My two daughters, now 14 and 16 years old, live with their mother in Charlotte, North Carolina. They came to visit over the holidays, however, and, as always it was delightful to see them both, despite the frigid temperatures that have engulfed much of the northern US over the last week or so.
Because of the cold temperatures, we decided that shopping would be more appropriate than skiing or ice-skating on their first day here in Michigan. They both had a couple of gift cards that they received as gifts and were eager to spend them, so the plan came together splendidly.
Before leaving home, however, my oldest daughter and I had the following exchange:
“Dad, can I have some money for shopping?”
“I just gave you a gift card. And I know you have others. Why can’t you use them?”
“That’s true, but I have to buy some warmer clothes. And it was your choice to move to Michigan when you moved back from China so it seems only fair that you buy me some warmer clothes given that I’ve only come to Michigan to visit you. Doesn’t quite seem fair that I’d have to spend my gift money on clothes that I don’t really need in North Carolina.”
It was not an atypical conversation. My daughter is brilliant, clever, articulate, and very, very quick on her feet. She would make a first class litigator some day.
I was, therefore, in no way offended by the conversation. And while I’d like to think I don’t always give in, I thought it was a worthy performance, as it were, and I gave her a modest amount of money to buy some warmer clothes. Frankly, while I try to teach my daughters to be thoughtful, considerate, and respectful of others, particularly their elders, I was rather proud of her spunk.
My Chinese wife, however, while she showed no reaction at the time, was, I would find out later, aghast. She wasn’t angered by the conversation. The parent/child relationship is very special in Chinese culture and my wife wouldn’t presume to insert herself. She was, however, at a total loss to understand my daughter’s logic. She could not fathom a Chinese child ever saying such a thing to his or her own father. It wasn’t so much disrespectful in the Chinese worldview as it was simply beyond comprehension.
Filial piety is at the heart of Confucian obligation and Chinese culture. Aging parents, it is assumed in China, will live with their adult child. While the concept of Chinese obligation does not extend to holding a door open for a stranger or acknowledging a queue, it would be unthinkable for most Chinese to even consider putting a parent in a senior or assisted living home.
Having expressed her bewilderment that evening as we got ready for bed, my wife did not expect an explanation, and I long ago stopped feeling obligated to provide one in such circumstances. In the Chinese worldview many things just are and don’t warrant an explanation. And, in fact, they are often baffled that Americans spend so much time and effort in a futile attempt to explain the inexplicable and largely unimportant.
This, frankly, is one of the ways in which I think Americans and the Chinese can learn from each other. They’re right that we spend far too much time and effort on things that really aren’t all that important. And, as a result, we sometimes fall short on the stuff that really does matter.
On the other hand, it is our scrappy American curiosity and mental agility that has made the US the center of the technology universe. And while it is that same quality that has spawned the legal quagmire that we often find ourselves drowning in as a nation, the ability to articulate and defend your position is one of the most important life skills to have in the shrinking, integrated, and complex world of the 21st Century.
The ability to both project and defend your position is, in fact, increasingly important in the world of commerce and technology, particularly now that functional distinctions are disappearing and collaboration is the hallmark of most successful ventures of every stripe. We all have to sell in a world of ideas and apps. The ability to execute in isolation is rarely enough.
Collaboration, in fact, is essential to just about every profession today, including diplomacy. And, I believe, is the larger lesson that we can take from this little side story of filial piety—or not—into 2018.
When it comes to political leadership, power is really of secondary importance. How a government comes to power is subordinate to how it uses that power. And how it uses that power is typically defined by perceived obligation. As the men or women in power, on whose behalf do the political leaders of a country exercise their power?
Obligation, however, is itself a duality. On the other side of obligation is mutual obligation, or what might be more accurately described as deference. And, of course, deference is likewise a duality. I can defer to you because you have a gun to my head or because I, for whatever reason, choose to.
When the three components of politics and diplomacy—power, obligation, and deference—are in balance, there is peace and the world at least has the opportunity to progress, although there may be other influences (such as the ability to present/defend your ideas) as to how far the world progresses how quickly. When there is imbalance, however, progress stalls, and can, in fact, turn into destruction. (Think North Korea, Syria, Afghanistan—plenty of options.)
If we define a society in terms of its common governance, we all want to belong to a society in which the three elements of power, obligation, and deference are in relative balance. We might say that it is the most balanced state that best allows the energy of the society to be applied toward collective advancement.
When there is an imbalance, on the other hand, society does not progress because, as is true of all ecosystems in the universe, its energy is consumed with correcting the imbalance. As in the larger universe, balance is the ideal state which all energy seeks.
Of all forms of governance that have existed over the course of history, it can be legitimately argued that American democracy has achieved a relatively high level of balance, which, in turn, allowed its social energy, shaped and directed by strong values of opportunity and achievement, to forge the American Century, from which the US emerged as the lone superpower, the world’s largest economy, and the primary architect of digital commerce and social media.
That is not to say that imbalance did not occur over the last two and one-half centuries. Those periods of imbalance, however, were largely, but by no means completely, corrected. While the Civil War, for example, helped to correct the imbalance resulting from the slave trade, it clearly didn’t abolish slavery per se. It was an important inflection point, to be sure, but it was a nudge in the end. Racism was not eradicated and continues to absorb much of our collective energy in non-productive and destructive ways.
Technology, which has impacted the world in so many ways, has, more than anything else, empowered a heightened awareness of imbalances between power, obligation, and deference around the world. Women, the LGBTQ community, the physically and mentally challenged, the uneducated, and the poor, have always been enslaved, to varying degrees, by the Western white male oligopoly of the modern era. And technology, more than anything else, has made that reality more transparent.
Technology has, however, also raised the stakes of the imbalance. The gap between the advantaged and the disadvantaged has grown much wider, and the impact of that gap far more significant.
Consider, for example, in a strictly material way, what it meant to be enslaved in ancient Egypt or the early 19th Century South. There were huge differences in the quality and dignity of life, of course, but nobody had access to modern medicine, indoor plumbing, electricity, or efficient transportation. While the powerful lived in beautiful palaces and manor homes, the fundamental differences were not as great as the difference between the world’s poorest and most oppressed people today and the uber-billionaires who, quite literally, live in a parallel dimension of privacy and privilege.
This fundamental shift, largely caused by technology, has profound implications for governance in today’s inter-connected world. The more advanced an ecosystem is, the more it relies on balance, and the easier it is for that balance to be lost.
All of which leads me to wonder what 2018 will bring. Will we work collaboratively to instill a sense of global balance that just may save the planet and allow the collective “we” to enjoy peace and prosperity? Or will we fall back on traditional norms of power, obligation, and deference, that have historically divided and selectively oppressed us?
If we can learn from each other, as I hope both my wife and daughter can, I am personally optimistic. I am still out forty bucks, but that’s a small price to pay for so much food for thought.
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