Covert & Overt Values

rock wisdom - Zhengzhou

My own first intro­duc­tion to Chi­nese thought and polit­i­cal econ­omy was a uni­ver­sity course in New Zealand in 1974. I espe­cially recall one book, Mark Elvin’s “The Pat­tern of the Chi­nese Past”. If you are not famil­iar with the argu­ments in this book already, there is a rea­son­able sum­mary at Ama­zon . Of course, China is any num­ber of “coun­tries”. With 20% of the world’s pop­u­la­tion it could hardly be oth­er­wise. Noth­ing is more fool­ish than the out­sider who pre­tends to “know” China, but cer­tainly the sec­ond most fool­ish is the Chi­nese per­son who pre­tends to “know” China. Yet we are gen­er­al­iz­ing crea­tures. Prob­a­bly we have form stereo­types to func­tion at all. Look­ing at that vast con­glom­er­a­tion called China we can all dis­cern flavours, ten­den­cies, pref­er­ences, pat­terns… that are dif­fer­ent from, say, the Euro­pean mix, although we may argue about what the vari­eties mean.

Broad cul­tural pat­terns do shape our behav­iour indeli­bly. There is a never-end­ing argu­ment about whether the tides of his­tory are dri­ven exclu­sively by these cul­tural forces (really Marx’s argu­ment, with a few fancy ideas of eco­nom­ics and “pro­gress” thrown in), or whether his­tory is (also) shaped in crit­i­cal ways by par­tic­u­lar indi­vid­u­als at crit­i­cal moments. The longer I watch the world (i.e. the older I become) the more I am impressed and depressed by the power that such excep­tional indi­vid­u­als have actu­ally had in shap­ing events. In almost acci­den­tal ways, they have pushed whole nations down this path or that. This power has not been sim­ply a mat­ter of sin­gle events or actions, but the abil­ity of these indi­vid­u­als to influ­ence the life­long behav­iour and value sys­tems of mil­lions of peo­ple. I’m depressed by it, because his­tor­i­cally such influ­en­tial indi­vid­u­als have only occa­sion­ally been nice or even wise peo­ple them­selves. Nei­ther nice­ness nor ratio­nal­ity are qual­i­ties that usu­ally get you to posi­tions of great author­ity, espe­cially in pol­i­tics, but also in any work­place, and even in uni­ver­si­ties. I am also depressed by it because in every gen­er­a­tion so few ordi­nary peo­ple will go against the tide and make up their own minds. Truth in their world comes from author­ity, not sci­en­tific inves­ti­ga­tion, and author­ity comes from those who hold power. For chil­dren of course, those things are struc­tured in the fam­ily pat­tern. The vast major­ity of peo­ple, once they have a job, a fam­ily and debts, will dance to any tune that seems to offer a bet­ter life for them per­son­ally. If nec­es­sary — and it is often nec­es­sary — they will betray those around them to main­tain that com­fort zone.

Cul­tural pat­terns are often phrased as value state­ments. Ask some­one what it means to be Chi­nese and they may offer you a list of virtues (this kind of response is the same in every cul­ture). The virtues they state for you will be OVERT val­ues — those actions and beliefs that are pub­licly approved in the cul­ture. In prac­tice the real shape of the soci­ety also includes behav­iour dri­ven by COVERT val­ues. In fact, for sev­eral rea­sons covert val­ues are usu­ally a far bet­ter pre­dic­tor of where a soci­ety is going than overt val­ues. For exam­ple, changes in overt val­ues often show a time lag, some­times by cen­turies, while covert val­ues reflect the neces­si­ties of daily sur­vival. Exam­ple: if you ask any Korean the pri­mary defin­ing value in their cul­ture, you will usu­ally be told that age is the crit­i­cal thing. Kore­ans have elab­o­rate pub­lic behav­iours to express this, and it is impos­si­ble to use the Korean lan­guage with­out mak­ing a respect choice reflect­ing this age par­a­digm. It is all a kind of fraud. A few years ago, an exten­sive sur­vey found that youths in Korea had the LEAST respect for age of any youth group in Asia. If we go to South Asian and Mid­dle East­ern soci­eties and ask about pub­lic and pri­vate sex­ual val­ues, we find a sim­i­lar con­tra­dic­tion. Nowa­days, when some­one tells me the virtues of their soci­ety, I imme­di­ately become alert to the very oppo­site pat­terns in their real behav­iour !

For all their igo­rance of the wider world, most Chi­nese youths as well as older peo­ple I meet do not strike me as espe­cially self­ish, espe­cially after liv­ing in South Korea. If a sit­u­a­tion causes them no per­sonal loss, I have found many peo­ple in China very well inten­tioned and more than will­ing to help. Of course, there are count­less cor­rupt offi­cials, and greedy busi­ness­men who will cheat or even adul­ter­ate food to make an extra yuan. How­ever poorer peo­ple are often excep­tion­ally gen­er­ous (and this is true the world over). Maybe if you want to make a bet­ter world, then you need to find a way to make it cheap and easy for peo­ple to be kind. I sus­pect that the best way to do that is to sep­a­rate the idea of “suc­cess” from the ideas of “wealth” and “power” – not an easy thing to do since mod­ern economies are built on just that equa­tion.

We all know that the Com­mu­nist solu­tion for human­ity in China and else­where was a total dis­as­ter and just demo­ti­vated every­one. My per­sonal idea of suc­cess is to have an inter­est­ing life, and I keep my respect for those peo­ple who try to be good at what­ever they choose to do, whether it is being a street sweeper or pres­i­dent. This is not a per­spec­tive that many Chi­nese friends find easy to grasp, but they are hardly alone in that.

pensive child - Zhengzhou

One Response to Covert & Overt Values

  1. Pingback: Thor’s New China Diary » Covert & Overt Values

Leave a Reply