US Distorts Asia’s Wisdom about the World, Says Harvard Prof
Asian philosophies have proven extremely influential in the United States, but are they being interpreted correctly? Frequently not, says Harvard China historian Michael Puett.
Michael Puett is the Walter C. Klein Professor of Chinese History in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations and Chair of the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard University. He is the author of The Ambivalence of Creation: Debates Concerning Innovation and Artifice in Early China and To Become a God: Cosmology, Sacrifice, and Self-Divinization in Early China, as well as the coauthor of Ritual and its Consequences: An Essay on the Limits of Sincerity. In 2013, he was awarded a Harvard College Professorship for excellence in undergraduate teaching.
Michael Puett: Mindfulness is one of the big ideas that’s come in from Asia that’s had a huge impact on America, and basically the idea of mindfulness as it’s practiced in America is one of teaching one to accept one’s feelings. If one feels anger or jealousy, just sort of distance oneself from it, and the goal is to allow one to move through the day not being so taken up by these negative emotions. That seems very powerful but of course the danger of such an approach is that it’s really teaching us not to make any fundamental changes in our life. It’s simply teaching us to accept, and not be so bothered by things, as they occur.
Now Chinese philosophers will, on the contrary, push strongly that, "No, you actually don’t want to be too comfortable with the world as it is, or with interactions as they are or with things you’re doing as they currently are being done." They would say, "Oh no, you should actually be training yourself to respond in ways that can actually affect situations for the better — alter your relationships that really alter the situations you’re in." And I would even add mindfulness, as it was originally practiced, was actually much closer to this idea. It’s really in America that it’s been turned into a kind of acceptance mantra. Whereas a lot of the Asian philosophies — and this is certainly true of China as well — the focus really is on altering, changing. Changing yourself. Changing your actions. Changing the world in which we exist.
We tend to love the idea of nature. We tend to think that our problem as humans is that we’ve become too artificial, and that we should return to nature in some way. Either return to nature as it exists outside of us — so it means taking a nice walk in a park on a weekend, for example — or returning to our nature within ourselves. So to really stick to who we are, who we fundamentally are, our basic nature that we’re born with, things we’re gifted at doing and really focus on who we naturally are meant to be. Xunzi would argue that both of these visions of nature are actually potentially dangerous.
First of all, let’s begin with the self. The self, sure we’re born with lots of things, but Xunzi would say we’re born with a lot of messy things. We’re born with desires, dispositions, faculties. And we’re all kind of equally born with a bunch of messy stuff. And the focus shouldn’t be on sticking or returning or embracing that stuff with which we’re born. The goal is actually to change yourself, transform yourself. As Confucius will say, 'overcome this self-meaning, this messy self.' And train yourself to be something better than you were at birth. And Xunzi would even make the same point with the larger natural world around us, pointing out that actually most of what we think of as natural is already quite artificial.
There’s nothing natural about a park. This is an artificial attempt by humans to create a seemingly natural space. To which Xunzi would respond that’s a wonderful thing to do, but let’s be aware that we’ve constructed it, and therefore ask the question with a park for example just as we would ask for ourselves, "Have we done a good job of constructing this nature? Have we done a good job of working with this world that we were born into, and the stuff that we are born with?" So his question would always be, 'Don’t return to nature. It’s how you work with things that we are born into, and how you work with the stuff that we were born with.'
The danger of thinking that nature is good is that it restrains us. So I’ll give a very typical example. We often like to think that the way to become a good person is to look within, find one’s true self, the sort of natural self that we have. And once you’ve found that self, that natural thing that you are, the goal is to be sincere and authentic to that true self. So if we stick to what we naturally are meant to be, the gifts that we’re naturally endowed with that’s how we can be a sincere authentic person. Now a lot of our Chinese philosophers would say that sounds good but is, on the contrary, extremely restraining and constraining to what we could do.
The fact is if we’re messy creatures, as many of them would say what we perhaps are in our daily lives are simply people whose emotions are being pulled out all the time by people we encounter, interactions we have, and over time those responses fall into kind of ruts and patterns that can just be repeated endlessly. So someone does something, it makes me angry, and not even because of what they immediately did, but because for some reason it brings back say, you know, someone from my childhood yelling at me, and I just have a patterned response to a certain action being done in a certain way by anyone that brings out a certain response.
So if they’re onto something in this, and I might add lots of psychological experiments show that they really are, then what that means if you try to look within and find your true self — this thing you think you naturally are — what you’re probably finding are just a bunch of patterns you’ve fallen into, many of which could potentially be dangerous for you, for those around you. And if that’s the goal you should be trying to break those patterns, alter those patterns, change the way you interact in the world. And if you’re simply saying, "I should be who I naturally am meant to be," well what you’re probably doing is simply continuing to follow a bunch of patterns probably destructive to yourself and almost assuredly destructive to those around you.
Asian philosophies have proven extremely influential in the United States, but are they being interpreted correctly? Frequently not, says Harvard China historian Michael Puett, who focuses on two main ideas in this video: one transported relatively recently to the United States, and another that sheds new light on the so-called naturalistic fallacy.
First up is mindfulness meditation: a practice that has become all the rage for anyone looking to live calmer, more focussed lives. It sounds innocent enough, says Puett, but the goal of distancing yourself from negative emotion presents real risks. If you find a way to cope with negative emotion without changing the material circumstances around you — focusing on internal sources of stress to the exclusion of external ones — you may begin to accept harmful treatment.
This is likewise the case with "finding your true self," which Puett claims is little more than accepting your circumstances and normalizing potentially destructive patterns of behavior. When we search for ourselves, we search for some authentic, natural self. But putting nature on a pedestal ignores the very real call to action that Chinese philosophy presents.
Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:
"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."
Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.
Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.
The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?
Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression
In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.
It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.
Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.
Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.
The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.
It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.
In their findings the authors state:
"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence
to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.
Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like
violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students
do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones,
speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment
to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on
controversial issues is "always acceptable."
With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.
Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner
As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:
- Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
- Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
- Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
- Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
- Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
- Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
- Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.
It's interesting to note the authors found that:
"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."
You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.
Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:
- 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
- 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
- 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
- 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
- 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
- 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.
Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement
Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:
- Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
- Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
- Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
- Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
- We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
- If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.
Civic discourse in the divisive age
Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.
There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:
"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.
Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."
We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.
This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.
A study on flies may hold the key to future addiction treatments.
- A new study suggests that drinking alcohol can affect how memories are stored away as good or bad.
- This may have drastic implications for how addiction is caused and how people recall intoxication.
- The findings may one day lead to a new form of treatment for those suffering from addiction.
A new AI-produced commercial from Lexus shows how AI might be particularly suited for the advertising industry.
- The commercial was written by IBM's Watson. It was acted and directed by humans.
- Lexus says humans played a minimal part in influencing Watson, in terms of the writing.
- Advertising, with its clearly defined goals and troves of data, seems like one creative field in which AI would prove particularly useful.
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