In order to balance the East-West dichotomy and engage in meaningful dialogue guided by the principles of peaceful aim, mutual respect, tolerance, and patience, we should discourage any maneuver designed to ‘cheat,’ ‘take over,’ ‘support hegemony,’ and other evil acts by making laws or introducing binding oaths. To this end, unchecked Eurocentrism as well as Asiacentrism should be avoided at all costs.
It seems necessary to address some of those areas that in my view deserve serious attention:
Oscar Wilde once said, “Nothing that is worth having can be taught,” meaning that everything that is worth having is acquired through experience and self-cultivation, and it has to be acquired willingly: experience for the purpose of experiencing. Those high-profile Western officials, directors, and businessmen who desire to govern, trade, research, or teach, should spend some time in Asian countries, and attend Asian universities or other institutes of higher learning, finance, or trade. This should be made compulsory for any foreign leader in Asia. In fact, no executive, expatriate, leader of a party, director of a large organization, let alone head of state, should be allowed to assume such a post without having spent some time in Asia and learnt the local language. Such enlightened ‘conditions’ are already an unspoken agreement in many scholarly circles and practiced in international law-making, but are far from being the rule in politics and economics. Therefore it should be made mandatory to spend some years abroad, just as a foreign postgraduate qualification should be made mandatory for the highest scholarly posts. No nation, no matter how big, can afford half-educated leaders.
Biology, culture, policies – this is the hierarchy of change. One can change one’s biology only through choice of courtship and the result of offspring, but one can slowly change one’s culture within one’s own lifetime by immigration, marriage, and learning. However, one’s policies are the quickest to change.
Policies, nowadays, are the greatest cognitive intrusion of all, as they are the fastest manipulation of memory and information. They are widely recognized as the single most important method to deal with one’s ‘opponents’ effectively. So, what policies are Western politicians carrying out these days? Western politicians have a keen interest in making all Asian cultures and traditions conform to Western civilization, be it through Capitalism, market globalization, democracy, human rights, preemptive wars, sporting events, Santa Claus, or Coca-Cola.
Since globalization and ‘World History’ as an academic discipline, as mentioned before, are considered extensions of Western civilization and Western history, it is relatively safe for Western politicians, negotiators, and scholars to make concessions (e.g. allowing China to join the World Trade Organization, despite its authoritarian regime), give freebies (e.g. nuclear weapons to India), or occasionally praise, however shallow, all kinds of cultural achievements, be they of the past or present. How all these niceties will add up to substantial Eastern representation in international affairs remains to be seen. First, how does any country know if it is ‘in’ if there is no ‘out’ in globalism? Second, who will take credit for what comes out of Asia’s input? Will it be the West?
When Francis Bacon first finished his Novum Organum (The New Instrument) in 1620, he originally had Aristotle’s Organum in mind and quoted only a few of China’s great inventions like printing and gunpowder. However, after hearing about the Four Books of Confucianism, and especially after reading Confucius’ Great Learning (Da Xue, 大学), is it mere coincidence that Bacon thereupon included his Novum Organum in a six-volume masterpiece which he proudly titled The Great Renewal of Learning?
All world governments know the hierarchy of change: biological – cultural – policy changes. Because Western governments are short-lived (and thus, for the pragmatic reason of survival, politically short-sighted), they will focus all their energies and efforts on new policies, short-time changes, to prove what they can do for the moment. Meanwhile, they ignore the long-term effects on the culture as a whole. Eastern governments are different: They still keep an eye on cultural, long-term changes and maintenance. If a government would openly endorse a strategy for biological change, this could lead – as it did in the past – to suspicions of xenophobia, racism, and isolation, so biological changes are the ones best not overtly promoted by any government.
If we were to improve international cooperation, Eastern and Western policymakers, scientists, and economists would have to create shared opportunities for growth, consistent with broadly accepted economic theories, open markets, and good diplomacy. The real problem with fast policy changes is that, if one studies history carefully, one will see that violence must follow. In policymaking, ‘might is right,’ ‘whoever controls the stick controls the buffalo,’ and ‘small countries have no politics.’ It is cruel, but this is simply how things are. It is very likely that a powerful person or group might abuse their power through the means of ad-hoc policy changes that are very arbitrary, egoistic, and because of their dubious nature, often non-negotiable.
Who was it who said that “the destructive energies of the deduction-based warrior culture would be channeled into the safer pursuits of a commercial society”? Thomas Hobbes, Adam Smith, Dugald Stewart… another enlightened Scot? That is why we frequently use words like war in economics, e.g. trade ‘ wars,’ and fight in politics, e.g. ‘fighting’ for voters.
In policymaking, the West has to relinquish some power, keep its often arbitrary, short-sighted, ad-hoc adjustments more in check, and discuss more frequently with its partners on an equal level. At the same time, the East should try harder to be less passive and conservative and more forceful in policy decision-making, otherwise it will always be bullied around by its more pro-active Western counterpart(s).
Among all things that are tradable – oil, wood, gold, commodities, human capital etc. – culture is the least obvious yet the most subversive good. Since the Orient and Occident produced lots of sustainable, lasting cultural artifacts, arts, ideas, and theories, believe it or not, all these have been the objects of cultural exchange and learning even long before the Greek philosopher Plato borrowed some ideas from the Persian sage Zarathustra (who lived c. 600 BC), Alexander the Great’s conquest (326 BC-323 BC), and Megasthenes’ visit to Pataliputra (c. 300 BC). Why cultural exchange? Because, for some reason, Alexander thought it worthwhile to risk his reputation, even his empire, by marrying the Bactrian princess Roxane (of today’s Northern Afghanistan) in exchange for gold, unity, and political stability. What is more, Megasthenes brought maps and descriptions back to Macedonia in order to inform the Mediterranean world about ‘Indica.’ And Plato, partly inspired by Persian thought, laid the foundation for Western moral philosophy.
Oh, some may scoff, it was always about trade. That’s why human societies expand. Others may say it was about rule and conquest. Human curiosity must have played its part, too. So perhaps did love, on Alexander and Roxane’s part. Translation certainly did help to communicate, but did it really help to understand each other? Universally, the first impression upon meeting other cultures is that of amazement and joy, not of fear and anger. It is in the human nature to practice cultural exchange.
So, did this activity of cultural exchange, metaphorically speaking, make the world ‘flat’ just as Thomas Friedman argued in his bestseller about the effects of globalization and economic exchange? Almost certainly not. On the contrary, cultural exchange, like economics, may benefit both partners, but it does so in entirely different ways. The fundamental psychology beneath all economic activity is the often astonishing fact that one person thinks that a television set is worth more than the 500 Euros he has to pay for it, while the other person thinks that the 500 Euros are worth more than the television set and thus is happy to sell it.
The really fascinating fact, however, is that a society in which everyone sells identical television sets to each other is not sustainable, nor would anyone make any profit. People have to come up with new ideas and inventions every now and then. Coming back from this analogy, East and West will never exchange the same commodities, nor the same cultural goods, nor attach the same value to them. If culture is a market, it is infinite. And unlike money as currency in economics, the currency in cultural exchange is knowledge, not only about facts, but about relationships between facts, between us and them, and between all people and things under heaven.
A culture includes certain religious practices, places of worship, music, festivals, rituals, customs, values, food, clothing, monuments, architecture, language, and arts. The two cultures of East and West, in fact, will not and cannot entirely overlap, because what they have to give is not what they want to take for the same.
Some have argued that we need a ‘global language,’ and that in today’s world, it should be English. For my part, I believe that the proponents of English as a lingua franca are crazy, because that is exactly what the Germans once did; now it’s the Anglo-Americans who close their ‘History’ book and say, “We already know you.” No, the true ‘global language’ would be radically different from today’s English (or any other major language); it would need to adopt the originality and the tens of thousands of words provided by humankind’s other language traditions on top of it.
Every language learner experiences this from time to time: a subconscious certainty that something is lost in translation, every time, without exception. The vocabularies of the world’s languages add up, they don’t overlap. Translation is something else.
5) World Affairs
The idea that Eastern and Western societies should do everything together because they’re exactly the same and their interests are identical is not, as some would have it, a sign of evolutionary maturity or scientific insight, but a desperate form of political manipulation, new Western imperialism, and, yes, wishful thinking. Surely our cultural differences and identities make the world more colorful.
The belief that Eastern and Western societies have the same interests and desires, beliefs and aims, world views, and sense of history seems to me to be an odd mixture of Western insecurity, a desire for Gleichschaltung (controlling the hearts and minds of Eastern people via Western-controlled media propaganda, e.g. The Economist, British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), American Cable News Network (CNN), Times, Hollywood, international standards etc.), and outright narcissism: “If you want McDonald’s and Volkswagen, if you want trade with us, that means – or proves – you have to be the same as us.”
Aggressive Westernization thus equals a dehumanization of the world community. Ideally, in this world we should maintain two modes of civilization, two forces that countercheck each other, two voices and two choices, this and that – in other words, we always should be presented with an alternative view. Otherwise, we are left with only one way of reasoning, Western reasoning, that labors under the illusion of possessing the single, absolute, and finite truth. It would lead to a monopoly on ‘civilization’ as we have seen in the Age of Western imperialism, without respect for tolerance or harmony.
How do East and West engage in a mutually beneficial relationship? If they do engage in one, what form should that relationship take? A communion maybe? And what are the dangers? Maurice Blanchot, a key writer in the twentieth century, expressed this beautifully:
Wherever two entities temporarily evolve into a communion, to be made for each other or not, an engine of war is being built this way. Or, to re it, such a communion bears the potential threat of universal destruction.
(Maurice Blanchot, 1983)
If two entities are forced to evolve into a single ‘one,’ conflict and disaster are inevitable. For all we know, such a union can work forever. But chances are it will end in a terrible fight, terror, and humiliation, just like an arranged marriage that was not to be. If communion fails, if we are left with only one single dominant mode of civilization, it will be a totality.
Regardless of how the universe really is, there is no hope in human affairs for the existence of a single truth; in secular as well as in religious affairs it all comes down to what we truly believe (and want to believe) and how we react towards the ‘other.’ If there were only two beings left on Earth, no communion would be called for. The two could coexist happily, at a distance. If it is communion that is not meant to be because of the incommensurability of the two great cultural hemispheres and their distinctive ways, I say don’t risk it because mutual destruction could follow. Totalities have done us no good. From within itself no civilization offers universal truth. Forced and complete Westernization of humankind, just like its mother and father, colonialism and imperialism, will not only stand trial to the senseless dehumanization of history, it might also create the deadliest potential for mutual self-destruction and loss of morals the world has ever experienced.
Can the West peacefully align itself with the intuitive Eastern powers and thus guarantee all of us a peaceful, fair, and tolerant equilibrium? I say only if the East emancipates itself from the sorry role of a victim of world history. Now is the time to become more assertive, now is the moment to make reasonable demands. A more powerful Association of Southeast Asian Nations (including Taiwan, Japan, South Korea) is a possibility; the dissolution of the imbalanced ‘Group of Eight’ (G8) in favor of a new and enlarged ‘Group of Twenty’ (G20) is another. A lot remains to be done in both hemispheres before they can finally focus their complete attention on each other. There are the peripheral nations of divided Africa, there is Latin America, there is fragile Eastern Europe, and there are the U.S.-led occupation of the Middle East and a military buildup against Europe’s greatest ancient foe: the Persians (now Iranians). Plenty of cultural assimilation is going on, unifications by trade and stealth are looming, and lots of pawns are waiting to be moved across the great board of geopolitics.
Without doubt, all cultures and nations have contributed, one way or another, to the overall diversity of human civilization. Yet it is also obvious that some cultures and nations, depending on their antiquity, size, and influence, did contribute more than others in the past and, more importantly, will continue to contribute more than others in the future. Many will just simply vanish. It is believed that the number of classical Greek and Latin manuscripts combined, an estimated 30,000, is outnumbered by over one million ancient Sanskrit manuscripts that have already been discovered (Taylor, 2008), not to mention millions of Chinese texts written in the Middle Kingdom. However, most Europeans do not want to hear the truth: that they have just been lucky by punching above their weight for too long a time. Economic and cultural activities in themselves are not inventions that are protected by Western patents, nor is the art of statecraft or, for that matter, the art of war.
The Future of the Dichotomy
Pattberg, Thorsten (2013), The East-West Dichotomy, Foreign Language Press, Beijing