A Global Village?

Assuming, of course, that the world actually survives this century:

When historians look back on our century, they may remember it most, not for space travel or the release of nuclear energy, but as the time when the peoples of the world first came to take one another seriously.

Huston Smith, The World’s Religions (1991), pg. 7.

A little rosy, perhaps – I would put the quote in this century and change the last bit to: “… when some of the peoples of the world were forced to take one another seriously” – but I still like it.

One anthropologist we’ve read considers the “global village” idea, which – you may have noticed – is part of our blog’s tagline, to be misleading and naive.

Societies may appear to be growing similar as politics, products, technologies, Wal-Mart, Coke, Nike, Pokemon, and (please spare us) Hello Kitty spread around the globe. But meanings, worldview assumptions, thought processes… these things don’t change nearly as fast or as easily. Writing in 1996, this author points out that we often speak of Japan as a “Westernized” nation, but the deeper and more important cultural differences remain vast.

We have geographic proximity; international urban centres boast diverse populations, and advances in travel and communication make every corner of the globe easily accessible. But this does not mean we are living together the same world; such an assumption seems, according to him, “the height of naiveness.” In our languages and worldview differences, we in effect participate in separate realities at the deepest levels; the close physical proximity of our homes and products doesn’t change this fact.

Living in Taiwan and listening to our boss talk about underlying causes for differences in everything from rule of law to driving habits has made me consider this critique more than I would have before arriving in Asia. I still think that the spread of technology and products will continue to have a profound effect on the world’s cultures, including our own. But perhaps it’s less potent and slower than I previously assumed.

Regardless of how poorly people of different cultures understand one another, how separate our ‘thought-worlds’ are, or how little of our selves and others meaningfully transcends the cultural differences as we attempt to share our lives, we must at least still deal with one another’s increasing influence on our lives whether we understand it or not.

The way I see it (thanks for asking), we live in a global village that contains many different worlds, and the sooner we learn to understand one another and communicate, the better (in spite of what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy says).

It’s a Zen thing

Imagine for a minute what it would be like if your university prof, sports coach, or Sunday school teacher taught like a Zen master. From The World’s Religions (1991), by Huston Smith (emphasis mine):

…it has its own texts… but one glance at these distinctive texts will reveal how unlike other scriptures they are. Almost entirely they are given to pressing home the fact that Zen cannot be equated with any verbal formula whatsoever. Account after account will depict disciples interrogating their masters about Zen, only to received a roared “Ho!” for answer. For the master sees that through such questions, seekers are trying to fill the lack in their lives with words and concepts instead of realizations. Indeed, students will be lucky if they get off with verbal rebuffs. Often a rain of blows will be the retort as the master, utterly uninterested in his disciples’ physical comfort, resorts to the most forceful way he can think of to pry the questioner out of his mental rut… Zen masters may order their disciples to rip their scriptures to shreds and avoid words like Buddha or nirvana as if they were smut. They intend no disrespect. What they are doing is straining by every means they can think of to blast their novices out of solutions that are only verbal… Zen is not interested in theories about enlightenment; it wants the real thing. So it shouts, and buffets, and reprimands… [to] force the student to crash the word-barrier. Minds must be sprung from their verbal bonds into a new mode of apprehending.

Zen masters are determined that their students attain the experience itself, not allow talk to take its place (131-132).

I wonder how often our profs wished they could just haul off and smack us on the head with a meter stick. Probably best not to ask.

But regarding the bolded parts… I think all us grad students ought to be banished to monasteries to meditate on those bolded parts before we’re allowed to open our mouths (or blogs), but I’m in a good mood and this is supposed to be a happy place. :D As a wiser man than me pointed out, I don’t want to end up like those two old guys on the Muppets. Still, I think there’s a point or three to be made here.

Negotiating life: accept or revolt?

Should life be about simply accepting what is and striving to live harmoniously in relation to set conditions largely beyond our control (like fate, hierarchy in human relationships and society, and animistic/pantheistic forces)? Or, should people concern themselves not just with what is, but how it should be? Or can be? Or was intended to be?

I have no idea how accurate these thoughts are regarding Chinese people – I’m just wondering out loud – but it seems that Westerners and Easterners in general answer these questions very differently. My default impulse is to reject the way things are and attempt to make them the way I think they should be. Apparently, Chinese people don’t typically feel this way.

In The World’s Religions (1991), Huston Smith contrasts the ancient Hebrew’s understanding of anthropology and the created world – an influential part of the West’s worldview heritage – with that of their contemporaries. This got me thinking about aspects typical of a Chinese approach to life. Smith says regarding non-Hebraic ancient near east worldviews:

If one’s eye is on nature preeminently, one does not look beyond it for fulfillment elsewhere. Neither – and this is the point – does one dream of improving nature or the social order that is its extension, for those are assumed to be ingrained in the nature of things and not subject to human alteration. The Egyptian no more asked whether the sun god Ra was shining as he should shine than the modern astronomer asks whether the sun is expending itself at a proper rate; for in nature the accent is one what is, not what should be – the is rather than the ought (284-5).

Not so for the ancient Jews:

What divides the Hebraic from the Chinese view of nature does not come out until we note a third verse in this crucial first chapter of Genesis. In verse 26 God says of the people he intends to create: “Let them have dominion… over all the earth.” …[The] opposite sentiment is in the Tao Te Ching:

Those who would take over the earth
And shape it to their will
Never, I notice, succeed.

If we propositionalize the three key assertions about nature in the opening pages of Genesis –
God created the earth;
let [human beings] have dominion over the earth;
behold, it was very good…

– we find an appreciation of nature, blended with confidence in human powers to work with it for good, that in its time was exceptional” (278-9).

beyondthechinesefacecover.jpgIn Beyond the Chinese Face: Insights from Psychology, Michael Harris Bond describes the “Chinese belief in the naturalness, necessity, and inevitability of hierarchy” as one of several defining themes for the Chinese as a whole:

It is self-evident to the Chinese that all men are born unequal. An efficient society requires a broadly accepted ordering of people. The alternative to hierarchy is chaos (luan) and anarchy, which are together worse than harsh authority (118).

From what I can see (not much at this point!), it seems that Chinese typically favour hierarchy not because they necessarily prefer it. Questions involving hierarchy vs. egalitarianism, from this perspective, are questions about the unalterable nature of existence, not personal preference. Reality is hierarchical, and since reality doesn’t care that much about your personal preference, living is not a matter of trying to change the world to suit your personal preference. Hierarchy is accepted. If your personal preference is for peace and harmony and stability, then you lay down the pursuit of other personal preferences in an effort to live in accordance with “nature and the social order that it its extension” (Smith, 285). It is self-evident to the Chinese that all men are born unequal. An efficient society requires a broadly accepted ordering of people. The alternative to hierarchy is chaos (luan) and anarchy, which are together worse than harsh authority (118).