declaration of Independence.

But at the same time, some confusion is understandable. The tweeting of the Declaration was neither the typical format for NPR tweets nor for reading this foundational text.

A single NPR tweet is normally a single headline, or perhaps a line of clickbait that does not provide all the basic information but that nonetheless reads as a complete thought or sentence. A person reading their own Twitter feed may see 2,000 different users’ tweets pop up as they are fired off, which can make the threads and conversations (not just in the case of NPR tweeting the Declaration) confusing to follow.

Moreover, catching just one or a few phrases from the Declaration of Independence does not convey the full meaning of the document. Reading a tiny fragment of the Declaration like “for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures” raises several basic questions: who is he? Who are they? What measures?

To read a few words from a book is not the same as to read the book. If you read just one sentence, you could end up reading the sentence that the villain utters, the antithesis to the author’s entire point. I am reminded of a piece of Harry Potter fan fiction I sent a friend years ago. What made this particular fanfic unique was that someone, rather than writing all new words, had taken existing lines from the series and rearranged them, so that they told a completely non-canonical story about Harry and Draco.

Some objections to NPR’s tweets were not objections to the Declaration itself, but simply to the format.  If you (being tech-savvier than I) have set your phone to alert you every time NPR tweets something, expecting each ding or beep to represent some piece of breaking news, getting 113 in a row that all quote the Declaration of Independence might annoy you.

Coffee Party director and writer Egberto Willies points out that reading NPR’s tweets of the Declaration as inciting insurrection was not necessarily that far off base. After all, he writes, “the Declaration of Independence is not a peace treaty. It is a document of war.”

So how do we give context to words like the text of the Declaration of Independence? Certainly, NPR was transparent in what it was doing, trying to use multiple media platforms to bring this old writing to modern audiences.

Music can provide context to words by turning them into lyrics, or otherwise using them as inspiration. Soomo’s parody of OneRepublic’s “Apologize” is all about the original Fourth of July, with the singer crooning (with or without a sense of irony?), “We colonized America, we won’t stand for tyranny.”

And of course, museums provide context to documents like the Declaration every day. Here in DC, you can see the original document on display at the National Archives. In 2012, I saw two exhibits at the National Museum of American History that delved into the life and ideas of Thomas Jefferson, helping to shine light on the complicated relationship he had with the ideals he enshrined in his most famous piece of writing.

Independence Hall, Governoer's Council Chamber

Independence Hall, Governoer’s Council Chamber

At Independence Hall and the Independence Visitor Center in Philadelphia, visitors can tour the building where the Declaration was adopted. The building’s Assembly Room, which also witnessed the debating and signing of the Constitution, is considered “one of the most historic rooms in the United States,” according to the National Park Service’s website.

Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, in Charlottesville, Virginia, devotes a section of its website to the Declaration of Independence and offers lesson plans on the subject. With the recent unearthing of Sally Hemings’s living quarters in the historic house museum, the juxtaposition of Jefferson’s life as a slaveholder and his declaration that all men are created equal can be presented to visitors with additional objects and a greater sense of place. For many years the location of a restroom for visitors, Sally Hemings’s room is perhaps, for better or worse, also among the most historic rooms in the United States.

Whether you visited a historic room or read a historic document or watched the fireworks, I hope your Fourth of July was everything you wanted and needed it to be.

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About Laura

Paralegal with Master of Arts in Teaching in Museum Education, frequent museum visitor, based in Washington, DC. I care about what museums can do, both in terms of public offerings and internal practices, to make the world a better place. I blog about museum education ("informed"), the social work of museums ("humane"), and visitor experience ("citizenry").
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