Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Obama in Japan: The Face You Save Is Not Just Your Own

Obama's spinmeisters have been out in force trying to explain away the president's embarrassing gesture of bowing to the Emperor of Japan.

David Axelrod outdid himself by suggesting that it was a sign of strength. Thereby, Axelrod established himself as a master of Orwellian doublethink. Perhaps he spent so much time pondering the apothegms of critical theory that he came to believe that reality is what you say it is. More rational individuals know that calling weakness strength does not make it strength.

I hope that Axelrod and Obama's other apologists know it too.

ABC's Jake Tapper did the best job of cutting through the spin. He was one of the few who had the good sense to solicit the opinion of an expert on Japanese customs, one who was an Obama supporter. Link here.

Most intriguingly, the expert pointed out that the Japanese press did not run the picture of Obama bowing to the Emperor. It chose a more decorous picture of our president tipping his head slightly toward the Empress.

In the expert's words: "Kyodo News is running his appropriate and reciprocated nod and shake with the Empress, certainly to show the president as dignified, and not in the form of a first-year English teacher trying to impress with Karate-Kid level of knowledge of Japanese customs."

He continued: "The bow he performed did not just display weakness in Red State terms, but evoked weakness in Japanese terms.... The last thing the Japanese want or need is a weak-looking American president, and, again, in all ways, he unintentionally played that part."

The moral of the story is clear: the face you save is not just your own. In fact, in Asian cultures it is not even primarily your own.

This is not limited to Asia. When a guest comes to visit and trips on the rug, don't you say something about how the rug needs to be replaced. If you are wearing a tie and jacket and your guest comes to dinner in a sports shirt, you will most likely change into a sports shirt.

In these situations your duty is to cover up for your guest, to save his face.

Most often, of course, we think of face saving in individual terms. Saving face requires us to act with dignity and decorum, to create and maintain a good reputation, and to defend ourselves against attacks on our self-respect.

Yet, this duty to save our own face does not prevent us or preclude us from saving the face of others.

This despite the tender and misleading ministrations of our therapy culture. That culture has fostered the idea that good communication involves expressing yourself freely without regard for the feelings of others.

I have stated my own opinion that following this advice will turn your life into permanent psychodrama. Caveat emptor.

It is equally mistaken to imagine that you are saving someone's face by covering him with flattery. Sycophants are not saving face; they are bedazzling and confusing you, the better to pick your pocket.

Nor is communication a gotcha game where you revel in the mishaps and embarrassments of others. Unfortunately, our press tends, when it finds someone it dislikes making a mistake, to repeat the incident over and over again, to the point where you cannot think of the person without thinking of the gaffe.

When then-Vice President Dan Quayle misspelled the word-- potato-- in a photo-op, the press mercilessly ran the clip over and over again.

Returning to the normal human conversation and communication, I would say that when a friend has inadvertently made a faux-pas or a gaffe or has revealed too much that had best remained private, your role is to cover up for him, to save his face. For that he will owe you gratitude.

Friends protect friends from themselves. Not by criticizing, not by attacking, not by gossiping about it all, but by looking away.

When you do so, you are refusing to accept that the embarrassing gesture is meaningful or relevant. You consider that the person was stressed, that everyone else does the same thing, or that it is your own fault.

When athletes win a match, something that always involves some level of embarrassment for the losing team, they walk over to the losers and shake hands. Even though the team lost its members are still honorable and worthy competitors.

I would note that this approach is exactly what Freud precluded when he declared that slips of the tongue and other everyday mistakes were meaningful expressions of repressed unconscious motives.

It is not an accident that Freud invented the supine couch-ridden posture for his patients. He said that he could not stand being looked in the eye, but it is also true that he never showed them any real respect. The industry of psychoanalysis was built on Freud's failure to give his patients any face.

The inverse of the Freudian position involves undeserved flattery. Instead of turning away from an embarrassing gesture by averting your gaze, you stare at it with googoo eyes and pronounce it to be a sign of great creativity or genius, or both.

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