Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Random Thoughts: Different "agencies"

I'm going to pause in my weekly trip down memory lane to talk about something rather serious. It's the type of thing I try very hard not to remark on in public because I think that too many people jump on a current events bandwagon and start tossing out opinions as if they were proclamations from God. Any dissenting voices are then struck down with verbal fury as the demigod of each particular blog attempts to smite all of his enemies.

In my case, I want to use a particular issue not as a soapbox upon which to offer my views. I certainly have no desire whatsoever to engage in a debate on said views and part of this post will explain why. And, yes, it does relate to my experiences in Japan, thank you for asking.

One of the hardest things to do when you encounter another culture is to not operate ethnocentrically. That is, to not judge another culture by the standards of your own. I daresay it is likely to be impossible not to do so, and the best most of us can hope for is an awareness that that is what we are doing. An awareness of such judgement has the potential to result in the knowledge that your preferred approach is not "better", but rather is simply one you personally prefer. If you can reach a conclusion which says the equivalent of "chocolate and vanilla are both fantastic flavors with great aspects to each, but I prefer vanilla", then you've done pretty well.

During my early years in Japan, I was just as ethnocentric as every other foreigner, perhaps more because I did not go there prepared for the differences I was to encounter nor was I a Japanophile and automatically favorably inclined toward the country. I thought the way in which they communicated indirectly was pointless and lacked genuineness. I felt the concepts of tatamae and honne were culturally sanctioned ways of lying. I even believed that choosing a fussy and time-consuming way of living by using futon instead of a bed was silly. Why would anyone choose to sleep on a thin mat which had to be rolled up and put away as well as beat because dust mites infested it when they could have a nice comfy bed?

Have my opinions changed on a lot of these topics? No. Am I still as ethnocentric as I once was? No. Not being ethnocentric does not mean that I have to change all of my opinions and feelings about things which are different in other cultures. I'm still entitled to like or dislike things based on my personal preferences. What makes me less ethnocentric is the fact that I no longer think that "their" way is worse and "my" way is better. I see them as different, but I prefer one to the other. Sometimes, I strongly prefer one to the other. Sometimes, I strongly prefer the Japanese way to the American way . Do those preferences make me a "Wapanese"? No. Does preferring the American way make me a patriot? Of course not.

It took me many years to reach some understanding of my thinking and that of the Japanese. Part of this process was an active effort to take other people's points of view. Rather than simply judge, I really tried to place myself in the other person's shoes and try to validate their perspective, even when I had an intense dislike of that position. This can be a maddening, and an outright painful process. It requires you to take a viewpoint sometimes that you find to be very "wrong" and try to see how another person could see it as "right". It does not, however, require you to embrace that perspective as your own or to see it as any sort of "truth". It does mean that you have to question the idea that there are any absolute truths at all and embrace the idea that there is really no such thing as complete objectivity in anything. Some people would disagree with even that, and so they may, but such thinking does not serve one well in coping with people of vastly differing perspectives and viewpoints. Absolutes are comforting, but that sort of rigidity sets you up for a world of frustration and Quixotic battling. 

One example of such perspective shifting came along when I learned that Japanese families are often split geographically for years when the father is stationed in another city. This is especially common when they have children as the parents do not want to uproot their kids from their schooling to relocate to the father's new workplace. Many complex considerations go into this, but my first sense of this was that any couple who can live apart for years like that can't really love each other very much. I felt that this reflected a business-like arrangement when it came to relationships and saw it as inferior to the love-based ones that we commonly embrace in the West. If you've ever seen or read "Pride and Prejudice", it seems to hark back to an age when people married because it suited their station or economic needs.  

Through time, I didn't come to understand that the Japanese couples who do such things love each other every bit as much as the Western couples who would never entertain the notions of living separately for years. Some of them may feel so, but my discussions with most people who went through this suggested otherwise. I came to understand that the perspective on marriage and family is completely different in Japan such that they don't embrace the idea of undying love and passion between the husband and wife as many Western cultures seem to (especially in the early stages of a marriage). I couldn't live in such a relationship, but I understand why it works for them. In the context of their culture, and I am not going into details here as this is going to be a long post and I haven't even reached the main point yet, these sorts of arrangements make sense. They are not emotionally wrenching and they have the right psychological tools to make it work. Their culture equips them with those tools. Ours does not because we have different priorities. There is no "better" or "worse" way to approach a relationship. There are simply differences.

When I speak of such things in regards to understanding other cultures, I often get nods of assent for thinking in this fashion. At the very least, people embrace the idea that there is value in trying to cultivate this ability to understand other cultures rather than judge them. However, if I apply this method to other types of perspectives, I am greeted with resistance. We are all about open minds and hearts when we're talking about varying cultures. That openness slams shut hard and fast when we are asked to do so with differing viewpoints in our own country or culture. In particular, I am speaking about political perspectives. And here we land on the current hot topic of the month, gun control.

Before I get into what I'm going to say, let me say that I will not entertain any comments arguing about gun control, pro or con. If you want to jump on that horse and ride into battle, take it elsewhere. There are only about a billion other places that are better than here to argue the point. I will say that I'm a liberal, and I generally oppose people owning guns and keeping them in their homes. I grew up with guns. I learned to shoot one, but I never shot a living thing. I am not afraid of guns, but I don't think it's a good idea to make them so freely available in America. There are a ton of logical arguments I could make to support my opinion, but I'm not going to do what I've asked readers not to do and debate the issue. This isn't about that. It's about the process and value of taking on another perspective. 

Before I get into what I want to really say, I wanted to make clear that that is where I stand lest people believe I'm coming from a place that I am not when I make my main point. However, I want to talk about how I understand why other people stand on the opposite side of the issue, and how I think that others who believe as I do should try to shift their perspective to see where conservatives and those who oppose gun control are coming from. The reason I'm talking about this is that one of the many lessons I learned from living in another culture was that there's no value save ego gratification on judging how other people feel about things or live their lives. There is value in understanding them. And "understanding" does not mean that you like, agree, or embrace their opinions. It merely means that you develop a more balanced and open view of an issue instead of standing staunchly on one side wrapped in a comfy blanket of your own sense of rightness and self-righteousness. 

In terms of why I feel many people believe it is imperative to have the right to bear arms and to act on that right, there are a lot of little reasons, several big ones and what I think is a unifying whopper. That last one relates to something about America which is quite different from most countries and it is deeply rooted in the culture. In psychology, this is known as "disjoint agency" or the underlying notion that people should act independently. This is not about individualism, although clearly that is linked, but rather about the sense that people should act on their own behalf rather than rely on others. This sense is not uniformly distributed among Americans, particularly since we are composed of a variety of people with different cultural backgrounds, but the dominant cultural drumbeat is that you are on your own.

By contrast, many other nations in the world, and Asian ones like Japan in particular, endorse the idea of "conjoint agency". This is when people are acculturated to act interdependently and feel that they should look after one another. In Japan, people trusted and relied more on the police to keep public peace, even in the face of a good deal of evidence that their police force was inept and lacked forensic investigation skills. They trust that each person will do their part in society to make it all work smoothly and for the best for everyone.

The factors which build a country to embrace conjoint (interdependent) or disjoint (independent) agency are almost certainly vast and complex and I won't even try to go into them here in this little blog. However, it is important to bear in mind that these are not factors a culture's people willfully decide to consider and implement. They are the cumulative effects of history that result in a particular cultural mindset. You cannot say an American is "wrong" for having a mindset which says we have to act on our own and look after ourselves. It's not a choice they made any more than it is a Japanese person's choice to believe that everyone must rely on one another. It is an education too broad, subtle, and all-encompassing to even see, let alone attempt to purposefully change in a short time.

What is more, this "education" is not written solely in the threads of a culture's broader fibers. It's not merely that we're watching Bruce Willis take matters into his own hands again and again in "Die Hard" because he's isn't going to rely on others to rescue his wife. It's also a result of personal experience. If you grow up metaphorically being tossed to the wolves and having to fend for yourself, you will feel that that is the way of the world and that the "right" thing to do is to do whatever it is that you have to to look after your own interests because no one else will. You know this because no one else ever has come to your rescue or helped you. 

People who grow up in lives of hardship economically, emotionally, and physically are much more likely to embrace the most extreme notions of disjoint agency. This is one reason why poor people and rural people (who tend to have fewer opportunities in life and less contact with others as well as more thinly distributed social services like law enforcement) are much more likely to own guns and oppose gun control. They don't trust the police or anyone else to save them should a threat show up at their door. They believe that it's their responsibility to deal with things. It always has been. To them, it is absurd to remove the tools by which they can protect themselves because they fully believe they will be vulnerable without them. Their culture and their life experience have led them to believe this. Economic disparity in the U.S. is another factor that supports the idea of acting on disjoint agency. Relative economic parity in Japan tends to make people feel that they are all in the same boat, and if they want to all remain there, they should all put in equal efforts when paddling. 

As someone who grew up in a rural area in poverty, I can't say that the viewpoint that you have to look after yourself because no one else will is "wrong". There is pretty thin evidence for such people that embracing conjoint agency (relying on others or acting interdependently) would serve them well. Most of them cannot rely on anyone, including social services and the police. A recent anecdote that I read online illustrates this. You may want to read the full story at the link, but the thumbnail version is that a woman talked about a dog near her mother's home which threatened her and her kids every time she visited. The neighbor often did not secure the dog and repeated calls to the police did nothing to improve the situation. In the end, the police told her that the best thing to do was simply shoot the dog next time it wasn't tied up and threatened her. In other words, even the police were saying she ultimately should take matters into her own hands to protect herself! Even "the authorities" are not immune to the cultural mentality of disjoint agency (acting independently). 

Does that mean most people's guns are little more than a metaphorical safety blanket in most cases? Not in my opinion. I think most people who insist on having guns for personal defense will never use them. However, there are lots of people who have a whole garage full of tools and gadgets they never use, but they won't give them up "just in case" they ever need them. The notion that you want to have something in the event that it will prove useful is hardly limited to firearms, and the estimated value of having a gun "just in case" your life is threatened is immeasurable to people who feel they are the first and sometimes only line of defense in a worst case scenario.

My purpose in this post is not to say that this sort of thinking is "correct". It's also not to say that it is "incorrect". It is merely to point out one mental location where such thinking comes from and that most people who embrace gun ownership are not  "nuts" operating from an insane place of paranoia or distorted thinking which is utterly nonsensical. They are a subset that has developed as a result of a certain cultural mindset which is far more pervasive in American culture and it is not a mindset they chose to subscribe to in many cases but their experiences and upbringing led them to it. To them, it is logical and suits someone who lives in their skin. 

To those who have grown up with more support or different cultural learning, this type of thinking makes no sense at all, but then somewhere along the line, there's a high likelihood that the idea of acting interdependently worked far better for them or their experiences led them to feel that made sense. Wealthier people, those acculturated in greater interdependence, or people who have been fairly lucky and well-supported by family, employers, mentors, social services or networks, etc. see the world as being a place in which we help each other. They can feel that because they have been helped or have a sense that they can rely on others. Those who have not cannot subscribe to that luxurious notion, especially when the perceived risk is so high. Even though they may espouse self-reliance and self-determination, many liberal-minded people have either grown up in a more supportive environment or with a greater sense of overall security in the way the world works. Note that "supportive" does not mean "easy" or "comfortable". This is an incredibly important distinction.

If you have ever wondered why poor (especially lower middle class or those getting by near, but above, the poverty line) and uneducated people tend to be conservative when conservative policies tend to favor the wealthy, this underlying notion of disjoint agency also explains it in part. They believe that each person should be responsible for his own life and outcome and reject the idea of taxes being used for social services because the idea of conjoint agency doesn't fit their worldview. They believe they have not been beneficiaries of it (as opposed to actually not having been so) and see no benefit in it for society on the whole. I don't agree with their perspective, but I don't think it's crazy either. I think it is informed by education and experiences other than mine. I think it is taught by consumption of culture other than that which I have consumed. Do I wish they believed otherwise? God, yes! 

What I want, however, is not the issue and I'm not arrogantly going to presume that I am so much more enlightened and intelligent than them because I hold my particular views. If I lived their lives, there'd be a high probability that I'd feel as they do. Just as my views of marriage and love differ from that of a Japanese person because I was raised in a different culture, my views on politics are different based on how I was raised. It does no good to posture and talk as though I need to "enlighten" conservatives on the "right" way of viewing the world. They don't live in the world I live in and they didn't grow up exactly as I did with my brain, my nervous system, and my consciousness. Well, a lot of them did grow up poor and encountering hardship as I did, but that is hardly the end of the story in the shaping of political views. 

I believe that nothing is to be gained by writing people off as "gun nuts" and any sort of discourse on America's issues in this regard cannot be discussed without considering the core element of disjount agency. There are a  lot of cultural issues at play (including one in which aggression is increasingly seen as an answer to problems), but until we understand that many American people fundamentally feel they must act independently in order to survive and prosper rather than interdependently, we cannot have a reasoned discussion of these types of issues. They are operating from a different mindset. That mindset is not "wrong" and they did not "choose" it. It chose them. This mindset is simply different than that of those who support gun control. Unless and until their issues, which are legitimate, are addressed as having equal weight and value to those on the other side, they have no reason to listen. In other words, why should they take your concerns seriously when you don't see theirs as deserving the same consideration?

At its core, the way this needs to be addressed is on a long-term personal level, though that is just one step of many that need to be taken over a very long period of time if America wants to make a cultural shift away from gun ownership. If you want people to stop thinking they need to protect themselves and encourage a belief in conjoint agency, then you must show them that they can rely on others and build a social structure through political support which will encourage such thinking. Undermining the concerns of gun ownership advocates by labeling them or treating their perspective in a dismissive and derisive fashion only supports the idea that we stand alone rather than together. 


  1. Thank you for this incredibly insightful post!
    If you are not already familiar with it, you might want to read up on the "culture of honor," which seems very relevant to your statement about people seeing aggression as an answer to problems.
    Have you considered going into social/cultural psychology professionally, or maybe journalism? The media could use more rational, reasoned voices like yours.

  2. One thing that really concerns me--and I think this is a tragic hangover both of WW2's ethnic cleansing and post-modern's culture warfare--is that we have to begin any honest discussion of cultural differences with such tortuous, exhausting apologies, disclaimers, and objections before we point out the obvious: some cultures are superior to others in some ways.

    When it comes to gun violence--and violence in general--Japan is clearly a better place than America. For whatever reason, America has a violent, murderous society. In this respect, Japan is superior. So is Canada and a number of other countries.

    When it comes to honesty--America is much better than Japan. Or South Korea or China. The number of businessmen I have met who are exhausted with dealing with the duplicitousness, dishonesty, and self-serving lies that pervade Asian cultures could not be counted on two hands. I had an employer in South Korea embezzle hundreds of dollars and recently fail to give me my pension money. I have heard stories of professors in Japan not given their pensions because they were gaijin.

    I don't say these things as a matter of personal pride. When it comes to women's rights, Sweden is a much better place than Saudi Arabia, but I am a citizen of neither country. Sudan is not as civilized a place as France. South Korea is not as clean as Norway. China is not as empathetic as Germany.

    And on and on the list goes.

    But the most frustrating thing is that I cannot talk about these things. Any casual observation from the above list will get me lambasted as a racist--the most damning insult in the modern world. I refuse to talk to Americans about my Korean experience because they will dismiss me as a racist.

    If I dared comment that the countless brutal cases of rape in India are part of an oppressive, sexist, barbaric culture in a liberal arts classroom, the first response I'd get is that I'm a racist. The second would be--hey, these things happen in America too. As if the mere presence of an evil in two places is equitable, even if one culture punishes that evil viciously and the other loudly tolerates it.

    And cultures are using this ideology of political correctness to pursue their own oppressive goals. You don't like female circumcision? Well, that's 'cause you're a racist. How dare you insult my culture, my people?

    It's a tragic irony that the relentless pursuit of a just and fair ideology has allowed the most cruel and unfair ideologies to flourish.

    1. Been there man, been there:

  3. A spot-on analysis of two world views. Clearly each of disjoint and conjoint agency tends to the pathological end of the spectrum in Japan and America, so you have to wonder which society better balances them. Not my Canada, which is trending closer to the American model every year. Scandinavian countries?

    1. Thanks you for your kind comment, Ἀντισθένης' Razor.

      I'm afraid that I don't know enough about cultures outside of the two I'm speaking about here to say what model is best. I suspect, however, that it's all terribly subjective. While I personally prefer societies with a heavier aspect of socialism, I know that that does not work for most Americans. This is largely because of disjoint agency. They would rather they be responsible for their own future than rely on the government and I have heard that many people in Scandinavian countries with high tax rates are satisfied to pay them because they know they will be looked after. Many Americans simply cannot accept that. I could, but, I am not necessarily typical in this regard.

  4. Katysaurus: I very nearly did go into social psychology professionally. After graduating from college, I was accepted into the social psychology program at Ohio State University, but economics prevented me from acting on getting a PhD there. I would love to go into journalism professionally, but I don't think people are generally interested in hearing my voice. I think that trite topics and sensationalism sell, and I have neither to offer. However, if there's a reader out there who has a job offer, I'm more than interested in hearing it! ;-)

    Michael: I think you make some good points, though I believe you meant "some cultural aspects are clearly superior to others" rather than "cultures".

    That being said, I think it is imperative to keep in mind that culture is like a living organism. It is a whole which is comprised of many parts, much like a body. While the cultural body on one may have better "eyesight" and another superior "hearing" or better "coordination", you can't merely hack and patch together a relatively perfect Frankenstein's monster and hope for it to survive. The cultural parts come together because they are what works in one body. Transplanting the best from one to another simply does not work.

    I've learned that there is a yin and yang to everything in life. This goes for individuals, but it also relates to cultures. The indirectness and lying in Asian cultures brings about it a greater degree of frustration, confusion and duplicity, but it is also a component of their civility and social order. The American aggression, directness and lack of concrete social order brings on chaos, rudeness, and violence, but it also brings about rapid change, creativity, and freedom of expression. There's a reason Japan changes at a snail's pace while America gallops forward. We live in a bubbling stew, roiling and tumultuous, but it reveals the components and rearranges them rapidly to create a distillate that brings on rapid clarity. In Japan, they operate in a morass in which things are hidden and slowly shuffled. The problems are not seen clearly, nor are they solved.

    So, I think it's not quite right to say that any cultural aspect is clearly superior. I can say that the unfavorable and favorable aspects are clearer in some cultures than others, but we tend to focus excessively on either the costs or benefits without seeing the big picture because that helps clarify the argument. It doesn't, in my opinion, however, address the larger issues in a holistic fashion which is conducive to full understanding and effective change.

    Thanks so much to both of you for your comments. I really appreciate that you spoke in accord with the spirit of the post.

  5. I think relationships in Japan tend to work differently between different people ~ just like in other countries. This is coming from the experience of having lived with 6 Japanese families and meeting the Grandparents. Some families live all together with sisters and Mums and Dads and Grandparents. Others live separately with just the parents or even single parents (my friend's Mum was a single parent). In some families it's close with everyone doing everything together ~ in others people live isolated to their bedrooms.

    1. I absolutely agree.

      Thank you for your comment.

  6. I got here through your link to my post about the dogs and the police, and I just wanted to comment on some of the points you're making.

    This is a really great post, and I, too, am often frustrated by our cultural reluctance to recognize other points of view as valid. We shut down the conversation completely when we do that, and--from a rhetorical standpoint--we don't set ourselves up to be very effective at meeting end goals in either (or any, since there are often more than the two we tend to dichotomize) direction.

    I also completely agree with your overall conclusion, as I don't think that dismissing people as "gun nuts" (or any other kind of "nut") is likely to spark the type of lively conversation required for people with opposing views to find some common ground.

    I am most interested by this part of your post: "What I want, however, is not the issue and I'm not arrogantly going to presume that I am so much more enlightened and intelligent than them because I hold my particular views. If I lived their lives, there'd be a high probability that I'd feel as they do."

    Since you are using a framework of cultural differences to talk about these domestic issues, I was thinking of cultural relativism and how it operates. While I think that most people can see the value in recognizing that different cultures have different experiences and therefore arrive at different conclusions and norms, we must be aware of the rhetorical risk of that argument being expanded to silence debate, debate that furthers our understanding of all issues and--I would argue--underpins our very purpose as thinking beings.

    While making sure that we take the time to understand our opponents' position on any particular issue is an important starting point for debate, there is still a debate to be had. If we enter that debate without considering the possibility that we, too, might change our perspectives, we aren't entering it in good faith, but we still have to approach that argument with our passions and evidence at the forefront because that is how we ensure that we're putting our best ideas forward.

    I guess my main thing is that you present these ideas not to say that you are "right" and the other side is "wrong," but in order to engage in a productive debate, don't you have to believe that you are right at some point? Can you simultaneously believe that you are right and need to further the debate while recognizing the place the other person is coming from? Isn't this a necessary step when it comes to things that ultimately have to be resolved one way or the other (issues like gun control, where we'll ultimately need to make legislative decisions as a culture)?

    Anyway, thanks for the link, and I really enjoyed reading your post.

    1. I don't think I have to believe I'm "right" to engage in debate. I do believe that I have to know the relative strengths and weaknesses of all of the positions and the relative merits and demerits.

      I think that, by acknowledging the perspective and concerns of those who want to have guns, we can begin a discussion which may result in a compromise which results in a position which is approaching a middle ground which better supports the concerns of both sides. For instance, I think most people who support gun control are not excessively worried about the people who want to keep guns locked in their homes as a means of protecting themselves in the off chance that some intruder comes in and they have to protect themselves. I'm also pretty sure many of them aren't worried about those who keep hunting rifles to shoot deer during hunting season. After all, even countries that do not permit personal possession of hand guns permit hunting rifles (including Japan). They are (and I am) concerned about the ownership of massive collections of fire arms or weaponry capable of multiple shots in a short period of time such that people obtain the ability not to protect themselves, but to kill many people in a short period of time.

      One thing which happens as a result of pushing gun control without acknowledging the legitimacy of the concerns of those who want them, even love them, is that they feel their backs are against the wall. Because none of their concerns are viewed as being legitimate, they become intransigent, and resist any change. They stretch the envelope for fear that shrinking it in any way will ultimately take everything away from them because they do not feel understood.

      It is the absolutism that ones position is "right" which forces the extreme thinking on either end. I think that if such things are approached as being perspectives of equal weight and value and the way in which to manage them is to find a middle ground compromise, we can begin movement toward a situation which addresses concerns on both sides. So long as either proceeds from a position of "rightness", we cannot have a discourse which is about anything other than debate points and feeling that one side or another has one based on ticking off boxes. That may be intellectually gratifying, but it accomplishes nothing of value for society.

      By the way, I love your blog, and I'm glad I discovered it. I felt the piece I linked to really said something that few have said about not wanting to own guns as well as provided and excellent example of a police officer acting on disjoint agency.

    2. Bah, "either side has won", not "one". This is my typical misfire between brain and touch typing due to rapid writing. :-p

  7. This was a wonderful piece, and I'd just like to thank you for sharing it.

    1. Thank you for reading, Patty, and for your kind comment. :-)


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