Saturday, December 17, 2016

Seek out Taiwanese voices, but don't prune them to fit your own narrative

This is interesting read in and of itself, but I have a specific reason for sharing it - and it's not an entirely positive thing.

Quick editor's note: I'm switching around the halves of this post because too much discussion has been happening on my criticism of the over-inclusion and enhanced credibility of Dr. Some White Guy Who Is An Expert On China (a criticism I believe is merited and which I stand by) and not nearly enough on the co-opting of Taiwanese voices to fit Western narratives. I am disappointed to say the least that the wrong point was emphasized. While I have my criticisms of the idolizing of Dr. Some White Guy Who Is An Expert On China, I don't want to be yet another in a list of people using a Taiwanese voice to air a grievance of my own.

So, let's start with the bad of it: this is Lin Fei-fan's reaction to his inclusion. There is also a Facebook post in English, which if I did the link right, you should be able to read here. It is worth your time.

He was a bit disappointed, though he recognized the honor of his words opening and closing an article on Taiwan in the New York Times. He was not misquoted, but the crux of what he was trying to say was that the solution to threats from China over this phone call - and in general - was to work towards normalizing relations between the US and Taiwan, and that current policy on Taiwan is in its own way a selling out of Taiwan already (which is absolutely true). All of that was excised. To wit:

"Lin said he told the paper that while many in Taiwan worry that US president-elect Donald Trump will change policy directions after he assumes office, the best way to handle a potential change in policy would be for Taiwan to seek the development of normal relations with the US.

Lin said the NYT’s reporter emphasized the worry that he mentioned exists in Taiwan over Trump’s intentions, while overlooking the emphasis he placed on the development of normalized relations between the two countries...I did absolutely say this, but they emphasized the wrong point. Of course I am unhappy about seeing Taiwan used as a chess piece,” Lin said."

Why? Well, I do understand that reporters and editors have to take many interviews and ideas and create a narrative flow, and that means not every idea, as strong as it may be, and not every quote, as pertinent as it may be, is going to make it in. In some ways it's fairly standard.

I have another, less innocent suspicion though: the New York Times, and most Western liberal media - has already created, cultivated and sold the narrative that talking to Taiwan is Bad Bad Bad because China is Scary Scary Scary. Like parents - yes, that means I'm calling the Chinese government a baby, because it is - who don't realize that their spoiling of their kid is a direct cause, if not THE direct cause, of why their kid is an asshole. Who think continuing to spoil said kid is the only solution because it's already too late. "We've tried nothing, and we're all out of ideas!"

My liberal friends, I am sorry to say (and I love you guys, I do! But please!) have bought into this in a scary way. I get it - this isn't InfoWars or whatever, it's not even Addicting Info or other liberal clickbait. It's the New York Times, among others. You want to believe them. They are respected journalistic organizations. They created this narrative, and you bought it. You trust them, with good reason (usually).

Only as the initial furor has abated, when readers may not be reading anymore, are they seeking out Taiwanese voices - and Lin is among the best voices to seek out - and to their credit, they're not making them sound unreasonable or vacuous. They come across as cogent, knowledgeable and and thoughtful.

As I said above, that's an important and laudable step, but note how, in this case, when those Taiwanese voices voiced ideas too far outside the curated-and-sold narrative, they are edited to fit it. You can't broadcast a revolutionary idea - as sad as it is that normalizing relations with Taiwan is "revolutionary", it really shouldn't be - because the media doesn't want its narrative called into question. They just don't publish it. They probably think they are doing the right thing. They may not even be aware of it on a conscious level. We all, consciously and sub-, create, broadcast and defend our narratives. We don't even realize we're doing it.

What concerns me is that this feels a bit like Taiwanese voices being carefully edited to legitimize the pre-existing narrative on Taiwan. By cutting out the rebuttal -  that no, the status quo is not very good for Taiwan, yes, we are hurt that American liberals ignore progressive, liberal Taiwan, and the solution is to stand up to China and normalize relations - and pruning a few quotes regarding Taiwanese sentiment and also suspicion of Trump, the latter thought already resonating with American liberals, are they not co-opting Taiwanese voices to lend credence to the narrative they've already decided to sell regardless of whether those voices actually agree? Is that not just as problematic as quoting Dr. Some White Guy Who Is An Expert on China, if not more so? To make it sound like the Taiwanese more or less endorse this narrative because they, too, are suspicious of Trump (when that support is not necessarily as full-throated as you want to believe)? Is there not something a bit icky about pruning quotes from a local voice to support your Western worldview when the actual local voice is disappointed in how the article ended up including it? How do you feel if you are one of the folks who bought the narrative?

So, here is a confirmed example of how those Taiwanese voices who are interviewed do not always think the main point of what they want to express is included when they are asked at all - and a powerful example of perhaps legitimizing one's pre-existing worldview by including selected quotes from local voices to fit the narrative you want to sell, rather than letting the local voices speak for themselves.

But it's not all bad. Aaaand, here we go.

The good of it is that finally, reporters in the West are seeking out Taiwanese voices on Taiwanese issues. This is a big change from analysis on Taiwan brought to you by Dr. Some White Guy Who Is An Expert on China, no thought paid to the fact that Taiwan is not a part of China. It also finally reports on the Taiwanese reaction to the Phone Call Heard 'Round The World (and I do appreciate more pieces in recent days finally looking at alternative viewpoints to the knee-jerk "China Is Big And Scary And We Have To Placate Their Tantrums!" Western liberal reaction - and again, I say that as a liberal).

This piece on Medium lays it out well:

"As producers and transmitters of knowledge, the media plays an indispensable role in shaping how a society learns about and understands a topic. Individuals’ beliefs are significantly impacted by the voices that are amplified in the media they consume....We can witness the epistemic marginalization by observing who gets quoted in articles about Trump’s Taiwan phone call. While the US and Chinese political actors are given the agency of chess players, Taiwan is represented as merely a pawn. The most basic articles include a quote from an American and a Chinese government official. The more advanced articles add quotes from an expert on China, Taiwan, or Asia — typically a White person working in a Western institution. The very advanced articles add quotes from expats or journalists working in the region — again, typically White and Western. In mainstream publications like The Financial Times, The New Yorker, and The New York Times, there was not a single quote from a Taiwanese perspective. Instead, it is those who already occupy dominant social positions who get to be heard."

The issue is not, of course, that the voices of Western scholars and experts are being included, it's that they are included while Taiwanese ones are not. They supplant Taiwanese voices, when they are not effective substitutes. It's that Dr. Some White Guy Who Is An Expert on China is considered to be all that's needed, rather than just one voice bordered by others. And, of course, that these guys are almost never experts on Taiwan - those who are often have an outdated understanding of Taiwan - and that does hurt the quality of the "journalism" being churned out.

This is especially great because, as a Mandarin-speaking long-term resident of Taiwan with a degree in a closely related subject, I am a bit sick of being told by Western media how I should feel about the Taiwan-US-China relationship, and well-meaning people quoting that media to insist that this is what's best for Taiwan, without ever having heard a Taiwanese perspective. Yes, this has happened. It's condescending - to me, sure, but I don't matter - but mostly to the Taiwanese.

Consider this the next time you swallow an article by the Western media on Asia, as reputable as the source may be.

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