Asian Values

Click for explanation

World Values Survey Cultural Map of the World (2005-2008)

Any real discussion involving the concept has to start with the realization that it’s a profoundly silly term. I mean, what are Asian Values? Other than the “obvious” idea that such a thing exists and is superior to the “moral depravity” of the West, most people find it difficult to enumerate precisely what they are, or how they came to be common across such a range of countries, cultures and religions. Wikipedia suggests that the term came about

“to justify authoritarian regimes in Asia or to defense from the politically designated western concept of ‘human right’, predicated on the belief in the existence within Asian countries of a unique set of institutions and political ideologies which reflected the region’s cultures and histories”.

It then lists a bunch of values which seem rather designed for that purpose.The list is not worth reproducing but largely reduces to the elevation of the collective (family, clan, firm, country) over the individual.

The problem is, calling these “Asian values” obscures the fact that these were almost universal values for thousands of years! Insofar as the West has de-emphasized the collective and emphasized the individual (and this is by no means a universal characteristic of the West, either), this has occurred purely in the last 300-400 years, since the Enlightenment, and particularly coinciding with the sudden growth of their economies during the Industrial Revolution.Perhaps the following is a better description of what most people consider Asian Values:

TYPE *B* folks travel less, and move less often from where they grew up. They are more polite and care more for cleanliness and order. They have more self-sacrifice and self-control, which makes them more stressed and suicidal. They work harder and longer at more tedious and less healthy jobs, and are more faithful to their spouses and their communities. They make better warriors, and expect and prepare more for disasters like war, famine, and disease. They have a stronger sense of honor and shame, and enforce more social rules, which let them depend more on folks they know less. When considering rule violators, they look more at specific rules, and less at the entire person and what feels right. Fewer topics are open for discussion or negotiation.

Type B folks believe more in good and evil, and in powerful gods who enforce social norms. They envy less, and better accept human authorities and hierarchy, including hereditary elites at the top (who act more type A), women and kids lower down, and human and animal slaves at the bottom. They identify more with strangers who share their ethnicity or culture, and more fear others. They are less bothered by violence in war, and toward foreigners, kids, slaves, and animals. They more think people should learn their place and stay there. Nature’s place is to be ruled and changed by humans.

That is simply Robin Hanson’s list of “farmer values”, as opposed to forager values, which (as he notes) maps rather well to the conservative vs liberal divide in most of Western politics. There is nothing uniquely Asian about Asian values. There is nothing inherently wrong about them, either, aside from their tendency to lose out against forager values (do read that post) as people tend to get richer. But any argument -particularly amongst Asians- that attempts to draw its strength from “Asian values” should be well aware of the origin and limitations of the concept.

Things I don’t get

I think this post has something for all the classes of people that I know have ever read my blog.

1) Why free speech advocates reject the “but it will offend Muslims!” argument as if it were clearly not worth considering.

Personally, I preferred the bear suit.

Don’t get me wrong, I think the idea that you should not be able to draw a picture or write an article about something because somebody might find it offensive really is inherently stupid. I think blasphemy laws suck, that they’re a disgrace to a civilised world and that they’re taking us back to the dark ages. But the idea that some things can offend us simply by existing is not in fact particularly new or unconventional, as much as it might go against my libertarian principles. Few people demand the categorical repeal of obscenity laws, which are essentially just that. Here is a Less Wrong article asking a similar question.

My theory is that this is a problem that inevitably arises in heterogenous societies. Most of us don’t object to a law that bans public masturbation because we share the same instinctual reaction to it, and we don’t share the reaction of an observant Muslim faced with a cartoon of Mohammed. Of course, I still say the offended Muslim can go poke his/her eyes out if he cares that much, but then I’m also perfectly comfortable to generally push “enlightenment values” and secular traditions in the face of local cultures everywhere.

2) Why people cried for Steve Jobs

English: Steve Jobs shows off the white iPhone...

Steve Jobs and a device people now identify with Steve Jobs.

Which is an entirely different question from why people exhibit such strong emotions for their Apple devices. Because let’s be fair, Apple makes a lot of good products. They have great designs and generally trouble-free, marvelously smooth interfaces, and the customer support in Apple stores is wonderful (or so I’m told).  But Jobs himself was never the most savoury of characters. The man was horrible to work for, stole ideas all over the place, never gave significantly to charity despite his vast wealth, promoted quack medicine until it almost killed him, and cared little for how his subcontractors treated workers.

Of course he was smart. And of course he had a good eye for design and had vision and was a good executor and gave good speeches. If I owned a tech company-ok, pretty much any company- and Zombie Jobs offered to run it I would jump at the chance. But since when does any of that lead people to care so deeply about a total stranger?

My answer is a combination of the media’s increasing tendency towards hagiographic obituaries, the fact that he had very consciously developed a personality cult and tied the company and its products strongly to himself, and the simple truth that he was a very well-known figure and there will be someone who cries for just about any celebrity, just because it means a change in their world. I remain unsatisfied at the idea that so many people the world over chose him as the only corporate titan to connect to in such an emotional way, though.

3) Why people care about the US elections

Like the first one, this is a bit of a tease, because I find myself reading a fair bit about it and I’ll probably continue to, if only because I won’t be able to escape it. But from a purely utilitarian viewpoint it’s a pointless exercise.

I mean, look at him.

“But Nikhil!” , you protest. “Perry’s a whore, Santorum’s santorum, and Gingrich is such an obvious prick: wouldn’t it be horrible if one of them won?” And I say: it won’t, because they won’t. The truth is that none of them have a real shot, let alone the gallery of buffoons (Cain, Bachman, and oh God, Palin) that have sprung up and dropped out one by one. Mitt Romney is the only real Republican candidate who has a chance- sorry, Ron Paul- and no matter what he says in the primary to appease the raving horde, his actions as president are unlikely to be significantly different from Obama’s. Of course he’ll be a little to Obama’s right but on most things we would care about-foreign policy, Internet regulation, general IP regulations/agreements, free trade agreements- that isn’t saying much. As long as he isn’t stupid enough to start a new war-and however much you might despise his views, he shows all signs of being a rather intelligent man- the rest of the world could easily close their eyes to this entire circus.


No power or water at home for most of today (heavy rain/lightning/some combination of them blew out a transformer, and people doing various home improvement-type things ended up drilling through some pipe and emptying the tank.) Currently at my grandparent’s house.

Also, torrential, continuous rain means I can’t go out anywhere. But of course this is Kottayam and it’s not as if there’s that many places to go, anyway.

The irritating thing about Bleach is not that the dialogue is stupid, but that apparently using their brains in a fight is forbidden only to the good guys, not the bad ones. What is it with so much of pop culture that being smart is associated with being evil?

A Question

Who is it that still does not understand this mundanely vicious cycle of curfews/blockades/other form of economic (at best) or physical deprivation–> popular outrage/support for separatists/anti-government sentiments–>Emboldened and newly capable extremists/ separatists/terrorists/ “freedom fighters”, if you wish–>more attacks on the state/the outsider group of choice/other suitable targets, usually meaning white people–>more curfews etc?

Everyone who has any sort of power over any of these decisions should be made to go through the Analog Circuits course here in IIT Madras; 4 months with Shanthi/Nagi should thoroughly drill in the concept of positive feedback.

Yes, I know I’m oversimplifying. I know riots kill people, and curfews presumably result in less damage overall.  I don’t know what we should do instead. But I find this situation, at least the way it is reported, a little ironic:

“No separatist leader would be allowed to paralyse life across the valley and cause adverse effect on education of children, commercial activities and the livelihood of people,” an administration official said.

PS: Am I going a little too crazy with the links etc? Zemanta makes it really tempting.

Disillusioned with Discworld

I just don’t like Granny Weatherwax that much as a main character. She is, first of all, a leader who does not know how to lead. For someone who is described in the text several times as someone who has a phenomenal grasp of “headology” (psychology) she doesn’t really seem to know that much. She doesn’t know how to negotiate with people, she just knows how to manipulate them from above, and in any realistic situation that should present a number of difficulties, but they simply never come up in the books.

Ever noticed how conservative (in a very British nanny sort of way) Terry Pratchett is? Several of his protagonists have “practicality” as their chief virtue. I didn’t mind this in Sam Vimes, because even though he grumbled a lot he always seemed genuinely nice to most people. But with Granny Weatherwax all her kindness is off-stage: this is even lampshaded in the book, when Magrat is complaining (with some reason) about her, Nanny Ogg reminds her of all the nice things she’s done, which we don’t actually get to see.

I re-read “Men at Arms” yesterday because I didn’t want to continue with Maskerade (or study), and the more I think about it, the more Granny Weatherwax seems almost like the anti-Vimes. She bullies everyone else; Vimes gets bullied more often than not, although he finds ways to deal with it.  She knows what other people are thinking but doesn’t seem to know herself particularly well; Vimes is exactly the reverse, although in a less extreme way. None of this is necessarily a reason to dislike the books, of course… I think my biggest problem is simply that I’m (yes, still) too fresh out of high school (which had many similar characters, different only in that they weren’t as smart and couldn’t do magic, thankfully) to be able to appreciate a bullying old woman as a central character.

Things I find annoying:

Not so annoying that I would break off contact with them or anything, but annoying enough that I feel like screaming, just a little, every now and then. Obviously, this is not an exhaustive list.

  • Joining “1000000 STRONG AGAINST WORLD HUNGER” type Facebook groups and posting it all over my wall.
  • Reading a book about the struggles faced by poor people, and telling people how emotional it made you. (Context-dependent annoyance, obviously. This wouldn’t be annoying if you were telling me this to explain why you decided to give up your corporate law/investment banking job to work at a non-profit or even better, a more traditional charity.)
  • “Raising awareness of problems” without raising awareness of any practical solution. Especially if you can’t even explain the problem properly. (Oh, go ahead and guess what I’m talking about.)
  • Many types of political, religious, and philosophical arguments (clearly, not all of them). Particularly the ones that don’t even want to make a point. Especially with people who seem to have taken a vow to never, ever give logical reasons for anything they say. The most *headdesk* cases are where they blatantly state that a logical rebuttal is unnecessary, which of course applies mostly to religious arguments.
  • People who always, always speak in puns. Or cliches. Cliches I can accept if the people are nice enough, but the puns-or PJs, in most cases- can sometimes get a little overwhelming.
  • This post was drafted ages back, last October apparently, and I no longer recall what it was motivated by. I still agree with most of it, though.

    Currently Watching: Alice in Wonderland

    From a very bad cam-print, but these things cease to matter under sufficient intoxication. Which, by the way, is the best possible state in which to watch this movie.

    Alice in dialogue with Bayard the Bloodhound, after the Mad Hatter has been captured by the Red Knave. I trust the respective parts are clear and that further exposition is unnecessary.

    “That is not foretold”
    “I don’t care! He wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for me!”
    “The Frabjus Day is almost upon us. We must prepare to meet the Jabberwocky.”
    “From the moment I fell down that rabbit hole I’ve been told what I must do and who I must be! I’ve been shrunked, stretched, scratched and stuffed into a teapot. I’ve been accused of being Alice and of not being Alice, but this is my dream! I’ll decide where it goes from here.”
    “If you diverge from the path…”
    “I make the path!”

    A dialogue I wish I had said long, long ago.  The British accents are way cooler than anything I could pull off, though.

    I leave for home tomorrow afternoon, and after that I’ll see many of my closest friends god knows when. Thanks to facebook and gtalk and whatever else I know we’re not going to lose touch completely. But from tomorrow, it’s never going to be the same.

    Oh well.

    Resolution Review

    Man, I suck so badly. I gave up on almost all of these within the first week or so, except the sleep on time one, and that one I gave up on within a month. I didn’t even try. How sad is that?

    Well, it’s not all bad. Let’s see. Resolutions were, stripping aside the weird languages I used when I first wrote it:

    1. Do more things I wouldn’t normally do
      I skipped Saarang and went all the way to Jaipur for a literary festival almost solely because of this thing. (And of course, because I wanted to, but I wouldn’t actually have gone otherwise. I think.) Plus I think I’ve been trying to stay in the spirit of this one in ways that I can’t very specifically detail in a blog post (that is a literal statement, not some sort of innuendo or metaphor or anything…I really just don’t want to analyze it right now). So I can actually give myself some sort of “Exceeds Expectations” on this one.
    2. Sleep on time and do more structured things
      Sleep on time didn’t work for very long, but I think it was effective when it did, both for general concentration and just being happier. I signed up for violin class but then again, I missed almost every alternate class. On the other hand, this wasn’t entirely my fault, the timings were really inconvenient and I had my analog assignment to submit every alternate sunday and what am I supposed to do if she blocks of every weekend night? etc.

      I failed miserably at the whole “schedule time for homework” thing. I wonder why. I was actually quite good at making schedules in school. Although looking back I think the reason I made so many was because I could never stick to any one for a long time.

      Overall, I think I deserve a Fail.

    3. “Prioritize”
      This is basically the same thing as the one above, or at least very similar. I am doing better this sem, but only because my courses actually happen to be fairly interesting and intuitive that I don’t have to spend as much time on them and actually listen in class and all that, not because I’m doing any more work. And of course analog is just as bad as ever and I knew it would be just as bad as ever and I didn’t try nearly as much as I should have knowing that. (Although 2nd quiz wasn’t too bad and now I have the feeling that if I study enough I can manage the endsem, too.) And I’m still spending just as much time reading arbit blogs and on facebook-well, a little less on facebook but more on twitter, so that definitely evens out. And “study at least something outside class every day” should really be a lot easier, right? Right?

      That makes this another Fail.

    Bah. I was initially going to “re-motivate” myself after writing this post, but it doesn’t seem to have worked. I will try the sleeping on time bit, though. I think that very definitely had an impact.

    In Which I Rant

    A vast amount of blog posts and articles and even one best selling novel has been written on “Life in IIT”. Just about every student here has attempted at least one, and nearly all of them are half-baked and incomplete descriptions that spew forth during their periodic existential crises. But for the last few days*, my personal experience of “IIT life” can be fully described by a few choice phrases:

    1. chronic sleep-deprivation
    2. a leaky nose
    3. an aching head
    4. blaring temple music
    5. uninspired writing (@Lays: hopefully, I will resolve this before I actually start working 🙂 )
    6. swine flu scare
    7. total clueless-ness
    8. self-sabotage
    9. tangential (and mostly counterproductive to my real needs) motivation
    10. the joy of rediscovery (True Blood. Is awesome. Watch. Anna Paquin gets naked! And when I say that’s not the reason I really watch it, you KNOW it has to be something special.)

    The music seems to have stopped temporarily, but I know better than to think that that is anything but a brief, tantalizing window into a world of silence, a world where one can be free to open one’s window and feel the breeze without being blasted by the same 6 songs on an hourly loop all day, every day. Yesterday, the power went off at a little after 3 AM.  This being Chennai, as soon as the fan stopped spinning, I woke up. After attempting to go back to sleep for another 20 minutes, and after discovering that the mosquitoes were rather more attracted to my newly sweat-slicked body, I decided to open all the windows. With predictable results. I tried holding a pillow over my head to drown it out, but I’m not sure that I wasn’t just trying to suffocate myself.

    *and with respect to item 4, which is correlated with item 1,for the next week or so as well, I am told.