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Hi Blog. One of the age-old debates about how to eliminate racial discrimination in Japan is a matter of process. Do you wait for society to soften up to the idea of people who are (and/or look) “foreign” being “Japanese”, or do you legislate and force people to stop being discriminatory? Critics of anti-discrimination activists often recommend that the latter apply the brakes on their social movement and wait for society in general to catch up — as in, “You can’t force people by law to be tolerant.”
Well, yes you can. History has shown that without a law (be it a US Civil Rights Act, a UK Race Relations Act, etc.) and active media campaigns to force and foment tolerance, it doesn’t necessarily occur naturally. As we have seen in the Japanese example, which is approaching the 20th Anniversary of its signing the UN Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination without keeping its promise to pass a law against racial discrimination.
I submit to Debito.org Readers two interesting case studies of how tolerance towards a) same-sex marriage, and b) transgender issues have been promoted in the American example. The speed at which LGBT tolerance and legal equality in many areas of American society has been breathtaking. Why have walls come tumbling down so fast? One case is with the US Supreme Court, which earlier this year found itself in a position to rule same-sex marriage constitutional because any other position would have been bigotry. Excerpt from a National Public Radio interview, dated July 2, 2015, on Fresh Air with Terry Gross:
Was This Past Supreme Court Session ‘A Liberal Term For The Ages’?
NPR Fresh Air July 02, 2015
Full transcript at http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=419468563
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you’re just joining us, my guest is Adam Liptak, the Supreme Court correspondent for The New York Times. And we’re talking about the term that just wrapped up. Now, we’ve been talking about the marriage equality decision. And something that you wrote I found so interesting about this, which is that a lot of law firms wouldn’t touch the anti-marriage equality side. Why not?
LIPTAK: Among a large number of Americans, and certainly Americans on the coast and certainly Americans who come from, call it elite backgrounds – you know, from the fancy colleges and law schools – and certainly what Justice Scalia in a memorable phrase called lawyers who work in high-rise buildings, this issue is done. There’s only one side to it, and the other side is pure bigotry. So that told you something about where at least the legal culture – the mainstream legal culture – was on this question. And, you know, that’s a contrast to, say, Brown V Board of Education, where the leading appellate lawyer of his day, John Davis, one of the founders of the prominent New York firm Davis Polk, argued in favor of segregated schools – or at least that the court should not stop them. So that was a change in the culture that was yet another indication that the court was going to come out the way it did.
GROSS: And it sounds like it was a business decision too – because you write that a lot of law firms were afraid if they took the position against marriage equality that they would lose clients, and they would have a difficult time attracting good lawyers to their firm. Those are business decisions.
LIPTAK: So that is absolutely true as a factual matter. The firms would say this is a matter of principle for them, and they didn’t take account of business realities. But we do have, you know, one example from just a few years ago, where quite possibly the best Supreme Court advocate of our day, Paul Clement, agreed to represent Congress – shouldn’t be a particularly controversial client – in defending the Defense of Marriage Act, which denied federal benefits to married same-sex couples. His firm essentially fired him for agreeing to represent Congress in trying to persuade the court to uphold a duly enacted law signed by President Clinton. So that tells you that this is – this is something where the firms were not inclined to take these cases.
GROSS: So do you think that the marriage equality decision lays the groundwork to opening up gay rights in other areas where it is still in question?
LIPTAK: It’s a huge and important and transformative victory. But in some ways, it’s symbolic and partial because much of the nation still doesn’t have laws against discriminating against gay and lesbian people. So in much of the nation, you can get married in the morning and fired in the afternoon from your job for being gay – and then denied housing because you’re gay. So the court decision only does so much and is limited to marriage. And unless legislatures act to impose general laws against sexual orientation discrimination, the work of the gay rights movement is not yet done. It’s a funny thing, that you get to marriage first and job discrimination later. […]
COMMENT: The point is that the proponents of marriage equality (sic — note the terminology) managed to frame the debate in such a way that eventually there was no choice but to support one side (people arguing formerly-normal positions even lost their job), and nobody COULD support the other side without looking bigoted. And that came through in the formal interpretation of the law. In Japan, however, as proven time and time again by the bigots who cloak their bigotry in nationalism and “culture” (see here and here for example), bigotry is still a tenable position.
The other item of interest is from Entertainment Weekly (which may seem to some a laughable source, but they write very good articles on the power and flow of media). Consider the process they describe in their special LGBT issue that came out last June:
The transition will be televised
Subtitle: In an era of increasing inclusiveness, TV proves once again to be media’s most effective agent of social change, this time by sharing rich stories about the transgender community
By Mark Harris
Entertainment Weekly Magazine, June 12 2015 (excerpt)
Full article at http://www.ew.com/article/2015/06/12/transition-will-be-televised
A sports figure comes out as transgender, and the general public is riveted by her story, which is met with everything from bigotry to curiosity to empathy. All at once, the subject seems to be everywhere from op-ed pages to dinner-table conversations. Transgender stories – this time fictional – start to gain a toehold in popular culture. The highest-rated sitcom on network TV takes some tentative steps toward exploring the fluidity of gender identity by having a gay cross-dressing performer as a recurring character. A popular medical drama wins an Emmy nomination for a two-part episode about a doctor who undergoes gender-reassignment surgery.
The year is 1976. Transgender Americans are, for the first time, having a moment. And then interest subsides. The caravan moves on. And the moment is over. How did it take 39 years for us to get all the way back to the starting line?
Minority representation on TV has always come in phases. Phase 1 is absence – or worse, stereotype. In Phase 2, minorities appear briefly, usually to teach majority characters life lessons or allow them to demonstrate tolerance, and then recede again. In Phase 3 – where we are now – they finally start to get their own stories told. Phase 4 – the characters stick around just because we’re interested in them – is on the near horizon. Phase 5 – we don’t have to write stories like this anymore – is farther off.
It’s not a shock that most of the trans narratives we’re seeing in 2015 are filtered through (or at least share screen time with) the perspective of non-transgender characters. Transparent and Becoming Us are as much about the kids as the parents, and as refreshing as it is to see trans characters woven into the ensembles of Orange Is the New Black and Sense8, there’s no escaping the fact that a large part of why they’re there is specifically to promote understanding – they’re a vehicle for communicating. That’s great, and essential, but it shouldn’t be confused with the finish line—which would be a pop cultural world in which trans people are simply part of the fabric and not used as devices. If you doubt how hard that goal is to reach on TV, consider that gay people, who outnumber trans people by roughly 10 to 1 in the national population, are still struggling for that kind of representation, and that a host of ethnic minorities (particularly Asians and Latinos) continue to fight for the day when they can turn on the TV and routinely see people who look like them.
In that regard, who’s behind the camera may matter at least as much as who’s in front of it. It’s not a coincidence that the most racially diverse prime-time lineup on any network – ABC’s Thursday-night roster of Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away With Murder – is overseen by a black woman, or that Will & Grace was co-created by a gay man, or that fictional Ellen’s coming-out was tied to real Ellen’s desire to tell her own truth. There’s no substitute for having someone in the room to whom the subject matters – it’s a corrective, it’s an incentive, and it’s a truth detector.
The 1976 flicker of interest in trans issues didn’t last because it was, though well-intentioned, not strong enough to combat an immense set of prevailing prejudices. This time, it might take root, not just because attitudes have changed, but because the current approach is less touristic and more firsthand. One of the creators of Sense8, Lana Wachowski, is trans. Transparent’s writer-director-creator Jill Soloway has a trans father. If Sophia seems like an exceptionally multidimensional trans character, that’s in part because Laverne Cox is on the scene. As she has noted, “It’s really important that trans folks are in positions of power in terms of creating our stories. I think that’s vital.” Orange Is the New Black creator Jenji Kohan has argued that a good writer should be able to write any character with truth and depth, and she’s right. But it’s an important breakthrough that there are now a handful of people in positions of power with a deep and personal investment in making sure TV gets this right. Four decades ago, we got off to a false start. Now, better late than never, we’re off to a good one. ENDS
COMMENT: The lesson here is that there are stages of “softening up a society”, but what’s crucial is that people who can best promote the tolerance, as in those affected by the intolerance, must be in a position of power within the media structures in order to get their message out. As I have argued elsewhere, NJ and Visible Minorities are so shut out of Japanese media that they simply cannot do that. They are seen as basically nonexistent entities in Japanese society both within and without (including outside scholarship on Japan).
All of these things will be discussed in greater detail in my forthcoming book, Embedded Racism: Japan’s Visible Minorities and Racial Discrimination in Japan, out November. Stay tuned. Dr. ARUDOU, Debito