What is culture? It is the sum total of common behavior, expression, and expectation unique to a geographic area or ethnic group.
These behaviors, expressions, and expectation are, to some extent, based on common historical experience. Traditions, which are really just repeated behaviors, certainly influence culture, which is why culture has a certain historical dimension to it.
More that anything else, however, behavior is driven by motivation and motivation is defined by expectations. And, again, history plays a role. Prior experience naturally drives future expectations. The sun has risen every day of my life; I therefore expect it will rise tomorrow.
This is a little misleading, however. For it is not so much history that drives expectation as it is our interpretation of history. We’d like to think of history as a collection of indisputable facts, but it is not. Read two different accounts of major historical events and you might wonder if both observers are relaying the same event.
An important element of defining expectations, and thus behavior and culture, therefore, is the methodology by which we interpret reality. And that, to a large extent, is defined by our worldview, the compass of reason by which we take our bearings in life and interpret the reality around us.
Western culture is built on a foundation of deductive reason, whereby known and measurable inputs lead to an irrefutable conclusion. It is a world of cause and effect, or formal logic, and the basis for the Scientific Method.
It was Aristotle, therefore, not Julius Caesar, or the famous names of the Enlightenment, that gave us Western culture as we know it today. For it was Aristotle that first introduced the concept of formal logic.
The problem with deductive reasoning, of course, is that ‘obvious’ conclusions are not always obvious. Or, more to the point, they are not always isolated. The problem arises from what statisticians call ‘coincidental correlation.’ One variable may be highly correlated with a specific outcome, but not the real, or at least sole, contributor or cause.
Eastern culture is built on a foundation of inductive reasoning, wherein the result or conclusion is extrapolated, largely through speculation, back to an explanation. It is not ‘scientific’ as that word is typically used, in part because the process through which you start at the end and move backward cannot be consistently replicated, as the process of deductive reasoning can.
I have yet to discover the Father of Eastern culture in the sense that I consider Aristotle to be the Father of Western culture. Rather, I think it was the absence of Aristotle and the influence of Taoism and folk religion that explain the Eastern culture’s inductive worldview.
But what does this mean for the world today?
For starters it means that Western culture is very process oriented. We believe in the linear and infallible relationship of cause and effect. That, in turn, makes us idealists who put great value in ideals and values that drive specific behavior.
We believe, for example, in the overriding value of honesty, individual freedom and equality, democracy, and free market capitalism. We call them core values, but values are inert and must be translated into processes to have any effect.
The Chinese and other Eastern cultures, by contrast, put more emphasis on results than processes. Ah, you say, but they are Communists. ‘How can you say they don’t put the same values on idealism and values that Westerners put on democracy and free market capitalism?’
But that reinforces the exact point I am making. That is an interpretation made through a Western lens.
In fact, the Chinese are not Communists. They follow a system of ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics.’ And they follow it because they believe this is the best model available for maintaining civil order in a country of 56 ethnic groups and 1.4 billion residents. And they follow it because they believe this is the best model available for generating economic growth and lifting the population out of poverty.
And recent history has certainly proven them right. At least it has yet to prove them wrong.
Ah, skeptics will insist, but over the longer history of time, the Western democracies have provided a better quality of life. Fair enough. But here we get back to the statistical dilemma of coincidental correlation. Was it Western culture’s ideals or some other influence that led to that result?
In reality, no one knows for sure. There is no way to ‘prove’ one theory or the other because history does not lend itself to literal replication. There are too many variables that play out on too grand of a scale for history to be replicated in the laboratory.
But whoever is right and whoever is wrong, the differences still exist. Because Western culture turns on values or ideals, institutions reign supreme. The ‘shining city on the hill,’ the obscene value of professional sports teams, and the fundamental commitment to the rule of law are but a few examples.
In China, by contrast, culture turns on relationships and all relationships are personal and come with mutual obligation.
The 370-member 18th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China held the 4th Plenary Session in Beijing this past week and, as reported by most Western media outlets, the primary topic was ‘the rule of law.’ As Steve Zhang, professor of contemporary Chinese studies at the University of Nottingham, pointed out, however, the Chinese agenda for the meeting could be translated as ‘rule by law’, not ‘rule of law.’ The plenum, in other words, had little to do with independent jurisprudence as we think of that ideal in the West and more to do with federalizing some of the discretion historically enjoyed by local government officials.
In reality, all cultures, and the political systems that govern them, need to find a balance between inductive and deductive reasoning. Overly deductive political systems, such as most Western democracies, ultimately become paralyzed by the emphasis on ideals and values over results.
Overly inductive political systems, on the other hand, can become hotbeds of corruption and, ultimately, anarchy. Moral codes, are by nature, deductive in nature. And without them resources are allocated inefficiently, people lose confidence in the government, and the whole system collapses.
President Xi Jinping, I believe, understands this better than anyone else. Deduction must be returned to the Chinese culture and political system or the Party will lose its legitimacy and, ultimately, the economy and society will be plunged into chaos.
His prescription, I believe, is Marxism with Chinese characteristics, many of which are borrowed from the philosophy of Confucius, to give basic Marxist ideology more of a Chinese identity and the added credibility of an historical association with China at the peak of its global power.
This, I believe, is why President Xi spends so much time referring to the ‘Chinese Dream’ and defining that dream in idealistic terms full of uniquely Chinese values.
It is also why, I further believe, that China is in no hurry to embrace the Western ideals of democracy, individual rights, or the rule of law any time soon. The results simply aren’t there. As long as the West remains mired in political and economic stagnation, the inductively-pragmatic Chinese are yet to be convinced that their way is not the best.
Copyright © 2014 Glassmaker in China
Notice: The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity. They are not in any way endorsed or sanctioned by his employer or any other individual with which he may be personally or professionally affiliated.