Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Culture of False Comparison

When you watch English-speaking documentaries or read books that focus on a group of renowned soldiers, there are some rather common sets of language used depending on just what, besides fighting, this particular set of warriors was most well known for.

For example, I am watching a show about Tokugawa Iyeasu and one of the first things that I hear is a description of the samurai as "Japanese knights dedicated to battle and honor."  The tones and phrasing of this statement are such that the impression is given that this is a unique combination of characteristics.  That is not uncommon, a lot of movies where samurai are described use almost exactly the same phrasing or at least make similar such implications.  The thing is, if the story was about the English knights and the age of chivalry, then I'd expect that the same sort of implications and language would be used.  Since this series also includes an episode on Richard the Lionheart, I'm expecting that I'll get to see that happen with the same writers and perhaps even the same narrator.

There seems to be an inability to depict any group of warriors (or any famous group regardless of occupation) without boiling them down to some very basic characteristics and implying that they are unique in possessing these characteristics.  As if admitting that there can be multiple sets of honorable and dedicated warriors somehow lessens the uniqueness or value of this one set of humanity.

When discussing ancient warrior cultures, you don't often hear direct comparisons being made.  You will hear things such as the "Japanese knights" above in order to describe unfamiliar terms.  However note that they did not say "like the knights of medieval Europe or the Centurions of Rome, the Samurai were warriors dedicated to battle and honor."

They identified them as "Japanese knights" but then went on to say they were "dedicated to battle and honor."  The use of the term "knights" was simply a description of equivalent social positions, it did not imply a sharing of characteristics.  If the writers wanted to imply that the knights and the samurai shared the same dedication to battle and honor then words such as "also" and "like" would have been used.  The phrasing as it exists says that the Japanese are knights who possess the qualities of dedication and honor and thus imply that these are not characteristics automatically assumed to be in the nature of knights.  If they were automatically part of the nature of being a knight, then there would be no need to further point them out.  As such, it implies that the samurai are unique in possessing these traits.

On the flip side, when the episode on Richard the Lionheart comes up, I'll expect that the English knights will be characterized in similar terms, of course without mentioning the samurai.

There is an exception to this tendency.  Modern day warrior cultures thrive on comparing themselves to the cultures that came before.  Reference the recruitment adds for the American marines of a few years back and look at how often they work in knights and sword fighting into it.  They've even done the sword in the stone Arthurian references.

I am not saying anything against warrior cultures, or even writers.  I'm honestly not certain it is deliberate in most cases.  The only cases where I am sure it is deliberate is in situations such as The Last Samurai where the nobility of the samurai is underscored by portraying the American military of the day as being without virtue of any sort.  I think this is subconscious.  When we're telling stories we want the heroes of those stories to be unique, so we tell the stories as if they are unique.

When you are focusing your attention on one culture over another, the other side of the comparison is going to tend to be either a negative ideal or a positive ideal.  If you start looking into a fair comparison would mean spending equal focus on both cultures and thus no longer be a story focused only on one side of the equation.

A negative ideal, a straw man, is easier to achieve, at least on a shallow level.  You don't have to be as competent and exceptional to be looked at as better in a comparison against an image of your rival that is probably painted to be worse even than their actual dredges are.

On the other hand, comparing to a positive ideal, images of another culture that are so highly elevated as to be nigh unbelievable, is an almost impossible task.  To even match such an ideal is unlikely.

Which is more reputable: to be the only source of nobility in a world of dishonor and savagery?  Or to stand with the greatest examples of honor and nobility of their world?

Which is the easiest to compare to?  The mythical Knights of the Round Table?  The actual knights of the time?  Or a bunch of ragged barbarians and Roman deserters?

Which would you feel better about being compared to?

How much better would The Last Samurai have been if both the Americans and the Samurai were represented as having an understanding of honor that was equally great though perhaps different.  How much better would it have been if it elevated both cultures instead of lifting one while denigrating another?

And likewise for any such story.  Such as the stories about the expansion west, where the sides of the issue either focus on the intrepid frontiersman or else the noble native American while the other side is portrayed with all their warts highlighted.

When we compare against an impossible ideal, there is always room for improvement.  This is probably part of why modern warrior cultures prefer to compare themselves to ancient stories.  The actual people are no longer around, so it is easy to set them up as a finish line that always seems so close without actually ever coming within reach, thus allowing for the continual improvement of your soldiers.  Of course the marine ads used King Arthur.  How does one match up to the pinnacle of Christian virtue of knightly chivalry that is supposed to be King Arthur?  You don't, it is a goal that must ever be pursued.

But for our ancient warrior cultures, unless they're being piled in comparisons to a modern one, we tend to want to keep them separate, as if they exist in absence of each other.  As if somehow admitting that the European knights had a deep respect for honor is implying somehow that no one else did.  As if honor is a limited commodity that can only be held by one group at a time.  Or one group ever.

How hard is it to say "like the medieval knights, the samurai were dedicated to battle and honor"?  How hard is it to admit that honor and dedication are not unique traits?

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