A comparison: Helen Zille, Japanese Literature and Twitter


Mputhumi Nthabeni reflects on Helen Zille's latest Twitter tirade suggesting that though she may have drawn inspiration from ancient Japanese literary forms she has not learned that Twitter has a “void of nuance and the necessary auxiliaries of evaluative and descriptive language”. He argues that Twitter lacks the wherewithal to really offer a “proper platform for complex debate”.

The Premier of the Western Cape, Helen Zille, recently tweeted:

When I last checked, this tweet had received 362 likes, 67 retweets and 79 replies. Most of the replies came from her enablers: the irritated and annoyed lot she likes to poke with these controversial statements and her defensive diehard supporters who say she simply tells it like it is. But one caught my eye as it looked beyond Zille’s attention-seeking ways and tried earnestly to engage her. It was a tweet by @mpofutob:

There’s really nothing new to this. Twitter is just a crude version of the poetic communication used for courting in the Heian period that led to the world’s first bestselling novel. The Tale of Genji is written by an anonymous Japanese lady around 1000 CE known in history by the name of her protagonist, Murasaki Shikibu. In Japan, the culture of communicating in short poems eventually evolved into what is now termed Haiku. In that time it was the only way of learning calligraphy and literacy in Japan and the only facility for distance-learning apart from the oral tradition.

The Tale Of Genji became not just the foundational text for Japanese literature, but for the world when the Japanese fell under the imperialistic influence of Chinese texts superimposed on Japanese. The Heian poems were not only a weapon of culture but a standard of education. I should like to think that Ms Zille is perhaps inadvertently hinting at this with her tweet.

The basic use of literature is to deeply project speech-meaning into space and time. The rise of the Internet supercharged this into social media spaces, resulting in communication that is not just vast and instant but also vague. Unlike the Heian court or established institutions of education, the digital space has no agreed standards of use. Hence, it tends to be a platform for a torrent of stupefying, instead of edifying, words most of the time. Words on social media can carry different meanings and connotations depending on peoples backgrounds.

It sometimes seems as though we’re living through a crisis of language in our public debate, where the only way to be heard is not just to shout but to suppress dissenting points of view. This, unfortunately, has its roots in religious language. Shibboleth is a form of language that is used not only to exclude those who don’t believe the same things as you do but to express your burning indignation of them. Social media is driven by the use of such emotive language. “Twitterse” is worse because it demands brevity. It is dependent on imperatives and the dropping of auxiliaries to get to the point. It tends to ignore one of the most crucial virtues of honest communication: a certain degree of accuracy. By which I mean, a reasonable undertaking to make sure that what you’re saying corresponds with known facts. It does not have to be scientific by demanding empirical facts. Social media confuses sincerity, personal authentic views, with honesty. As long as people feel they’re being true to their own subjective truth they think that this is enough and that therefore they are right. In fact, honesty really demands that we abandon subjective views when they don’t correspond with known facts and demand taking reasonable steps to discover known facts before making an opinion. This is where the social media age usually falls short and why it ends up being just a noisy echo chamber of uninformed opinions lacking any standards to regulate the debate.

Now, to the point of framing by @mpofutob. This is imperative, not only because of the emotive language employed in social media but because we’re also coming from a wounded past. We need to be sensitive and carefully frame things before tweeting.  We cannot simply presume that the context and perspective from which we tweet is known. We need to ask: what informs us and what purpose is being served in tweeting this?

As we’re now in a democracy, it means that we not only have more voices but that there are many different possible framings as well. To make this point, Locke offered an example of a chess piece. If I say the piece has moved and you say it hasn’t we could both be right, but that depends on how each frames their statement. We might be onboard a moving ship, hence I can say that the piece has moved. It is imperative how I frame my statement because this gives you the standard by which you can measure the veracity of my statement. If I say that the Nazis were great for Deutschland because they introduced a culture of discipline, sacrifice and hard work that gave Germany many technological advancements, though this may be factually true I would be morally wrong and crudely insensitive. The same can be said of Zille's collusive colonial tweets. My moral failing would fan animosity among already polarised communities. No peace-loving person does that especially when there is nothing to gain – other than a self-serving boost of the ego. It is idiotic to assume that doing this is promoting robust freedom of speech and thought. In truth, we're inadvertently mobilising silos. This is not to say that you must not express your feelings, because language is there to publicly express what you’re thinking and feeling. But one must be careful because feelings are not absolute­ – they are merely a hypothesis upon which we build our lives.

Secondly, the programmers behind the social media scenes actively collect data (datum – the given thing) that frames you each time you write or like something online. You’re actually talking in bubbles with those who hold your worldview – those who the algorithm knows you'll get along with – and who will massage your ego. This filters out the dissident voices of those who use different codes to you and whose views you desperately need to test and balance your own. In social media you’re not an individual person but a prototype decided upon by an algorithm only to be matched with a like algorithm. Thus you can never mature and move on from your personal laziness and self-deception. Your profile just props your ego and fuels the rampant individualism too often seen in the echo chamber that is social media.

With the rise of flash fiction there’s hope that Twitter might shape the future of world-literature again as accomplished in Heian courting times. Personally, I have my doubts. Unlike the Heians, Twitter does not display any of the attentive qualities so prized in high literary culture. Mostly, it is void of nuance and the necessary auxiliaries of evaluative and descriptive language. Hence, I believe that it cannot be a proper platform for complex debate. Often, it is an echo chamber for preening narcissists with narrow simplistic half-baked ideas, a prowling ground for sophisticated ignoramus’, a heaven for intemperate charlatans and so forth… It is riddled with clichés – masquerading as thought most of the time – and is more of what St Augustine called an idolorum fabricam, a perpetual idol-making factory, than a meaningful debating platform.

For proper debate we have to move beyond emotive language, into established standards of culture, respecting the eloquence of language for its clarity and precision. We have to question our background information and pull ourselves out of our inherited comfort zones into the naked realm of truth and honesty. We have to think and rethink our history, question our frames, restructure our zeitgeist, re-evaluate our assumptions and always strive to be honest and accurate in our communication.

Image: World Economic Forum/Eric Miller 

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* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.


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A comparison: Helen Zille, Japanese Literature and Twitter