Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Sometimes a Monkey is Just a Monkey

I don't usually write about politics, but I really think this is interesting. The blogosphere has been up in arms about a Japanese cell phone commercial featuring a monkey that co-opts Barack Obama's campaign of "change." Check it:

Sure, the initial reaction to that should be "Yikes, an ad relating Barack Obama to a monkey?" But it's not actually that simple. First off, the company uses the same monkey as its mascot in other ads. Second, people like Barack Obama in Japan, and so using his "change" campaign is a natural connection. And third, and most importantly, Japan does not have a history of associating black people with monkeys. They don't have a history of associating black people with any kind of animal, simply because they don't really have much of a history with black people at all.

Yes, of course, it is an unfortunate pairing of innuendos, but I mean, c'mon. Not racist.

I guess what is offensive about all of the sensationalist blog/media coverage of this commercial is this: America, being a country that once did very screwed up things in relation to black people and the way that they were depicted, finds it in its heart to try so hard to rectify their past depiction of blacks as monkeys that they seek to remove even accidental depiction of blacks as monkeys in a commercial made in a culture that does not hold any association with blacks and monkeys. Monkeys mean something different in Japan, something that has nothing to do with black people.

All of this offense at the ad comes from the presumptuous standpoint that America's standards of political correctness (standards which are an awkward attempt to somehow magically right the past wrongdoings of the nation) are the basis by which all culture everywhere should be judged. But why judge this commercial? Why take offense when there is no offense intended and nobody who the commercial was intended for would even make the connection?

Congratulations to Japan, for not having a culture in which black people were at one point depicted as monkeys. Want to talk about real racism in Japan? Let's talk about their treatment of Chinese and Koreans. Sorry it's not as sensational or bizarre, easy, or interesting as a commercial that uses a monkey to imitate an Obama campaign. The American media's response to this is just kind of whiney and a waste of political resources. This is not real racism, and it does nothing for the cause of equality to police culture in this witch-hunt sort of way.

I think this entitled, crybaby for the sake of crying attitude is summed up by CNN's coverage of this scuttle:

So, to the English-speakers living in Japan in the CNN video, I can't help but just think about all the other things that are worthy of real activism. Statements like "People's minds should be more open as world citizens" really just imply that the rest of the world should somehow magically be more familiar with the intricacies of the U.S.'s oppressive history. It's culturally egocentric and seems to be narrow-mindedly searching for offense when any sort of background knowledge about the culture of Japan or the company that made this commercial would prove that offensive behavior is absent.

Also, not to be a dick, but saying "It was totally insensitive to the cross-cultural faux-pas that it represented" is pretty much circular and meaningless. A faux-pas is exactly that, an insensitivity or mistake that is not at first perceived by the person who has done it. Why would you be sensitive to it? What this sentence really means: "It is a faux-pas." And that's fine. Faux pas? Definitely. Racist? C'mooooonnn.

And to the dude from Temple: Puh-leez. Santa's reindeer are probably incredibly offensive to someone somewhere, but Christmas will continue to be unoffensive. Because it's part of the "international canon," which what you really mean is the Western discourse. It's basically like saying this: "Note to the world: You are now subject to the US's arbitrary, post-hoc rules of eracism. We won't tell you what is offensive, because it's embarrassing. But when it's wrong, we'll be sure and make a huge deal about it."

The company's mascot is a monkey. Nobody in Japan linked it to Obama. The ad could not conceivably be created out of malicious intent, so being offense toward this ad is completely misdirected.

Unlike the U.S., Japan's economic success is not founded on the forced labor of African slaves. So let them enjoy their monkeys. Seriously. Come. On.

agrees with me, sort of.



Shannon said...

Amen! Thank you!

Sometimes I think the people who spend the most time flipping out about something like this are racist themselves. Because they so immediately made the connection.

Davor said...

Dude, beautiful. Really, really beautiful. It's funny, I've been formulating a race relations post all weekend in my head... We'll double team this puppy.