Saturday, 21 September 2013

Noise and silence


For karatedō, the problem is that people are too noisy and too quiet.

The Japanese have a tradition of treasuring silence. They have a proverb: “asase ni adanami” 浅瀬に仇波—deep rivers move in silence; shallow brooks are noisy. By this they mean,“those who know little talk much.” This marks a significant cultural divide. Here, the expert is someone called on to speak; here, the professor is certain her/his knowledge gives her/him the authority to discourse.

Karatedō is different. The principle is damatte keiko 黙って稽古: “shut up and train.” You don’t do karate with your mouth. If your karate instructor talks a lot, you should really find another dōjō. If your karate student talks a lot, s/he’s really not training hard enough.

In this culture, talk has a particular tenor. So much talk is talk about the self. You can do a karatedō exercise even if you have never set a bare foot in a dōjō. In your day-to-day life, try to listen. This has the immediate benefit of talking less. For most of us, one way we can make the world a better place is to be quieter. Shut up and live in the world without adding a banal soundtrack; shut up and listen; shut up and learn. And what you can learn is that when people talk, they talk about themselves: what they’ve done, their perceived achievements, their possessions, their vacations, their perceived plaudits. Muhammad Ali once said, “It’s not bragging if you can back it up.” Even when people talk about others, so often it is actually a return to themselves: their judgments, their comparisons, their opinions about someone else.

In karatedō, we seek to get over ourselves, and that means talking less about ourselves. Even if you can back it up. It means talking less, period. The academy would be a much more pleasant place if that ever happened.

Yet the academy is also the place where a specific kind of silence is a typical ethical failure. An old slogan of progressive academics is “speak truth to power.” I learned it from Susan Sontag, but it goes back further than her. When professors say, “speak truth to power,” they mean speak against things like the Harper government, the Alberta tar sands, or Monsanto. That kind of resistance is important; I am not dismissing it. But for karateka, speaking truth to power is something else. It means speaking truth to those who have power over you. It means speaking truths when doing so would turn your department chair or your dean or senior professors against you. When it comes to that, with very few exceptions, academics are very, very quiet. In fact, they congratulate themselves for their obsequious silence, because they know the smart career move is to tell flattering lies to power. They only speak truth when it will come at no cost to themselves.

For karatedō, ethics is the opposite: what you do when it will cost you dearly to do the right thing. Feudal Japan saw ritual suicide—seppuku 切腹, also known as hara kiri 腹切—become an integral part of the code of the warrior. If a samurai wanted to protest a decision by his lord, he cut his belly open in a special form of seppuku called kanshi 諫死, “death of remonstration.” Karatedō does not expect its practitioners to go quite that far. But it does take special note of anyone who stays silent when speaking truth to power would be inconvenient. It may well be the smart career move; it may be a demonstration of your “collegiality.” But it is absolute proof you are a coward.

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