The Tank Man: Language Defines Reality

A Chinese protestor blocks a line of tanks heading east on Beijing's Changan Blvd. June 5, 1989 in front of the Beijing Hotel. The man, calling for an end to the violence and bloodshed against pro-democracy demonstrators at Tiananmen Square, was pulled away by bystanders, and the tanks continued on their way.

A Chinese protestor blocks a line of tanks heading east on Beijing’s Changan Blvd. June 5, 1989 in front of the Beijing Hotel. The man, calling for an end to the violence and bloodshed against pro-democracy demonstrators at Tiananmen Square, was pulled away by bystanders, and the tanks continued on their way.

Before you read this article please watch this clip. This is one of my favorite clips of all time: Tank Man Raw Footage

If you do not know who this man is, he is known as the tank man and the event is the protest of Tiananmen Square June 5, 1989 (the year I was born, an auspicious year!)

Every time I watch this footage or look at the clip I get chills. Yet this man remains unknown to this day. He disappeared into the crowds shortly after his “moment of self-transcendence.” Not only is this man’s identity a mystery, but so are the details of the event itself, the student protest of Tiananmen Square. The Chinese government has never disclosed the actual number of deaths. The Chinese government wants to play it off as if it never happened. They will not acknowledge that they were wrong while the students were right. Read the TIME’s 1989 cover story: here

This brings me to the point of this article stated in the sub-title: language defines reality. The one who tells the story controls the narrative. This has been repeated over and over again in history. Let me give some examples.

Armenian Genocide

I did my undergrad in Turkey. There, we were required to take a class on Turkish History. The professor was exceptional, except for one thing; she was in denial about the Armenian genocide (1915-1918; estimated deaths 1.5 million) . She taught that 1 million Armenians simply died from the difficult trek across Turkey. Even when I asked my class mates about this event, they had no opinion on it. It just didn’t happen or the fact that it happened or not did not matter to them.


I also lived in Ukraine for 6 years. Everyone knows about the Holocaust (1938-1945) where 6 million Jews were killed and 5 million non-Jews. But what about the artificial famine in Ukraine (1932-1933) were 7 million Ukrainians were starved to death, not because of a lack of food but because of a ruthless decree? The world did not know about it and foreign correspondents who knew kept quiet. Even today so many people don’t know about it. Watch a trailer on it: here.

Injustice like this continues to happen today. When I was in Ukraine this time last year a Malaysian airliner was shot down.

“Russia, however, denied all allegations it supplied weaponry to the rebels and has instead suggested a Ukrainian military plane had flown within firing range of the airliner just before it came down. The Ukrainian government rejected the claims.”

If Russia did not supply the weaponry, who did? It is obvious that Ukraine lacks the military artillery to bring down a plane. Moreover, that week Ukrainian planes had been shot down, so are they saying that Ukrainians are shooting their own planes? Not only that but when Media blames the “Pro-Russian Separatists” Who do you think is funding the pro-Russians? Think about it.

Anyway I write this article not so that all those reading will think the same way that I do, but so that those reading will see how language dictates reality. Communist governments have taken advantage of this. Look at North Korea, they indoctrinate their people with the idea that they are the best, that they live in plenty and that the outside world is their enemy. Their reality is spoon fed to them by their government.

The same thing happens here in the US. Everyone eats up what the media gives them. The problem is not a lack of education or resources, but a lack of interest. Ray Bradbury said, “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” My plea for those who read this is to get educated on the Armenian Genocide, Holodomor, Darfur , Arab-Israeli Conflict, Tiananmen Square, etc. Do not just eat up everything on tv. Do that brave tank man justice and hear his story. Do not let the government rob him of his identity a second time.

I want to finish with a quote from Azar Nafisi:

“I want to remind you of what Nabokov wrote when he was asked to tone down his criticism of the Soviet Union during World War II: ‘Governments come and go, only the trace of genius remains.’ That statement certainly came true for Eastern Europe. When you tell your own story, you take control over reality. In Iran, reality had power over us. And one way of negating that control was by telling our own stories. When you tell your story from your own perspective, then those people lose their power. It’s like Scheherazade, in A Thousand and One Nights. She changed the King through telling the story, and that was the whole idea of my book.”

What are your reactions to this article? Have you heard about the Tiananmen Square Masssacre, the Armenian Genocide, Holodomor or the Malaysian Airliner shot down July 2014 before? Do you agree that language determines reality? What is the story that you will share with the world? Do you  Question Everything?

Additional Reading:

5 Things You Should Know About the Tiananmen Square Massacre



  1. Thanks for sharing this, MJ. I really can’t think of anyone who would have any serious or major objections to what you wrote…except those who want to control some narrative based on their own agenda.

    Two quotes come to mind, both of which I’ve shared on previous posts:

    “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” Chinua Achebe, Nigerian novelist, poet, professor, critic and author of Things Fall Apart. – See more at:

    “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” Anne Lamott.

  2. forestsfailyou

    People are entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts.

  3. MJ, this is another deep-thinking article. I don’t have a lot to say in regard to the events you mentioned. I do see myself as the “tank man”, standing in front of the ubf authority figures. And I just love this part of the quote you mentioned: “When you tell your own story, you take control over reality.” This is exactly why I wrote my three books, and working on my next book, about ubf. This is something ubf just fails to see: This is MY life. This is MY story. You lost ALL power over me.

    Here are my thoughts on your questions:

    What are your reactions to this article?
    > Well, my reaction is rather odd. June 5, 1989. That was just a few months after my father’s untimely death from ALS. It was likely exam time for me, either just finishing or just starting final exams for my second year of college. I had already moved into “ubf common life” and was just about to fully get lost in the ubf system, jumping head first into the ubf ideology and fully adopting the KOPAHN ubfism lifestyle. How ironic that the “tank man” incident on June 5, 1989 was the vision of who I would become to ubf?

    Have you heard about the Tiananmen Square Masssacre, the Armenian Genocide, Holodomor or the Malaysian Airliner shot down July 2014 before?

    > Yes I have hear about all of these, but I know very little. From what I know, your thoughts on Russia and Ukraine are spot on. But I will leave such things to Chris and others who have much more insight than I do.

    I’ll answer the other questions later on.

    • I deliberately do not mention the Russian information warfare here, because I can predict that it will lead to unproductive dispute and discord with our Russian readers, who are exposed to that propaganda every day on all channels in Russia, many of which I fear bought into the world view that is propagated there. Though it may be useful to discuss these things, better let’s not do it here, because it will distract from the real topics of this site, and cause unnecessary tension and quarrel.

    • Good point Chris. Thanks for tagging the excellent post about spiritual abuse. We need to keep those topics front and center if we are to be any kind of friend to ubfers.

  4. Joe Schafer

    MJ, thanks for a thoughtful article. Our language not only shapes our perception of historical events, but our personal life stories and identity.

    Here is a fascinating article about the (very predictable and utilitarian) ways that evangelical Christians share their life testimonies.

    • +1 I was very sorry to hear about Tchividjian’s infidelity. But I was even more sorry (disgusted even) at the way he basically blamed his wife for starting it and/or causing him to fall.

      It’s like a church, any church, blaming negative press for causing their people to leave the church.

    • Mark Driscoll is playing a similar victim card which appears to be working wonders for him. His new ministry will most likely be up and running soon.

    • forestsfailyou

      This is really eye opening. I have never understood why someone would pidgeon hole their life story into this Prodigal son story. You are everything that have made you as God has planned, you disgrace God and yourself when you attempt to rewrite your story.

      Last night a life testimony was given at the conference that followed these lines. From a terrible person before coming to UBF to a faithful disciple after. He was set free from worldly pursuits to dedicate himself. He married (Godly) and now he seeks to double down on his efforts becoming a prayer warrior.

      But the problem is is this is not true. As I know this person I know he was raised Christian, I know he was not baptized in UBF, I know he dated and yet remained abstinent until marriage. I do know that when he was set “free” from worldly pursuits he means he gave up a lot of his hobbies. If those hobbies were bad for him I don’t know, but to universally categorize them as ungodly on the basis of some duelist identity is the mark of fanaticism. I even know his ex girlfriend who noted that he left all his friends, he seemed to abandon them and even at his wedding his “friends” were left asking who he was even marrying.

    • MJ Peace

      Thanks for sharing this. Its so interesting how the same stimuli can be interpreted in so many different ways. For example, two can look upon the same black starry sky and see 1.)emptiness/meaninglessness or 2.) the vastness and glory of God. Humans are meaning seekers/interpreters /story tellers. I like the ending of the article where it says life is not what we live but what we remember. It s the stories that we tell ourselves that remain. The whole 3 part life testimony is a type of narrative. While talking to one of my friends about writing a life testimony she said sadly, “you sinned before you met Jesus, but I sinned after I met him.” However, that is not true. My friend was just more honest than I was.

  5. MJ,

    Here are my thoughts on your other questions:

    “Do you agree that language determines reality?”
    > I cannot agree with that statement, as worded, because language often determines fantasy as well as reality. The ubf loaded language is one such case. It is possible to distinguish between reality and fantasy. I do however see the essence of this statement as being true. Language is so important and so very powerful. Language does indeed often determine our reality for us. My only point is that other factors also determine our reality, such as relationships, geography, etc.

    “What is the story that you will share with the world?”
    > I took back the power ubf had over me by telling the story of my life from my perspective. I reject the Shepherd X narrative given to me. You can of course read all about my story in my three books :)

    “Do you Question Everything?’
    > Yes.