Silver Clouds and Dark Linings
Sympathizing with the Problematic,
Ignoring Controversy, and Focusing on Bliss
After reading through some of the final reflection essays that were posted earlier today, I noticed that people were generally focusing on thematically similar posts (i.e. focusing on musical festivals, celebrity icons, drug use, etc.) from varied sources. I wanted to try something a little different, especially after one blog piqued my interest: Intentionally or not, it illustrated a certain conceptual consistency, a reliability in the thought process that motivated the posts. Regardless of the subject matter (which, as you'll soon find, varied enormously), the same pattern of logic emerged. This blog belongs to Tianlun Zhao. For this project, I've chosen to analyze his posts to elucidate how his mindset (rather, my perception of his mindset) might be one path to a better world.
I'm a constant contrarian. When I first read Tianlun's posts, my mind immediately jumped to the theoretical complications I might've argued in response, but his attitude challenged my initial reaction. By focusing on singular issues through a lens of general positivity and optimism, Tianlun questions the notion that contemporary problems require contextualization, electing instead to embrace situations at face value and, in the process, living a more forgiving, less suspicious, happier life. To exemplify this thesis, I present three case studies (his blog posts):
Tianlun's first post focuses on body image, beginning with a case study on Demi Lovato. At first, he perceived her image as confident and positive, but was surprised to learn of her "drug issues, eating disorders and low confidence due to body image." He also raises an interesting point: If 'normal' people face body shaming (or similar derogatory comments about their body types), celebrities deserve some level of sympathy as they deal with those same comments on a magnified scale. He gives other examples of body-shamed celebrities to indicate that no one is safe from the rhetoric – Kelly Clarkson's baby fat drew ire, as did Selena Gomez (illustrating "being skinny is also not safe from body shaming").
He goes on to discuss an interview with Glamour:
I don't disagree with his points, but close-reading the passage brought (what I perceive to be) a consequential question to mind – in context, as part of interview with Glamour, is this the place for supporting a healthy body image? Presumably, regular readers of the magazine understand that what they're buying doesn't necessarily advance reasonable (or even healthy) beauty standards. A contrasting view could also be realistic: Perhaps Glamour is among the most vital forums for discourse concerning body image since the target audience might be most susceptible to those unrealistic, unhealthy standards the magazine promotes. This quandary, however important, goes overlooked in the post.
Again, an important question goes unnoticed. What of unhealthy body types? You can subjectively call anything "normal," but "normal" isn't dying young from malnutrition or obesity. Tianlun doesn't linger on this question – "as long as there is no health problems, all size body should be accepted by the society" – because he doesn't find it vital to his argument. In fact, he underscores this by listing a few more questions at the end of his post: "[W]hat about actresses? What about models? Is it too much to ask models to maintain certain figures? Is that against the goal of feminism?" By Tianlun's writing, he acknowledges the importance of these questions by referencing them without engaging in the painful exercise of meditating on their possible answers.
II. ALL LIVES MATTER
Here, Tianlun was inspired by our week of Twitter engagement on Beyoncé, particularly her focus on the Black Lives Matter movement. As an international student from Beijing, Tianlun asserts "Asians also get discriminated all the time, why there is no Asian lives matter movement?" My initial reaction was that this was a nuclear-hot take, but I was again challenged by his interesting perspective on these salient modern issues. Tianlun justifies his assertion by explaining Asian culture and Confucianism – “Confucianism asks people to be humble, be empathy, be introversive, be kind, be polite and treat parents well. That is why Asians might not fit in well with western society because western people are more extroversive and more outspoken about stuff.”
I realized that Tianlun had no intention of invoking the inflammatory historical connotations of “all lives matter” with his title, nor did he mean to imply that Asian lives were being taken by police in disproportionate numbers (as with BLM). Tianlun’s writing, as an international student, is earnest, honest, and without domestic context (which I found refreshing, given the intense politicization of everything now, including myself). Subtext is nonexistent on his blog, and it’s a good thing. This is embodied by Tianlun’s use of United Airlines’ publicity disaster of last April, in which Chicago police forcibly removed an Asian passenger, breaking his nose in the process. Twitter exploded with videos of the incident and public opinion immediately fell in favor of the battered passenger, a physician who insisted that he needed to be on the plane to return to his patients.
Soon after, sympathy for the victim began to evaporate when his sordid past as an unethical doctor was exposed and the necessity of expediting his return for his patients’ sake was called into question. The situation is rife with problems – what was United thinking? Was the victim being honest in his insistence that he belonged on the plane? – but Tianlun eschews these subtextual concerns for raw imagery: the passenger, glasses broken and nose bloodied.
Tianlun directs our focus to what he finds important: Just as The Independent reminded us "It doesn't matter what happened in David Dao's life – that can't justify what happened to him on United Airlines," Tianlun reiterates his interest in the quality of Asian lives in America and expresses his dissatisfaction with that quality. He also compares the mentality of Asians towards America versus Americans towards Asia and argues that the American perspective is unfairly skewed, as most Americans have not been to Asia or immersed themselves in Asian culture. His conclusion is emblematic of my thesis – Black Lives Matter inspires him, but that's not his concern here. Rather, all lives matter – not in response to BLM, but as a standalone issue, unfettered by contemporary contexts.
Much like his other posts, Tianlun's final entry challenged criticisms of a modern construct – social media. He cites Leonardo DiCaprio's environmentalist causes and subsequent promotional work on social media before including a striking image, a screenshot of Instagram comments:
Tianlun's enthusiasm is infectious. When I read the comments, my first thought was pure cynicism, mocking the commenters for their almost certain inaction, but Tianlun's comments changed my mind. He focuses on the successes of the social media posts on their own merits – even if the 'likers' and 'commenters' don't act on Leo's environmentalist urges, they still turned their attention to his issues, no matter however briefly.
The conceptualization behind this post calls back to the issues of race and body image Tianlun discussed in his earlier entries. He could've spent his time focusing on the myriad problems with both sides of every issue – for every new acceptance of an 'unhealthy' body type, a disease state might become normalized; for every reasonably motivated race-based discussion away from the BLM movement, another anti-BLM attitude might be enabled; for every instance of celebrity activism on social media, the actionless pity Aristotle warned of in Poetics might be engendered.
But Tianlun avoids these concerns. Instead, he proposes a new mentality: ignore the context and focus on the issue at hand. Each problem deserves isolated attention, and although problematic connections might be drawn or inferred, these aren't due any more attention than simple acknowledgement (as not to pretend those connections don't exist). Tianlun's attitude here inspires me. Next time I notice larger societal problems lingering around the fringes of a situation, I'll recognize those issues without allowing them to consume my attention. When we see these issues, we have to ask: But does it matter?
Does it matter if some people are unhealthy, so long as you recognize that their body types aren't ideal? Wouldn't you prefer they be happy, too, regardless of their size or shape?
Does it matter if black people face disproportionate amounts of police brutality in the context of Asian people facing different types of discrimination? Does one group's suffering diminish the suffering of any other group? Wouldn't you rather consider these issues independently? Does it matter if someone, regardless of race, has a sordid past when they face a trying situation that could've affected anyone at random? Surely, we want to believe in reform, forgiveness, and second chances.
Does it matter if social media largely breeds passive, self-congratulatory behavior? Wouldn't you rather people harness technology in as many ways as are possible? Wouldn't you rather celebrities make any attempt to raise awareness? Isn't something – anything – better than nothing? Of course it is.
Tianlun's attitude warrants consideration: It can make the world a better place. It encourages a world where everyone and every issue deserve attention. Don't bog yourself down in the dark linings – enjoy the silver clouds, instead.