My Reply to So-called “Asian Values”
I am not going to write about the real Asian values, the values of the people of Asia. I figure it is impossible even to grasp their variety. What I rather have in mind to write about is a verbal protective shield predictably deployed by Asian rulers when foreigners address the human rights situation in their countries.
Human Rights are an abstract blanket concept of something that is universal to humankind. It stems from the Western world, just like the radio is a Western way of listening to music. Music is nothing new to the world and radios are well accepted all around the globe.
Human Rights are generalized rules about the treatment of fellow human beings, cast into lawyers’ ways of saying things. Not their legal nature is the cause for our respect, but the fact that they express something that forms the base of our beliefs. These same beliefs can be found in all cultures and at the core of numerous religions.
One example: You cross a line when you force people out of their homes – that’s understood all around the world. In our Western concept, we call it “forced eviction”. A different way to say it, but the thing is the same. History has taught us to formulate these rules in an abstract way, detached from religion and taking the human being as the inalterable basic unit.
Many Asian governments try to get around their accountability for human rights violations by claiming that they are not bound to Western values – surely playing on the guilty conscience of former colonial powers. Surprisingly, these same governments are very willing to accept other Western imports, like the US dollar, capitalism, computers, movies, and what ever suits them. I find this hypocrisy often sickening. In reality, it’s all about holding the power in their countries, keeping up the social divide and the economic supremacy of their peers.
It is not by coincidence that the technology of concepts has developed simultaneously with the technology of engineering, of sciences, of subduing the earth. We have seen cases where the understanding of values has lagged behind the “triumph” of machines. It often ended in fatal disasters, and we were forced to catch up with soft technologies that we had neglected. The Second World War is one example for learning the very hard way.
Human Rights are not just a luxury. To hide behind “Asian values” appears to me like adopting electricity but refusing to insulate the wires, saying that insulation is a Western concept.
Western culture is certainly not the cradle of exceptional wisdom and good practice. But why should others not learn from our scars? If you decide to go for our technologies, you better take them all.