No – we’re not in the throes of culture shock. Here’s Kishore Mahbubani’s explanation for that title in his own words:
It represents essentially two questions folded into one. The first, addressed to my fellow Asians, reads “Can you think? If you can, why have Asian societies lost a thousand years and slipped far behind the European societies that they were far ahead of at the turn of the last millennium? …”
The second question, addressed primarily to my friends in the West, is “Can Asians think for themselves?” … Most Westerners cannot see that they have arrogated to themselves the moral high ground from which they lecture the world. The rest of the world can see this (10).
He goes on to make the point that, if there is to be any meaningful discussion between Asians and Westerners, then we’ve got to quit assuming and acting like our civilization is morally superior (60-61). And that the virtually unstoppable economic and demographic forces currently in play guarantee that “the West” will have to take the worldview of “the Rest” seriously sooner or later.
Can Asian’s Think? Understanding the Divide Between East and West is basically the geopolitical opinions and predictions of a career Asian diplomat in which he highlights the vast gulf between Eastern and Western minds. Since I’m not personally into the politics and comprehend even less about economics, the book’s value for me is that it’s the perspective of an educated Asian who’s familiar with the West and has spent a lifetime engaged in cross-cultural/international dialogue. I think his question to us is worth considering – and soon we (as a culture) may not have the luxury of ignoring it anyway.
The nature of the world we live in will increasingly require of us (Westerners) to be open to having foundational assumptions/values of our culture questioned by people who don’t and never have shared those assumptions/values.
If we in “the West” are ever going to afford those in “the Rest” a base level of respect and dignity (as in, we’d dialogue with them as equals), we’re going to have to give up a lot of cherished assumptions. Or we’ll at least have to allow those assumptions to be questioned and take those questions seriously. Many of our cultural “sacred cows” (“freedom,” individualism/individual actualization, democracy, etc.) are precisely what many Easteners have issues with. These guys criticize individualism, freedom of the press, the way we do “human rights” – and they’re serious:
…when I tried … to challenge the universal applicability of democracy, human rights, or freedom of the press, I discovered that these values had become virtual “sacred cows.” No one could challenge their instrinsic worth. Worse still, when I persisted I was greeted with sniggers, smug looks, and general derision (59-60).
And this was his reception at Harvard.
My point is not that it’s wrong to believe that our culture’s particular values are right. But how can we suggest ways of thinking and living (as the West continually does), assuming that our culture’s particular values are morally superior and universal, when we can’t even comprehend why other cultures object to our ideas in the first place?
If we truly value and respect people, then we’ll take other people seriously even when they really really don’t see eye to eye with us. Eventually we (as a culture) may not have a choice anyway.
And perhaps “the Rest” have perspectives worth listening to? Perhaps, just perhaps, we shouldn’t necessarily assume that the Western approach to life is the best possible approach to life?
- Can Asians think? The struggle of Asian societies to thrive in the modern world while maintaining their cultural heritage. By Kishore Mahbubani.
- “Can Asians think?” Singapore’s ambassador to the U.N. talks about his controversial new book and the gulf between Western and Eastern minds. By Suzy Hansen (Salon interview)
- It’s True. Asians Can’t Think. Until it abandons its twisted Confucianism, the region will trail the West. By Sin-Ming Shaw (TimeAsia).
- ‘Do Your Own Homework’: Asian Students Should Learn to Think for Themselves. When a Vietnamese American author fields anxious e-mails from high school students seeking help with their English essays, he reflects on Asian conformity and the American ego. By Andrew Lam (Pacific News Service).