Les Autres

Posted in Anthropology, Philosophy, Singapore, Travel by Arasmus on February 22, 2007

I am generally in favor of political correctness. It has helped to create a new code of manners and etiquette that at the very least points the way to a more inclusive and respectful society for all. But it has also had a prophylactic effect, preventing an acknowledgment and discussion of the differences between social groups and cultures, a confession of our inner thoughts and ignorance and the consequent growth to a more thorough and educated view of the differences that make us unique and interesting.

With that by way of apology, let me proceed to confess my perspective. The biggest difference that I see between Western cultures and those that I have experienced to date in Asia relates to the role of the individual in society. It is not an extreme difference but one of degree. I was most recently reminded of this today when reading an article about Singaporean literature. The article made the general observation that Singaporean literature in Malay, Chinese and Tamil concerns itself with issues of daily life and interweaves these into the fabric of larger nationalistic, patriotic and social events. By contrast, Singaporean literature in the English language is described as concerned with the individual and extrapolating human experience. I have a feeling that this distinction is an urgent one, because given the economic rise of China, the West is going to have to work with China as a partner to develop a global consensus on complicated issues such as international human rights, bioethics and privacy rights. These discussions will take place in the space between these two different views of the role of the individual in society.

The Western viewpoint is that, as Lord Acton put it, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The West feels this has been the lesson of our history from the tyranny of Roman emperors and medieval kings to the great evils of Nazism and slavery. Individual rights, and the individualism that they reflect and encourage, are seen as a check on the dangerous accumulation of power by government and bureaucracy. This perspective of the central role of the individual owes something to the religious traditions of Western society. The Judeo-Christian tradition (greatly influenced by the Persian Zoroastrians), views the world from the perspective of the individual, his relationship with God, and his path through a life of choices between good and evil. The actor is the individual, choice is his script and society is the backdrop.

The Asian perspective to me seems different, at least at this point in my education; society is the actor, harmony is the script and the individual is the backdrop. While walking in a classical Chinese garden yesterday I came across a statue of Confucius, on the side of which was written an excerpt from his dialogues. It stated; “[w]hen the Great Way prevailed, every person was a part of public society and public society belonged to everyone. The virtuous and the able were chosen for public office. Fidelity and friendliness were valued by all. People not only loved their own parents and children, but loved the parents and children of others as well. The elderly lived their last years in happiness; able-bodied adults were usefully employed; children were reared properly. Widowers, widows, orphans, the childless aged, the crippled and the ailing were well cared for. All men shared their social responsibilities and all women have their respective roles. Natural resources were fully used for the benefit of all and not appropriated for selfish ends. People wanted to contribute their strength and ability to society for public good and not for private gain. Trickery and intrigue could not occur in such a society. Robbery, larceny and other crimes all disappeared. Gates and doors were not locked, no one ever thought of stealing. This was the Age of the Great Commonwealth of peace and prosperity.” What is clear from this description of the ideal society is that the perspective is not the individual first and then society but society first with consequent benefits for the individual.

Both the West and the East share the same goal of “the good society” but they differ in how they think it can be achieved. I think the difference in viewpoints is cultural and not the function of economic development because I have also noticed this difference in perspective in Japan, a country that has been one of the wealthiest countries in the world now for almost two centuries. As a Westerner, I am concerned that the unchecked accumulation of state power, gathered in the guise of perpetuating social harmony, will lead to a corruption with a terrible toll in human life. I can imagine that the Asian perspective is that the rampant individualism of the West has led to a disharmonious society, riven by unlimited greed that will end with a terrible toll in human life. I think that we can each learn from the other – it is true that individual rights without economic growth may be poor consolation, but it is also true that economic growth depends on individual rights. As technology and trade bring once seperate civilizations into common society, there is much to be gained from a dialogue between our different persepctives, for the sake of both harmony and freedom.


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