Throwing the baby out with the bath water
I have mentioned in previous blogs that I believe people around the world value much of the same basic things such as freedom to express themselves (their opinions, religion, etc) and some control of the political climate of their society. There may be plenty of other freedoms people value to varying degrees over the world. Some groups may value these more than others due to the contingencies of culture and so forth but most people around the world do value them at some level in my opinion and the voices that contribute to the development and application of these concepts ought not be relegated to those strictly from the west. We ignore their development at our own peril.
Our site here depends on our ability to freely express how we feel even if it may be different from what the US government or most of the public thinks. We all value our freedom to express our views in blogs. I take that as implicit acknowledgement of the value of free expression by all of us.
This is why it comes off as quite surprising to me why some Chinese Americans or in other parts of the west who are supportive of China’s perspective in general tend to have such antagonistic attitudes towards basic rights such as the freedom of expression. I think that many Chinese people inside China are fighting hard like people in the west to protect many of these basic freedoms from encrouchment.
There are legit criticisms of the west from the Chinese people. However, one should not think that all concepts from the west are mistaken or wrong for China. They should be evaluated on a case by case manner. There should also be a questioning of whether certain concepts are distinctly western or maybe the basic intuitions behind them are common to all peoples. How well these concepts will be applicable need to be evaluated carefully but in order for that to happen, an accurate assessment of what they actually are need to take place. That is why it is important for Chinese people to study western cultural and philosophical history to see how and why these concepts were articulated by western people in the past and to think carefully to see if they are indeed applicable to China in the future. Ideas may have to be modified or they may not be applicable at all for practical or theoretical reasons. But it serves no good to dismiss a strawman version of such concepts (as I believe that Eric X. Li does. See here).
I believe that China has much to offer the west but there is also cross cultural dialogue. In order for the west to take China seriously, we need to demand that people in the west listen to us and for them to do that we may have to reciprocate and listen carefully to what if anything the other side is offering. Serious study of the history of ideas both Chinese and western, past and modern can be achieved only through commitment to studying them with open-minded and dedicated effort. This is why I am quite pleased that the Chinese government has not decreased its spending on philosophy departments inside China’s university’s and in fact, increased funding and interest.
Interest in philosophy is now huge in China. A recent article in the NYTs claimed that the political philosopher Michael Sandel (see some of his lectures on justice online) has “rock star” like status in China’s institutions of higher education (Sandel taught lectures at Tsinhua and fulltime at Harvard). Sandel has said that his Chinese students are very well informed on philosophical matters. The reason for this interest by the Chinese students and the government seems to be the realization that a vital aspect of building a successful society is its philosophical foundations. They also must realize that philosophical discussions between Chinese side and the western side can improve understanding and societies built on firmer foundations all over the world (see a good case for this made by a Chinese philosopher here in the chinadaily).
Many of the ideas developed by past and modern western ethicists, legal scholars, and intellectuals may be very helpful in developing a successful, modern Chinese society. Even when they are not helpful directly, they may help Chinese to better understand themselves, their own history and culture.
So in the spirit of mutual understanding, I am suggesting that we not dismiss, without serious thinking, any tradition “from” the west (indeed, there may be analogous developments that mirror them in China’s history as Ray and I have talked about). The tone westerners have used in lecturing to China is often an insincere, haughty, condescending one but we need to realize that these people are not interested in dialogue but have ulterior motives (such as one from cultural centrism, paternalism, or worse, racism). It is a shame that many ideas that may be important for Chinese people to think about may be dismissed because it is lumped in as western Trojan Horses with cultural hegemony or an unfit idea on the inside because of the experience from dealing with those westerners that are not concerned with dialogue. This is why I think so many Chinese nationalists dismiss human rights and democracy without seriously studying them first as I believe Eric X. Li has done.
But I also understand that the mere mention of certain concepts that has had a history of being used disingenuously by westerners as a tool to make China bend to the will of westerners has been associated and may be sullied by that association in the minds of many Chinese people. Perhaps we can take things like human rights and democracy and change the names to something distinctly our own so that the association is not apparent, we don’t see them as something distinctly western but see them as something that all people has a role in contributing towards. In that way, we become participants to the continual dialogue to improve and refine those concepts and to make them relevant for China’s future development. But what should be call them? Perhaps we should simply stop all talk of human rights and democracy and should replace those broad, vague monikers with more nuanced terms (there may be many kinds of democracy and many kinds of human rights)?