The first guest lecturer in Prof. Sumitomo’s curatorial class for the month of April was Japanese sociologist Yamada Sohei. His lecture was about the prevalent hate speech in Japan and its alarming impact on minorities in Japanese society, especially to sexual minorities. The lecture was in Japanese and I barely understood what he was saying. So I have to keyword what limited vocabulary I know and connect them together to make sense. Good thing that two of my seat mates at the back of the room helped me translate the important lecture.
I noted down his background and how Sohei became interested in sexual minorities. From my notes I read an artist collective important to Japanese contemporary art history – they are the Dumb Type. This artist collective was a cutting edge back in the late 80s and early 90s in Japanese contemporary art. Their multi-disciplinary approach to theatre, music, dance, architecture and computer programming has a great impact to Yamada Sohei because of their peculiar message addressing sexual minority issues in Japanese society. This lead Sohei to dedicate his studies in researching sexual minorities in Japan when he was just a sociology student.
After conducting a meticulous study, Sohei’s research revealed the difficult situation of Japanese sexual minorities. The disturbing revelation from his data is the alarming figure of suicide cases among sexual minorities. He even said that in Japan the significant number of suicides among sexual minorities exceeds than the number of HIV/Aids victims. He then identified the culprit behind this disturbing demography, it was none other than the prevalent hate speech against sexual minorities.
I might have missed other important details from his talk because I believe he used some complicated language that my seatmates translating for me had difficulty finding equivalent words in English. Anyway, as we try to configure the words, Sohei proceeded by asking the question why freedom of expression is necessary and hate speech, for some, is also considered as a form of freedom of speech. And why hate speech is detrimental to the life and safety of minorities in Japanese society. He then introduced the concept of ‘Microaggression’ that was first coined by American psychiatrist Chester M. Pierce in 1970. Microaggression as a concept describes as, “brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership.” (Paludi, 2002) In other words, they are racial slurs or prejudiced remarks embedded in the everyday life, for instance, jokes and other common mundane expressions. From my understanding, hate speech are mostly expressed discreetly as a microaggression.
Sohei’s cautionary to microaggression implied a different understanding to some students that, according to them, suspending microaggression might suppress the right to freedom of expression. Although their argument makes some sense, however, for me racial slurs, homophobic jokes, and xenophobic remarks are failures of the imagination. This failure to imagine a better form of freedom to express sadly describes contemporary art today. For instance, the work of Santiago Sierra shown in 49th Venice Bienalle about illegal foreign migrants who were asked by the artist to have their hair dyed blonde described this failure. The fact that the desperate subjects allowed to be humiliated in exchange for a few dollars illustrate this improper balance of power that perpetuates the dehumanizing condition of minorities. From this circumstance, I wondered: Isn’t it that the recognition of minorities legitimises the majority?
I was asking that question at the back of my head quietly while everyone was discussing the problem of microaggression as paradoxical to freedom of expression. They were discussing it in the language that I barely understood. To ask the question in English will make my minority position visible and thus recognize it as something to pay attention to, which I think might be very helpful but in contradiction, my position will only legitimise the majority – the tyranny of the majority. In other words, in my opinion, this majority and minority binary preserve marginalization that has claimed many lives such as in the case of Jamie – a homosexual American teen who took his life from hate speech.
Considering that contemporary art failed to imagine a different form of expression that is neither minority and majority marking its impotence to change society. However, I believe that from this pessimism, art has still the potential to realize an optimistic imagination – by finding new and different methodologies of art practices and exhibition-making that is critical to the majority/minority binaries. This, of course, will require not only a rigorous research, as suggested by Prof. Sumitomo, but also a deep understanding and or rethinking to every aspect of knowledge production.