Who wants “Freedom”?: Non-Western critiques of the West

Houston recently posted What the Feminist Movement can learn from Islam, about an article written by an Islamic woman that criticizes Western attempts at social development in other countries aimed at ‘raising’ the status of women according to the ethnocentric assumptions of Western feminism. Not the kind of thing you hear every day in Western media, I imagine. Richard Nisbett offers another such critique from the outside in The Geography of Thought.

Consider this a warm-up to the personal identity post. Nisbett ties the following back to the basic differences of perception regarding objects and their contexts, but I won’t attempt that here.

We tolerate an awful lot of poop in the public sphere, to put it mildly, because we value individual “rights” so highly. We buy Voltaire’s “I disagree with what you have to say but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” I’m not saying we’re wrong, necessarily, but it sure is interesting when you can start to understand why many people disagree – or don’t hold that value as highly as we do. Parts of the West have recently spent billions of dollars and thousands of lives on the assumption that everyone will value our brand of “freedom” if given the chance. The truth is: everyone won’t. And it’s long past the time we started trying to understand why.

Can you imagine how our insistence on freedom of expression could be considered by some to be a morally objectionable violation of human rights?

It is also important to recognize that East Asians and other interdependent peoples have their own moral objections to Western behaviour. When East Asian students become comfortable enough to speak out in Western classrooms, they will often express bewilderment at how much disorder, crime, and exposure to violent and sexually explicit images in the media Westerners are willing to tolerate in the name of freedom. They perceive these issues as entailing human rights because rights are perceived as inhering to the collectivity rather than the individual (199).

Some people value social stability and the elimination of harmful content from the public sphere more than they value a Western degree of freedom of expression. Some don’t assume that in a “free market of ideas,” the “right” ideas will always win out over the harmful ones in the long run. And their view of our society is great support for their opinion.

Something I find so interesting – and I’ll have to talk and read some more before really putting any ideas together – is our supervisor’s take on why democracy and rule of law (courts, etc.) aren’t really fitting that well in Taiwan. The cultural factors he’s brought up are fascinating, but more on that after I read and ask some more questions.

8 thoughts on “Who wants “Freedom”?: Non-Western critiques of the West”

  1. [Here again to prove that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.]

    From what I understand [see caveat above], the rise of individual rights and the demise of group rights stems more from the Enlightenment than from a typically “Western” view [don’t worry, I’m not trying to defend “Westernity”, just trying to understand this stuff]. The concept of protecting the herd rather than the individual was a very Western notion [to varying degrees in different places] until the fifteenth or sixteenth centuries. It may well be, though, that there was *more* of an individualism in “Western” society than in non-Western societies.

    I may just have to work human rights into my dissertation, assuming I every start a PhD program.

  2. it seems to my shallow mind that regardless of the system you prefer…

    there are abuses!

    i guess its just a matter of the type of abuse you’re used to…


  3. (Darren – I tried. But that’s the difference between naturally gifted people, like the three of you over there, and guys with average intelligence that just try real hard =)

    I suspect we’re using slightly different definitions of “Western.” I’m guessing that in your field “Western” is primarily a geographical term, and/or perhaps specific to your field. My usage necessarily involves geography but is not so much concerned with or “about” geography as it is with the current dominant worldviews what were spawned in various regions of the globe and are now experiencing increasing interaction.

    I’m using Western here primarily in terms of a particular “worldview heritage” or perhaps a particular “geneology of thought,” and less as a direct geographical designation. We call a particular worldview Western because it traces it’s heritage and development back through Western Europe to the ancient Greco-Roman empire. It takes a geographical name because it is historical product of the cultures of the geographical West, but it’s about the development and characteristics of the particular worldview. It’s the package of often unconscious assumptions about reality shaping the thought and actions of North America, Western Europe, the Enlightenment, and science, and underlies all that modern/post-modern business. But worldviews change and move, and one day we may talk of instances of “Western” worldview in geographically eastern places.

    So, according to my usage it wouldn’t make sense to me to say “that’s not Western, it’s from the Enlightenment” because the Enlightenment is a Western product/phenomenon – actually it’s hard to get more Western than the Enlightenment. It occured in “the West” rather than elsewhere largely (but not entirely) due to aspects of our Greco-Roman and Christian heritage that gave our worldview heritage certain characteristics which predisposed it to the developments known as the Enlightenment.

    The aspects of worldview that I’m hoping to expore are so foundational that virtually everyone’s perspective is built on them (minus the immigrants): atheists, Christians, scientists, communists, both genders, academics, and the guys in that drywall factory. That’s where the real clash is between cultures.

    Sidenote: the term “worldview” is under critique for being too Western and too focused on the mind, but I’m unaware of better options.

  4. Miller – right, both sides use abuses of other systems to condemn those systems, and both sides are usually more comfortable with their side’s abuses than with the other’s. And both condemn the other for putting up with intolerable abuses. It’s also common for people to assume that a good society cannot be created apart from the core values/characteristics of their particular system. We usually define ‘good/best society’ according to the ideals of our own society and justify that conclusion with the abuses of the other society.

    Of course, I’ve met Western and Chinese turncoats, who see little if anything worthwhile in their own society and embrace a naive picture of another.

    But this isn’t just a case of our abuses jading one another’s opinions. It has more to do with having different values, and where we have similar values each side prioritizes them differently. Our respective systems express our particular value ranking. How would we prioritize individualism, freedom of expression, stability, honour, security? I want to not just identify different values but actually understand those values and what’s underneath them. That’s a lifelong project, I suspect.

  5. Thanks for your patience on this one — let’s hope you have a lot left.

    I think you have a point about my thought as geographical, but as a historian I’m thinking more temporal. Does Western refer to “Enlightenment-ish” worldviews (add apost to the beginning if you want) or any form of thought that is in the genealogy of the Greco-Roman civilisations (eg. Medieval European, which is by no means “Enlightenment”)?

    Could be that I have far too limited a perspective of non-Western cultures (but they still gave me the MA!) to really get a handle on the divergences of thought. That and I’m pretty dense, all accusations of natural giftedness aside.

  6. Western would refer to everything from the deepest (often unconcious) worldview assumptions associated with Western civilization (things that atheists would hold in common with Christian fundamentalists, for example) to the particular products and trends produced by that civilization (more superficial). So we could refer to Western pop music, food, technologies, or worldview assumptions.

    Medieval European thought was the Western thought of its day. It’s historic – but not current – Western thought. We might say that current Western thought is shaped in part by Medieval Western thought.

    There’s no claim that Western thought has been the same, or that we think the same as the ancient Greeks. The label Western refers to the characteristics of Western civilization, which change over time. Though it could be said that the deepest, foundational assumptions of Western thought have changed very little over the years… or at least much less than the particular philosophies and lifestyles that have in turn been dominant throughout the centuries. It’s in our cultural heritage and development that we find many answers for why we think currently think the way we do, and about the things we do.

    Sorry I’m so vague… I’ve never actually had to explain this particular term before. This is one of those categories we just absorbed, rather than being taught explicitly.

  7. Ready for some big-picture irony?

    One of the latest covers of a Canadian news commentary magazine has a photo of a very determined young obviously-Islamic person, with the caption: ‘Why the Future Belongs to Islam” (The West is old, exhausted, … Islam is young, energetic …) You might also be aware of the controversy in England re Islamic young women wearing face coverings, and how some take that as “making a statement of rejection” of their host country’s Western culture …

    So while libertine Europe (and eventually North America?) is preparing to submerge beneath the waves of the rising “Islamist” Islamic tide — surely a harbinger of even greater personal choice in an ever-widening array of alternatives ;-) — other cultures which have had a history of antagonism to the gods of choice and mass consumption are now in the process of jettisoning their moral/ethical restraints (e.g. see “Sexy Beijing’s” urban interviews on love & marriage). In these other emerging cultures, the search is on for a structure to contain freedom that won’t destroy either the freedom or the structure, as the rising tide of extreme personal freedom submerges the old ways …

    So the tide flows one way in some places, and the other way in other places. And very quickly in both, perhaps.

    I have no idea what all this means, but reading the history of our times from the vantage point of 500 years from now will be very interesting indeed!

  8. I have a hard time imagining China now or in three decades being handcuffed by “political correctness” in the ways that Western Europe and (eventually) North America are. I also have a hard time disagreeing with the idea that the West is digging its own grave. When the hedonistic individual is the basic unit of your society rather than a family (which makes babies and enculturates the young), and those in power are so tied down to political special interest groups that they can’t directly address overt threats to their civilization’s way of life… makes me glad we’re learning Chinese! ;)

    Does that count as talking politics? I said I wouldn’t talk poiltics on here. :)

    The Muslim ethnic minorities in China are big, but they sort of throw a spin on the whole Islam expansion deal. They are decidedly Muslim as an ethnic group, but they are also so ‘Chinese about it’ that they apparently aren’t considered faithful Muslims according to Islam’s conservatives. Yet they are a key factor in China’s relationship with the Middle East. Oh, I wish I could remember what article it was! If I find it I’ll send it to you. It seems like China has this amazing historical nack for absorbing other cultural influences and Chinese-ifying them almost beyond recognition. =) When social harmony is your goal, force is a readily available option, rule of law isn’t trusted in principle, abstract things like theology or ‘consistency’ are decidedly second next to pragmatic daily concerns… Islam will have it’s work cut out for it.

    Re: the jettisoning of morals as seen in the “Sexy Beijing” episodes… we have that video and others aready drafted as future posts. In the one where there’s a particulary disgusting guy talking about all the different women he’s been with – that guy’s a foreigner, and he actually represents a stereotype we’ve encountered in Taipei (and one that’s known throughout Asia) of foreign guys treating whatever Chinese city they’re in as their personal sexual playground. There’s enough of them that there’s even a category label for foreigners who blog about their sexual exploits in China. The area of Beijing in which that interview was done is called Sanlitun – it’s a bar steet in Beijing popular with foreigners and rich Chinese. So it’s not exactly representative of the “average Zhou.”

    Views of morals, family, marriage, etc., are no doubt changing, but it’s still a thin minority of Chinese who have achieved this upper-class Western-style consumer life. Even in Taipei where there is/was a more established middle-class and greater Westernization for longer, they still seem socially conservative by Western standards. At least the adults do – I don’t know about the average 20-somethings, and that’s just the impression we get.

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