Nothing About Us Without Us

Laurie and Debbie say:

“Nothing about us without us” is translated from the Latin (“Nihil de nobis, sine nobis”) and came into contemporary use in Central European, particularly Hungarian, law. The point is that no legal or social decision should be made about a group without the participation of members of that group. Most commonly in this century (in the U.S.), it’s used by disability activists.

Generally, the slogan refers to government and policy decisions. This week, however, we’ve run across two cases where the mainstream media has (for reasons we’ll go into a little later) deliberately distorted or ignored the true stories.

Amy Chua, a professor at Yale, has written a memoir called Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother about her initial decision to raise her American children in a very strict, conventional Chinese fashion, which she’s the first to point out, although she calls it “Chinese parenting” for convenience, is not the parenting style of all Chinese parents and is the parenting syle of many non-Chinese parents. The Wall Street Journal put together a set of excerpts from the book, eye-catchingly entitled “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior” and ran that article under Chua’s byline. She never saw it before it was published.

The article caused a firestorm of comment particularly in the Asian-Amerian community. Many Chinese people were understandably upset and angered by the prescriptive tone of the article.

“It’s one thing to say, ‘This is my particular hardcore way of parenting, take it or leave it, do whatever you want,'” says Frances Kai-Hwa Wang, a mother of four who writes the syndicated column, Adventures in Multicultural Living. “But the article is saying, ‘This is how Chinese people do it’ — implying that we all treat our kids this way. You spend so much time trying to break down racial stereotypes and after something like this, it all goes out the window.”

The problem is that what Wang is asking for is exactly what Chua says in her book. She told Jeff Yang of

The Journal basically strung together the most controversial sections of the book. And I had no idea they’d put that kind of a title on it. But the worst thing was, they didn’t even hint that the book is about a journey, and that the person at beginning of the book is different from the person at the end — that I get my comeuppance and retreat from this very strict Chinese parenting model.

I’m not going to retract my statements about Chinese parenting. But I’d also note that I’m aware now of the limitations of that model — that it doesn’t incorporate enough choice, that it doesn’t account for kids’ individual personalities. And yet, I would never go all the way to the Western ideal of unlimited choice. Give 10-year-olds total freedom, and they’ll be playing computer games eight hours a day. I now believe there’s a hybrid way of parenting that combines the two paradigms, but it took me making a lot of mistakes along the way to get there.

You might, possibly, say that this was just an oversight or a confusion on the part of some Wall Street Journal staffer, who only glanced at the book and pulled a few key quotations, but it’s hard to believe when you know that the book’s cover says:

“This was supposed to be a story about how Chinese mothers are better at raising kids than Western ones. But instead, it’s about a bitter clash of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory, and how I was humbled by a 13-year-old.” As Yang points out, there’s no trace of that humility in the Journal article. As a result of the Journal’s misrepresentation, and its fast migration through the Internet, Chua has gotten death threats, and she’ll probably spend the next five years trying to dispel people’s preconceptions of who she is and what she’s said.

Let’s jump from here to Leslie Feinberg’s problem. Many of our readers may know Feinberg as the author of the incomparable Stone Butch Blues , a brilliant autobiographical novel about a stone butch’s journey in the 1950s and 1960s.

Feinberg is justifiably incensed because Catherine Ryan Hyde, an estranged relative, has written a YA book with a transgender theme (a teenage girl who falls in love with a young man and then discovers he is an FTM transsexual in transition), and is now on book tour, where she is claiming that her understanding of Feinberg’s life is one of the underpinnings of her insight into the story.

Feinberg, who has for several years been too ill to speak or write easily, has emerged from seclusion to make a long clear statement:

On her author promotional tour, Catherine Ryan Hyde is developing an embryonic biography of my life—fictionalized and unauthorized—to which I give no consent. Her assertions are all easily found on the web in a google search.

“This is totally my story to tell,” Catherine Ryan Hyde publicly maintains. She claims insider knowledge, because, she says, she grew up with a “transgender sibling.”

She also claims that because I have written and spoken publicly about my own oppressions and life’s struggles, my life is now public domain for her imagination. This argument draws an equal sign between the right of oppressed individuals to self-expression, and the bigoted “voice-over” that contradicts and denies those oppressed identities and life experiences.

Hyde’s book tour is underwritten by her publishers, Alfred A. Knopf, a prestigious division of Random House, which is in turn a division of German media giant Bertelsmann.

So here we have two very different forms of mainstream media providing support for narratives which not only disagree with but undercut and undermine the authentic voices of the people being discussed. This is nothing new: where stories of marginalized individuals and groups are concerned, the job of the mainstream media is to retell the story in a way that confirms the existing stereotypes of their audience … which (of course) also serves to keep the mainstream audience comfortable with only the oversimplified and untrue story. The vicious cycle is perpetuated, because then the true story sounds either false or too complicated to someone who has heard the simplistic one dozens, if not hundreds, of times.

Which is why “nothing about us without us” is so important for media as well as for government. If we cannot hear the authentic voices (including the different experiences, disagreements, and ambiguities) from any group, we have no chance of understanding anything about that group. Both of these cases are especially insidious because the voices are disguised as genuine: Chua’s byline is on the Journal article, Hyde can claim close-kin personal experience. But in both cases, the real voice is erased by the false one.

Read Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Read Stone Butch Blues.

Thanks to Nalo Hopkinson (on Facebook) for pointing out the Feinberg story.

11 thoughts on “Nothing About Us Without Us

  1. Not to highjack the subject, but doesn’t Chu have a serious lawsuit against the WSJ (a Murdoch publication, after all) for theft and mis-representation?

    Feinberg’s recourse against Hyde may be more limited because of the family connection.

    In both cases the offender’s lawyers will be well paid and ferocious, so perhaps the usual icky status quo will prevail.

    Lies go twice around the world while Truth is lacing her shoes …

    1. As I commented to Lisa, I do think there’s a potential claim. At the same time, the WSJ can say with perfect truth that they used only Chua’s words, and that everything they attribute to her is something she wrote. My best guess is that as long as the damages are limited to threats, and since her book has skyrocketed onto the bestseller list, likely due in significant part to the controversy, it would be very hard to convince a jury, or even a judge, that she had been harmed. If someone takes a potshot at her or leaves a snake in her mailbox, that would make a much more convincing lawsuit (but, of course, it wouldn’t be worth it).

  2. I’m curious about the legal process surrounding the WSJ excerpts: how are the permissions usually granted? By the author? publisher? author’s agent?

    Not having read the whole book, I don’t know to what extent the WSJ excerpts misrepresent it. I have read the excerpt, and while Chua says it contains the most controversial sections of the book, I was horrified by the account of what she did to ensure her younger daughter learned a particular piano piece.

    1. Permission would (most likely) be granted by the publisher, and the WSJ would pay the publisher, who would then pay the author. In general, “good faith” is assumed and nobody reads the piece before it’s published. If someone did to a book published by my employer what WSJ did to this Penguin book (I don’t work for Penguin), and the author was pushing us, I think Wiley would at least start the process of a claim, whether or not we took it all the way to lawsuit.

      I think (part of) the point about the horrifying piano piece story, if you read Jeff Yang’s article, is that Chua now feels differently about it than she did then, and she is very clearly not proposing this as a superior form of parenting, which is how the WSJ presented it.

  3. Can’t comment on the first situation, though I’ve been following the controversy with interest.

    In the second, I believe everyone has their own story. Those stories, of course, overlap with other people’s stories. Sometimes they don’t tell the story the way those people would tell it. You say Hyde is “claiming that her understanding of Feinberg’s life is one of the underpinnings of her insight” – isn’t something like that the case for every story? There’s no absolute truth here.

  4. It does appear that the WSJ misrepresented the book (I thought when I read it that the headline must be theirs), but I don’t think it’s a good idea to declare that “what Wang is asking for is exactly what Chua says in her book” unless you’ve read the book. Relying on what Jeff Yang says about it, and what Amy Chua says about it in the aftermath of the reaction to the WSJ article, seems dicey to me.

    I have not read the book, but I’ve read (in addition to the WSJ compilation) several reviews by people who have read it, plus several interviews with the author, and my impression is that she is not a reliable narrator. I forget where I read this (one of the interviews), but she said that the reason her husband isn’t a big presence in the book is that when he read what she had written about him, he objected that she was putting words in his mouth — so she took out these bits. And when I read the piano lesson story that was part of the WSJ compilation, I thought “yeah, that’s her version; I’d like to see her daughter’s version, and her husband’s.” Maybe I will have to read the book myself, just to see what it really says. But in any case, I would be very careful about making any judgements about the content of the book — positive or negative — without reading it.

    1. Yes, Janet, of course you’re right that we don’t know if we haven’t read the book. At the same time, there are other factors: 1) I’m a big fan of Jeff Yang and have been for some time, which colors my opinion of his reading of the book; 2) Chua names herself as an “unreliable narrator” in Yang’s article and elsewhere. She also says that her kids warned her that she’d be misunderstood.

      I think the nuances need to come from reading the book, but I think it is virtually certain that Chua (and the book cover, which she certainly didn’t write, though she may have approved it) are telling the truth when they say that the book is eventually about the failures (as well as the successes) of “Chinese parenting” and the article demonstrably papers over that aspect of the book. The last thing a publisher like Penguin would ever do is put the line about “eventually humbled” on the front cover if the book was a paean to that parenting style.

  5. I’ve probably been thinking about Chua’s book more than I ought to, but, for whatever reason, I have been. I probably will not read the book; I don’t want to buy it, and judging by the number of holds on it at all our local libraries, it’ll be at least six months before I can get my hands on library copy. I did read the first four chapters, which I got as a free download from Amazon, and I also went to the bookstore and read various sections, including the coda. The entire first chapter is excerpted here:
    I’ve also read or listened to several interviews with Chua, such as
    I haven’t yet had a chance to listen to the interview she did on Forum yesterday, and I don’t know how much more time or mental energy I want to devote to this.

    Anyway, based on what I have read, my impressions:

    The book is deliberately provocative — literally, intended to provoke. The WSJ article amplified that aspect of the book and misled readers about the overall shape of the book, but the book is at least partly polemic. Chua now says in interviews that parts of the book are exaggerated — for example, she states in the first chapter of the book that her children weren’t allowed to have playdates, but in interviews she has said that they were allowed some. Read the first chapter (link above). Even knowing that what she now says, I can’t find anything in the text itself to indicate that the statement about playdates was an exaggeration. So I don’t find it surprising that she admits to being an unreliable narrator: it gives her the ability to say things and then deny that she meant them.

    There is more humor in the book than I thought after reading the WSJ excerpt; she is certainly poking fun at herself at least part of the time. This is part of what is causing the reaction; people think she’s 100% serious (I certainly did at first). But it’s also a symptom of another problem: the book isn’t very well written. The parts I have read are very sloppy — the first chapter has no discernible shape. In the coda she says that she wrote most of the book very rapidly. It shows.

    The cover disclaimer may give a stronger impression of how much she has changed than is really the case. She has repeatedly said in interviews that if she had it to do again, she would raise her children essentially the same way, with a few changes. This is from an article in today’s SF Chronicle: “If I had it to do over again, I would do the same thing, with some adjustments,” she said of her child rearing. But she volunteered that she does have some regrets: “I wish I had not used such harsh words and blown up so much. And I wish I had paid more attention to the differences between my children. And I do wish I’d given my children more choices.” That doesn’t sound like a radical shift to me. You know more about Penguin than I do, but the cover text looks to me like something they did because they knew the book was open to misinterpretation.

    There are also a couple of things that, despite not having read the book, I can say unequivocally.

    First, from Jerry Yang’s article: “She points out that while she uses the term “Chinese motherhood” as shorthand for her neotraditionalist style of parenting, she states early on that many people of Chinese background don’t subscribe to such methods, and many non-Chinese do.” Well that just doesn’t cut it. A disclaimer doesn’t erase the stereotype that she promotes by using the terms “Chinese” and “Western” parenting throughout the book. It’s like making racist jokes and then saying “Oh, but of course I don’t mean *you.*”

    Second, the book is supposed to be about her “journey,” but inevitably, her children are part of the story, and they are now being called upon to publicly defend their mother. ( I can’t approve of this. Possibly she didn’t anticipate that this would happen, but she must have known the book would be controversial even without the firestorm created by the WSJ excerpt (in the coda to the book her daughters tell her that they’re glad she was tough on them). And it does seem in line with a desire to put her children on a stage as models of achievement.

    Can you tell I’m cranky? John Carroll has some thoughts on the reaction to the article that hit close to home.

  6. Not having read the book, I can’t gauge how much Chua has changed her mind about how she raised her kids (and how she is currently raising the younger), but that change of mind doesn’t alter what she did in the past. It’ll be interesting to hear what the kids think when they’re, say, 30.

    A composer whose blog I read, a very smart guy and trailing spouse/stay-at-home-dad currently living in Frankfurt, has some interesting comments on the piano and violin and their cultural/class meaning within the context of European concert music and culture of the last 200 years or so. Um, yes, a reaction to Chua.

  7. In the interests of full disclosure I should say I don’t have children and while wish I could read Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and Stone Butch Blues, finances and physical access will most likely make those books unavailable to me in the near future. I am, however, fascinated with the various tangents this subject has taken. For example the NY Times Op-Ed piece by David Brooks arguing that
    Ms. Chua is simply carrying on the currently popular high pressure, parental micro-managing style so popular among the upwardly mobile.

    Brooks also suggests that many extremely valuable social skills needed to work effectively as a team and negotiate interpersonal dynamics can be learned through supposedly frivolous activities such as sleepovers. As a child who grew up overprotected and not so much isolated as shielded from other children I’ve found that I don’t have a lot of those skills. I’m not saying that I wanted them–I never had the slightest interest in sleeping over at another child’s place although my parents welcomed my friends who wanted to sleep at our house. We moved a lot and as a fat child in a new school I found I could avoid getting teased by demonstrating that I got along better with adults than children.

    I can’t imagine enduring the kind of childhood that most accounts suggest Ms. Chua has engineered for her children and I think her daughters are fortunate that they did not trigger Chua’s “unacceptable” meter by being fat, disabled or otherwise imperfectable.

  8. Well, I have read Stone Butch Blues and anything else by Leslie Feinberg and ze is one of my heroes…I have been aware of Leslie’s difficulties with hir sister’s book, as I am on Leslie’s FB and caught the initial blog post about it. I did some googling…ok. First of all, I’m in Grad school with a 4.0, and acquired a late in life back to school BA to get there to boot, with a learning disability on top of that. Translation – I haven’t read much out side of textbooks and tracking certain favorite authors for awhile. So, you can imagine my jaw hit the floor and bounced when i spotted that Catherine Ryan Hyde is the author of “Pay It Forward”! Then I tracked down this…
    In the total spirit of “Nihil de nobis, sine nobis”, go read this.You have written about Leslie’s justifiable consternation with Catherine’s writings. You didn’t include Hyde’s response back. You didn’t include the fact that Hyde is a Lesbian…which puts her in the GLBTQ community – however fragmented we may all be; when are we gonna learn that if we do not hang together, we will all hang separately, to use the old quote – and while I wouldn’t dare attempt to get in the middle of that sibling disagreement, if feels like to me that Hyde’s side was not represented in this blog post – you spoke of her, without her voice being included. And she has something to say. Your thoughts?

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