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dolphins, whales, cows, kangaroos and people

I have a Japanese friend who uses Mixi, a popular social network internet service in Japan, and we often talk about what people are writing about there. Recently she told me there has been some discussion concerning a documentary made in the U.S. about the Japanese village, Taiji in Wakayama Prefecture, which has a yearly event in which dolphins are killed. The film shows the slaughter of dolphins in a very bloody way and presents the Japanese villagers who take part in this tradition, which apparently has been going on for many years, in a very critical light. The movie is called "The Cove." ("Irie" in Japanese).

The people who write on Mixi usually express a wide range of opinions, but the general reaction to this film seems quite negative, not about the killing of dolphins, but about the film itself. Why should Americans criticize Japanese for killing dolphins--they kill cows and pigs in vicious ways, don't they? This is part of an old Japanese custom and shouldn't be criticized--after all, it's part of Japanese culture. And what about the Australian government which is now involved in dropping bombs on kangaroo herds because they are causing damage to the environment in certain areas? How can others criticize Japan when their countries are also killing animals in cruel ways?

My friend also feels this situation of holding whales and dolphins above other creatures is a case of human egocentrism. People value dolphins and whales because they are closest to us in certain aspects that we can measure: brain size and recognizable forms of communication being the main two. So cows or pigs or kangaroos, because their brains are smaller and because we can't notice their communication, have less value somehow. That's pretty strange, she feels, and I think this is a valid point.

Looking at the English media about "The Cove", (I googled "The Cove"), I found only one site where non western perspectives were mentioned, and that site was for people who were either living in Japan or had experience there. In general, the movie is presented as a "thriller" and the Japanese fisherman as "thugs". Unfortunately, for me at least, this means that the story presented in the film is very one-sided and shallow; the situation and characters are either good or bad, and killing dolphins (but not other animals) is simply wrong. Only one review of the film even mentioned that the villagers' stated reason for this yearly killing was because the dolphins in the area ate too many fish and the fishermen couldn't make a living, but in the film this reason was immediately dismissed as false--the "true" reason for lack of fish in the area was the fisherman's overfishing.

Talking, reading and thinking about this film has raised some very interesting questions for me about criticism. Can we only talk about the wrong-doings or weak points of another country/system/person, if we ourselves or our own country are perfect? I have been teaching for many years and know that my own teaching can be improved in many ways. Does this mean that I shouldn't comment on the teaching of others? Also, I'm a citizen of the US by birth, though most of my life has spent in other countries and I feel very little connection with that country; does this mean I don't have the right to comment on other country's activities without first looking at "my own", (though it isn't really my own at all!)?

A teacher colleague of mine who reads my articles on CRN wrote to me that she thought it was rather arrogant of me to write about other classroom situations and teachers as though my own classes and teaching had been without any problems or left no room for improvement. I felt quite bad about her comment; not that she said my own teaching had problems, but that she felt my writing had an arrogant tone. I think the most important quality when criticizing others is to have a sense of our own imperfections. I apologize to readers if my writing has shown this.

Criticizing people or situations is a very complicated matter and is closely connected to making judgments about things saying what is right and what is wrong, or what is good and what is bad. I believe comments regarding the activities of others should be made with humility and an awareness of our own (or our country's) weaknesses. Such criticism should also recognize the impossibility of ever completely understanding the actions and motivations of others.

But thrillers don't talk about this, any more than most school textbooks or governments do. And this is another reason why perhaps the most important subject to teach our children is media education--so they can learn how to see that media in general is presented from one side. And also, hopefully, to learn to communicate with humility themselves.

As a footnote, I'd like to say that I believe in films and other media which support human and animal rights and criticize situations which are against this. But this media should be open as possible about their own positions, show the positions of others, and also recognize their own culture's imperfections.
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