AoM2011: Primative dichotomies and emotional foolishness

August 14, 2011

The choice of illustration here is ironic by the way – its original title is The Women’s Studies Course. A nice mixture of male fantasy, sexual stereotyping etc. etc. I said yesterday that I was slightly dreading today as I picked sessions on east meets west. Now this should be really interesting. The links between the Tao and Complexity for example, indigenous knowledge has long been a subject of interest and study for me and I hoped to learn a lot. I dreaded some crude east is good west is bad primitivism and low and behold that is what we got.

This was not about learning from differences, it was about crude stereotypes, romantic idealism about indigenous life that would have put Rousseau to shame and a complete lack of critical ability of reflection. Oh and that is before I get on to a couple of academics who thought if they just stood up and told us that Ying and Yang were Confucian they would get a standing ovation, and one US resident of 25 years standing arguing that African culture was supreme. I think that Ubuntu is an interesting philosophy with a lot of potential but its advocate did little to advance its cause. Add to that mix someone who looked pure bread Pākehā claiming Māori status while denying their martial history and you get a sense of the issues.

We started with three academics from the Nonaka Centre in Spain who have just published a book which devices the entire world into the West and the East. The West we were told, post Descartes separates the mind from the body and is exclusively capitalist, focused on the individual and deductive in nature. On the other hand the East is holistic, collectivist, and inductive in nature. Low and behold they have a little test which produces a spider diagram and tells you what you are. Now in a group of ill educated consultants this might be excusable, but these guys are academics. The also listed knowledge management as an eastern approach. When challenged on this the woman said they knew it wasn’t but part of it had an eastern aspect (by which she meant Nonaka). She also said she knew they were making some very board generalizations, but just wanted to help people. One wonders what happened to academic integrity here. Challenged on the Descartes point she claimed not to be a philosopher and therefore excused from knowing the more general background to Cartesian thinking. It then got worst, scholastic terms and some Aristotle were brought into play and matched to Islamic philosophy. Well of curse, both have the same origin for God’s sake. Either way I am pleased to say that the reception was universally hostile, especially to the idea of lumping everyone into two board categories based on geography so I moved on with some hope.

The next session was worse, the same error repeated but now with a starry eyed wonder at the glories of indigenous thinking and the poverty of western approaches. Then a series of presentations from Chinese, Japanese, New Zealand (I refuse to say Māori) followed by our all being told to know reflect on how we could correct out wicked ways. We were seriously told that all of these groups are tuned into their ecologies and in some cases were non-warlike. Now for a start you can hardly call the Chinese and the Japanese non-warlike or for that matter non-capitalist. In many ways they understand it better than the US. The Māori for whom I hold the greatest respect were the first indigenous people to fight the British Empire to standstill because they were warlike and understood trade.

There is something deeply patronizing and colonial about this foolish idolization and demonization of whole groups of people. There are real intellectual, cultural and cognitive differences all of which we can learn from. But learning cannot take place within the context of crude dichotomies and illusional romanticism.

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