Can Asians Think?

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?

Related articles:

  • 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).

6 thoughts on “Can Asians Think?”

  1. Excellent stuff, keep putting it out there. A very brief testing of it with some of our friends seems to support the questions and challenges you’re talking about.

    Gan bei

  2. And you guys have some Chinese friends who will likely be more straight and ‘honest’ than average since those relationships have been forming for such a long time.

    I don’t know what causal factors are the biggest in producing those kinds of perspectives, but the more we talk, read, and observe the more it starts to ‘makes sense.’

    Our readings talk about the relationships between everything from the basic perception of ‘self,’ to child rearing, historical and current social pressures, schooling… they are tentatively proposing possible reasons for how we’re different and why. I have several half-baked posts started on out of several books that will eventually make it to the blog.

  3. Do send the half-baked posts, when they’re done. It’s getting very interesting here … in my Roots group last night we had a few people my age who grew up during the GPCR, had some life-scarring stuff because of what they witnessed as kids. Also very interesting to see how they’re responding to clear discussions of “life from outside.” I’m getting to learn so much from these people …

    Their outlook, by the way, is different from those among us who are 40 & under, who came of age after the GPCR was all over …

    I’ll look forward to the posts when they’re well-cooked ;-)

  4. you can see, now that you have found me,you are shure to never be rid of me again. I couldnt pandabear the sorrow!You know,Im almost willing to bet my wife that anywhere is better than virginia. I would like to live in Mexico and mabey Taiwan…I heard they have Canadians there this time of year!(have I gotten stupider,or what)

  5. 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?

    very interesting point. in comparing cultures, these differences in “values” are being extracted from history and used to explain the trajectories of our respective societies. cultural determinism seems a comfortable trap to fall into. but is that all there is to it?

  6. Hi Roger. Thanks for dropping in.

    In response to your question, I suppose I’d argue that our common human solidarity, deeply buried under mountains of divergent historical and cultural experience as it is, ultimately transcends those differences. I’m also assuming the existence of absolutes. Therefore, meaningful communication/relationship across vast cultural difference is possible; we’re not hopelessly ‘trapped in our respective language games.’ Additionally, cultures are constantly changing, more mutually influential and dependent than we typically think, and lacking sharp defining boundaries – this will become increasingly apparent as the world shrinks, I think.

    If I could clarify that first sentence you’ve quoted, I’d say my point there was that the universality of given truth claim stands or falls regardless of its proponent’s culture-of-origin, and regardless of the culture with which we might typically associate that particular value/belief . Just because we’re Westerners and a particular value in question is considered Western (for example), it doesn’t mean that we can’t legitimately argue that that value is true in an absolute sense. I’m trying to come against the lazy idea that, ‘Oh, that’s a [Western] value, therefore it can’t be a universal value,’ which I feel is in large part just a poor response to the collective cultural guilt we feel for our imperialistic pasts. Such guilt may be warranted, but I want to be careful that we don’t express that guilt too far in the wrong direction.

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