That Asian Intuition
I was recently in the shower, reflecting on the field of psychology (sorry, I’m not much of a singer). And it struck me how psychology can be used as a tool of Western imperialism.
It does not cease to amaze me how anachronistic and egocentric we are as Americans. Just a quick conversation with my dad about economics already reveals that we are often short-sighted. As Americans, far removed from those distant countries where many of our products are made, we complain how our jobs are being exported to other countries where ‘big evil corporations’ don’t have to pay a living wage. My dad, who grew up severely impoverished in HK scoffs. He remembers that days where he was grateful just for the opportunity to make a few cents assembling dolls and fake flowers with his family.
Or looking at Iraq and other countries in the Middle East. We are appalled at the absence of democracy and their treatment of women. Now hold on Brian…are you saying that women should be treated as property? No, I’m not. Please let me clarify…
I have grown to respect the process of history. For example: I am tired of people saying how crazy Americans are for holding on to their guns when Canada and the rest of Europe do so much better without them. Falling into that pitiful modern trap of anachronism, people fail to realize the force of history. Do we ever step back to think about why on earth we have the second amendment? Did it ever occur to us that a country that found its independence through a grassroots style militia/minutemen movement would not so easily give up its guns? No, I don’t like guns and how they are used in our country. But it doesn’t mean that I should ignore history.
Similarly, how arrogant are we that we think we can just jump into a country, liberate all the women in a day, and then think that things will all of a sudden will be better. It may get better one day…or it may turn so sour that residents will turn their backs on Westernization and seek alternative paths to ‘civilization’, like Iran has. Women’s liberation in non-Western countries, I believe, will not come as a result of a forced liberation. The process of liberation must arise organically…and even what liberation looks like in the end should make sense in light of the prevailing culture. America does not provide the only model of liberation.
So what does this have to do with my reflections on psychology? Well, it hit me how what psychology has defined as ‘healthy’ or ‘normal’ is so culturally-conditioned. A quick example is looking at our parents’ marriages. We are quick to point out how dysfunctional their marriages are. But let’s take a step back…can we really imagine all married couples through all time and throughout all cultures looking like what we imagine in our heads? I’ll tell you what we call people like what we imagine: white-washed. I’m not trying to be racist here (it is equally short-sighted to just blame everything on white people). But our imaginations have rarely been challenged…because popular psychology has as its gurus, rich white Americans. (We should also not that Latin American liberation theology was crafted by white Catholic priests, not native Latin Americans.)
Do I disdain the work of such psychologists? No, I don’t. In fact, I count them invaluable. However, I think that it would serve humanity well if we could raise up some African psychologists, Chinese psychologists, Russian psychologists, etc. And these psychologists would not be exploring the exact same things as Western psychology. Rather, they would try to tackle questions that are pertinent to their own culture, use the categories and language of their own people, and seek out norms that are intelligible to those same people. What does a good Chinese marriage look like? What does it mean to be ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ in African society? How should a Russian deal with their emotions?
Of course, we can learn from other cultures. But that desire must come from within those cultures, not from without. For a society to be jealous of the advances of another or to be interested in their progress is not always a bad thing. But for an external society to force its own cultural categories and norms onto another culture, no matter how great it sounds, it is hard for me to see how that can be good.
I am certainly not the first to make such a call, but as people from all over the world, the human race could benefit a lot from each ethnicity forging new approaches to traditional disciplines. Many white European and Americans are already showing interest in Eastern cultures, but I fear that in the end, we will look to them as experts and not the Asians. Asians and other peoples need to be their own pioneers, their own experts, and their own ambassadors.
Psychology may just be our new religion. In a secular society where we insist on the separation between church and state, the state must still find some sort of ‘religion’ to justify its actions and to appeal to its citizens. Psychology helps us as Americans define our identities, our values about humanity, and form our worldview. It would be no surprise then that we would want to impose our self-understanding on to the rest of the world.
I am not against psychology. I enjoy studying it and I think that it is very helpful. But I think we could all use a little precaution.