A common stumbling block in discussions of divisive issues involving China (as well as those that don’t) is the moral absolute, the black and white perspective.
The stumbling block is understandable, because people tend to regard their absolutes (moral or otherwise) as being commonly shared. That’s why they consider them “absolutes”, right? However, as so many philosophers, psychologists, and sociologists have repeatedly taught us over our years of schooling, these absolutes aren’t always what they are, and often they aren’t.
Most of us know this. Many of us forget it. It’s easy to get caught up in discussing, debating, even arguing without considering how what we’re saying is actually premised upon certain absolutes we take for granted, presuming them to be shared by the person opposite us. If there isn’t much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments while plodding forth in frustration, there’s a lot of dismissing the other person as somehow being less of one.
If we’re lucky, someone calls us out. If we’re not, we don’t recognize it even when someone does.
This stumbling block is massive, and only more so when it comes to discussing contentious issues across sometimes vast cultural and socio-economic differences as it often is when the subject is judgments of China and the Chinese. The truth is that there are no objective moral absolutes and nothing is inherently black and white. Absolutes really are merely products of your own subjective perspective, your own imagination, your own way of making sense of the world.
Sure. But settling for that conclusion (and dismissal) is missing the point. The only absolutes exist ad hoc. They only exist for the purposes of our discussions and arguments with the other person. Both parties determine what they are, and both parties are responsible for being mindful of when inappropriate presumptions of absolutes are preventing agreement.
Most of the time we get away without having to go through and establish every premise our subsequent statements will be founded upon. Most of the time, this is because the vast majority of us share similar ideas of what is black and what is white. But every so often, in the course of a complex discussion of a complex issue, people are called out for employing moral absolutes and black and white perspectives precisely because their argument is built on a premise, an “absolute”, that isn’t actually agreed upon.
Some of us will tackle that. Others will press forth, trying to shove it down everyone’s throat, overwhelming them into retreat or surrender. Both tactics work, and all of us are more or less guilty of having done both at times.
But only one is intellectually honest, sincere, and humble.
Our arguments are only as fair and legitimate as the strength of the agreement shared on the premises those arguments depend upon. As ad hoc as they are, absolutes are indeed shared, living up to their definition. So invoking moral absolutes to justify our arguments, without regard to if and how they are shared, is simply breaking wind.
When we get away with it, it means little more than that we were preaching to the choir. When we don’t, we have the opportunity to actually communicate with and influence someone. The former is often comforting, but the latter is perhaps arguably much more meaningful.
But I suppose that depends on whether or not you accept my premise that there is meaning and significance in overcoming disagreement, building consensus, and — here it comes — crossing the divide.
That one’s up to you.
- What moral absolutes are all too common in discussions and debates concerning China or involving the Chinese?
- How, if at all, do differences in our cultural and/or socio-economic backgrounds influence the moral absolutes invoked?
- How, if at all, do those differences encourage the use of these moral absolutes?