Monday, July 11, 2005

Japanese Racism and Relativism:

My Korean-American sister-in-law, her family, and I'd imagine many other Koreans still bear serious resentment towards Japan over their past conduct persecuting many other Asian peoples. Japanese racism/ethnocentrism/ethnic chauvinism was a big part of why Japan was so bad in the past. Japan is a very interesting place. They are, in some ways, one of the most civilized places on the planet (in terms of crime rates, literacy, poverty, and education) and a reliable democratic ally. It's hard to imagine that sixty-some years ago they were not only allies with the Nazis but engaged in conduct that rivaled the Nazis in its barbarity.

Yet even today, overt racism is far more respectable there than it is in America or the West. Allan Bloom, in Giants and Dwarfs, commented on this in the context of warning about the dangers of value and cultural relativism and the hesitance to "judge" other cultures by our standards. He stated in a speech given at Harvard:

When we arrive in Japan we shall see a thriving nation. Its success clearly has something to do with its society, which asks much of itself and gets it (Rowe: keep in mind this speech was given in 1988 before Japan's long recession, when they were dominating us economically and when it seemed to many that they would continue to do so for the long-term future). It is a real community; its members have roots. Japanese society is often compared to a family. These characteristics are in tune with much of current liberal thought in America....

But the family is exclusive. For in it there is an iron wall separating insiders from outsiders, and its members feel contrary sentiments toward the two. So it is in Japanese society, which is intransigently homogeneous, barring the diversity which is the great pride of the United States today. To put it brutally, the Japanese seem to be racists. They consider themselves superior; they firmly resist immigration; they exclude even Koreans who have lived for generations among them. They have difficulty restraining cabinet officers from explaining that America's failing economy is due to blacks.

Should we open ourselves up to this new culture? Sympathize with its tastes? Should we aim for restrictiveness rather than diversity? Should we experiment with a more effective racism? All these things could be understood as part of our interest in keeping up with the Japanese economic miracle. Or they could, in a tonier vein, help us in our search for community and roots. We recoil in horror at even having such thoughts. But how can we legitimate our horror? It is only the result of our acculturation....If there are no transcultural values, our reaction is ethnocentric. And the one thing we know absolutely is that enthocentrism is bad. So we have painted ourselves into a corner. pp. 21-22.


I think there are two levels of relativism of which we need to be aware: One level, the inner level (value relativism), it seems to me has or may have some Truth to it; the other, the outer level (cultural relativism), needs to be forthrightly rejected.

Regarding the inner level, we have the fact/value gap: it may well be impossible to "prove" as a matter of mathematical certainty any moral truths (although I'm certainly open minded about the possibility). And as such, as a matter of Truth, it may be improvable that our way of life is better than any other, say an indigenous way of life where people still live in the stone age, without reading, writing, arithmetic, air-conditioning, medical treatments for diseases, where large sectors of the populace tend to die before 40 or 50, where they haven't even invented the wheel! Even the most elementary moral truths such as the immorality of slavery and genocide may be improvable as a matter of mathematical certainty.

But if we accept arguendo, as we all do, that it's better not to harm innocents, it's better for children or any sector of the populace not to go to bed hungry, it's better to treat diseases and live on till old age, it's better for the populace to be well-educated, to live in comfort with things like air-conditioning, etc., then we indeed can judge other cultures according to such standards and all cultures are not relative in these respects; some cultures are superior to others in their living up to these ideals, in their fostering productive scientific and material output, and in their general and specific ways of life.

The fact that this nation and the West believe in individual rights, in freedom and equality naturally gives rise to a diverse, pluralistic, cosmopolitan society where individuals and social groups are given much leeway to pursue happiness openly and publicly as they see fit. And this, in and of itself, is good.

However, we should see no paradox in asserting that this way of life -- the way of life that enables the existence of tolerance, diversity and pluralism to begin with -- is superior to the ways of those illiberal cultures, like the Islamofascists. And we should hope that as much of the rest of the world as possible embraces these values which have done so much good for us.

4 comments:

bls said...

Well, if "mathematical proof" is the standard by which one decides the "inner level" question, then the answer is already in the statement. A society without arithmetic is of less value than one with, since you can't prove anything mathematically without having some math to work with.

;-)

I think, though, that you can make certain moral statements which cannot, at least, be proved wrong. For instance, the statement: "Unnecessary suffering is wrong," seems - without getting into what the word "unnecessary" might mean - intuitively obvious. Maybe this is covered in your arguendo disclaimer, but I think you could possibly work out a moral system based on axioms like this.

Anyway, every system - math included, of course - makes certain assumptions that can't be proved. Religion, too.

Jonathan said...

As I said, I leave open as possible that these moral Truths in which I believe are provable like 2+2 = 4. Certain things do seem to be "self-evident" or axiomatic, like we shouldn't harm innocents or the Golden Rule, that needless suffering and pain should be reduced as much as possible.

jon said...

Looking for portable air conditioning info I found your post. I agree!

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