Confucianism and Korea - Part V: What Can Confucianism Do For America?

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We got this far in the series, so let's take a little detour. The next part of this series will be about how Korea can improve upon its Confucian heritage. But before that, the Korean wants to sketch out a bit about how adopting certain aspects of Confucianism would help America greatly. After all, it is the great tradition of immigrants and America that the immigrants bring the best part of their heritage to be mixed into America, resulting in a stronger, wealthier and more perfect union. There is no doubt that America is great. (Why else would the Korean live here?) But the Korean believes that the American mode of thought lends itself to creating pressure on its society in certain areas, and he believes that Confucianism can relieve some of that pressure.

(Aside:  While we Americans like to consider ourselves to be "multicultural," multiculturalism for many Americans begins and ends at the choice of restaurant for dinner -- and even that does not extend too far when the meat sounds a little too strange. Multiculturalism in America often stops dead upon encountering a radically different mode of thought. When Americans are introduced to such mode of thought, too many of us reject it by calling it "illogical," "backward," "irrational," "not objective," etc. But in order to consider ourselves to be truly multicultural, we must go way past the little morsels that are packaged to our taste -- we must be able to completely step into the shoes of people of other culture and see the world from their philosophical perspective. Confucianism is a great starting point for an aspiring multiculturalist, because it is a sophisticated, functional and highly rational philosophy while at the same time being very different from Western philosophy.)

Here are some of the areas where adopting the Confucian mode of thought might improve upon American society:

Greater Awareness on the Relational Standings

Americans are individualist people. Taking "individual responsibility" is a noble act in America. American notion of human rights is nearly always formulated as "individual human rights." Americans always urge to "see people as individuals." And there is absolutely no doubt that such world view has advanced Americans to a level of freedom enjoyed by few others in all of human history.

(More after the jump.)

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But the excess of individualist thinking sometimes leads to the utter inability to comprehend one's own relational standing in various areas. This leads to injustice, because treating different situations the same is as unjust as treating same situations different. Being blind to differences often serves to elevate the people whose disadvantages are not of their own making. But just as often, being blind to differences serves to entrench the people whose advantages are not of their own making.

This is particularly important because as a collective, Americans are the world's most advantaged people. At the same time, Americans might be the blindest in the world as to just what kind of individually-unearned advantages they have. Go up the ladder of advantages within America, and the blindness becomes worse and worse. For example, white Americans now feel there is a greater anti-white bias than anti-black bias, although the objection conditions of whites and blacks clearly contradict that sentiment.

Gen. David Petraeus

On this point, this episode is worth revisiting. In the aftermath of violence in Afghanistan following a Koran burning in Florida, General Petraeus condemned the Koran burners and offered condolences to those who were killed or injured in the mob violence. And many (not all, not even the majority, but more than a negligible number of) Americans took the general to task for daring to do this. Such reaction is not a dumb gut reaction -- it is an expression of America's individualism. Thus, columnist W.W. at the Economist (a magazine that hires no dummies) wrote:
The mob can't pass the buck to Terry Jones any more than Terry Jones can pass the buck to Khalid Sheik Mohammed. The buck stops in each zealous breast. It's imprudent to issue official statements that suggest otherwise—that suggest responsibility rests with those who try to incite and not with those who choose to be incited.
This is a stunningly ignorant thing to write, because it equates Terry Jones and an average Afghan who joined the mob violence. Terry Jones, the Koran burner, is at an infinitely greater advantage than an average Afghan for no other reason than being an American. He has an opportunity to broadcast his hate worldwide, because the world cares about what an American does. On the other hand, a single Afghan burning an American flag would hardly get the drawn-out international attention that Jones received. As vast majority of Americans are encouraged to do, Terry Jones attended college. On the other hand, 72% of Afghans cannot read. Despite committing a supremely offensive act, Terry Jones need not have any fear of bodily harm because his country's laws and the police will protect him. On the other hand, random American soldiers -- if they are depraved enough -- can go around killing any Afghan they feel like with little risk of getting apprehended. (By the way, please read the linked story. It's completely unbelievable.)

Addressing W.W., a different Economist columnist M.S. makes this precise point:
Plenty of Americans are still today incapable of distinguishing between the September 11th terrorists and the other billion-odd Muslim inhabitants of planet Earth, despite the advantages of literacy and internet access, and I don't think we should expect the average Afghan to do any better.
The world frequently views Americans as arrogant. The Korean does not think Americans are arrogant -- just very self-unaware, because of their individualist bent. Because Americans often cannot see their own unique circumstances, we go around the world thinking that the same rule must apply to the whole world. So Terry Jones' incitement is completely isolated to Jones and Jones alone, regardless of the fact that Jones was able to commit his incitement precisely because of the environment that America provided for him. Gen. Petraeus's condemnation is no more than making that obvious recognition, and American media screeches at him for daring to do the decent thing. Seeing from the outside, that does not appear to be all that different from being arrogant.

How would Confucianism help this situation? Recall that the greatest value in Confucianism is in, and in is ultimately about properly handling human relationships. This outlook necessarily requires being cognizant of your relationship to another, and your relative standing versus other people. Let's look back to one of the most important Confucian doctrines, the Five Morals [오륜]:

Between parent and child, there must be closeness.
Between ruler and subject, there must be justice.
Between husband and wife, there must be distinction.
Between old and young, there must be order.
Between friends, there must be trust.

Don't focus too much on the precise words of the Five Morals, but focus instead on the structure of these morals. They are all about different types of human relationship that naturally occurs in any human society. There is no human society that lacks parent/child, ruler/subject, husband/wife, old/young or friendship. The Five Morals are all about what people are supposed to do as an entity occupying a particular spot. This requires a keen sense of relational self-awareness.

It is not as if Americans are incapable of this type of thinking. In fact, Americans yearn for this type of thinking. David Brooks is one of the most popular columnists on the New York Times, and he makes his living by talking about how humans form relationships and how that is important for the society. (Brooks's book, The Social Animal, is all about how central having a relationship is to human nature.) Confucius covered everything Brooks covered more than two thousand years ago. If Americans are inclined to make The Social Animal is a best-seller, they would love reading The Analects.

Education as Character-Builder

Professor Amy Chua's "tiger mom" book brought forth many furious reactions. One strain of the objections, seizing upon Chua's emphasis on teaching her daughters classical music, went like this:
who the fuck cares about the piano and violin? If all tiger mothers push the piano, say, the winner-take-all race for piano becomes utterly brutal, and the tiger-mothered pianist will likely get less far in the piano race than a bunny-mothered basoonist. That just seems dumb! Gamble on the flugelhorn! ... It’s just way better to be the world’s best acrobatic kite-surfer than the third best pianist in Cleveland.
Amy Chua [Will Wilkinson]

This objection completely misses the point, and not just because the blogger apparently knows nothing about classical music. (Cleveland Orchestra is one of the world's best orchestras. You will have an amazing life if you are the third-best pianist in Cleveland.) This objection misses the point because it sees education as a skill-builder, and not a character-builder.

Americans often see education like Tony Stark looks at his Iron Man suit -- adding one more gadget upon another. When a student learns piano, all Americans can see is that the student is now equipped with the skill to play the piano, like the way there is one more machine gun added onto the Iron Man suit. Under this view, unless the student can put that skill into use in the future somehow, the time spent on acquiring that skill is wasted. So often, Americans resist a system of education that requires everyone to learn high-level math (or high-level anything, actually,) because rare are the people who use integrative calculus in their daily lives.

This is a deeply mistaken attitude, and the ever-smart tiger cub Sophia Rubenfeld-Chua has the perfect answer showing the flaw of that attitude:
I’m never going to be a professional pianist, but the piano has given me confidence that totally shapes my life. I feel that if I work hard enough, I can do anything. I know I can focus on a given task for hours at a time. And on horrible days when I’m lost and a mess, I can say to myself, "I’m good at something that I really, really love." I want my kids to have that confidence – confidence rooted in something concrete, not just "aww everyone’s a winner!!!" confidence, because in your heart you never believe that.
Read the emphasized sentence carefully, and think about it long and hard. The point of learning the piano is NOT about acquiring the skill of playing the piano so that the student can earn a living as a pianist. It is about building the character of the person. Here is the thing about character -- you can't build it by explicitly setting out to build it. Character is not a skill like tying your shoelaces. If it must be put in terms of "skill", character is a "meta-skill" -- a foundational human skill that is necessary to perfect any number of mechanical skills. And the only way to develop this meta-skill is to develop at least one highly sophisticated mechanical skill, such that the student may acquire the meta-skill in the course of building the mechanical skill.

So, once again: the point of learning the piano is NOT about acquiring the skill of playing the piano. As Rubenfeld-Chua put it, it is about acquiring genuine confidence and iron discipline. With such confidence and discipline, she can move on and do anything she wants in her life because there is no task in life in which confidence and discipline hinder success. THIS is the whole point of Tiger Parenting, and the reason why Tiger Parenting is so successful.

This educational philosophy is a direct outgrowth of Confucianism. Recall that in is the highest value in Confucianism, and one of the essential elements of achieving in is self-study. Under Confucianism, studying is an act of humanly self-creation. Studying manners, ritual, music and ancient texts -- all the things that Confucian education emphasizes -- all aids in making a human out of a beast. The act of studying itself is what develops character, not the content of the studying.

The Japanese art of dorodango is the perfect visualization of Confucian educational philosophy. "Dorodango" literally means a "mud ball." To make a dorodango, one would grab a clump of mud, make a sphere out of it, and obsessively rub it and cure it for hours and hours until it shines like a gorgeous ball of marble. It really does not matter what kind of mud one uses -- in Mythbusters, the hosts used animal feces to disprove the saying that one cannot polish a turd. In other words, it does not matter what skill you learn; what matter is you learn to do it really, really, really well with relentless, obsessive effort, and the result will be a shining beauty.

Dorodango, made entirely of mud

The benefit of Confucian education philosophy is not limited to creating hard-working students equipped for success. Once people begin to accept that education is about character-building rather than skill-building, many of the problems that afflicts American educational system will take care of themselves. Many Americans do not take education seriously enough, but they will take it more seriously if education is about making not just a more skilled person, but a literally better person. Many Americans have a low opinion of teachers, but they will respect teachers more if teachers are considered the better people who are in charge of shaping their children's character.

Americans actually know all this already, but in a different area -- in sports. Phil Jackson is undeniably the most successful NBA coach in history, and his whole thing was about Zen and how to place his players in the correct mental state in order to maximize their potential as a team. Bobby Knight, one of the most successful college basketball coaches, famously said: "Mental toughness to physical is as four to one." In sports, no one complains about repetitive drills that build the requisite character, the ultimate meta-skill. In fact, they are celebrated. When Kobe Bryant practiced his shot hundreds of shots after losing the game to Miami Heat  earlier this season, American media universally praised it as a prime example of Bryant's mental toughness. But when students are made to go through hundreds of math drills, American media gasps in horror. It is time to end this silliness.

Moving Away from Over-Reliance on the Law

As much as he loves America, this is the thing about America that bothers the Korean the most -- the over-reliance on the law to guide every aspect of life. Of course, rule of the law is a great American virtue. There is tremendous strength behind the idea that no person is above the law. But the bastard cousin of that principle -- that no thing is above the law -- causes America to waste a huge amount of resources in an expensive legal system that often fail to hold the right people accountable. The idea that nothing is above the law is false because there are certain things that are, in fact, above the law, depending on the situation. Sometimes, morality is above the law. In certain situations, common courtesy/common sense is above the law.

For example, there is no doubt that America's financial institutions are largely responsible for the current financial crisis that has caused a tremendous amount of pain to millions of Americans. Yet there is also no doubt that much of what the Wall Street banks were doing previous to the financial crisis was all completely legal. They hired an army of lawyers to make sure that what they were doing was legal. One can make an effort to punish them through the law somehow, but the banks' technical compliance with the law makes it nearly impossible. As a result, not a single major corporation/financial institution is held liable under the law for anything that happened. Because it does not occur to Americans that there may be a right or wrong that goes beyond the law, all the finance companies can defiantly hold up their collective heads and say, "We did nothing wrong, because we did nothing illegal."

Similarly, all the frivolous litigiousness stems from the fact that in America, law has replaced common courtesy and common sense. For life's every small nicks and bruises, Americans' response is to sue instead of talking it out and work out a solution. Does every fender-bender really need a lawsuit filed by an ambulance chasing lawyer claiming whiplash injury that is nearly impossible to prove or disprove? Does an iron really need a warning label that says: "WARNING: Never Iron Clothes on the Body"?

Americans would do well to remember the admonition by Jo Gwang-Jo, one of the most significant Confucian scholars of Korea:
The royal court's discipline cannot be established by punishment. Once the court gets right first, the lower people naturally obey with their heart. Punishments and the laws cannot be abolished, but they are but the means to assist governance. They cannot be the foundation of governance.
Jo is pointing out one of truths about the law that Americans frequently ignore -- that punishment is not the primary reason why people follow the law. For the most part, people voluntarily follow the law because they sense that it is the right thing to do. In fact, empirical studies about why people obey the law -- conducted in Chicago in mid-1980s -- strongly establish this truth. What matters is that the law is legitimate and worthy of following voluntarily, not that the law comes with a harsh punishment and violating the law will put you in the slammer for life.

Americans have a hard time understanding this idea. The response by America's rulers to increased number of crimes is almost always to increase the number of police, the number of arrests and the number of prisoners. America now has the world's largest per capita prison population. California's prisons are so overcrowded that the Supreme Court recently ruled the prisons themselves constituted a cruel and unusual punishment. But America still is not any safer -- it is one of the leaders among the industrialized nations in murder rate. Why is this happening?

Confucius has the answer:
Master said:
道之以政 齊之以刑 民免而無恥
If led by the law and enforced by punishment,
people attempt to escape and do not feel ashamed.
道之以德 齊之以禮 有恥且格
If led by virtue and enforced by rituals,
people grow a sense of shame and become good.
So this is what Confucianism can offer to America's bloated and dysfunctional legal system: rule by virtue and morality. When people live a morally correct life, they naturally end up following the law as a result. The leader's role is not to crack down on every little violation of the law -- such crackdown only leads to (at best) technical compliance and no moral reflection. The leader's role is to get into a morally upright life first, such that people may feel legitimatized in their moral life and follow the example.

The next and final part of the series will be about how Korea can improve upon its Confucian heritage.

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