Big differences

In The Geography of Thought, Richard E. Nisbett argues that Westerners and East Asians are very different in the way they think — and both Westerners and East Asians are very proud of their differences! If cultural differences are really so deep, it may be more difficult to improve international relations than we imagine. We are going to have to make a big effort to understand each other.

Has history ended? Are there no really serious cultural differences? Is the world going to be smoothly globalized following a western-style pattern? What do you think? Photo.

In 1992, Francis Fukuyama predicted that history (the clash of cultures) had ended and that democracy and westernization had won. According to this view, everyone in the future is going to wear western-style clothing, follow a western-style education, and learn English.

The Iraq War (started in 2003 by the USA and the UK) aimed to get rid of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and start a nice easy process of democratization. It turned out that the Iraqis did not have these weapons! However, thousands upon thousands of innocent Iraqis have died and huge armies that oppose the spread of western culture have risen up. Clearly, it is not so easy to spread western civilization! Why do we keep trying?What are our real goals? Photo.

In 1996, Samuel Huntington predicted the opposite: a huge clash of civilizations. Huntington claimed that “Western belief in the universality of Western culture suffers three problems: it is false, it is immoral, and it is dangerous.” Our experience in Iraq, where we thought we could impose democracy on a grateful people, appears to have been a terrible failure. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), also known as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), is a radical organization opposed to the spread of western civilization. Since the Iraq War, it has grown so much that it now controls huge areas of Iraq and Syria and attracts large numbers of westerners who are dissatisfied with western culture and values. It seems that maybe Huntington was right: people who believe in the endless rise of western civilization have got things completely wrong. This simple-minded view of civilization will not work.

It seems that we really need to try hard to understand each other. There is no point in imagining that there are easy answers. Photo.

It is very, very important that we make the effort to understand each other and try to see all sides of the story. That is what we are doing here: developing the skills to understand how other people think and feel. We had better get serious! Our survival probably depends upon it!!

Big differences Quiz

Try these questions.

Fukuyama, F. (1992) The end of history and the last man. New York: Free Press.

Huntington, S. P. (1996) The clash of civilizations and the reworking of world order. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Nisbett, R. E. (2003) The geography of thought: how Asians and Westerners think differently … and why? New York: Simon & Schuster.

Featured image: By Franz Hermann, Hans Gemminger, Valentin Mueller (Austrian) (Details of artist on Google Art Project) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons