Posted by debito on November 5th, 2008
I usually start my columns about a week or so before the first draft is due. That way, I can tinker with it over the days here and there and add ideas as they come to me during the course of life. I don’t like writing too many things on the fly — things come out half-baked that way.
However, this essay on “Truth Octane” was a rather difficult one. Getting this complicated analytical concept out and developed with examples within 800 words was a challenge. Plus I had two weekend trips to Tokyo in the interim. I wasn’t really satisfied with my first version, so after Edo arrival last Friday, I handed it over to a trusted close friend for perusal. His verdict, and I quote, was, “It’s a turkey.” This was about 12:30 AM on Friday night – Saturday morning, and about four beers into the evening.
Well, no trusted friend calls my essays “turkeys” and gets away with it. So at 1AM, I commandeered his toilet (I’ve done some of my best thinking there) and didn’t leave until I had rewritten the whole thing from scratch. 700 words and 45 minutes later, I had a new draft out. My friend’s verdict: ”Much better. Inspirational. No comparison.”
I gave both versions to my editor at the JT and let him choose which he liked better. He went with the second, rewritten, toilet version as well.
But I’m genuinely curious. What do readers think? First the published version, then the original version. Vote which one you like better at the blog poll at the upper right hand corner! Thanks. Arudou Debito back in Sapporo
REWRITTEN PUBLISHED VERSION:
|CHRIS McKENZIE ILLUSTRATION|
Truth: a delicate matter of give and take
Every activist and essayist must deal with a singular phenomenon when addressing the public: just how “truthful” one should be.
I’m not talking about a choice between lying or “truthing”; I’m talking about just how much truth one should inject into the message. Because, sadly, there’s only so much truth a reader can take all at once.
I call it a matter of “Truth Octane.” Too much truth and your audience switches off, becoming reflexive instead of reflective. Too little and you get platitudinous warm-fuzzy clouds of fog, and no conclusions drawn.
Consider some activism with a high Truth Octane: Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11,” irrefutably linking the George W. Bush administration to oil interests, and demonstrating a profit motive behind the Iraq war; Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth,” conclusively arguing that global warming is man-made and damaging; Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring”; “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Or even war photojournalism showing suffering, carnage, and death, bringing “the awful truth” into our living rooms.
All are definitive attempts to bring obscured information to light. But again — as the nuance of “the awful truth” implies — too high a Truth Octane and people reject it (Bush got re-elected; Gore had been spinning his wheels until recently, etc.). It’s not just because geopolitics, the environment and war are complicated topics. It works like this:
When advocates come on too strong with their claims, people naturally express a healthy doubt. After all, readers haven’t thought through everything yet to the point that they can agree completely. However, opponents capitalize on that doubt, say “the subject is controversial,” “the presenter is partisan” or “the viewpoint is not fair or balanced,” and dilute down the Octane.
The easiest example to illustrate this with is photojournalism. Shocking images of death and destruction have a very high Truth Octane — so high, the Vietnam War demonstrated, that they can change minds about an entire war. So, even though people intrinsically know that war involves killing and mutilation, it gets censored. People just don’t want to see it, especially if their government is in any way implicated. It would mean people confronting their own paradigms, realizing their support for the war may have been a mistake. So we acquiesce in the censorship to escape those qualms.
But consider a less extreme example. Whenever I point out issues of racial discrimination to the media, even the sharpest reporter dulls his analytical scalpel: “Of course we know the issue is one of race. But our editor and readership might not. So we’ll have to render it as discrimination by nationality or appearance (gaiken).” Or worse yet, portray it as a “cultural misunderstanding” — which means it is not even discrimination anymore. Again, we don’t want to challenge the common paradigm: “Racial discrimination happens in other countries, not Japan.” It’s too much to take.
So how does an activist deal with a high Truth Octane? One way is to dilute it yourself by offering caveats and disclaimers, such as “Discrimination is everywhere, Japan is not unique,” or “I’m not bashing Japan.” That is, if you don’t mind wasting column space on platitudes, and debasing your own argument.
Another way is to use satire; show insight through various contrasts, ironies, metaphors, and parables. Consider examples such as Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” some of the best episodes of “South Park” or “The Daily Show” — even the recent parodies of American political figures on “Saturday Night Live.” Comedy allows the Truth Octane to enter the psyche unadulterated, aided by the spoonful of sugar that is laughter.
Alas, in Japan political satire is in relatively short supply, especially on broadcast media. This is, after all, a country where sarcasm and irony are rarely seen as forms of humor. That means one less tool for activists to employ. You have to be entertaining while biting, a rare skill.
What can be done? Raise Truth Octane in small doses, and bring people along slowly. History indicates that the most foresighted people, from revolutionary scientists to activists you find on the faces of coins, persisted for years with their assertions and were subject to skepticism, rebuke, even the threat of violence for challenging the status quo.
In the end many prevailed, as they weaned increasing numbers of people onto a stronger Truth Octane. Finally there was a tipping point, then a society-wide paradigm shift. Old ideas that were once taken for granted (such as slavery, lack of universal suffrage, and anti-miscegenation laws) were relegated to the dustbin of history.
That’s how it starts — by speaking truth to power and to the public. How “much” truth you speak is completely a matter of timing. But those who can master their Truth Octane effectively can change the world.
TRUTH OCTANE AND THE DILUTION OF DEBATE
By Arudou Debito
Column 9 for the Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE Column
For publication Tuesday, November 4, 2008
A funny thing happened on the way to the forum. The public debate forum, that is: I realized that when essay writing, even if one grounds their assertions in confirmed and researched sources, it makes no difference. Some people don’t want to hear the truth anyway.
It’s too good to be true. It’s an inconvenient truth. Or because not enough people believe it, it’s unrealistic or idealistic.
I call this phenomenon a matter of “Truth Octane”. Too high an “octane” (i.e. too much “truth” all at once) and people shut down or get reactionary, becoming reflexive instead of reflective. Too low an octane, and you wind up with snoozy platitudes and warm-fuzzy touchy-feely clouds of fog. It’s “muzukashii”, too difficult an issue to draw conclusions about. Down your beer and let it go. Accept the status quo.
“Muzukashii” dilutes debate, making dullards of insightful people. For example, I’ve heard sharp reporters say, “Of course we know you’re talking about racial discrimination. But our editors or readers won’t see it that way.” So their article blurs the issue into “discrimination by nationality”, “foreign appearance” (gaiken) — or, most foggy of all, “cultural misunderstandings” (meaning it’s not even discrimination anymore). Calling the issue one of “race” is too much “truth” for people to take.
But Truth Octane has a political dimension. Consider this dynamic:
If somebody comes on too strong with their assertions (I plead guilty), the reflex is to express doubt. Complex issues have a lot of moving parts to take into account, so even the strongest adherent will thoughtfully say, “Well, I agree with most of that.” They haven’t contemplated or researched the issue enough to agree completely right now.
Problem is, opponents capitalize on this healthy doubt, leveraging near-agreement into incredulity. Unarticulated criticisms morph into “someone out there disagrees”, and suddenly “this issue is controversial”. Disagreements then gain currency because “where there’s smoke, there’s fire”, and a 90% Truth Octane gets ratcheted down to 50%.
So, for a quiet life, cautious proponents avoid the ratcheters by debasing their own Truth Octane in advance. They offer mitigators like, “Yes, discrimination exists in other countries.” (So that justifies people doing it?) Or “Japan’s an island society with a history closed to the outside world.” (Therefore after 150 years Japan still can’t help itself? How belittling.) And the ultimate platitude: “I’m not bashing Japan; I like it.” (Yes, that’s why we trying to improve things through criticism; if we didn’t care, we wouldn’t bother.) De rigueur disclaimers waste precious column space.
Moreover, one’s “Truth-Octane Reputation” affects future debate. Those used to straightforwardness in their pundits want more, especially when experiences make them receptive to the message. Others just don’t want another lecture from that know-it-all essayist, so they criticize beyond arguments made (i.e. “this guy is a jerk”). Ad hominem is the ultimate resort for someone who can’t think past platitude and personal animus.
Unfortunately, a quiet life of platitudes has a built-in trap: When opponents actually do take a stand on an issue, they often get stuck on the wrong side. Especially if, judgment clouded by emotion, they haven’t reasoned through all angles.
Again, take the issue of racial discrimination. There is history galore demonstrating that societies with unchecked and unredressed social injustice end up with birth-determined class-ridden societies. Disgruntled people barred from reaching their personal potential become the source of revolutionary movements and repressive governments. It’s misery for multitudes, and unsustainable.
Yet people still try to justify racial discrimination in Japan through, say, history, culture (or cultural imperialism on the essayist’s part), birthright, exceptionalism, even a purported “right to discriminate” itself as a matter of personal choice. They make arguments long debunked elsewhere, often in societies where they themselves experienced the fruits of antidiscrimination movements. When it comes to human rights in Japan, it seems we have to “reinvent the wheel”, and deal with the misology of the double standard.
Even when the passage of time shows opponents backed the bad side of history, they cannot admit they were wrong. That’s just too much truth to take. So they decamp into ideological cliques, long for the good old days, and watch as society sees sense and deposits them on the dustbin of history.
It’s an axiomatic truth: People should be nice to each other. Any kindergartner knows that. And on a societal level, that includes treating each other equally and fairly. It all boils down to that.
That’s 100% Truth Octane, and you can’t argue against it. Yet people do. Pity.