Posted by debito on December 13th, 2008
Hi Blog. I meant to write down a few thoughts earlier, but today’s a light day, so I might as well use it productively, and get to something I’ve been meaning to write about for some time now: learning activism from the experts.
I attended the Dalai Lama’s speech at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Japan on November 3, 2008. As a person who loves public speaking and presentations, I thought I’d just offer what I gleaned from a world-famous speaker and public figure:
In his two-hour speech with Q&A, he demonstrated many of the hallmarks of an effective activist: Optimistic, poignant, informed with the points he wanted to get across that day, yet self-effacing, making jokes (and laughing at them if necessary), moreover avuncular and retiring (something the more elderly activists have in their favor). He was sure to deny his divinity (this was what some members of a skeptical Western audience I believe expected), even have his given name included as part of the FCCJ’s program. While making a number of subsidiary points, even aiming for a few laughs, he still got his main (and important) points across. See them from an article in the Japan Times here.
But that’s the thing about activism: how tied our hands are when trying to get our message across to a worldwide audience. There is no substitute for seeing people do their thing live and in full. I’ve noticed time and time again the difference between “live and Memorex”, or, rather, live vs. filtered through the media.
I first noticed that when PM Koizumi gave his first Diet speech after September 11, 2001, in which he first announced his anti-terrorism plans in the Upper House on September 28. I was there in the Gallery listening live. It was a rousing speech, delivered with panache and conviction. And although I am very unhappy with what eventually came out of this anti-terrorism putsch (particularly because it singled out NJ as terrorists), I was also discomfited with how his speech was chopped up and served to the public by the media.
Almost always what reaches the public is a pale imitation of what was said and, often more importantly, how it was said: Quotes lifted out of context or without surrounding disclaimers and qualifiers. Editorial constraints or bents bleaching out the humanity of the speaker (or even, sometimes, the accuracy of the speech itself). It’s the Telephone Game, where the more steps removed the speaker and the end-listener are, the more distortion enters the message.
It’s not necessarily anyone’s fault. In a busy world where we cannot be everywhere at once, it’s generally impossible to get information directly through the source unfiltered and unscathed. This is probably not the media’s intention, but we as listeners have to be skeptical of media, or at least of getting our information entirely from one source.
I experienced that firsthand and repeatedly in how we and our arguments were portrayed in the media in the Otaru Onsens Case (that’s why we have a website for people to have direct access). We were winning the debate, then losing (thanks to government undercurrents and policies targeting NJ for political and budgetary reasons), then we ultimately won — both in court and largely in the court of public opinion. But not handily enough for us to make sure it never happened again — by getting that law we wanted against racial discrimination. An anti-discrimination law with enforcement mechanisms is truly the Brass Ring. I’m just not equal to the task.
But somebody like the Dalai Lama is. I’m trying to learn from the best, and the Dalai Lama is clearly doing better than average. He’s got a pretty good image worldwide despite an entire antipathetic newsagency speaking to a fifth of the world’s population. In sum, as I saw at the FCCJ, The Dalai Lama a master of controlling his Truth Octane. He’s active while avuncular, critical yet not alienating — and he gives his information with the right amount of sugar-coating. In other words, he makes activism fun, yet still gets his message across.
Arudou Debito in Sapporo
PS: For another wonderful example of how disarming the Dalai Lama is, check out Pio D’Emilia’s report on him for Sky24, Italian TV last Nov 2. Never mind about it being in Italian: The trick is to make yourself more accessible despite language barriers. That happens, as you’ll see in the opening segment.