“A Whale of a Tale” Questions Cultural Narcissism

New film spotlights the effects of the Academy Award winning film "The Cove."

Posted Aug 23, 2018

Courtesy Fine Line Media
Source: Courtesy Fine Line Media

New Yorker Megumi Sasaki’s new documentary, A Whale of a Tale, provides important perspective on the Japanese town that the Academy Award winning film The Cove made famous, or infamous, and the dangers of the media glare. Sasaki was struck by the one-sidedness of The Cove, which scapegoated fishermen engaged in a 400+ year old cultural tradition of whale and dolphin hunting as subhuman villains. She brings depth and nuance to this story, taking us into the lives of the Taiji townspeople and their own sense of heritage, food culture and way of life deeply impacted by filmmakers and studios with multi-million dollar budgets, and activists riding high on their sense of self-righteous indignation, none of them seemingly with concern for their impact on human beings or communities. While The Cove was lauded by Hollywood, and won an Academy Award, it could be seen as representing cultural narcissism at its media worst. Sasaki’s film is an important antidote to some behaviors exhibited by those who advance their opinions in a self-centered way online and in real life. (See my previous blog post Social Media and IRL: Narcissistic Attachment to Opinion.)

A Whale of a Tale is in theaters now in New York City, and will open in LA August 24th, San Francisco September 7th, and Seattle September 14th.

We all share responsibility for the world we create with our actions, speech and intentions. A Whale of a Tale utilizes a non-sensationalistic, thoughtful approach to deal with important issues in our world culture. I urge you to see it.

I sat down with Sasaki. Watch the interview below, and consider the following points about the dynamics of cultural narcissism.

Scapegoating, Bullying, Harassing

The self-centered playbook can include strident attacks on a target. Scapegoating, bullying and villainization occur. The world is split into “us” and “them” to advance a political or personal agenda. Self-righteous and defensive concerns trump humility and respect for others. As human beings, we can all be prone to seeing the world in black and white terms, and losing our sense of common humanity. We may fall into being disagreeable when we disagree, or worse. We lose empathy for those we disagree with. This happened as activists protested the Taiji fishermen, and as the filmmakers of The Cove advanced their cause. I saw how people can lose their empathy as they identified with a “cause” instead of being related and relatable human beings. They seemed to turn into crusaders on a mission. In a similar way, some Japanese were pressured into defense of culture and tradition, instead of grappling with the underlying issues. If we simply attack, defend and counterattack, we don’t get to understanding, relatedness and real change.

Power Corrupts

Social psychologist Dacher Keltner has found in his research that as people gain power, they can lose empathy. (See his book The Power Paradox.) The media has enormous power to influence. If a media outlet (a filmmaker or a news network, for example) is unchecked, they can cause enormous damage. Individuals with wealth and power can neglect and devalue the relationships that granted them power in the first place, or view people as simply tools to gain wealth, power and status. We should all be wary of how we use our power in relationship – but more so if we hold power in society. As powerful and significant as The Cove was, it left a wake of damage from which Taiji is still recovering.

Individualistic and Collectivistic Ways of Viewing the World

The extreme narcissist or individualist views relationships as a win-lose proposition. It’s always “me against you,” and the individual or tribe must always defend itself against others by attacking them. A more collectivistic viewpoint seeks to balance relationships and agendas. The US is traditionally a more individualistic society, while Japan leans collectivistic. However, one could argue that a collectivism has been vying with individualism for much of American history. We strive for “a more perfect union” and yet advance individual rights. Do filmmakers and others only believe in their rights, or do they have responsibilities as well? Sasaki’s film is a great example of responsible filmmaking.

Antidotes to Self-Centeredness and Bias

Cultivation of the Belief in a True Good sSelf

Harvard psychologist Julian De Freitas found that thinking about others as possessing a true good self reduced inter-group bias. How to deal with people, organizations and media outlets that play on division, fear and hatred? This is the question facing us all. Sasaki offers one possibility. 


As I heard Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s mother said to him: “It’s nice to be important….but it’s more important to be nice.” Civility and kindness go a long way in building relationship in times of conflict.

Build Trust

We seem to be at a lowpoint of declining trust over decades. There are many reasons for that, but one reason researchers point to is that there are more minorities and vulnerable groups now, especially among the millennials, who have the lowest levels of trust of any generation. When you are more vulnerable, you have a lower reservoir to fall back on in case of misplaced trust. IMHO, you can only build trust if you strive to be trustworthy yourself, and strive to be connected to others in a trustworthy fashion. Journalist Jay Alabaster, in Sasaki’s film, moved to Taiji to learn about their culture. Sasaki herself cultivated relationships in order to understand.

Deepen Empathy and Understanding

Trying to understand and relate to those you disagree with might be more difficult and take longer than simply trying to defeat or shame them – but far more worthwhile. “We are who happens to us and what we make of the happening,” I write in Facebuddha: Transcendence in the Age of Socila Networks. Who do you want to be, to yourself and others? 

Look for Long-Term Gains

“Life is short, the art is long.” Relationships are an art form, and they take time and attention. I think we would all do better to cultivate connections to community and each other as we face our myriad challenges. (As a bonus, read or listen to my poem “America in Crisis, America in Transition”, part of “36 Views of San Francisco,” recently released online. You can also listen to my presentation on “Narcissism in the American Psyche and Social Media” on Soundcloud.

(c) 2018 Ravi Chandra, M.D., D.F.A.P.A.


De Freitas J, Cikara M. (2018) Deep down my enemy is good: thinking about the true self reduces intergroup bias. Journal of Exp Soc Psychology. 74:307-316