Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Asian-American Reactivism

Engineering Our Own Demise.

Anyone who has been around kids would probably agree that you can tell a child anything, but unless you actually model the behaviour that you insist upon in the child, then they will just begin to think that you are just a hypocritical adult bullshitter. "Do what I say, not what I do" does not get you very far. But this principle holds true in all human interactions - if  you go through life not practicing what you preach then, soon, you will lose credibility. You have to practice what you preach as individuals but it is also especially pertinently significant for a racialized group, like Asian-Americans.

A couple of events that have taken place in recent weeks have left me wondering if Asian-America can be criticized for not walking its talk, and failing to provide an appropriate model of behaviour of a kind that we insist mainstream America follow. We want our dignity to be respected, we want to be seen as individuals and we want (at least I know I want) reason and nuance to guide attitudes towards us. Yet, I think that all too often in our intra-Asian dialogue we seem reluctant, unable, or simply fail, to model this very thing.

I came across an extremely well-written and witty article, written by Arthur Chu - of Jeopardy fame - in which he very cleverly gave his thoughts on the "#CancelColbert" movement and its initiator, Suey Park. Viewing Park as a necessary and welcome evil, he writes the following....
I’m glad that we’re increasingly living in a world where nice people can be nice people and jerks can be jerks and game show villains can be game show villains without the need to be a “credit to your race.” That, slowly, haltingly, through a lot of debating and arguing and fighting and hashing tough shit out, we’re finding the freedom to just be ourselves.
Sounds good, except that earlier in the piece Chu wrote the following...
Suey Park is crazy. She does not represent us. She does not speak for us. She doesn’t speak for anyone except her fellow denizens of Angrytweets, USA, a community whose sole import is random entertainment news and whose sole export is intoxicating outrage.........I’m glad she’s out there. Because Asians need more villains.
What I find difficult to reconcile here is this idea that somehow being angry makes Park into a villain. Even worse, Park is crazy because she is angry. What seems to be happening here is that Chu is celebrating some kind of eccentricity that is not usually associated with Asians - which is true - but instead of letting Park's actions and behaviours speak for themselves - as he seems to want - , he actually seems to want to shape perceptions of her, so that it does not reflect back on him. He accomplishes this by stereotyping her as villainous and crazy.

Although I am critical of white celebs contextualizing America's race dialogue by getting it completely wrong, I have not agreed with the manner of Park's activism but she is not crazy for being wrong, and she certainly is not a villain for taking the wrong approach. The problem here is that Park is a living breathing human being who - by my reckoning - made and makes mistakes and I am simply uncomfortable with her being labeled because of it. Doing so does not sound like being genuinely open to a diverse, warts an' all conception of Asians because part of that process of acceptance of our warts is to leave open the possibility and hope that as individuals who make individual choices, some wrong, some not, we have the capacity to change. After all, isn't racism predicated on the idea of immutable, often negative, racial characteristics?

But there is a more profound issue here that I find troubling - even in cases where minority anger is justified, America still manages to stereotype it and mock it. We have stereotypes about the Angry Asian  Man (and now, perhaps woman), and we have stereotypes about black anger, and we laugh at them, and in the process diminish any legitimate concerns that  sparked the anger. Yet, white anger is taken seriously and given weight, and in no way is implied to reflect on any one other than the person expressing it, and rarely, if ever is white anger mocked via stereotype.

Of course, the cherry topping is the caveat that Park "does not represent us" and "she does not speak for us". Shouldn't it go without saying that it is reasonable to presume that Park's opinions represent little more than her own thinking? Why would Chu have to even say such a thing...unless...unless...there is some kind of process by which Asians are held to accountability as a group for the actions or behaviour of one of them? Maybe Park isn't so crazy after all.

But this tendency to pile in and beat each other down - even when we think we are doing the opposite - took an even more sinister and disturbing turn more recently when Korean-American artist, David Choe, told a story on his internet broadcast show that left many listeners believing that he had committed rape. Basically, the story goes like this; Choe claimed that in a "high-class spa" - that is a legitimate non-sex oriented spa - he pushed his female massage therapist's head onto his penis to make her perform fellatio, after which she proclaimed her previously unspoken sexual attraction for Choe, and requests his telephone number so that she can, you know, make it happen again - nudge, nudge, wink, wink. Of course, Choe is not interested, and gives her a false number.....uh-huh. That sounds believable.

My first reaction when I heard Choe telling the story was that he sounded like a fifteen-year-old boy, boasting to his friends about sexual encounters that never happened except in his own fantasies, or as an embellishment of a story he read in his dad's Playboy mags. Nothing about the story rings true, nothing about it made me think that I should take it seriously as a reflection of an actual incident, and even the manner of the telling came across like Choe was improvising the whole thing - badly - such that all I could think was "it did not happen".

But in the aftermath of the broadcast a furore erupted with accusations being made that Choe had actually committed rape and was effectively admitting to doing so. In the wake of this wave of repugnance for Choe, a petition was created - here - requesting that the White House remove Choe's paintings from its walls because.....
On 10 March 2014, David Choe aired an episode of a podcast called "DVDASA" describing a sexual exploit at a high-end massage parlor. Choe commented how the massage therapist, "Rose", did not want to be physically touched, responded "no" to his requests, and ultimately resulted in him physically pushing down her head onto his erect penis............While Choe has since recanted his remarks, stating he had made up the story, his commentary still has a significant impact due to his fame and perpetuates the myth that there is a rape spectrum, that no doesn't mean no, and rape is not always rape, but merely "rapey".......Choe may not be a rapist, but his painting of our President Obama does not deserve to represent his community at the White House.
Choe may not be a rapist, but his painting of our President Obama does not deserve to represent his community at the White House.
A previous version - the above has been updated, I believe - called on the White House to issue a statement on its stance regarding "alleged rape" (incidentally, what are the ethical considerations when one asks people to sign a petition and then one changes the wording of the petition after it has been signed?). Whilst I can certainly understand the negative reactions to Choe's comments and decry his gross insensitivity on a subject that is painful and very real for women, the fact is that he has not actually been proven to have committed or even charged with a crime.

In a court of law, the concept of reasonable doubt serves as a guiding principle for how we judge the accused - we apply reason, logic, and rational arguments to evidence and subsequently judge impartially. Furthermore, reasonable doubt also safeguards against abuses of judicial power by ensuring that evidence itself is not arbitrary (I feel, without evidence, that someone is guilty, is not reasonable evidence, for example), or that charges do not serve a political agenda. So, reasonable doubt is a hugely important aspect of guaranteeing our rights and protecting them from abuse.

With that in mind, it is disturbing that anyone would participate in a petition try to leap-frog the judicial process by calling on the Executive Branch of our government to basically treat Choe as though he were already convicted of a crime, and do damage to his reputation and possibly his livelihood by removing his work from the White House. In other words, the Executive is being asked to mete out punishment to Choe, effectively in lieu of his right to due process, and all based on a dubious story (subsequently retracted), and (somewhat) popular outrage.

Asian-Americans, of all people, should be painfully aware of the dangers of populist outrage, and popular sentiment in relation to the denial of due process, and I would not be surprised if many of the Asians who signed the petition would - with a completely straight face - decry Japanese internment and their denial of due process during World War 2. They too were punished without ever being convicted of any crimes, and it was done via an Executive order and with popular consent. We cannot have it both ways.

Sure, people are free to choose to boycott Choe, but to demand that the White House play a part in punishing or censuring someone who has not even been convicted of, or even legally charged with, any crime, does a greater disservice to Asian-Americans than Choe's stupidity. The petition states that Choe "does not deserve (emphasis mine) to represent his community", which carries with it an implicit call for the White House to make what amounts to a moral judgement - to be accompanied by a "punishment" - on a civil society matter, thus expanding the scope of the Executive role to include moral proclamation. It is a staggering irony that people who casually demand that an individual's right to due process be infringed upon by an Executive that also issues moral judgements, could somehow believe themselves to be the arbiters of what, or who, could be a deserving representative of our community.

No, these folks are far, far, far, worse, and Asian-America should distance itself from any hint of vindictive action that unapologetically seeks to punish someone who has not even been charged with a crime, and who seek to muddy democratic principles because someone said something upsetting. And this is what is so disappointing; by participating as Asian bloggers, writers, or signatories of a petition, in any activity that supports steamrollering someone's democratic rights, then we have effectively set the standard for how we ourselves can and should be treated in the eyes of the law and society in general. That is not to say that those angered by Choe's douchebag story should merely let it go (on the contrary feel free to take action within the realm of normal civil society activity if you wish), but it does mean that we should shoulder a responsibility to insist that nuance and reason guide behaviours towards any Asian, not emotion and vindictiveness.

This is because nuance and reason are the qualities most often absent from the behaviours and actions of mainstream America towards its Asian minority. We saw this during Japanese internment, and more recently in the Wen Ho Lee case. If Asian-Americans are not prepared to approach issues relating to Asian people with nuance and reason (and modes of interaction that uphold human dignity), then how can we demand it of others? In other words, if we want to be treated with respect and have our human dignity respected (even in cases where there is potential for crime, more so in cases where a crime has only been inferred to have been committed), then in a society that makes a point of not respecting our human dignity, we must surely be obliged to provide that model of behaviour that we insist mainstream America abide by?


  1. It seems that Asian men are held to higher standards than other men by many Asian women,and probably most women in general.

  2. AA men being held accountable to what is widely considered a fictional account. Hypothetical rape just give us more misogynist points despite high rates of liberal ideology from college attendance rates. Good times we live in.