The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Monday, June 08, 2009

To Thine Own Self Be True

I can't think of a single real mistake I've ever made in my life that didn't boil down to dishonesty. Lying to myself, lying to others. And in truth, they are often the same thing. "Do not think dishonestly" in A BOOK OF FIVE RINGS is often translated to "Harbor no sinister designs." Liars weaken the fabric of their relationships, as well as complicating their lives to an absurd degree. It is so damned difficult to remain on the path of personal growth. A few good lies can trash all your efforts.

Some time back I spoke of this, and a few martial artists noted that much combat relies upon deception. Am I then saying that these warriors are morally defective? No, not in any way. The Way of the Warrior is, in my opinion, as exalted as any other Way of life, including that of the Priest, the Healer, the Artist, or the Teacher. But most would agree that violent confrontations, and most certainly war itself, is to be avoided if it is possible to do so without violating ones morals and values.

I meet damned few people who don't seem to feed their egos with lies: either to justify their positions, their pasts, their actions, their political affiliations. As someone noted: it is common to delete information when arguing, if the information would help the other side.

But if you do this, you can't say you were interested in the truth. You wanted to "win", pure and simple, whether you were right or not. I remember an argument with a friend, about Muslims and whether the Muslim world would ever be in harmony with the west. His stated belief was that Islam is incompatible with Democracy, and challenged anyone to mention a single Muslim country that wasn't a dictatorship. I mentioned Turkey, and he smoothly rolled into an explanation of the special circumstances that made this "an exception that proves the rule." I realized pretty quickly that he knew the answer to his question before he ever posed it. Not in the slightest do I believe he would have mentioned Turkey if I hadn't. His intent, from that point of view, was not an honest discussion: it was victory for his point.

Now, this is the way the game is usually played. As I said, Clinton clearly had no interest in clarifying what had happened between him and Monica. The fact that he "didn't exactly lie" is only partially comforting--we deserve better from our leaders.

But in fact, I am literally the only person I've ever heard actually help someone with their argument if I know information that will make their position stronger. And people look at me like I'm nuts when I do it. Oh well.

The trouble is that dishonesty creeps back on you. People lie about their finances, their relationships, their bodies. They lie to themselves about the long-range results of short-term actions. And the results can be pretty ghastly.


I've seen a lot of world cinema, and the result is just perfectly in line with my observations about racial images in American film. In general, Japanese film is about Japanese. Chinese film about Chinese. Indian film about Indians. With very rare exceptions, the people who are the dominant cultural/ethnic group of a country will pretty much control the images so that they reflect their own reality, their own belief that they are the best. And they'll shade history to make themselves look better. (I remember sitting in the Kokusai theater in L.A. waiting for a Zato Ichi movie, and there was a coming attraction for a film set during WW2. "Defeated in War--but not in fights!" the subtitle said. I loved that: everyone needs to believe.)


Nicki graduates college this Saturday. Wow...hard to believe. My little girl is all growed up. Sort of.


The Hangover (2009)

Look. If you liked "Porky's" and Apatow movies, you're going to love this story of four guys on a bachelor party weekend in Vegas. Let's just say they wake up with various contusions on their bodies and bizarre amokness in the suite, and no memory of how it all happened. Oh...and the groom is missing.

The entire film is these doofuses trying to figure it all out. The movie is seriously hilarious, and if you stay through the closing credits, you will wonder where the hell the MPAA was. I'm quite sure there is going to be some serious controversy around a couple of images THERE, and I kid you not. Very, very funny and profane and just a bit touching. A "B+" for fans of raunch.



Well...The only black characters with speaking parts are:

1) A convicted rapist (Mike Tyson)

2) His fat bodyguard

3) A REALLY fat black woman.

4) A drug dealer, and an incompetent one at that.

Now, this is in a movie where every white woman with a speaking part is a slender sex object. Once notices these things after a while. And there is a single lead Asian character who is VERY effeminate. Now, most of the people in this movie are caricatures. But the non-white characters are specifically RACIAL caricatures. In other words, the script writer and director didn't write funny characters--they wrote funny Black characters, or Asian. Their ethnicity loomed larger in the minds of the creators than anything else about them. While the leads were "guys," there wree no specifically racial stereotypes applied to them (jokes about "can't dance", "racist", "short penises" or whatever). Except maybe that one gets sunburned.

The fact is that none of this kept me from enjoying the movie. But if you want to know why Asians, and I would think ESPECIALLY Asian actors are irritated when whites "don't understand" why it is insulting for white actors to go Yellowface, there it is. When Asians and Blacks go "whiteface" then, sure. When Asians get to play lead in movies without being martial arts experts, sure. When black or Asian actors get to be sexual, then we'll talk about white actors being sexual with black or Asian women. Otherwise, it's as if there is segregation, but white people can still move into black neighborhoods. If blacks complain, then they are considered racist. This is just dishonest bullshit, but it's typical: fish can't see the water they swim in.


If I was an Asian actor, and was constantly told there are no roles for your "type" and when there ARE roles, they go to white people in makeup...I'd be pissed. And if I wrote about being pissed, and white people criticized my right even to be upset in a peaceful, intelligent manner--I would consider them blind, deaf, and foxes. That they are oblivious because it serves them to be. After all, the millions of dollars in salary and residuals remained in the white guy's community, putting THEIR children through college, paying THEIR medical bills. And those Asian actors are working at Burger King. No one is talking about burning down studios or theaters...but when you hear that it's unreasonable to even be upset, someone is lying to themselves, or simply doesn't want to notice the degree to which the deck is stacked.

Why don't we hear more from Asians about their exclusion? I think because there is a safety valve: Asian cinema itself. If there were no movies imported from Japan, Hong Kong or Mainland China, it would be different. But there are thousands of movies and television shows depicting the lives of Asians in a full-spectrum manner. Any time you want to see it, you can just turn to the Japanese or Chinese-language channel, go to an Asian theater, pop a John Woo or Akira Kurosawa film into the DVD player and...voila. Latinos have a similar advantage: a Spanish language station in every town with a significant population, and stores selling thousands of films and television shows produced in Latin America or Spain.

And while that doesn't reduce the sting of specific rejection by your home country, if you want to show your children heroes who look and sound like have infinite choices. Black Americans, I think, have bleeted so long and loud because we have no where else to go, and nothing to turn to. Either we make this country work for us, or we're screwed.

Personally, I love the amount of change I've seen. As I've said, when 5-10% of the Senate is black, I'll believe things have evened out. But this century is off to a damned good start.


Scott said...

Carol Moseley Braun, Barack Obama, Roland Burris; makes me proud to be from Chicago.

Dan Moran said...

I can't think of a single real mistake I've ever made in my life that didn't boil down to dishonesty.

Really? I mean, seriously? Not one? Certainly a large percentage of the errors I've made in my life have been due to being dishonest with myself or others, but probably more frequently it's been due to some other cause -- failure to prepare, failure to execute, failure to read a situation correctly -- there's a lot of room for honest error in any person's life. Maybe this is a genuinely true statement on your part, and maybe you're exagerrating, but particularly for young people, I think this is a dreadfully absolutist standard to apply. I've seen my kids fail quite a lot over the years -- and succeed, as well; my oldest just completed her first year at Berkeley, and my next oldest just had a 4.3 GPA for the last semester; my kids are competing at a pretty high level. But I think telling them (and most adults) that all their failures are due to dishonesty would be a terrible burden to lay on them, besides being false to fact. I doubt it's true of your daughter, either.

Congrats to Nicky, btw, and to you. Getting them to adulthood in one piece feels good, doesn't it?

Dan Moran said...

BTW, I wanted to point out, in your argument regarding how women are living longer than men and this is the proof they're getting a better deal out of it because life is what people want?

It's not so. People want to be happy and have their desires gratified. You have to know this more than most. How many thousands of people have you known who satisfied their short term desires at the costs of their long term health and welfare? Does this prove they want to die, or merely that they lack self control, or even that they pragmatically calculated that they'd rather have a good time when young and healthy, rather than have an extra 5 years tacked on at the end? I started drinking red wine recently, which I don't enjoy, because a half glass of red wine a day appears to correlate with another 5 years of life, and I want to be around to see my kids grown and established in the world. But the flat truth is, if I didn't have kids, you'd never get a glass of the stuff down my throat. There's me, or would be, picking comfort over long life.

Pagan Topologist said...

Congratulations to Nicki!

I have also given facts that seemed contrary to my position in an argument, with similar results.

Marty S said...

The "This above all to thine own self be true " quote has always been my favorite in all literature and I have tried to be true to it. But by interpretation of it, being deceptive in a competition in order to win would not be false to the opponent who would be expecting it. Being less deceptive than you could be in order to let the opponent win would be. Especially if you did it to gain something for yourself rather than to make the other person feel good about themselves.

Marty S said...

oops! That should have been "But by my interpretation"

Nancy Lebovitz said...

I'm pretty sure I used to contribute information to the other side of the argument, but it's been a long time since I've done so-- it's something I'm going to think about. I think that in my efforts to get more connected to myself, I also got more connected to some not quite honest desires to win.

I don't think you addressed where deception in fighting fits in with being a Warrior as a legitimate path.

Scott said...

Dishonesty: I've got a third degree burn on my leg right now from my motorcycle's exhaust pipe. I'd say that would be a real mistake from on alternate source. I'd say I make honest mistakes every day; I thought you found lying by omission distasteful?

Blacks: Mike Tyson's a little more nuanced a person than 'convicted rapist' gives him - or, for that matter, his character in the movie - credit for, I think; I thought you found lying by omission distasteful?

Steven Barnes said...

1) Failure isn't the same as mistake. You can prepare to your highest ability, then compete, and be beaten. That had nothing to do with lying, or lying to yourself. You do your best, and then reality shows you where you are on the map. I consider "mistakes" to be things were I have some volition in the matter. Perhaps it's a matter of terminology.
2) I think that people will give up almost anything to survive. People who will sacrifice their lives for a higher ideal are so rare that they are given the highest honors a society can offer--specifically because it is rare. Maslow's heirarchy rules here. And Dan--you misquoted me again. I never said "proof they're getting a better deal out of it." I've said again and again that I will NOT take that position--I think both sides are in this together, and NEITHER side is getting a "better deal." That the fact women live longer is a balancing factor to some of the other apparent advantage. You seem to be operating from a framework of "it has to be one or the other." No, Dan. It doesn't.

Steven Barnes said...

1) Nancy: Deception is central to survival in a martial context. I'd consider this one of the reasons why mortal conflict should be avoided if there is any other choice at all. You would be a fool to be honest with someone who has demonstrated that they have intention of treating you fairly. Slaves who stole from their masters were not thieves. If I trick a mugger with a dishonesty in order to buy a moment to kick him in the balls, that doesn't make me a bad guy. On the other hand, if I provoke or seek out opportunities to fight, that says something troubling about me--I definitely have issues that need to be addressed.

Steven Barnes said...

Scott: I don't understand your first comment about the motorcycle. Lying by omission? No comprende, Dude. However, If I burned my leg on something I KNEW was hot, I would consider that I lied to myself about my risk of injury--deceived myself about being Superman. That my macho bullshit cost me some skin. That's lying to myself.
Tyson? Sure, he's more nuanced than merely a convicted rapist. But I reserve the right to object to a movie in which the only black people are criminals, or could reasonably perceived that way. Sure, "nuance" makes any human being, of any history, seem less odious. But I made a movie in which the only white man was Hitler, suggesting that we have to be more "nuanced" than to look only at his extermination of 6 million Jews (after all, he loved children! He painted roses!) would be disingenuous to say the least. No "lying by omission" at all.

Scott said...

Ah? I consider burning myself to be a mistake. I didn't lie to myself, saying "Sure I can touch a several hundred degree exhaust pipe with my bare skin and not be hurt," I just erred. So saying that mistakes *only* come from deception of self or others would be a lie of omission; there are other sources of error, like, say, clumsiness.

"But I reserve the right to object to a movie in which the only black people are criminals, or could reasonably perceived that way."

That would be a lie*; Cleo plays a police officer and Jernard plays a bodyguard.

* Unless, of course, you're not speaking of this movie, but rather some other hypothetical movie, in which case it would instead be the weaseling you were just complaining about.

Steven Barnes said...

1) You're right about Cleo and the bodyguard. I wasn't weaseling--I'd just forgotten. I object to them because they are obese, and therefore all four of the black people in the movie have serious problems. I reserve the right to be offended by that.
2)I never said mistakes only come from lying to yourself. I said "I can't think of a single real mistake I've ever made in my life that didn't boil down to dishonesty"
Note that I didn't say "I've never known anyone to consider themselves to have made a mistake unless it related to dishonesty." I was referring to my own life, and the things I consider "real mistakes." 3) Since you're pushing it, what was your "error" with the motorcycle? Forgetting that it was hot? If you knew it was hot, why exactly did you think you wouldn't get burned? If that wasn't self-deception, kindly educate me as to what it was.

Melayu Boleh said...


Melayu Boleh

Scott said...

"I object to them because they are obese, and therefore all four of the black people in the movie have serious problems. I reserve the right to be offended by that."

Of course you may be offended if you wish to be; I'd note that every character in the movie had serious problems.

Also, there were five black characters, though I didn't remember the second bodyguard in the later scenes at Tyson's house either.

"what was your "error" with the motorcycle? Forgetting that it was hot? If you knew it was hot, why exactly did you think you wouldn't get burned? If that wasn't self-deception, kindly educate me as to what it was."

Sure; I rode to the library, parked, kicked down my kickstand, and tipped the bike onto it. I screwed up the kickstand kick, it went halfway down and then popped back up; on a spring, you know? So the bike kept going down until the exhaust pipe pressed firmly against my calf. At that point I lifted it back up. No deception, just clumsiness.

"I can't think of a single real mistake I've ever made in my life that didn't boil down to dishonesty."

So you've never gotten lost? Or gotten a B on a test?