Sunday, February 2, 2014

Killing Us Softly With Words.

Storytelling Asians To Death.

In a previous post I touched upon the idea that Asian "maleness" has, at best, a second-class status in American culture. For Asian men growing up in the US, the stories that American culture tells itself about us are typically demeaning and xenophobic, or combative and hostile. Naturally, many Asian men feel a sense of cultural and social marginalization that their humanity is demeaned, and their masculinity is afforded scarce cultural space to find expression or validation. Subsequently, ideas of masculine identity seem to recur as themes amongst Asian men and with it notions of their "place" and sense of acceptance in this society. One way that culture fosters an inclusive identity is through the narratives of storytelling.

Stories and narratives ground people in culture providing a profound sense of connectedness and identity by offering readers, listeners, or viewers, the opportunity to identify with characters - and the scenarios they find themselves in - so they are able to firmly place themselves into that narrative and hence the culture it reflects, represents, and describes. On the flipside, in order for these narratives to have cohesive power, they must provide a narrative of what this identity does not represent - that is, a set of contrasting qualities that clearly define what they are not equally as strongly as depictions which powerfully reinforce and shape ideas of what they are. Often, this set of undesirable qualities are embodied and visualized in the form of Asian men so, naturally, they perhaps find little sense of inclusion, and certainly little sense of visibility, in this cultural narrative.

One thing is certain, many Asian men feel that there is scarce acceptance of them save for specific situations where they fit the pre-conceived notions of the mainstream (and mainstreamed) community around them. But while Asians have long campaigned against the culture of stereotype and the media that propagates it, new research highlights the degree to which constant, one-sided and one-dimensional, media depictions might profoundly condition society to hold deeply ingrained racist attitudes (and, hence, behaviours) towards Asians. All of this happens through the very simple process of storytelling.

According to this article, new research presents the intriguing possibility that narratives actually create biological changes in a reader or listener......
[after reading a given passage] fMRI....scans showed....heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex, an area of the brain associated with receptivity for language, on the mornings following the reading assignments.....[and]..Heightened connectivity was also seen in the central sulcus of the brain, the primary sensory motor region of the brain. Neurons of this region have been associated with making representations of sensation for the body, a phenomenon known as grounded cognition. Just thinking about running, for instance, can activate the neurons associated with the physical act of running.
What is not known is how long these changes remain in effect, but if these changes are temporary, it seems reasonable to wonder if a continuous narrative on any given subject might effectively prolong these biological changes.

As stated above, "grounded cognition", is a physical response created merely by thinking about something; if you "think about running, then you can activate the neurons associated with the physical act of running". It should follow that if the majority of narratives about Asians denigrate and dehumanize, then you think of Asians as dehumanized, and as little more than a collection of demeaning and distasteful qualities, and that there would be a corresponding physical reaction of distaste that reinforces the emotional and ethical distancing from Asians with every depiction?

So, given that American culture runs a repetitive narrative that depicts demeaning attitudes and behaviours towards Asians as normal, ethically neutral, or morally justified, it raises the possibility that this is, in fact, an "association" process that ingrains anti-Asian attitudes down to a physical level. This means that if Asians are repeatedly depicted most forcefully and memorably in ways that portray them as a threat and, therefore, as the recipients of justified violent retribution, or as objects of ridicule, then any physically conditioned responses - "gut reactions", if you will, albeit unconscious - would surely be ones of distaste and withdrawal of moral empathy merely as a consequence of this conditioned response.

This is clearly and inadvertently illustrated in an interesting video on YouTube (pertinent part starts at 8:20) in which Chinese-American award-winning journalist - Ti Hua Chang - talks about his experiences trying to make it in the media industry. At one point in his career, he is told - by a well-meaning mentor - that audiences would not embrace him because whenever he sees an Asian man, he has an uncomfortable physical response that he associates with distasteful notions about Asian men.

Other research into the human mind provides us with even more food for thought. According to research done at the Max Planck Institute, decisions (and, therefore, I would presume, responses) are made several seconds before we become conscious of them. That is, whatever conditioning we may have received throughout the course of our lives - and that must include neurolo-physiological conditioning of narratives - must play a role in how we respond to, and make behavioural decisions about, people and things around us. But it is seemingly a mostly unconscious process.

So, human beings become aware of decisions several seconds after they are made, these decisions are thus largely physiological processes (becoming conscious later) and thus probably, at least, in part conditioned by cultural narratives. Such narratives elicit a physical response in listeners, and America's cultural narratives concerning Asians are largely one-sidedly dehumanizing and demeaning. That means that casual, even "jokey", anti-Asian cultural racism has the potential to shape and condition racist behaviours on an extremely profound level, such that it gets to the point that even when Asians are not depicted negatively, the physically reinforced emotional gut-reaction is, because of conditioning, a negative one.

One way that Asians have responded to these demeaning depictions has been to protest racist media narratives, although it has to be said that given the possibilities outlined in this essay, it seems like a terrible mismatch of comprehension to respond to ingrained, physical response-inducing derogatory narratives, with our usual ubiquitous meek challenge of "we're offended". Although this advocacy has been valuable in the extreme, my sense is that there has to be a "second arm" to the struggle against dehumanizing narratives, which consists of a kind of personal responsibility. What I mean by this is that, as individuals, we can take responsibility of our own personal narratives simply because a good way to overcome powerful denigrating stories is to tell better stories about ourselves. Another way of saying this is that fostering creativity (and the narratives it produces) is possibly one of the most powerful avenues to supersede the denigrating narratives that this culture tells about us.

Strangely, the goal here is not to change the minds of people who have, perhaps, barely conscious ingrained racist responses to us, but rather, create an equally powerful ingrained conditioning within ourselves that contextualizes our experiences as men within this society. After all, these derogatory narratives must also leave their mark on young Asian boys growing up in this culture which conceives of them as the embodiment of all that a man should not be. This process would involve creating personal narratives in the form of metaphors that serve as the basis for the kind of heroic "myths" that any conscious being must hold about themselves which serve to provide an all-important sense of transcendent purpose that is integral to the human condition.

That, in a nutshell, is the nature of this culture's prejudice against Asian men - cultural marginalization and its narrative of dehumanization offers scarce space for cultural participation in one of the most fundamental aspects of human life; transcendence myths that are the basis for aspiration, and which assists in the formation of a contextual identity. Oddly, it seems that one of the best possibilities for advocacy for Asian men, comes in the form of simply telling more compelling stories.

H/T Alpha Asian for Ti-Hua Chang video.

1 comment:

  1. I would consider these stories to be microaggressions. Individually they may have limited effect, but the sheer volume of these without any balanced positive counteraction is considerable.