By Andrew Innes
Emerson stood in the centre of the teachers` room and relayed her latest anecdote.
“So, I say to her, It`s clear you’ve put a lot of effort into this and I like the way you use examples of the prose to support your viewpoint. Now, could I just remind you, one more time, that the subject here is `Moby Dick`, not `Moby’s Dick` as you have written.”
A few people chuckled as they headed off to her afternoon class. New York born and bred, Emerson`s dry sense of humour had got her into trouble almost as equally as her sensitivity to issues of social injustice. She had chained herself to the railings of the local town hall to bring attention to the plight of workers in the Chittagong export development zone. She had been arrested for being caught up in the milk-shaking of a politician who had criticized the Trans Persons Protection of Right`s Bill. With her spiky, pink hair and all-American positivity, she was a popular member of the diverse crew of teachers at Higahshi University.
Lunchtime was often like this; tales of cultural misunderstandings, faux pas, and those things lost in translation to comic effect. What would the working day be like without the chance to blow off a bit of steam and have a laugh? Why would you travel half way around the world and not talk about the three packets of dried squid you`d eaten after six glasses of Asahi the night before? Why wouldn’t you comment on the fact that oolong tea tasted like mushrooms? Who hadn’t arrived here and marveled at the fact that people actually did wait for the traffic lights to turn green at three in the morning when the road was as lifeless as a salaryman after putting in an eighteen hour shift?
“Have you seen this?” Robert, a beefy bearded American with a penchant for World of Warcraft and obscure heavy metal bands said to no-one in particular as he munched on his sandwich in the teachers` room.
“Apparently, some colleges in the UK are banning clapping saying that it`s quote, `triggering`. instead, they have to use… `Jazz hands`.”
“What are jazz hands?” asked a saree clad teacher named Veda from the corner of the room as she bit into a slice of avocado toast she`d made in the communal kitchen.
“It`s when you wave your hands around in the air,” came a voice.
“Like you just don`t care?” enquired Veda.
“Yeah, something like that.”
“Oh, don`t get me started,” added a Singaporean teacher named Vivian as she kept her eyes on her phone.
“Here we go,” muttered someone.
“Have you seen that PETA are saying that we shouldn’t use the word `pet` anymore, as it treats cats and dogs as if they`re inanimate objects, patronizes them, implies ownership, and removes their agency?” she continued.
“Good job they can`t understand English then, that`d really open up a can of worms wouldn’t it? Oh, hang on. I bet they don`t want us to say that either now. Offensive to worms?”
“Apparently not,” added Vivian continuing to scan the article on her phone.
“Apparently you should now say, open a can of beans,” she added without missing a beat.
“What, in case some worms might be eavesdropping and get offended? sorry – I mean `triggered` PC gone mad isn’t it” said Robert as he gesticulated with his sandwich. A prawn dropping out and splattering wasabi and soy sauce dressing across someone`s lesson plan.
“What about Snowman? Can we say that now?” enquired a nerdy teacher looking up from a paperback copy of Lord of the Rings while pushing his glasses up his nose.
“Person of snow, I think you`ll find,” replied Robert.
“Seriously, Philip K Dick was bang on. What was it he said, if you can control the meaning of words, you can control the people who must use them?” added Emerson.
“Aye, ‘n’ turn thaim intae a bunch o’ automatons. Hashtag, whit a load o’ woke bollocks,” offered a thick Scottish voice from over in the corner.
Emerson opened up social media and headed to the university`s discussion board. Students were encouraged to employ good Netiquette: be respectful of ideas which conflict with your own. Rather than employing ad hominem or straw man attacks, use the Socratic method to respectfully question the epistemological foundations of your interlocutor. Above all, talk to others online as though you were in their living room drinking a cup of tea together. This had all been well and good, however discussions had shifted of late. A recent feed as to whether a young Australian wearing a yukata to a cherry blossom party amounted to cultural appropriation had led to a pile on so intense the student had attempted suicide. The irony that none of the `calling out` had been from any of the Japanese students seemed to have been lost on many. This `problematizing` of seemingly anything and everything had certainly raised a few eyebrows among staff. Words were literally violence, silence was complicity, and denial was merely proof of one`s implicit prejudice. No-one was completely safe.
A knock on the door of the classroom interrupted Emerson from her break.
“Emerson, can I have a quick word?” Her supervisor – Jane Bannister who had recently joined the university from England, poked her head round the door looking concerned.
“Sure, come in. How are you?” Emerson said smiling as she sat up straight.
“I`m okay. I was just wondering – have you seen social media today?”
“You mean the cultural appropriation story?”
“No, no, no – not that one. Although, shocking wasn’t it?” She hesitated, considering her words.
“I`m afraid that it`s yourself that`s become the focus this time.”
Emerson looked concerned.
“Go on,” she said, feeling herself tense up.
“It might be best for you to take a look for yourself to be honest.”
Emerson opened up Warbler, the university`s scaled down version of Twitter, and clicked on the latest discussion post. It was by Naoki Yoshigumi, the president of the students` union, and prefaced with a short synopsis of the problem at hand.
The phallocentrism of Moby’s Dick: why grammatical corrections constitute microaggressions and perpetuate power imbalances on campus.
Corrections of grammar and punctuation by those who hold power on campus reflect a broader malaise. You would be forgiven for scoffing at the idea that the simple act of using a red pen to strike through an apostrophe constitutes an act of violence. Yet, with a simple flick of her wrist, Emerson Parker-Smith drew blood and colonized a student`s essay with her imperialistic version of reality in much the same way the white man spilled the blood of native Americans and burned the cultural relics of the Aboriginals. In an earlier posting, I drew attention to the distress a young student experienced after a professor tried to erase and delegitimize her representation of the whale as a totemic symbol of all that is wrong with society. While the student has yet to confirm my theory, it is quite clear – to the educated eye at least – that a simple shifting of the apostrophe in this way is a literary stroke of genius. Rather than offering us a simple review of a story about a big whale that gave someone a nasty bite on the knee, the phallocentrism of this classic story is revealed for all to see. We had simply been misinterpreting it all these years.
Allow me to summarize. The whale symbolizes masculine power: it`s tail, violently thrashing the ocean cares not for what is in its path. It`s blowhole – recklessly ejaculating spray and foam into the ether – represents the toxicity and violence of the male. As Foucault reminds us, power underpins the very social practices that form the human subject as it gradually acquiesces to subtle regulations and expectations of the social order. The reader, absorbing the words of Herman Melville, unconsciously learns to self-regulate their behavior in accordance with the hegemonic discourse shown by the whale. In a sense then, anyone who rejects the `apostrophe shift` clearly voted for Donald Trump in 2016, supports the death penalty, has a framed photo of Robert Mugabe next to their bed, and most probably has slaves in their basement.
This dovetails with a broader theme which is indicative of the notion that there exists a `correct` English vis-à-vis the `dialect` of the other. Who is Emerson Parker-Smith to plant the American flag of her pen into the ground that is the student`s essay and claim it as fertile land to be modified to meet her Western standards? Who is Emerson Parker-Smith to mark her territory on this student`s essay like a dog pissing on a lamppost? Who is she to be the gatekeeper that determines the linguistic function of the apostrophe?
After explaining my theory for two hours, the student – shaking and in tears, agreed with me that, “I, Hinata Nakayama, agree that such microaggressions do serve to wear students down,” and, “I, Hinata Nakayama, agree that I feel unsafe.” The corrections of grammar and punctuation by those in positions of power are tantamount to brainwashing and nothing short of cultural genocide #CancelEmersonParker-Smith.
Various people had warbled their support for the young student, with plans for a protest to `cancel` Emerson building by the minute.
“Oh, my, god. The student doesn’t feel safe?” Emerson rubbed the tension from her forehead and looked at her supervisor from the corner of her eyes.
“Yes. That`s the problem you see.” continued Jane.
“If the student had said that they were offended by your correction, it probably wouldn’t have come this far. However, with health and safety laws being what they are, we are compelled to investigate any instances where students specifically cite feeling `unsafe`.”
“Hmm, it seems to me that there may have been a degree of coercion with that particular word.”
“Emerson, I`ll be frank. What you did was in line with university policy, and as a university, we are fully behind you. As you know, part of your role here is to correct the students` grammar and punctuation. However, after a meeting this morning, we have come to the conclusion that the best course of action would be for you to apologize and say that you – misspoke.”
“But, I didn’t misspeak. I thought that the student had simply misunderstood the role of the apostrophe in indicating possession. The last time I checked, the novel certainly wasn’t called Moby’s Dick and I don`t buy this theory that it`s a clever metaphor.”
“Yes. I agree. But unfortunately, that isn’t the way the students are seeing it. Emerson, as I`m sure you know, many of the students here are students of what we could plausibly term applied post-modernism. What we call the person, or `the subject` lies at the intersection of one`s membership within different identity groups. While I largely agree that this lens is important in deconstructing power imbalances, it is also clear that ironically, it has caused people to focus more on immutable characteristics and to become less tolerant than they ever were. The reification and application of postmodern principles into the kind of activism we are seeing now means that once tentative and often obscure ideas have dripped down to society and become unassailable common-sense. In a sense, we are all biased, we just aren’t aware of it. Power manifests within the language we use, which in turn constructs reality. Ironically, this has given rise to a new kind of meta-narrative where everything is on the table to be problematized through the deconstruction of discourse. As I say, this perspective is certainly not without its merits, and has removed the scales from our eyes to the insidious ways in which prejudice manifests within everyday interactions. However, it has also led to a kind of race to the bottom where almost anything can be problematized, and people being cancelled.”
“How do you actually cancel a person anyway?” asked Emerson.
“You fire them from their job, you de-platform them, you discredit them and sully their reputation online. Twist their words and misrepresent them if you like. In doing so, you in turn become, Woke.”
“I always thought that being Woke was virtuous, something to strive for.”
“In its original conception, yes, absolutely. Being Woke used to mean being sensitive to social issues such as prejudice and racism. The ability to see and reveal invisible systems of oppressive power which permeate everything from breakfast cereal mascots to traffic lights to chess to Sesame Street to maths to mermaids to the Golden Girls.”
“Yes” Jane sighed.
“Please don`t tell me you subscribe to the notion that two plus two equals four?”
“Careful Emerson, denial is merely proof of one`s guilt. Which of Freud`s defense mechanisms would that be again? We wouldn’t want word getting out that you`re anti-Woke. Look, the way I see it, is this – we have Woke 1.0; extremely virtuous goals – calling out racism and prejudice, something tangible that any reasonable person can get on board with, and then there`s Woke 2.0.”
“Okay, this is the version that has become appropriated by corporations, re-packaged and sold back to us for profit. Companies signaling their virtue in thirty second commercials telling women they can be anyone they want to be, while simultaneously selling them the same razor blades in pink at a higher price than the equivalent male product.”
“Woke capitalism, right, or Woke washing, I know. Like Nike proclaiming to support Black Lives Matter while simultaneously lobbying Congress to weaken the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act so that American corporations can continue to force ethnic minorities to engage in forced labour,” added Emerson.
“Okay, I hadn`t heard of that one, but yes, I think that we`re on the same page here. These companies don`t even seem to see their own hypocrisy do they?”
“Certainly not. But I`ll let you into a bit of a secret.”
“I need a beer after all this, my head hurts.”
“Irrashaimase!” Four waiters shouted out a warm Japanese welcome in unison as the small group of foreigners walked through the noren – the shop curtain – and found a table in the corner of the izakaya. Beers were ordered for the table.
“Kanpai.” said Robert raising his frosted glass and clinking it against Emerson`s before taking a huge gulp of beer through the foamy head.
“Kanpai,” said Emerson, taking a large swig and enjoying the ineffable sensation it had in her throat as it went down – the `nodogoshi` as it was called in Japan.
“So, Emerson. What`s the news today? Oh, hang on, now I remember – it`s you isn`t it?!” remarked Noemi, a teacher from the Philippines with a side job teaching Zumba and a seemingly endless capacity to post new photos of her two dachshunds, Frank and Furter in various outfits and locations on Instagram.
“Hey, get straight to the point why don`t you Noemi,” responded Emerson.
“So, let me get this straight. You corrected a student`s essay, and now you`re being accused of a micro-aggression?” asked Robert.
“That would be seem to be a correct assessment of the situation as it currently stands, yes.”
“An under-assessment I`d say. I hear there`s a campaign to have you fired` said Robert as he shoveled a large handful of nuts into his mouth.”
“Unfortunately, yes,” replied Emerson.
The food arrived, and they sat back from the table to make way for a shared selection from the menu: Vietnamese spring rolls, fried chicken, a couple of salads, grilled meat and vegetable skewers, chicken wings, sushi, yakisoba, dashi maki tamago, a plate of sashimi, and a selection of sushi – typical izakaya fayre.
“Irrashaimase,” rang the chorus, as a group of salarymen – already several sheets to the wind – staggered through the noren.
“Ah, this is a pen!” one of them shouted while lurching towards the group before being restrained by his colleagues.
“Let`s have a look what they`re saying,” Robert said from his corner, his face lit up by the screen of his phone and the soft light of the red lanterns which hung haphazardly from the rafters of the dark izakaya.
In her recent apology and claims to have misspoken, Emerson Parker-Smith of White Heron Residence apartment number 27, Osaka has reminded us who the real victim is in all of this – herself. It is clear from her recent post that it is – first and foremost – her own emotions and safety that take centre stage. Emerson reminds us that, “It is with regret that [she] writes these words”, she laments that, “[she] was only trying to help the student as per her role”, she gushes about, “lessons having been learned”, and she gets the violins out when she adds that, “[she] wants to become a better person and move forward.” What she remarkably fails to see in all this, is that it is merely the thin end of a very thick wedge which contributes to a hostile campus climate. Decades of research has clearly concluded that there is no inherent ‘standard’ of English to which we should strive. Language is forever in flux. Words change their meaning over time. It is equally valid to say, “I shoulda did better” as it is to say, “I should have done better.” The difference being that the former is construed as a kind of `dialect` of the Other, while the latter is taken to be `the Queen`s English`. The fact that Emerson fails to acknowledge this, and continues to focus on her own victimhood only serves to delegitimize student voices. If that doesn’t constitute a tone-deaf response, I don`t know what is.
Emerson felt her head starting to swim. All of a sudden, it felt as though the izakaya had transformed into a ship that had become unmoored and drifted off to sea, far from land and the sanctity of land.
“Oh my god, I’ve been doxed,” were her first words.
“This isn’t really funny anymore is it,” remarked a teacher called Colm in his thick Irish brogue.
“I can kind of see the point though. Who are we to be the gatekeepers to what version of English is correct and what isn’t? We`re never going to get the student`s to speak cut-glass, perfect English – whatever that is,” he continued.
“Why is there never any semblance of nuance anymore?” remarked Robert as he drained his glass.
“If you apologize, you dig yourself into an even bigger hole, if you deny the accusations, you`re guilty – either way, you`re going to face trial by the Warbler mob.”
“Just have a look on YouTube at what happened with the Evergreen State College protests in America, or to that Yale University professor when he defended his wife over the email regarding their policy on Halloween costumes,” added Steve.
“What was that one again?” asked Robert?
“The students were sent an email bringing their attention to `appropriate Halloween-wear`. The professor saw this as ironic as she also saw Halloween as an occasion for adults to exert their control over children. While she fully accepted the need to be sensitive towards others, ultimately, she interpreted the email as a way of infantilizing the students and framed her response through the lens of free speech. Who was she to impose her standards of what constitutes offense and what doesn`t and to draw up guidelines on what to wear? Was there no room anymore for people to be a little bit inappropriate, provocative, or yes, offensive? Where we once feared the urban myth of Halloween candy laced with razor blades and poison by lunatics lurking in the shadows, had we not simply come to fear the candy itself? Why can`t we have a dialogue without it descending down the slippery slope that leads to outrage. Where do you draw the line between offense, and simply wanting to dress up as a skeleton or a vampire for the evening? Wrong answer. Game over. Students requested trigger warnings in advance of when she would be in the dining hall, and more than a hundred students made verbal and physical threats against her husband when he defended her. Colleagues refused to speak up for them for fear of being tarred with the same brush.”
“I think the students had a few valid points there though,” said Robert.
“I`m sure they did, but were those points a rebuttal of what the professor had actually said, or had they merely constructed a straw man version of her which they then ran through with their bayonets?” asked Steve.
“There are always alternative facts. Anyway, when her husband tried to placate the crowd they just kept shutting him down and refused to engage in dialogue with him. Any of the careful nuance and balance of the original email was lost as it was transmitted from person to person like folklore. Like that game where you whisper a sentence to the person next to you and on it goes until it`s several steps removed from the original source. Her husband became a kind of villain, a folk devil, a whipping boy who stood for all the legitimate problems the students faced. How many of them had actually read the original email? I don`t know.”
“Why can`t people just talk about these things over a cup of tea instead of point scoring on toxic social media sites these days?” added Steve.
“Hang on a minute, did Emerson say she was leaving?” asked Robert. Her seat had been empty sometime shortly after he`d started the story. Maybe it was all a bit close to home.
Emerson massaged her temples and blinked through a ray of sunlight that had moved into her eyeline. She was on her third cup of coffee and hadn’t even made it to her second Monday morning class yet. Having opened up Warlber around ten the previous night, she had fallen through the screen into the quagmire of toxicity that was her own trial by Warble. Each one she read was like a paper cut, until she`d finally fallen asleep around four in the morning in a pool of her own metaphorical blood. She hadn’t been saying that her version of English was the template to which all students should aspire to. She had simply done exactly what she had been employed to do, and was now the at the centre of a growing call to cancel her. She looked around the room as the students continued with their writing assignments, checking dictionaries and looking out of the window for inspiration. Where was all the anger that had manifested on Warbler the previous night she wanted to ask. Was it such a good thing that the platform afforded people an anonymity that empowered them to say things they wouldn’t dream of saying to her face?
Three years had passed since the night in the izakaya. Emerson had since left Higashi University after the Warbles had ceased to desist and her mental health had started to suffer. She`d had enough of all the discussions of cultural appropriation, cancel culture, and people virtue signaling their Woke 2.0 at her. The economic downturn in Japan had meant that she`d struggled to find work. Her reputation, forever tarnished online, meant that prospective employers – keen to employ her, politely declined after a quick Google search. She had decided to retrain. She was now studying to be a physiotherapist and had started a fairly successful sandwich restaurant with her long-term partner back home in New York. Her day simply involved making sandwiches, before hitting the books in the afternoon. No more worrying about saying the wrong thing, no more meetings about her own unconscious bias – life was easy.
It had been a fairly busy day, the oppressive heat had filtered customers into her shop for ice-cold drinks like steel balls falling through the pins in a game of pachinko. Things were getting better. Lunchtime was winding down, and she was about to close the shop for the day, when a customer walked through the door in a bandana, polo shirt, and shorts.
“Hi, I`ll have the Vietnamese Ban Mi sandwich please. Oh, with a side order of French Fries and a large coke to go, thanks.”
“Coming right up,” Emerson said, smiling as she took knife and started to cut the baguette in half.
“Hold it right there!” Emerson looked up at the customer, the knife hovering in mid-air as she raised her gaze to meet theirs.
“What is this?”
“Oh, I`m sorry. Do you have any food allergies that we may need to know about? All of our ingredients are ethically sourced, Free Trade, and vegan.”
“No, no, no, no, noooo. Remind me, what kind of sandwich is this again?” demanded the customer with an air of outrage, their hand clenched on the counter.
“It`s a Vietnamese Ban Mi sandwich.”
“And, if I may ask, what kind of bread is it made with?”
“Well, we make them with either ciabatta or baguettes depending on what we have in stock on the day. We usually have a gluten free variety too, but it`s sold out today I`m…”
“You make them with either ciabatta or baguettes depending on what you have in stock on the day,” the customer interrupted while looking towards the ceiling as if in deep contemplation of this last piece of information.
“Do you not see how that is… problematic?”
“I`m sorry, I don`t understand.”
The customer hit their forehead with the palm of their hand in mock incredulity and looked around the shop as if checking to see if anyone else could believe what they were hearing.
“As a person of non-Vietnamese heritage, I`m assuming you think it`s okay to appropriate culture in this way, do you?” the customer asked getting to the crux of the matter.
“Oh, but I suppose you`d just retort that it`s a form of fusion as you`re using a ciabatta today, merely passing it off as a piece of authentic Vietnamese cuisine, is that right?” they stated as if preempting the response.
“We have French bread if you`d prefer?”
“French bread you say! Now this is where it gets interesting. You see, it was the Vietnamese who actually appropriated French bread. What`s wrong with that I hear you say. Now, we could stand here and chew the fat over whether this constitutes cultural appropriation or not, sure. After all, weren`t the French the colonial oppressors in Vietnam, right?! Wouldn`t it be positive for the oppressed to rise up in some small way, and appropriate the oppressor’s culture?” the customer asked, warming to the drama of the situation.
“I`m sorry, I don`t see where this is going. We have a nice selection of toasted sandwiches if you`d prefer an alternative,” Emerson said while looking around for her partner.
“Would you consider that to be a positive move on the part of the Vietnamese?!” the customer interrupted, barking like a drill instructor.
“No, it is not, is the correct answer!” the customer said looking directly into her eyes before Emerson could answer.
“It most certainly is not positive. The influence of colonialism has meant that Vietnamese chefs consider their local breads to be an inferior product when compared against the supposed superiority of French bread. A kind of…” the customer looked around as if the the words they were looking for were somehow suspended in the air – “sandwich Stockholm Syndrome – right?”
Emerson listened on. She just wanted to make a sandwich and get on with her study, she had enough of this in her previous job.
“The victim – held hostage by the `dominant` culture – comes to develop feelings of affection for the very people holding them captive; leading to a hatred of their own culture. The very act of you selling me a Ban Mi sandwich is a form of violence towards the Vietnamese people. You probably have Vietnamese slaves working in the kitchen back there who you beat with a stick, don`t you?!”
“Wow, that`s a lot to take in. I apologize that you feel that way but certainly appreciate the history lesson.” Emerson said, deciding that she`d had just as much as she could take.
“Now, if you don`t mind, I have a business to run and would prefer to make my sandwiches without a side order of customers signaling their virtue to a culture they`ve got nothing in common with. Look at your shoes, made by workers in a sweatshop in Asia earning a dollar a day! Look at your iPhone, made by Chinese workers, some of whom are minors and put in sixty hour shifts and live in conditions that would make a Dickens` novel look optimistic! Look at the coffee you`re holding, made by a company that is lying to you by failing to disclose their ongoing enablement of child labour! Look at your Lacoste shirt with its limited-edition endangered species logo replacing the crocodile. A company that simultaneously sell gloves made from – deer leather! Now, answer me one question,” Emerson asked the customer.
“What`s that?” answered the customer looked crestfallen and realizing that the game of Woke wars was up.
“Would you like pickles with that?”
“No thanks, hold the pickles. Oh, but give me one of those sushi burgers, and a slice of that ramen pizza you`re famous for round these parts. I`m starving.”