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December 14, 2008


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Thanks, Chris and Peony, for doing this. Hope my amateurish readings don't lower the tone of the conversation.

I've just ordered Amazon.com's last copy of Bell's book, and now that I've read most of part I on Google books, I'm kind of wondering if the money was well spent.

First, format. With the dialogue thing, he's harking back to classical philosophical works; perhaps philosophers who've read lots of those will enjoy it. I haven't, so for me I want more from a dialogue. I feel there is a need for (a) some realism and (b) likable characters. I didn't find much of either. Lo and Demo (what's the reference here, someone?) both come across as rather prissy and pleased with themselves. They're meant to be human rights workers/activists, but neither of them seem to display any of the passion I'd expect from people who've devoted their lives to this issue. Actually, they come across as rather drab stereotypes: Lo is a smug, inscrutable, cosmopolitan HKer; Demo is a rather unreflective American, who despite years of working in human rights, still "raises his voice" as soon as someone even mentions limitations on freedom of speech.

Equally offputting are some of the characterizations of very large, very diverse groups of people. Americans are "brash"; most east Asians "consider humility to be a virtue", don't you know. I find this stuff pretty insulting. I'm neither American nor Asian; the insult is to my intelligence, not my identity.

More problematic still, for me: having read 100 pages of the book, I'm still not sure what he's writing about. Is it the practice of rights diplomacy, or is it rights themselves? Lo is spending a lot of time teaching Grasshopper - sorry, Demos - about the intricacies of Asian cultural politics, and criticizing American (straw?) men for being ignorant of or ignoring these details. If that's the sum total of the issue, then everyone can agree. It's always good to understand more. I haven't really found any substantive theoretical attacks on "western rights theory", whatever that may be. A vague allusion to the German constitution hardly counts. Where are the detailed arguments in support of the Lee Kuan Yew quote about communitarian values and American individualism? Perhaps they're in part II.

I don't like the book so far, and I'm hoping that's not just because it takes up a position I disagree with. But I would like to dispute something Peony says above.

"there will be nations that will choose to place a priority on collective welfare, economic and property rights over that of a US-led 'political and civil rights centrism'"

Peony seems to be talking in the context of the EU, and many EU countries do have a politics more geared to social equality than the US model. I'm from the EU myself, and I support this. But I don't think it's got anything to do with rights whatsoever. I'd say western Europe has at least as strong a record on human rights as the US; we've made no trade-off.

And that's because there is no trade-off. The economically successful Asian societies have all moved to strong legal protection of individual rights - Japan and Taiwan are the obvious examples. But Singapore, famed because of the Lees and their "anti-rights" rhetoric, actually provides excellent protection for legal rights. There are a couple of blips on its (recent) record, but they're blips.
The country that everyone is looking at, though, is China - with its one party, opaque laws, rule-by-man, rejection of external groups' interpretations of human rights. And GDP per head of 2000 USD. And here's a huge coincidence: the people in China having most trouble with their rights are the poorest, the smallholders, the farmers. In China, as everywhere else, rights and economic development go hand in hand.
The idea that there is a trade-off to be made between prosperity and rights is not just wrong, it's kind of a joke. It should be treated as what it is, a pathetic rationalization by criminal governments that are abusing their own populations. Instead, we get people discussing it like it's a viable proposition. "We could drop free speech if it got us an extra 10,000 dollars a year..."
But in the real world, strong legal systems which provide effective guarantees of human rights (however defined - and there are arguments to be had) are the bedrock of economic success.

So it's (so far) a bad book, that fails to make substantive arguments, about an issue that doesn't arise in the real world.

I hope it does make for interesting conversation, though, cos I've spent $30 on it now...

Hi Phil,

Thank you so much for your comment!! I wanted to clarify one point, and I believe this is Bell's point as well, but for now I will just speak for myself:

I am indeed thinking from a EU perspective in which-- just as you said (I couldn't agree more)-- that there is no trade off. That is, human rights are more inclusive of things like social welfare as a "right" in addition to the other rights. And I am sorry if my use of the word "priority" sounded like the EU was preaching for a curbing of such individual rights. That is not what I meant.

Regarding your $30 investment-- what can I say? It's always a crapshoot with amazon... Remember the days of bookstores?

Comment again if I did not clarify enough ok? Basically, I couldn't agree more with you you said, though.

You know what? Actually, I will comment more later about Japan and Taiwan since I agree with you and I don't agree with you... more later (hope you check back). Thanks Phil.

I look forward to hearing what you have to say about Japan and Taiwan. I've never been there, and they are the real test cases for arguments of this kind.

I'm also interested to hear if anyone has any real insight into what communitarian values are. The only way I've been able to understand the idea so far is as a kind of Confucian altruism: individuals would be willing to give up some benefits in order to benefit others - but a well-defined class of others, the others in my community or my country, not all others in the world.

One reason I react against the Asian communitarian values idea is that I suspect one of the roots of this arguments is nothing more than: Asian people are better than westerners. We're communitarian, altruistic - just not altruistic to you. Read in this way, communitarian values come across as both superior (we're better than you) and offensive (but we wouldn't help you out).

Another reason is that I can't find any basis in reality for the assertion that Chinese people are more communitarian than, for example, me. (I'm British and live in China, married to a Chinese woman.) There have been times when Chinese friends have given explanations for their actions based on community values, and I don't think British friends would give the same kind of explanations. But I'm not sure I've seen anything that suggest that behaviour is different. Chinese people seem as keen on defending their personal interests as British people; British people seem as capable of committing to/making sacrifices for a community as Chinese people.

So I'm interested to know if anyone understands what the communitarian values are supposed to be, or thinks they understand why Asians are supposed to be more communitarian. Is it just about giving up personal interests, or is there something about the construction of identities that I've missed?

Hi Phil,

I've been waiting a bit to comment to see if more folks stop by, but I guess at this point we're the only "active" people. I'm pretty sure I've seen you over at Manyul's board, no?

Reading on Google books? The whole first 100 pages? That's rough on the eyes! How many times did you get the old "this page is restricted for viewing" screen? :)

I'm actually enjoying the book so far (100 pages in). Partly, perhaps, this is due to the fact that I'm not an expert in this sub-field by far (cross cultural human rights). So I'm enjoying the topic. Moreover, I've never felt as if my own intuitions on human rights, which are strongly liberal, are grounded in anything particularly powerful -- outside my intuitions, that is. So to read someone who challenges the standard liberal view (or at least the standard American view) is a welcome read for me. Lastly, given that it is the end of the semester, I welcome the dialogue format, because my brain is tired! Not that Bell doesn't have other reasons for writing this way, as I think he does, but I do appreciate the change in "pace."

That said, I have to agree that Lo and Demo are not particularly likable characters (at least for me) at least insofar as they appear to come off as a bit smug. I wonder if Demo's personality will shift somewhat as the book proceeds forward. At the very least, one might expect that his smugness is an artifact of his parochial view on his work, so as those views broaden, perhaps his character will too? We'll see. At the very least, I hope Demo doesn't storm off at the end like Euthyphro!

I agree that there are some broad brush strokes here concerning the behavior and thinking of Asians and Americans. And these sorts of broad strokes are always dangerous. However, to some degree, the subject matter does seem to force this sort of treatment. There surely may not be "an" American (or Asian) view, but there are certainly (at least on the American side) some "typical conversational regularities, beliefs and preconceptions."

In addition, we do get three Asian voices, not one, so perhaps these broad strokes are limited to Lo, and the portrait of "Asian thinking" is broadened as we proceed through the other interlocutors? In any event, though I do admittedly find the treatment of American liberals to be harsh, I can't _entirely_ disagree with it. At the very least: I know the (type of) people he is talking about, even if it doesn't fit everyone I know. To a large degree, however, I work and interact with the kinds of people the "American view" represents everyday, and they do indeed (IMO) make "talking about Asia" difficult because they do want to assume an a priori set of principles that must be accepted first (on rights, morality, etc) as a precondition for a meaningful conversation. So as I read, I just insert them into my head as the referent of "those folks". Sometimes the extension of "those folks" includes me!

I share your concern about the "rights theory" vs "rights practices" question. I'll hold off here, because I wanted to put up a a general post on this (is Bell concerned with theory? or just practice?) over at my place. My impression, though, is that there's no doubt this dichotomy comes up in a large way as one reads along. In some places, you do want Bell to treat the question more intentionally and you can come off feeling as if he does not at times. That said, it could be that he _is_ treating the question intentionally, but I (or we?) just don't like the answer he's giving (that rights talk or theory is not really something he finds important in this overall context). In any event, it's a serious and important question to ask.

I do want to mention something that comes up at the end of Peony's post. Right there at the end Peony mentions "embodiment" in the context of the human rights discussion. Knowing Peony's addiction (!) to the subject of embodiment (no doubt foisted on her by that foul knave and intellectual drug pusher Hubert Dreyfus), it was not surprising to see it. And thinking about the issue, I can see where she's coming from. In a sense, thinking in terms of HR in a universal way (trans-contextual principles, say) invites the very kind of "detachment" from local engagement and commitment that the existentialists (and Dreyfus) talk about. Instead of becoming "invested" in the kind of "risk oriented way" that someone like Kierkegaard might demand (which would require a great deal of investment into what Bell calls "local knowledge"), the more "universal" principles regarding HR allow you to superficially "float over" an area, making pronouncements and judgments in a more superficial and detached (disembodied) way. In this way, more standard liberal approaches to HR might be viewed, by analogy, to the scandal sheets of Kierkegaard's day (the Corsair), and using them analyze and "sum up" the local situation might be akin to the kind of "gossip" and "idle talk" (from Heidegger) that reading the Corsair facilitates.

I'm not sure how far to push this, Peony, but it is certainly interesting. It seems to me to be fodder for a post! Will you do it? Or shall I?

(I intend to have at least a post up at my place by tomorrow sometime, but I have a number of posts on chapter 1 floating around in my head, so I think I'll certainly make at least a few on this part of the book by week's end!)

Hi Phil,

I haven't spent enough time there to comment on Taiwan but feel like I can about Japan since I've lived there about 17 or 18 years--indeed, it's the only place I've ever worked, paid taxes or raised a child and I actually feel as comfortable there as here in LA (where I am from). So, with that background:

Concerning Bell's book, I felt very friendly and comfortable with allhis ideas regarding most of the major points not just about China but about Japan as I feel they pretty appropriately apply to Japan as well. I'll just take one that pops into my mind.

First, I think in general in Japan too people would think and maybe even say that they are different from Westerners in terms of communal values ("group," "harmony" etc.) whether they think they are somehow better than Westerners is really not what is interesting or relavant, as in my opinion even if they do consider their culture superior in some aspects, they don't seek to impose their values on others so to me that is a non-issue.

However, I do think in japan it is the focus-- both legally and culturally-- that issues which benefit the greater number of people will take precedent over the protection of individual rights. So, that in Japan, economic and social rights are prioritzied over political/personal liberty rights for example. People argue that because Japan is a basically racially homogeneous society that things are just less complicated (that is they don't face the same
challenges as a multi-ethnic pluralistic society). Maybe, but this ignores the point that society is set up very differently in Japan as compared to the US (and I am only comparing to the US right now).

Japan has outstanding universal medical care. Education is
egalitarian (budgets not decided by property taxes etc. all public schools have similar conditions), there are all kinds of economic protections for families, home owners, etc. Of course, it is not perfect, and compared to certain parts of the EU there are real lagging areas, at the same time, I would say these kinds of communal welfare issues are prioritized over and above individual legalistic protections.

Here in LA, I live in a neighborhood with pretty stringent community codes that keeps people from annoying each other (no painting your house blue or hanging out your laundry blah blah)... in japan, there is no real legal recourse for issues at the commnuity level. We
belong to neighborhood associations (and children's associations, and wife's associations ) to get things done. So, that things are done by consensus at this community level. Divorce too is much different in japan (much mor use of mediation using "community elders" before a divorce is even granted).. the list could go on and on.

On the other hand, there are gray areas with regard to censorship and things like wire tapping/listening in on phone calls, rights if you are arrested... all kinds of personal liberty issues in Japan are what I would call as gray. Media and business are much tigheter with government-- which is run in a rather paternalistic fashion. And what is that called.. maybe incarceration rate? Where the percentage of those arrested that actually go to jail is like 90% or something-- what does that mean for the liberties of those being arrested and pushed through the system??

And this does not in any way mean that japanese people do not care about these political or personal liberty issues. Not at all. Just that the stress is placed more strongly on issues of communal welfare.

This is just a personal opinion (not based on Bell's book) but I don't necessarily think one way is categorically "better" than another per se. Both have their strong points, and I think indeed that is the point. Parag Khanna's book actually does an even better job at presenting these issues-- particularly in his treatment of Singapore.

I guess in my own case I feel more "at ease" with my Japanese friends and in the community there. The reasons are both about the social safety nets but also just about the way people relate to each other. It is not really about, "is this working for me?" but more about really struggling to work it out. I know I am also speaking in broad brushstrokes, but how else to really capture my feelings about an entire life lifed (so far)? My son's name too starts with the kanji for harmony 和. It is perhaps one of the most popular characters used for names in Japan-- and I am just right this moment working on a translation for a business executive who is urging his underlings (all male I assume) to return to the japanese roots of "going with the group"....

There is so much more to say really.... and these are, I repeat, personal opinions based on my own (sometime embodied) experience... :)

Chris-- that was one of the best comments ever! And, that is exactly
where I would want to go on this issue too. Indeed, if embodied is my
favorite word of the week, "practice" (not theory) is my favorite
word of the month :)

Interesting, too, is that this emphasis on doing (not thinking) is
what I think the particular local tradition (Chinese philosophy)
would also encourage so I find bell's approach not only delightful
but also culturally appropriate (this is based on only my opinion
which is based only on my experience). If "universals" can be
extrapolated from the various embodied know-how approaches, I still
wouldn't be all that interested. But that is me.

It seems that objective reporting should be left for the
journalists-- but even there too journalists are more and more
delving into opinion as non-journalists are delving more and more
into a kind of detached reporting of events faraway. Not that is
wrong, just in my opinion the less-interesting path (or the less
effective way to cultivate one's garden??)

Chris-- can I talk you into writing the post?? Based on your comment
above. This is really your area, you know! The section in your book
on the object of my addiction was really, really well-done! If you
ever want to chat about it, I am game!

Thanks, Peony, that's very interesting.

I'd disagree with a few things. Firstly, this: "whether they think they are somehow better than Westerners is really not what is interesting or relavant". Here I couldn't disagree more, on a practical level. So much dialogue founders when one side doesn't understand where the other side is coming from; this appears to be the case in human rights dialogue. It's crucial to work out exactly why so many Asian thinkers, politicians and ordinary people are resistant to the idea of rights. Is it because they have good, substantive arguments? Is it because HR diplomacy still smacks of colonialism? Is it because of genuinely different views of humanity? If I were an American HR worker in Asia, I would regard this question as my number one priority.

I also worry about your characterization of the west/USA: "It is not really about, "is this working for me?" but more about really struggling to work it out." "Is this working for me?" is certainly not the totality of my experience of Britain; and when western societies are portrayed in this light I think much is being ignored. Specifically, the huge number of organizations, governmental, semi-governmental and private, that help us work with and care for our fellow citizens. You may be right in that (certain groups of) people in the USA/Britain don't talk about social harmony a lot; but it's far from obvious to me that they don't do a lot for social harmony.

However, there's something which I haven't worked out clearly in my mind, which is the relationship between culture - particularly what I think of as some rather surface manifestations of culture - and values.

For many of the phenomena that you cite in Japan, I feel I could respond the same way as I did about the EU: none of these show that Japan has made any kind of trade-off between individual and collective rights. In a rich, well-administered country, they are able to protect both.

But I wonder how far this argument really stretches. When many "surface" cultural indicators point towards more communitarian, egalitarian ideals, perhaps I'm being obtuse in refusing to accept that they do exist.

I think your use of the word paternalistic might be key. Human rights are a tool for protecting people from governments, and if your society's view of government is that it is purely benign, then human rights really make little sense.

Actually, the issue of paternalism might be a mini revelation, just came to me as I was writing. I'm going to go away and think about it while we wait for Chris's post. Thanks for being such a great interlocutor!

I just received an email from a friend who says,

"I had lunch with an old friend who is an expert on political theory, AKA political philosophy, on Saturday, and asked him about the background of human rights theory. As I thought, it has a relatively short history, and derives partly from natural law, partly from Enlightenment thinkers like Kant, who argued that a certain set of rights was entailed by his view of human nature. But initially these were largely political or religious rights (the latter being the right of dissent), and it is only recently that the boundaries have been expanded to social and economic rights. In other words, the concept is recent and a bit slippery, and broadly evolved concurrently with the rise of modern citizenship and the rights - political, economic, etc. - associated with it."

When I asked if I could copy his words here, he said sure, but "remember it's just basic stuff"-- Maybe, but it reminds me so much of the project of the philosophy professor I've been working for for the past 3 years and his struggle to try and push back the boundaries of the sudy of aesthetics. He says, why is it so difficult to imagine that there are other, valid ways of thinking about things when it comes to beauty? (See my post here)

In one sense, probababy most people reading here would basically agree along the broad brushstroke of human rights thought-- no matter where thet are from, most people I think agree on issues about torture, human trafficking etc. We are, indeed, mainly talking about the subtle details of what I would call the gray areas.

And also about ways of saying things (discourse, political rhetoric styles etc).

Here is another post (a long one) on Kant

Hi Phil,

We may have to disagree to disagree on the first point of superiority since to my mind, this is probably what is a common human phenemomenon to somehow feel that aspects of one's own culture are inherently superior. In truth-- and this is just my experience-- I have found Westerners to be far more prone to this than Japanese or Chinese. But I think in general people love and hold dear what is their's. And how this affects human rights dialogues probably also varies in many ways. For example, if the western side takes the "we are brining the good news of liberal democracy" approach-- well that might be perceived as a kind of colonial violence (I had a disagreement with the professor I work for over this point not that long ago with regard to the overwhelmingly western dominance in aesthetics and philosophy. I questioned his description of that as violent-- since there is no real overt force I wasn't crazy about that-- but he insisted that it was cultural violence.) Another could be-- as you said that-- other cultures have their own traditions in the same way we have Kant.

If I was a HR worker in Asia, I probably couldn't care less whether the local people believed their culture to be superior or not, but I would work really, really hard to become fluent in the language and to try and do my work in that language alongside local people so that I could gain this kind of enbodied know-how. Not that being fluent in the language is any guarantee either, but without it, I do not think it is truly possible to overcome obe's own pre-conceived notions as these notions are built-in to the languages themselves. (that is my opinion based on experience).

And my point about Japan was not that they have both (though of course they do have both) the protection of personal libertis alongside welfare and social protections but rather that there are some stark differences between the EU model and the Japanese model and that these differences-- as Bell hinted for China-- come down to what can be described as communal values. It is a coincidence but I was just working on a translation yesterday of a speech by a business executive who is urging his underlings to try and work with a "Japanese sense of the sacredness of harmony" (sorry for my lame translation!)But these values really do inform the culture on the ground in very real ways. (And again I am only speaking for Japan right now since that is the only language I speak).

Concerning paternalistic government, it is not a bad concept. Unfortunately, you are kind of stuck if your father-figure ends up being less than fatherly!

I know you didn't like the generalizations of those two characters Phil.... I hate to say this, but like Chris as an American Demo actually was rather familiar to me too....very well-intentioned but also really surprised when maybe other people did not see the world in the same way as he did.

Did your book ever arrive from amazon? I recently read Kapuscinki's Travels with Herodotus and have not been able to get it out of my mind. If you find a copy, I really recommend it!

Hope to talk to you again too...

Dear Chris (and everyone else)
I’ve only made it through the first part of the book, but I am also having trouble with the dialogue format. Part of it is that they are not very compelling characters, which on one hand is not that big a deal, since they are just an authorial tool. On the other hand, if you are going to give things up to use a dialogue format you should try to get some benefits out of it.
The main problem I have with Lo and Demo is that they don’t really do much to contextualize the debate, as a number of people point out. There are a series of lost chances in here. First, why is this a debate between an American and an Asian? (Singaporean in this chapter) Although Bell may see these as representative figures, they actually met at Princeton, so what we are getting is a debate between the Manhattan and the Singapore wing of the new global elite. If Human rights and Democracy are good for Asia they should be good for Asia regardless of what Americans think, and in fact in spite of what they think. This is partly a problem from the Demo side. Why have America represented by a goo-goo NGO type? Why not a Pittsburgh steelworker or somebody from the Pentagon? I think that part of the debate is how Asia wants to fit itself (or not fit itself) into the global concept of human rights. (Lo accepts that there is a set of rules that are globally accepted, even when being violated p.28). What “America” wants from Asia could use a bit more specificity here, however. Yes, American people and the American state like democracy and human rights, and Asian states will find doing business with Washington easier if they are not Kim Jung-il. “America” also wants other stuff, however. Lo casually mentions torture as something that all governments oppose, but that is not true if you are torturing suspected commies in 1968 or suspected Islamic radicals today. Asia is not relating to a timeless human rights regime from the outside, they are part of the current working out of that regime, and making this a debate at the Princeton Club (with cucumber sandwiches, I assume) misses all this. Making Demo the spokesman for American drains a lot of the specificity out of how D&HRs are part of Asia’s relationship with non-Asia. Yes, being SLORC will lead to tut-tut ing, but America is willing to deal with some really awful states in some contexts. What are these contexts?
Lo is the other problem. Part of this is that I think Bell does not know much about Asia. I was floored when Demo reminded Lo that he had been one of the most radical students at Princeton and spent hours leading “Ho, Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh” chants. I instantly wanted to know more about Lo, since it that could not possibly be passed off as a bit of pointless youthful radicalism in a Singaporean. Was he connected with the Communist Party of Malaya? Were his family refugees from the Malayan Insurgency? Nope. Just a bit of youthful indiscretion, and he might just as well have grown up in Passaic. Although the Demo is not very good as a tool to see the Singapore- U.S. debate Lo is absolutely hopeless for seeing any debate inside Singapore or inside Asia.

Hi Alan,

Chris will respond soon I am sure. In the meantime, I think the dialogue approach is a risk-- as you suggested, and I appreciated Chris reminding us about Plato's dialogues as I too was wondering, "couldn't Bell have done better without this format?" Within that format, though, it really could only have been two elites right? Speaking in English, of course. And someone from the Pentagon would also in all probablity been speaking in english with a counterpart Asian elite. To me, the issue is not class but language ability.

As far as Bell not knowing Asia-- I am curious what you base that on since as far as I know he lives there, has a family there and fluently speaks an Asian language. To me, those are strong indicators of knowing asia (or at least knowing one part of Asia; ie China)

Bell also takes up the hypocricy charge (Vietnam for one) quite well, though Parag Khanna in the book I keep recommending, does an even better job on this front and I highly recommend reading The Second World to get a really good description of how other countries view this issue of hypocracy. Khanna comes down harder on the EU, btw, for this waffling on HR issues when economics is involved.

OK, I will wait to hear Chris' response.

Thanks so much for your comment Alan.

Hi Folks,

Sorry for the delay. Having two small children (4 months, 3 1/2 years) is so much of a different world from just having one. I'm amazed that people with more than two kids get anything done at all!

Alan, I have to admit I laughed hard at the cucumber sandwiches reference. The way the Demo-Lo conversation proceeds, I could easily visualize that.

You raise some excellent questions, and I'm not sure what the right answer is -- mostly, I'm afraid, because I myself do not know the deeper issues involved in the debate (how the Singaporeans see the debate, or how it plays out within Asia in a more general way, for instance).

That said, while reading the book, I do often ask: "who is the intended audience for this book?" I'm not sure, and I wonder if the dialogue is written with a particular set of readers in mind (not the Pittsburg steelworker, for sure!).

I've put up my own post over at my place, where I dive into some of the more dry philosophical questions raised. Here's the link:


Thanks for posting, everyone!

I was discussing this post with some friends recently. Interestingly, one of them brought up the following definition of 'genocide':

"Genocide has two phases: one, destruction of the national pattern of the oppressed group; the other the imposition of the national pattern of the oppressor. This imposition, in turn, may be made upon the oppressed population which is allowed to remain . . ."

If we are working with that as the hallmarks of 'genocide', is the paternalistic attitude devoted to spreading HR, ironically, a genocidal ideology? Clearly HR stands in opposition to many classical cultures; indeed, it often stands in contrast to the barbarisms of the past. But if those barbarisms are part-and-parcel with the culture, how to move towards HR without falling into the old traps of colonialism? Some of these concerns have already been voiced here, but I figured I'd throw that onto the fire.

Hi there justsomeguy,

Thank you for stopping by and thanks so much for your comment. You may be able to tell by my post here and the one on Ladakh that this issue (of colonialist thinking) is something I remain really interested in.

It is my opinion that without overt force that the word "genocide" or even "cultural violence" (the phrase my professor in Hiroshima uses) is inaccurate. However, to think that there is a great arc to History that is leading all the world to the same place (the end of history which happens to be our own model) begs a lot of really important questions I think.

In addition, it is also my opinion that Bell's book was written-- not so much to strive toward some kind of more enlightened "trans-cultural values"-- but rather to really address this issue that you present below:

"barbarisms are part-and-parcel with the culture, how to move towards HR without falling into the old traps of colonialism?"

And to add to your point that maybe it is very likely that barbarism is not just part-and-parcel to "the culture" but really to almost all cultures?

I think Kant looms very large. It is almost like the air "we" breath... I wonder if this is what Alan Baumler meant about cucumber sandwiches-- but I am not actually sure. I mean they were eating Filipino food in the part of the book I read!


If this is a definition of genocide, then it seems that liberal universalism (or so I call it in my post at my place) is akin to a barbaric colonialism that seeks to (a) disrupt the national (or cultural) pattern or narrative and (b) replace it with its own (or, as they might see it, with the neutral one that isn't really "theirs" in a sense that it grows from their home grown turf.

I wonder though -- just how far do we want to push this? Is there ever a benign colonialism?

Or maybe a benign missionary impulse to save?

This is from my man Alan Saundars' interview with the British philosopher John Gray (who is so politically interesting you can hardly believe he isn't French) on the June 28 edition of the Philospher's Zone:

"But you can invert the beliefs, you can get rid of the beliefs but still have the patterns of thinking. You just emptied Christianity, if you like, of its transcendental content, and you're left with the same structure, so along one of these patterns, what is the idea of history as a kind of process of the sort I've described, which is continuous, enriched with potentially a kind of culmination, not necessarily a huge Utopian transformation, it can be more incremental, more slow, but most people I would say in the post-Christian societies of the West, inherit the idea that the world is moving towards, or can be made to move towards with collective human action, collective human endeavour and enterprise, a situation in which the whole world is, so to speak, unified by certain values and the whole world accepts perhaps a single word that may be based on science of something of that kind. And the whole world is in some ways better than it's ever been in the past. And indeed, I think for many people the meaning of their lives really depends on that belief. If you strip out that belief in progress, if you start thinking of the world in the way in which the ancient pre-Christian Europeans did, or the Buddhists and the Hindus or the Taoists of China do, many people think that's a kind of despair, I don't know how many times I've been told 'If I thought that John I wouldn't get up in the morning. And if I agreed with you, John, that history had no pattern of that kind, I wouldn't get up in the morning.' I said, 'Well stay in bed a bit longer, you might find a better reason for getting up.'

And that's a kind of example of the way in which a view of history which comes from Christianity, and which really doesn't have much sort of coherence, because after all, humanity is not an entity that can choose or act. We have international institutions like the United Nations and world trade organs, but humanity never does anything. Humanity is simply six or seven billion human beings each with their own dreams, hopes, projects, illusions, delusions, fantasies, beliefs, values, projects etc. Humanity doesn't do anything at all. And I expect the future of humanity or the human animal, the human species, to be in ethical and political respects, much like the past. There'll be new inventions, new knowledge, if there are any phenomena, new for humans at least, like global warming, it's happening now, it hasn't happened before in this way in human history or pre-history, but basically the future will be like the past, history will go on. Oddly enough, when I tell people like that, they say, 'You mean we're all doomed?' I say, initially I became rather puzzled by it, what I'm saying is that we carry on coping the way we did in the past.'"

Peony, I can't let that pass without a note.
Classic logical error: people whose view of history developed out of Christian teleology believe in progress; therefore all people who believe in progress believe in it because of the influence of Christian teleology.
I am a believer in progress, and I believe in it for statistical reasons. There wouldn't be 6 billion of us on the planet unless something had changed. No other large predator has ever been so numerous. And we wouldn't be philosophising unless humankind had achieved a break with history. We have. We're not the same kind of animal we were a million years ago; and we're not the same kind of human being that we were one thousand years ago. To me, anyone who denies that is just being obtuse. Saying the future will be like the past completely ignores the fact that already, the present is nothing like the past. There are, of course, many points of similarity; but it's a whole new world out there.
I'm a British guy living in China having a debate about comparative philosophy with an American living in Japan. That's nothing like the past. We as a species have the power to destroy ourselves at the flick of a few switches. That's nothing like the past. We are on the verge of sending representatives to colonize other bodies in space. That is nothing like the past. Where you live, they survive to an average age of nearly 90 years old. This is nothing like the past!
Whatever John Gray's acquaintances may say, I don't get up because I believe in progress; I get up because my digital alarm clock goes off, and progress smacks me in the face right there.
Bleh, got rhetorical on you. Never mean to do that, but... how can you not believe in progress?

Hi Phil,

I'm glad you're back.

So, you threw me at first with that "classic logical error" as at first I read "classical"...

No, Gray is not saying there is no development. He is not saying there is no progress in the fields of science, technology, medicine. What he is saying-- and I agree-- is that history is not teleological. Nor is history to be spelled with a capital H.

Just because technology or science develops does that imply that human beings (history or "being") too are somehow developing as groups? This to me makes absolutely no sense and it is very unlikely you could ever persuade me to agree (or put it this way, even if I did agree I would only be doing so because I was too drunk to do other wise).

Even as humans physically adapt, I do not necessarily think we are as a species progressing in the sense of improvement-- tho again medicine and other technology has improved. To say that history changes is not to say that we are moving in a progressive development toward some end.... right?

Here are two links if you are interested. I'd love to hear what you think of them.

Interview with Chris Hedges

Philosopher Zone Interview with John Gray

And not to sound too dark and gloomy (keep in mind though that I haven't had any coffee yet!) but yes, you and I are using technology in miraculous ways to communicate. Nothing has ever been like that in the past. So, our ability to commnuicate across distance has improved but are we improved? We live in murderous times. And, don't get me started on happiness... :)

I'm supposed to be working, but you dragged me back in...

"Just because technology or science develops does that imply that human beings (history or "being") too are somehow developing as groups?"
No, I wouldn't even know what it would mean to say that humanity is developing. But I don't know anyone who would say that. I mean, I don't know anyone who would say it in a careful argument. I would probably say it as a shorthand for: there have been lots of scientific and social developments, the result of which is that a large proportion of the human race now live in a fairly benign (much more benign) social and physical environment. My argument always rests on the contentment (a slightly different idea to happiness) of individuals. But there probably is a tendency among people in my modernist camp to paraphrase by saying "humanity is developing". It's a bad habit, and you're right to pick up on it.

Both Chris Hedges and John Gray seem incoherent in these interviews.

Here are a couple of examples.
Hedges: "I'm not a cultural relativist. I don't think that if you live in Somalia, it's fine to mutilate little girls. There is nothing wrong with taking a moral stand, but when we take a moral stand and then use it to elevate ourselves to another moral plane above other human beings, then it becomes, in biblical terms, a form of self-worship."
Sure, but there's a middle ground, and it's a *necessary* middle ground. That middle ground is the ground of judgment. I suspect that you're not going to like this, Peony. Lots of people don't like the idea of judgment, and that's understandable - judge not that you be not judged and all that. But judgment is a necessary part of morality. If you do believe in a moral value (e.g. genital mutilation is wrong) then you must have the strength to hold to it and say that someone who does FGM is wrong. You don't have to go to the extreme to which Hedges immediately jumps; you don't have to say "you do FGM, I don't, therefore I'm a better person than you." But you do *have to* make the judgment and say, in this choice, in this particular moral area, you are wrong and I am right. Otherwise your "moral" is worthless. It's no more than a preference.

The danger that Hedges is interested in is the obvious slide: we (US liberals/US anyones) are better than these (fundie Muslims) in so many ways, we must be better people. Then you get "demonization of a people -- turning human beings into abstractions, so that they're not human anymore...They represent an unmitigated evil that must be vanquished." I completely agree with Hedges that this is a real danger. But this is something to be dealt with separately. The moral judgment must stand.

(And of course, as a corollary to this, we must be prepared to be judged ourselves, and to judge ourselves. Tough, no doubt, but how else are we to improve our behaviour?)

Another quote from Hedges: "You know, there is nothing in human nature or in human history that points to the idea that we are moving anywhere. Technology and science, though they are cumulative and have improved, in many ways, the lives of people within the industrialized nations, have also unleashed the most horrific forms of violence and death, and let's not forget, environmental degradation, in human history. So, there's nothing intrinsically moral about science. Science is morally neutral. It serves the good and the bad. I mean, industrial killing is a product of technological advance, just as is penicillin and modern medicine. So I think that I find the faith that these people place in science and reason as a route toward human salvation to be as delusional as the faith the Christian right places in miracles and angels."

Technology is morally neutral - agree. Science is morally neutral - slightly disagree. I think knowledge is an intrinsic good, and so science is morally positive. But I wouldn't press the point particularly. "science and reason as a route toward human salvation" - straw man alert! The atheist types Hedges is talking about would never talk about "salvation" - it's a religious concept. They (we, since I'm in that camp) don't think science and reason are a route to salvation, we think it's a route to greater ability to control our world, and that with greater power, we will be able to do more good. (more below).

Here's one from Gray: "In the 20th century we saw off Nazism, we prevailed and we weren't radical ranting Utopians at the time, I don't think either in Australia or Britain or America. If you read what people were saying, you read Churchill's speeches, it was a grim job but it had to be done."
What? Gray is trying to argue that Churchill did not have the teleological view of history, nevertheless, he knew that WWII "had to be done". Why? What would give him that certainty? Only a teleology could. Also, Gray has just linked utopianism with Christianity; here he says we weren't utopians. But Britain and the USA were very strongly Christian countries in the 1930s, much more so than today (debatable in the case of the US). If Christian thought is the source of this teleology, the Allied powers of WWII are a classic example of teleological thinking. I can't understand why Gray would cite them as examples to counter what he sees as arrogant, modernist belief in progress.

I keep finding these logical problems over and over in the arguments. Basically it boils down to two caricatures: the imperialist and the craven relativist. I'm particularly sensitive to the mischaracterisation of the modernist believers in progress, because I'm in that camp, and I know it's possible to be a modernist without being an imperialist. I suspect that there is more to the "Asian values" camp than being just spineless relativists, but that's their job to prove.

Finally, a couple of points you raise on the nature of progress.

1) "we live in murderous times". Actually, we don't. Check out this TED talk: http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/steven_pinker_on_the_myth_of_violence.html

2) Happiness. I will get you started! I know there's all the statistics about how people in developed countries are no happier than they were 10, 20, 30 years ago. But we're not unhappier, either. From a utilitarian point of view, given the increase in population, that's a big advance. Economically, there are fewer people, both absolutely and proportionally, living in dire poverty than 20 years ago. That means fewer children dying, fewer orphans. Are you going to look me in the eye and tell me these things don't count?
Smallpox is gone. TB is gone from developed countries. Polio is so close, so agonizingly close. There will probably never be another person in an iron lung. And it's not just sci/tech. Socially, in the democratic world, and in much of the non-democratic world, we've ended aristocracy and divine right (talk about the Bush/Clinton dynasties all you want, it's not the same thing as lords of the manor with the power of life and death over their peasants/slaves); we've stopped mass persecution (Salem victims? Hung. McCarthy victims? Fired.); we've instituted mass education; we've raised living standards and opened up horizons.
We've stopped so much misery. That's not the same as creating happiness, but I happen to believe it's all we can do - individuals must create their own happiness, but we as a society can remove many of the problems that cause misery. And we're doing that.

I'm all impassioned for two reasons: 1) I haven't had a good internet debate in ages, so thanks for arguing with me. 2) I think the kind of arguments you're putting forward are genuinely politically dangerous. You say, yeah, yeah, we've got scientific development, but there's no real progress, it doesn't mean anything. And lots of people seem to be believing these arguments, and they're willing to vote in governments that could put all of these great gains at risk.

Speaking of creating happiness, that's a lovely post on the theatre in LA.

Well, Mr. Hand, I'm supposed to be sleeping but you dragged me back in to!

Phil: "Sure, but there's a middle ground, and it's a *necessary* middle ground. That middle ground is the ground of judgment. I suspect that you're not going to like this, Peony. Lots of people don't like the idea of judgment, and that's understandable - judge not that you be not judged and all that. But judgment is a necessary part of morality. If you do believe in a moral value (e.g. genital mutilation is wrong) then you must have the strength to hold to it and say that someone who does FGM is wrong."

No, I do not disagree with anything you said. And, my post above is mainly about styles of policy and discourse so it wasn't really about the personal judgements made by individuals-- like me and you. For example, I am not talking about what you or I think about the Tibet issue or torture of suspected Islamic Terrorists, right? Bell's book (and my post) were only about the way nations deal with 1) gray areas in human rights and 2) styles of discourse.

Now, if you are asking do nations have a right to judge other nations? I would agree with that as well.... with the stipulation again that this is done with as much local knowledge and cultural understanding as possible and in as least hypocritical manner as possible... isn't that in the end Bell's only point? And again, I do not disagree with anything you said regarding judgement.

Phil: " I know it's possible to be a modernist without being an imperialist. I suspect that there is more to the "Asian values" camp than being just spineless relativists, but that's their job to prove."

Are you speaking as Phil or as a representative of Britain? Because if you are speaking as Phil, then I say, "I don't doubt it and I think maybe I too fall into this camp" However, if you are speaking as a Brit or a Yank then I say, "I am not sure what to say." :)

Phil: "we live in murderous times". Actually, we don't. Check out this TED talk: http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/steven_pinker_on_the_myth_of_violence.html

Andre Malraux (you gotta love him) once commented that "the 21st century must become the century of global culture." Why? Because the 20th had been one of war. Many philosophers agree that in no time in history has war been as deadly nor practiced on such a wide-scale as this past one. As a possible trend, this is-- for the obvious reasons-- disturbing.
(I will listen to the TED talk link-- but some of those TED talks are real iffy, I gotta tell you)

Phil "2) Happiness. I will get you started! I know there's all the statistics about how people in developed countries are no happier than they were 10, 20, 30 years ago. But we're not unhappier, either."

Well, this is a topic that we could never really prove. Still, being as I am "stationed" through the holidays in the land of Zoloft... I will-- unless you prove (with stats) otherwise-- maintain that people are unhappier than they were 10, 20, 30 years ago (I am too-- so don't get me started!!).

Phil: "From a utilitarian point of view,"
Sorry, but I detest utilitarian points of view :)

Of course, you are right about progress in medicine and science... and that must-- just as you say- lead to less misery. Does it lead to more happiness, though? Doubtful.


So Phil, I like it when you are inpassioned! Promise to never "cut ties" ok?? :)

Also, thanks for reading the Post on the symphony. Today, I took Adonis (age 7) to the Kirov ballet-- and it was heavenly. The ballerina playing Clara was so beautiful that it was like being back in a dream. They say the Kirov dancers have the most beautiful hands in the world... and indeed they all were exquisite. Adonis just wanted to keep running back to see the orchestra in the pit during the intermissions to watch the musicians-- Kirov Orchestra. I hope I dream about it tonite...


The issues you raise here are pretty similar to the questions I brought up in my first "Bell I" post on my blog. Bringing it back to Bell, the question is: "how far do we push the notion that the origin and justification of values is local (or particularistic)?" Bell makes a lot of strategic points about local justification, but I think he's a much more robust pluralist, and his concerns are not merely strategic.

I agree that we don't want to be reduced to relativism here, or stuck shrugging our shoulders saying "who is to say?" (WITS!) to one another. But what should that standard of judgment be? And how do we escape the kinds of Western-centrisms that Bell hopes we avoid when we invariably make those judgments?

Consequentialism, which I think is your preferred approach, is one way to go, but there's a lot of content that we need to stuff in first. Specifically, no one is going to suggest that all misery should be done away with, though everyone will presumably agree that some types of misery are not acceptable. So in the sense of FGM, say, surely there is misery here. But it also takes place at the heart of a central ritualistic context in those societies. So it's tough to just point to it and say "too much misery" or "not worth the misery", say. I'm sure a Jainist would not look kindly on some of the misery we cause in our eating rituals. So how do we draw the distinctions in ways that preserve the continuity and dignity of a culture's particular form while at the same time arguing that misery is something we should be chipping away at in a more universalist sense?

I'm not proposing any answers here, and I'm just scratching the surface, as I'm sure you can tell. But I do think that Bell starts to give us his own take on how this can be accomplished (the above dilemma) -- it's his take on "local knowledge". Did you take issue with this?

We can continue this here, if you wish, or we could break off this part of the conversation -- which seems focused on moral and normative theoretical issues -- and continue is at the "Bell I" thread at my place. That might clear up this thread for the other issues above.

Sorry for the rushed nature of the response here, I'm in the middle of juggling a thousand things.

I think this is a great post. I very much agree with you.

Maybe I'm oversimplifying this - or not understanding the full-impact of more complex points, but Bell and your points seem almost obvious (at least to me).

Work in a way that makes sense to people where they live. Isn't that a universal rule - in communication, in sales, in leadership?

Isn't it almost impossible the other way - to expect one presentation will work for all? That there's only one approach - given that people have such different paradigms in which they live?

And aren't all people motivated by maximizing their utlity (to be very economic)? So, wouldn't it make sense to find a way to make human rights an expression of maximizing utility? And wouldn't that vary by place and context?

After all, The EU's approach works because its members have a common set of histories and cultural values. They are countries who have been dealing with each other for hundreds of years - whose lineages intermingled more than a thousand years ago. Consensus is therefore much easier because they live within a similar context and paradigm.

That would be impossible somewhere else.

To get a China, or an Indonesia, or a Bostswana to move toward human rights, doesn't it have to be withing their context and interest? I think that in itself is the art of diplomacy - helping to create those conditions.

Eric, thank you so much for your comment. Did you ever read this post I wrote on Heidegger and ontology?

Well, like you the issues Bell presents seem really common-sensical to me too. And that people seem reluctant to them probably in part has to do with a kind of belief historical progress but also a very real wish to-- as my friend Shunya says-- not side with the executioners; a kind of commitment to working for good. Another friend who works in the field of China human rights (NGO) says that the problem is that authoratarian regimes always play the culture card when they try and avoid human rights issues within their society. However, he also concedes that in China's case, there are elements of Confucian thought that address these issues... So one really doesn't perhaps need to go outside the cultural context anyway.

It was really nice hearing from you Eric!

This is from the Western Confucian's Blog:

Human Rights- A Gift to the World from the Catholic Church

And, Joshua, if you are reading this, my Post was never to deny that there isn't something very beautiful and beneficial in the desire to treat all humans as equal. I wouldn't be surprised if we share some similar concerns too-- though of course I think it's obvious by now that I think social welfare and safety nets are a priority.

So, I've been thinking about this happiness question and:
I've got nothing.
Which is interesting, because I can usually pull something out of a hat. Makes me think that I haven't really got an understanding of what happiness is. I reckon I know it when I feel it. I have a two year old, and enjoy being a translator, so there's no particular lack of happiness round here. But I haven't got much idea about how to deal with it philosophically.
Actually, I kind of feel that I want to reverse that Tolstoy quote. He said: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Whereas I feel that unhappiness is quite comprehensible. All of the traditional scourges make us miserable: disease, death, violence. In the modern world we've learned to understand a few more: repression, neglect, mental illness. But happiness is a great unknown. It is not, despite what utilitarians would have us believe, merely the inverse of misery. Interestingly, happiness has been linked in the past to progress: if an individual defines goals and progresses towards them, she is more likely to be happy. But that's not comprehensive enough.
My own life isn't much help. I think I know what happiness means for me now; but ten years ago I was a teenager, and I'm not sure that now-me could endorse what teenager-me thought about happiness; twenty years ago I was seven, and I have no idea what I thought was happiness then. Maybe I'll get the chance to relearn it as Mikey grows.
There's a film that seems relevant to this somehow, Mike Leigh's latest, "Happy-Go-Lucky". I recommend it very strongly, though I've watched it twice and... well, it made me happy to see such a great movie, but I wouldn't say I understood happiness any better after it.

All of which is why Popper is so great - he recommends that governments don't involve themselves with such imponderables, and just deal with reducing misery. That's all I've got, and I still think it's a worthy goal. Even if reducing misery doesn't increase happiness, one should still reduce misery.

I'm sorry to hear you're not as happy as you were. Perhaps you've been giving away your happiness too indiscriminately over the web. I've been surfing through your links, and it's a wonderful kaleidoscope of ideas. As part of the Google generation, that works for me. But now, to work, at last!

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