Link of the Day 060508: David Weinberger and the Ninja Gap

From Ethan Z’s blog My Heart’s in Accra:

Almost anyone who’s heard me give a public talk has heard me observe that Japan and Nigeria have roughly the same populations, but vastly different media representation: you’re roughly 8-12 times more likely to find an article focused on Japan in an American newspaper than an article on Nigeria. There are a lot of possible explanations for this phenomenon, from racism to comparative economic power. David offers a new one: Japan’s got ninjas, and Nigeria doesn’t.
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Japan is a place branded in many of our minds as a place that’s innovative, high-tech, and more than a little strange. Whether or not we’ve been to Japan, we’ve encountered anime, monster movies, martial arts flicks, SONY tv’s and Toyota trucks. Whether or not our ideas about Japan are well-founded, reflect the reality on the ground, are rich in stereotypes, etc., we’ve got preconceptions about Japan. On some level, the fact that we know that “Japan = Ninjas” means that we’ve got receptivity for a story about Japan that we might not have for Nigeria.

And so, Nigeria needs ninja. Or as David explains:

“One reason we care about Japan more than Nigeria (generally) is that Japan has a cool culture. We’ve heard about that culture because some Westerners wrote bestselling books about ninjas, and then Hollywood made ninja movies. Love them ninjas! Nigeria undoubtedly has something as cool as ninjas. Ok, something almost as cool as ninjas. If we had some blockblusters about the Nigerian equivalent of ninjas, we’d start to be interested Nigeria.”

In other words, we’re more inclined to pay attention to Japan because we’ve got some context – a weird, non-representative context, for sure – while we have almost no context for stories about Nigeria. The context we do have for Nigeria – 419 scams – tends to be pretty corrosive, and may make us likelier to pick up only the stories that portray Nigeria as wildly corrupt and criminal.

David’s observation leads him to some concrete advice for those of us trying to inspire xenophilia: write better: “Good writing can make anything interesting. We will read the story about the Nigerian peddler and his neighborhood if there is a writer able to tell that story in a compelling way.”

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