29 April 2010

Reasoning Backwards

When I still lived in the US, I was pretty put off by American culture and the American lifestyle. I readily criticized groups who I didn't associate with myself, like suburban Republicans. I railed against their environmentally destructive lifestyle: their giant SUVs, giant houses far away from everything they need, their conformity, and their dogmatic belief in Christianity. Sometimes I got into conversations with them in which I would attempt to convince them that their lifestyle was unsustainable and environmentally destructive. Needless to say, I never made a convert, and though my tactics could have been more tactful, I really don't think my lack of success had anything to do with my rhetorical techniques. I was criticizing their lifestyle, their way of existing in the world, and perhaps most importantly I was criticizing the economic system that they depended on for survival, well being, and happiness.

Now that I live in Hong Kong, when I hear non-Americans criticizing those fat, self-centered Americans, I feel something stir inside me. Some part of me says, "No! You're wrong! You're criticizing my people, and so there must be something wrong with you or what you're saying!" What changed was context. "Them" became "us." Increasingly, "us" feels like Americans, or people from Western cultures, or even...gasp...white people. When I was back in the US, the stereotypical American felt like a "them" and so I had no emotional reaction to criticism of that lifestyle. For the most part, I have disassociated my identity from that stereotype (I'm not that kind of American), but I still feel this visceral push to defend the American lifestyle from what my rational mind still tells me is perfectly reasonable criticism. In some cases, criticisms that I have this emotional reaction to have been criticisms I myself made before "they" became "we."

When we make statements like "I am an American" or "I am a liberal" or "I am a Christian" we connect our identities to a set of beliefs, beliefs about morality, human nature, history, and science: beliefs about how the world works, and how it ought to work. When we do this, we begin to perceive attacks on these beliefs as attacks on ourselves, and often have an emotional response that compels us to defend our beliefs as strongly as we would defend our bodies.

This need to preserve our identity has absolutely no limits. As anyone who has ever argued with a Christian fundamentalist about the age of the Earth knows, no amount of evidence can convince people that their identity-beliefs are wrong. So far as I can tell, there is nothing so outlandish or ridiculous that people won't believe it if it's attached to their identity. It seems that our faculties for reasoning weren't really designed to objectively evaluate reality. They were designed to subjectively evaluate reality, through the lens of group and individual identity. It's the difference between what's true and what's useful to the organism. Now to be sure, natural selection deals harshly with certain types of false beliefs (like the belief that cobras aren't dangerous, or that jumping off a cliff won't hurt you) but those beliefs never spread in a population, so I believe that natural selection generally favors individuals who suspend their objective reasoning faculties when it comes to beliefs that everyone else in their group shares.

When we reason from group identity to beliefs about empirical reality, we reason backwards. This is the danger of "isms." Ideologies and identities organize reality: they tell us what information to pay attention to, and what to ignore.

Experiencing a different culture has caused me to question many of my long-held assumptions about politics, human nature, even epistemology. As a result, I'm no longer willing to call myself by any of the previous labels I attached to my identity (like "liberal" or "progressive"). I find this to be somewhat psychologically discomforting at times, but the only things I can be sure of is that certain statements are false.

If you have a belief system, it's false.  It's a simplification of reality, not reality itself.  It may be useful, for psychological well-being, for making predictions within a certain set of parameters.  But it makes assumptions, and the more you believe in it, the less you see those assumptions.  Consequently, when some of those assumptions turn out to be false (like that resources are infinite, or that technology will always solve our problems before they destroy us) the consequences can be harmful.  Being against isms isn't just about some abstract quest for truth, it's about preventing disaster.

As the speed at which the world changes increases, isms become more dangerous.  Previously safe and reasonable assumptions become dangerous and false with increasing rapidity.  As a species, we're going to have to make some difficult choices in the near future, some compromises.  Moral certainty is the enemy of compromise.  Certainty that market fundamentalism is false is reasonable; certainty that any one alternative or solution is the best, or the only, way forward is not reasonable.  That kind of positive certainty is what engenders tyrannies.

When I sent a rough draft of this post to Henry, I wasn't sure if it was "HK-specific" enough for Libertines, so if you found that ramblings about my expat identity issues boring, I apologize. I thought I would add Henry's comments at the end here, since he connected these ideas back to HK in a way that I thought was worthwhile, but would have felt inauthentic coming from me. What follows are Henry's thoughts on the subject, and how it relates to HK.
When I was young, it was still British Hong Kong. For reasons we all know, we're educated to look down on our mainland brothers and sisters. They're dirty, barbaric, and mostly importantly, they maintain an economic system called communism, the most evil thing that could ever happen on earth. Our grandparents who fled the communist regime and settled in Hong Kong told us that if not for the communists, they'd have been blah blah blah...That was the way before 1997. We lived in a racially Chinese body, but criticised heavily the Chinese in us like we're born westerners. If you want to talk about criticism towards one's own race or nationality, Wes, the complex is around this village, pal.

That's interesting that it took an "emigration" for you to discover that you are actually "them" - the Americans. For us, it was the decolonisation from the Brits and re-colonisation by Beijing that force fed us our Chinese-ness, our "we". "We" had a successful Olympic Game in 2008; "we" are going to host the Expo in Shanghai. "We" - but do we really care? I don't know. People from my generation might care less, the younger ones definitely are educated to care. So it's working the other way around here.

In the end of the day, what's up with this Libertines Pub project? Maybe it's a futile escape from the "we" and back to the "I"?...


  1. Love your post, Wes. Also grateful for Henry's encouragement. When you're in doubt, just write it.

    Frankly, I've developed some stereotypes towards Americans because I encountered a couple of them and they left me very bad impression. (They always give me a feeling that the whole world should bend to their beliefs and lifestyle. But thanks to you and my American cousins, I began to treat "them" from the "you" perspective. By employing a more objective mind, I discover "we" actually share some common values and perspectives.

  2. Bambi: I think the world is progressing toward a broader "we." Many people now consider their in-group to be all of humanity, and the more people who see the world that way, the better the world will be at solving it's problems.

    But as Henry points out, Big Beijing is working really hard to create a sense of "we" in HK based on racial and ethnic identity. If Beijing tries to take away Hongkies civil liberties (we all know how much Beijing hates freedom of speech) they will probably try to frame the issue as "us" (Chinese) against "them" (those Western imperialists who want to impose their values on "us").

  3. Interesting post.
    It's human nature to want to belong to a group (survival instincts, that's why in poorer regions, the WE is usually bigger than the I, and we only think about individuality when survival is assured)
    Having said that, even within a same country, or same race, there are still rivalry and bitterness towards others not coming from the same region, and people only unite together when there's an outside invader.
    Thinking liberally is perhaps the best way of uniting all humanity, but I fear that it may require an attack rfom aliens from another planet to unite all Earthlings. (But this is still a far cry from uniting all things in the Universe as some religions, notably Buddhism, teach us).


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