Insiders and Outsiders

July 2, 2007

Recently, there have been a few difficult discussions of cultural representation in roleplaying, both on Story Games and in Shreyas’ follow-up post on Knife Fight.

The discussions center, as they often do, on who has the ability to depict cultures responsibly: Is it based on the cultural heritage of the authors? Is it based on their education and knowledge of the subject? How are the problems exacerbated when privileged folks are depicting subaltern cultures? Do people have the “right” to control the representation of their culture or at least to limit the misrepresentation?

In talking to Shreyas about this, I said:

I automatically distrust non-Chinese scholarship on China, considering it inherently wrongheaded and biased until, upon reading it, I discover that the author is actually pretty knowledgeable. I think that’s a healthy stance to have. I like being constantly surprised by insights outsiders have, instead of assuming that they know what they’re talking about, because it allows me to treat insiders as the most authoritative source of cultural knowledge, even when a large swath of Chinese scholarship is pretty terrible. I think that kind of a stance is relatively rare among researchers and writers who are not directly involved in issues of culture and ethnicity.

It’s amazing to me how often people from outside Asian Studies (say political scientists writing about China) will take bad analysis seriously (often bad analysis by people who are also not Asian Studies people), because they don’t know how to find the right sources (because they’re not familiar with the field) and don’t consult native scholarship (because they can’t read it). The mangled, stereotyped picture of China that appears in books aimed at a general audience… it’s actually not too surprising. The authors are constantly reading misinformed scholarship like their own, which reinforces similarly misguided ideas about China. Whereas, if you read more nuanced scholarship about China, whether done by Chinese scholars or non-Chinese scholars closely involved in what’s going on in the field, the picture that emerges is rather different.

Likewise, I automatically distrust any roleplaying depiction of culture that is not firmly grounded in the cultural background of the author. Outsiders have to — in my eyes — prove themselves a trustworthy authority on another culture, both by showing that they’ve done their homework (in terms of research, education, and experiential background) and also by having description and analysis that are respectful, responsible, and insightful.

And honestly, I hope other people hold me to the same standards. People should not trust my writings on China merely because “Jonathan’s been to China and speaks Chinese and blah blah blah,” but because — each time — I’ve proven myself to be a trustworthy authority. And, unfortunately, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I don’t put in the time necessary to be trustworthy. Sometimes I just say stuff or make stuff up. And I hope people call me on that or, at the very least, don’t listen to the things I say when I’m talking irresponsibly. And it’s my responsibility to make irresponsible assertions as little as possible.

Now, determining who qualifies as an insider or an outsider is a separate and complicated issue. Is Shreyas — coming from an ethnically Indian background and having spent some time in India, but otherwise like a lot of other kids from New Jersey — automatically a trustworthy authority on all things Indian? No, but I trust him enough to be responsible about the limits of his own knowledge and experience, to say, “Y’know, I’m not really sure about that, but this is what I suspect is the case; let me go and double-check.” Other people I might give more or less credit to, based on what I know of them. Determining who you will listen to for information is ultimately, I think, up to each individual to determine.

5 Responses to “Insiders and Outsiders”

  1. Ben Lehman Says:

    Here’s a thing in support of this, involving you and me.

    So you’re Chinese is better than mine. I generally accept your corrections to my language. But, in a couple of situations (one where I was using a snippet of text from a SHE song and more recently when I was talking about a name for Thousand Kings with Sushu), I know I’m dealing with a source that’s more authoritative than you (a native text and a native speaker, respectively), so I make sure to prioritize their input of yours.

    The really useful thing that I’ve learned from this, though, is that I’ve learned something about the way that Jonathan approaches Chinese, which seems to be to err on the side of being wordy and embellished. Since my approach to Chinese is always the opposite (use as few words as possible and you’ll sound more natural, recommended one of my teachers), I can now take your advice as your advice while still realizing that, no matter how good we get at Chinese, you’re always going to recommend that I use more characters when I want to be using less characters.


  2. Ha, cool. I not sure what being wordy in those particular cases says about me. I don’t know if wordiness is an attempt to capture the nuances of the language as opposed to just the general idea or if I like doing more complex things just to show off my linguistic prowess or what. Or maybe I’ve mostly been reading wordy, scholarly Chinese texts and that’s affected my own writing style in the language. In any case, an interesting thing to have noticed. I wonder if it will change now that I’m aware of it?

  3. Ben Lehman Says:

    It may not be that you’re wordy, so much as that I’m terse. I had terseness really drilled into my head when I was learning — the exact quote I’m thinking of was “anything that you can say with four characters you can say with two characters and anything that you can’t say with four characters isn’t worth saying –” and I’m naturally pretty terse in text anyway.


  4. Tim Gray Says:

    As you pointed me over here, I’ll just note – wryly – that the whole kerfuffle blew up in response to an idea for a *5-page* fun experimental thing, based not on real culture but on story media produced by people from that culture.

    I’ve been amazed by how strident and – what’s a less offensive way of saying paranoid? – some of those posts were, and particularly the idea that people need to be policed rather than trusted. It’s certainly affected the way I’ll use Story Games in the future.

  5. Brand Robins Says:


    I tend to not trust any scholar until they’ve proven themselves trustworthy in their knowledge of a source. I do not trust Indian scholarship about Indian history any more than British scholarship about Indian history because of the ethnicity of the researcher, because chances are good both of them will have equally powerful biases. Very different biases, to be sure, but biases none the less.

    In fact, I generally don’t trust any single source fully ever. Any good work of scholarship, in my eyes, has to take reference from multiple different sources. A book that is written on a culture without referencing multiple different points both within and without the culture is likely to not be as good as it could have if the extra effort was put in.

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