Friday, March 21, 2014

The Voices That Matter

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I love the smell of civil disobedience in the morning!

I wrote two posts ago that there seems to have been a little-noticed sea change in public discourse regarding Taiwan as a result of the student movement currently occupying the legislature (currently? I haven't heard that they've been kicked out yet anyway), and I think it bears repeating. In fact, I think it deserves its own post. So here ya go.

There's a lot of talk in the English language media about Taiwanese politics, the future of Taiwan, cross-strait relations etc., but it seems to be mostly foreigners - some knowledgeable, some dilettantes like me, some who are basically morons (you know, like any civic discourse) - talking about a country they are not from. Some may live there, some may be long-term, some may even be citizens. Many have probably just visited, and a few have never been here at all. I'll be the first to admit that I also do this: I enjoy pontificating from my little blog that pretty much nobody reads.

Then there's healthy public debate going on among Taiwanese, mostly in Chinese (because duh), on local BBSs (BBS = bulletin board system), forums, blogs and Facebook groups. Due to both cultural and linguistic barriers (cultural meaning, I bet we all know expats in Taiwan who don't even have one Taiwanese friend. I've met 'em), foreigners have little or no access to these avenues of discourse, and to some extent, the converse is also true. Many Taiwanese lack access, due to language barriers, of international English-language media - even though English is widely spoken and often spoken quite well, plenty of people speak English but still find the language in those news and media outlets to be far above their comprehension level: "news talk" can be like that.

So discussion about Taiwan, so far, has been ghetto-ized, with foreigners in one corner talking to each other and Taiwanese in another talking to each other. I'm in many discussion groups on Taiwanese issues on LinkedIn and elsewhere, and all of them are populated with other foreigners. Articles about Taiwan written by foreign experts (some quite thoughtful and incisive, some blithering idiots, you know, like all news commentary) have comments by foreigners, discussions on LinkedIn groups are populated by foreigners. If you like a Taiwanese activist Facebook page or log into a BBS, however, you are likely to be the only foreigner there.

Side note: with the BBSs, that's not just a cultural or linguistic barrier - BBSs are kind of an outdated technology that most foreigners wouldn't even think to access, nor do they have the programs capable of doing so.

This isn't healthy - more for the foreign commentariat than the Taiwanese. When your voice goes out and the only voices that come back are other people like you - other non-Taiwanese interested in Taiwanese affairs, generally (but not always) from affluent Western countries - rather than the voices of the people you are talking about, then you can't get a full understanding. It puts you in a bubble. It may cause you to think that your voice is as important, if not more so, than the public discourse of the citizens of this country. It may cause you to think the public is generally on your side - or not - and that the commentariat have reached a consensus when, in fact, the Taiwanese engaged in public discourse may deeply disagree.

It also feels like it has something of a racial component to it. Educated white guy writing from his nice apartment in a big city? You get to be in the New York Times! The Washington Post! The Guardian! The Whatever Whoozit Times Post! Educated Taiwanese dissident with equally valid views but imperfect English? Shoosh. It sucks. It's a whole new arena for white privilege, full of white people who don't even realize they're privileged. (To be fair, some of these educated white guys are pretty thoughtful, and I do at times enjoy reading the better-thought-out pieces. I don't mean this as an attack on some fantastic voices like Frozen Garlic and J. Michael Cole among others).

With these new protests, however, this seems to be changing. Part of it is that the activists out there fighting for democracy and due process seem to have lost the old, stereotypical "shyness" about speaking out in English - yes, that's a thing, mostly out of fear of having one's grammar or vocabulary be wrong or embarrassing - and are blowing up Facebook, CNN iReport and various other media outlets with their views, in their voices. The Taiwan-based LinkedIn groups I subscribe to all seem to have more local commenters. Some of their voices are knowledgeable, some are in the middle, and some are idiots (again, normal public discourse).

And I love it. LOVE IT. When nobody wants to give you the international media spotlight, commandeering it through the million tiny lights of Facebook posts and online comments? AWESOME. Talking openly about your country and what you want for it, in a second language, on the international stage instead of arguing in a BBS? GREAT. This is what we need. These are voices that matter. Or at least, the voices that matter that until very recently, in the intermational media, hadn't been heard.

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