Kei Hiruta

Stop Orientalism?: On Boston MFA’s ‘Kimono Wednesdays’

By Kei Hiruta256px-Monet_Japonaise

‘STOP ORIENTALISM’. So says the banner of the protest group, ‘Stand Against Yellow Face’ (SAYF), campaigning against a weekly event at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston. The event, called ‘Kimono Wednesdays’, originally encouraged museum visitors to ‘interact’ with Claude Monet’s ‘La Japonaise’ by trying on a replica of the kimono that the artist’s French wife wears in the painting. Immediately after the opening on 24 June, however, the event attracted the charges of Orientalism, racism, cultural appropriation and so on, resulting in MFA’s announcement that visitors would no longer be able to put on the replicated kimono, though the display would continue until the end of July (See, e.g. here, here and here). Unsatisfied, SAYF demands a formal apology and the complete closure of the event itself. The group has also been channelling the protest into a larger advocacy, mobilising familiar online tools such as Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr.

The outcry provoked a considerable backlash, yielding impassioned mutual accusations between protestors and counter-protestors. To break the stalemate, this post aims to challenge the presumption that both sides – those asserting ‘This is Orientalist!’, and those insisting ‘This is NOT Orientalist!’ – appear to share. I would like to show that the fact that ‘Kimono Wednesdays’ may reasonably be considered Orientalist is not by itself sufficient to establish the wrongness of the event.

Let me begin with an uncontroversial observation. In Japan today, we wear kimono only on special occasions such as weddings and seijin-shiki (celebrating the 20th year of birth). We wear lighter traditional clothes, for example, yukata, more frequently; but we do so, again, on special occasions such as a weekend trip to onsen (hot spring) and an evening out for a summer festival. In our daily lives we wear something less exciting, depending on our preferences and income levels: Prada, Paul Smith, Uniqlo and Primark. An average businessperson in Japan may have the opportunity to wear kimono every decade or two, but he or she wears a suit from Monday to Friday. If culture is a sum of the lived experiences of its participants, wearing kimono is not exactly a part of our culture any longer – not, at any rate, as Uniqlo and Primark are.

Yukio Mishima, best known for his novel The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, if not for his act of seppuku suicide in 1970, was one of the most perceptive writers to comment on this issue. In his column ‘On Clothing’, published in 1969, he observed that wearing kimono was no longer a part of the Japanese way of living. He saw something superficial and inauthentic to the kimono revival occurring in the country in the 1960s. He wrote: ‘recently […] kimono seems to be adopted in terms of a new fashion, in terms of a renewed interest in something exotic. It is not a part of the rooted, ancient custom that it once was. […] Women no longer remember as part of their general education how to wear kimono by themselves […]. Men, too, have lost their natural, customary familiarity with kimono; they now wear it pretentiously, as it were, as a gesture to resist or surpass the convention of the age’.[i]

Mishima’s insight deserves the attention of those commenting on ‘Kimono Wednesdays’. On his account, which I share, even in the Japan of the late 1960s, kimono could not be worn without a doze of what we today call Orientalist fantasy. If those taking selfies in front of Monet’s ‘La Japonaise’ in Boston in 2015 are orientalists, so were the Japanese men and women who joined the kimono revival in Tokyo in 1969. The difference is one of degree, not kind. And the degree is not great, either, because both groups of people are moderns, who can no longer claim an unbroken cultural linage from the past. One could of course argue that modernity itself was imposed on Japan by Western imperialists beginning with Commodore Perry with his proto-neo-liberal gunships. This ostensibly anti-imperialist view, however, disguises a historically inaccurate and morally condescending paternalism, implying that the nation modernised itself without an exercise of collective agency. The truth is that the nation has, sometimes reluctantly and yet at other times enthusiastically, embraced modernity. If we no longer remember how to wear kimono, it is in no small measure due to the decisions that the Japanese themselves have made at least since 1868.

The decline of the habit of kimono dressing, as Mishima also noted, was not and could not be a standalone loss. It entailed a loss of other, organically connected cultural ingredients, including the traditional class division and sexual hierarchy. In this respect, the disappearance of kimono dressers from the streets of Tokyo, Osaka, etc. is comparable to the disappearance of non-human creatures from modernised areas of the country. As significant decrease in the population of butterflies indicates a loss of their entire habitat, the disappearance of kimono dressers indicates a loss of the old Japan and its way of life that inspired nineteenth-century Japonisme.

As is well known, Mishima himself considered the modern Japanese society in which he found himself absurd, ugly and even grotesque, and half-seriously fancied a return to a pre-Meiji world of yesterday. Yet he had the candidacy to acknowledge the moral gain accompanying the aesthetic loss, though the artist, always willing to subordinate non-aesthetic values to aesthetic ones, denied that the former outweighed the latter. He thus said, in his characteristically dark, mocking and aphoristic tone: ‘I think the time when women were always crying was wonderful!’ Those of us who do not share his aestheticism are entitled to weigh moral and aesthetic values differently. We ought to be glad that we no longer live in a time when women in exquisitely beautiful kimono ‘were quietly weeping, always, somewhere in the house’.[ii] Perhaps, we should be glad that kimono can no longer be worn anywhere without a dose of Orientalist fantasy.

It is a curious fact about our contemporary culture that, in places like Boston at least, the wrongness of Orientalism is considered so self-evident that those commenting on ‘Kimono Wednesdays’ have largely focused on whether the event is Orientalist, sidestepping harder questions as to specifically what is wrong if the event is Orientalist and (assuming, for the moment, that it is indeed Orientalist) whether the wrongness of Orientalism should override other considerations. But the latter set of questions demand greater attention not least because, as I have argued, the pervasiveness of Orientalism today might not be separable from the moral progress we have made in the past couple of centuries. Addressing the relevant moral and historical issues fully is a challenging task; for starters, we should recognise the triviality of the oft-made assertions about the MFA event: ‘This is Orientalist!’ ‘No, it is NOT Orientalist!’




Photo Attribution: ‘La Japonaise’, by Claude Monet, 1876, via Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

[i] Yukio Mishima, ‘Fukusō ni tsuite’ [1969], in Mishima yukio zenshū [‘On Clothing’, in Collected Works of Yukio Mishima] (Tokyo: Shinchō-sha, 1976), vol. 33, pp. 338–39. My translation.

[ii] Yukio Mishima, ‘Poppukōn no shinrei-jutsu: Yokoo Tadanori-ron’ [posthumous publication], in Mishima yukio zenshū [Popcorn Spiritualism: On Tadanori Yokoo, in Collected Works of Yukio Mishima], vol. 35, p. 228. My translation.

Historical Reconciliation in East Asia: How Optimistic Should We Be?

By Kei Hiruta

In the latest episode of the Public Philosopher, Michael Sandel invites young men and women from China, Japan and South Korea to discuss national guilt and historical reconciliation. The conversation begins with factual questions concerning, for example, the nature of Japan’s past imperial expansion and the sincerity of the Japanese government’s post-war apologies. It then moves on to issues of philosophical nature, such as whether the present generation is responsible for a wrong committed by a past generation. Listening to the programme, one gets the impression that the conversation was overall a fruitful one; it did not result in an important agreement, but some elementary misunderstanding and prejudices were removed, and the participants treated each other respectfully throughout. The host himself concluded by expressing the ‘hope that one day, soon, you will be able to draw upon the spirit of honesty and reflectiveness [….] to build a deeper mutual understanding among these three countries and by doing so help make this world a better place’.

This is a nice way to bring the forty-minute conversation to a close, but I doubt Sandel is as optimistic as he portrayed himself. The reason for saying this is that he (like myself) must have taken part in similar discussions in the past to see how repetitive they tend to be. One can be fairly optimistic if one sees one single time people with conflicting convictions talking to each other to move towards reconciliation. But one cannot be so optimistic if one repeatedly sees similar conversations to realise that the small progress made on each occasion hardly amounts to a cumulative difference on a larger scale. Considering the target audience of the programme, the host is wise to present the episode as a one-time event and conclude it with a corresponding, optimistic note. Having observed and occasionally participated in similar discussions over the past dozen years, however, I cannot share the Harvard professor’s hope for an imminent mutual understanding among the Chinese, the Japanese and the South Koreas. Nor do I believe that Sandel, a frequent visitor to the region as well as a learned scholar, literally meant what he said to conclude the episode.

The repetitiveness, however, does not need to disappoint. On the contrary, it is remarkable that the 2014 conversation scarcely differs from those in the recent past in terms of both mood and substance, while the tension in East Asia has significantly increased. Here, it may be worth recalling the Newsnight episode earlier this year, in which China’s and Japan’s ambassadors to the UK could not even sit in the same room and ended up in blaming each other from behind a wall. Contrast this to the ordinary young men and women that appeared on the Public Philosopher; unlike the ambassadors, they engaged with each other respectfully and face to face, as their predecessors had when the regional tension had been lower. This gives hope, for failing to reach a genuine mutual understanding is not nearly as bad as ceasing to try. I say this with some sadness, knowing Indian summers before the region entered the current diplomatic frost. To end this, we need more than small-scale conversations such as the one that Sandel hosted. But these are worth repeating, not least because they help avoid black smoke filling the sky while we await a thaw.

‘Hello Kitty’, Society, Utopia

Several people have asked me why I wrote a post to defend Avril Lavigne’s music video ‘Hello Kitty’. I’m a little bemused by the question, as I thought my main motive was self-explanatory: it is a part of philosophers’ job to consider when it’s appropriate to use normative terms to blame someone or something. It’s one thing to say that a singer is tasteless; it’s quite another to say she’s racist and indulges in cultural appropriation. One is an aesthetic claim; the other is a moral one.

I won’t repeat what I said in my previous post but would like to share a relevant thought today: one doesn’t need to be in a library or in a seminar room to reflect on moral questions. For example, if you’re in a bar and vaguely watching something random on screen such as ‘Hello Kitty’, you could start asking yourself questions. Why is this controversial? Who are offended, and why do they feel offended? What are the terms the critics have used to blame the video? Are they right to use those terms? Did the singer respond? If she did, was that an adequate response? And if you find yourself agreeing with the critics, what changes would you like to see? In other words, what kind of popular culture would you like to see to emerge?

Of course, it’s not healthy to be contemplating moral questions 24/7. You should indeed stop contemplating if you decide to get on the dance floor, for example. But it’s worth remembering that we can begin a moral enquiry in a wide range of contexts. In fact, an ethically better world might be the one in which people talk and think about moral questions in bars, restaurants and coffee shops, rather than in libraries and seminar rooms.


Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A version of this post originally appeared on

In Defence of Avril Lavigne: Racism, Cultural Appropriation and the Meaning of ‘Hello Kitty’

By Kei Hiruta

The latest music video by the Canadian singer Avril Lavigne has been accused of racism and cultural appropriation.[i] Bearing the name of the world-famous Sanrio character, ‘Hello Kitty’ shows the pop star singing and dancing in what appears to be a girl’s room in Tokyo. She also explores the city, shopping at a candy store, eating sushi, drinking shochu, and waving at her fans as she strolls in the fashionable Shibuya area. Throughout, she is accompanied by four young Japanese women, acting as backup dancers inside the room and following her outside. Continue reading

Two Cheers for Laughtivism

By Kei Hiruta 

Political activists are laughing everywhere. They mock the powerful and ridicule the corrupt, whether the target is a Middle Eastern dictator, a North American CEO, or a recently deceased British Prime Minister. On the streets we see the comical and the absurd in service of a demand for greater transparency and accountability. Online we see an endless flow of memes and Youtube videos to mount a further attack on the crumbling legitimacy of strongmen. Of course, not everyone is fortunate enough to dispose of arsenal to negotiate with power. Physical force still has a legitimate role to play, and it is unfortunately abused and misused in many parts of the world. But a large number of contemporary activists are giving up violent means. They certainly do not embrace their parents’ and grandparents’ weapons and tactics: Molotov cocktails, the barricades and Mao’s Little Red Book. They instead use toys, French baguettes, fake moustaches and other such items, assisted by Smartphones and MacBooks, twittering and facebooking news from the ground force.

How should we understand all this? A recent Foreign Policy article (and a TED Talk by one of the co-authors, Srdja Popovic) suggests an interesting answer. What we are witnessing, the article argues, is the rise of ‘laughtivism’: ‘a global shift in protest tactics away from anger, resentment, and rage towards a new, more incisive form of activism rooted in fun’. Of course, ‘[s]atire and jokes have been used for centuries to speak truth to power’, but their contemporary incarnations are different in that they ‘now serve as a central part of the activist arsenal’. Laughtivism, the article continues, is particularly effective in tyrannical societies where the stability of the regime depends on the culture of fear. Laughter creates cracks in the seamless whole of tyranny, and it is here that seeds for change are sown to bear fruits. Here, then, is the revised Foucauldian maxim for twenty first-century activism: where power is wedded to fear, laughter is the prime form of resistance.

There is much to be said for this analysis, and I by no means wish to underrate the creative energy and transformative force of political laughter. Yet the Foreign Policy article, like many others (e.g. here and here), seems to overstate the case for laughtivism. First, it is not true that laughter is always or even normally on the side of the people. There is democratic laughter and there is dictatorial laughter. Satire and jokes can be used ‘to speak truth to power’, but they can also be used to conceal truth and reinforce cynicism. George Orwell encapsulates this in the unforgettable revised commandment in Animal Farm: ‘All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.’ Dictators know how to smirk, though one may wish they only knew how to growl.

Second, there is the laughter of cruelty as well as humane laughter. Even the worst kind of authoritarianism does not consist solely of cold-blooded ideologues, capable of stabbing an enemy without showing any sign of emotion. It also hires state-sponsored sadists and criminal elements, who enjoy using their license to kill, rape and otherwise inflict pain on the powerless. But let us not demonise authoritarians to feel proud of ourselves. Remember Abu Ghraib; the laughter of cruelty is also heard in liberal democratic torture chambers. Freely elected governments too have issued permits for sadist entertainment. Laughter can serve inhumanity and no particular form of government has a monopoly of that wretched commodity.

These points should not be overlooked, but something else – something more urgent, perhaps – goes missing if we are too impressed by the power of laughtivism. It is that laughter alone cannot achieve what political activism, as distinct from mere vandalism, must ultimately aim at: a new, improved political order. Mockery, jokes and satire are powerful tools to destabilise the existing order, but they are ill-suited to the different tasks of ending chaos, filling a power vacuum and installing a new order. Laughter as a political weapon is like bullets and explosives in this respect; it must be put in storage when the task of re-building a broken community gets started. Once strongmen depart or make sufficient concessions, laughtivists must stop laughing and start deliberating and negotiating with their former enemies; they must turn their righteous anger into an enduring sense of justice; and they must realise that the destructive force of laughter could turn against itself to block the way forward.

Fortunately, fear and laughter do not exhaust our emotional options. Fear can end laughter, but so can a smile. Politics will liberate itself from both fear and laughter when laughtivists start smiling to get onto the mundane business of governance. Only then will the excitement of revolt give way to the happiness to live in a better society.


Photo credit: inju [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0]

Charles Camosy versus Julian Savulescu on the Ethics of Abortion

When a believer and a secularist meet to discuss abortion, the result is often a disaster. After a few minutes of polite conversation, they start talking past each other, each failing to appreciate the deep concerns and genuine aspirations of the other. As the discussion continues, they look increasingly uncomfortable and embarrassed, repeating themselves and no longer listening to each other’s opinion. What was meant to be a debate sometimes develops into a childish blame-game, the secularist ridiculing the believer as irrational, while the believer attacks the secularist as at best misguided, at worst evil. At the end of the discussion, the audience is left with the impression that we witnessed a divorce without the intimacy of a prior marriage: the speakers withdraw into the comfort of separation, weary of mutual indifference, mistrust and hostility.

This is the complete opposite of the abortion debate that took place on 18 October between Charles Camosy, Assistant Professor of Christian Ethics at Fordham University, and Julian Savulescu, Director of the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics at the University of Oxford. The event was the first of a set of two public debates called ‘The Possibility of Religious-Secular Ethical Engagement’. Each speaker gave a short presentation on how one might advance a fruitful religious-secular dialogue on abortion, followed by Q&As and a further discussion between Camosy and Savulescu.

Camosy was the first speaker. After laying out a set of conditions without which a religious-secular conversation cannot even start, he firstly highlighted the surprisingly substantial level of agreement between Christian ethicists and their secular counterparts. His strategy was to focus on the work of the most influential secular ethicist of our time – that of Peter Singer – and discuss some of the controversial issues on which Singer and Christian ethicists agree. For example, they share the view that there is a logical connection between abortion and infanticide, departing from the popular view that abortion is morally permissible and infanticide is not. They also agree that some non-human creatures should be considered as moral entities, though Camosy would suggest angels as the prime example, whereas Singer is likely to pick chimpanzees. Camosy then examined several issues over which secular and Christian ethicists genuinely disagree, such as the moral status of the foetus. His central message was that both Christian and secular ethicists should focus on these specific issues to find a way to move the discussion forward, instead of seeing each other as attempting to impose an alien and comprehensive outlook.

Savulecu started his presentation by telling the personal story of how he came to revise his view on abortion in a less permissive direction. He now thinks that the destruction of an embryo is morally wrong under certain circumstances, such as when one or both of the parents want(s) it to develop into a child. An embryo, according to Savulescu, has a special moral value when it is a part of the plan of the parent(s). He also argued that the consequences of abortion for future generations must be considered. Bringing a child into the world, he suggested, is like bringing a work of art into the world; as Mona Lisa has given pleasure to the viewers, a baby has the potential for giving pleasure to the people to whom he or she will relate. Savulescu acknowledged that the evolution of his thinking about abortion had been fostered by his engagement with religious as well as secular ethicists, though he expressed his continuing disagreement with Camosy and others on several key issues, including the concept of potentiality when we speak of the foetus as a ‘potential person’.

The event was fully booked in advance and there were lively Q&As after the presentations. One issue that emerged recurrently was the internal diversity within each of the Christian and secular approaches to ethics. Camosy’s brief discussion of Christian feminist ethics had immediate resonance for those working on women’s rights and gender issues outside the framework of Christian ethics, while Savulesu’s express disagreement with Peter Singer on several important issues seems to have surprised many believers (and some non-believers) in the audience.

While Camosy and Savulescu showed respect for each other’s work, there was notable intellectual tension between them. The tension appeared vividly when they discussed the important and unresolved question of what the religious-secular engagement might achieve. Savulescu expressed the concern that the points of agreement he found with Camosy could be literally superficial, that is, overlapping conclusions reached from completely different premises via separate paths. Camosy showed more optimism, expressing the hope that the continuing engagement would result in some agreement on a more fundamental level. Savulescu’s reply seems to have captured the spirit of the event: the outcome of the religious-secular engagement depends on each party’s ‘willingness to revise their own views’.

If this is right, as I am inclined to think it is, then each of us who cares about ethics has a question to ask ourselves: do I want to keep discussing my ideas with my like-minded fellows; or do I wish to go about and try to persuade people with whom I share little in common, taking the frightening risk of finding myself revising my deeply held convictions?

I know what my answer is. What is yours?

Home Alone? On Being Liberal in East Asia

A version of this piece was originally published on

What is it like to be liberal in East Asia, where political leaders repeatedly denounce liberal values for various purposes—from suppressing dissenters to pursuing popular support?

I recently had the privilege of visiting the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul, where I met academics and practitioners from South Korea, Japan, China, and elsewhere. One of the most interesting things I learned there is that liberals—those who seek to combine a fundamental commitment to liberty with the endorsement of other key values including individuality, rationality, equality, and the limited and accountable use of power—in South Korea have had difficulties in coming to terms with the country’s impressive political achievements since the late 1980s. While there is little evidence leading us to believe that the civil liberties, political equality, and economic prosperity that the populace have enjoyed in the last 25 years will turn out to be short-lived, South Korean liberals have been unable to feel at home in the newly liberal and democratic South Korea. Being used to seeing themselves as free-floating intellectuals detached from society at large, they are more bemused than amused by the series of political and economic accomplishments that they long wished for. They sometimes look at Japan with some envy as the neighbour has a longer and hence presumably more stable history of liberal democracy and a matching intellectual tradition running from Yukichi Fukuzawa through Masao Maruyama and his disciples.

Be that as it may, Japanese liberals hardly feel more at home in their society than their Korean counterparts. While it is true that Japan has been the only Asian country that has been nominally liberal and democratic for more than six decades without interruption, Japanese liberals suspect that their democracy is scarcely rooted in a genuine democratic culture and their liberal tradition is not mature enough to deserve much praise. To this, they often add the observation that Japan’s key liberal achievements are not home-grown but transplanted “from above;” after all, it was Americans that half-forcibly introduced (or “imposed”) during occupation a series of major reforms to set up liberal institutions, including the Constitution of Japan, that are still dear to the nation’s liberal (and non-liberal) left. Indeed, Japanese liberals are so uncomfortable with their country’s political achievements that they often look at South Korea with envy; unlike the Japanese, their neighbour obtained liberal democracy through grassroots movements “from below.”

The uneasiness among the well-educated liberals with their own society’s political tradition is arguably even stronger in China. Chinese liberals are of course glad to see the considerable public interest in liberal ideas that has emerged since the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976. However, they are alarmed by the no less strong interest in recent years in the work of the critics of liberalism including Carl Schmitt and Leo Strauss, not only because these thinkers’ ideas are in themselves worrying to liberals but also because they might crush the country’s nascent liberal tradition. It is one thing that Schmitt’s Political Theology has enjoyed a renewed interest among political philosophers and historians in the safety of the faculty clubs of Harvard and Princeton; it is quite another that it has attracted increasing popularity among China’s rising educated class. Indeed, partly due to the influence of Western anti-liberal thought, in the last few decades some of the former friends of liberalism in China have been converted to enemies.

Liberals in South Korea, Japan, and China, despite their important differences that I do not wish to downgrade, may thus be said to share one thing in common: the inability to feel at home. The flipside of this is of course the notion that liberalism is something Western—and above all European—and therefore somehow alien to the indigenous traditions in East Asia. What are we to make of such a confidence problem?

First of all, the nature of the problem must be properly understood. The entity in which East Asian liberals lack confidence is not themselves but their respective societies. Typically well-educated and relatively well-off with varying degrees of international (read: Western) education and experience, East Asian liberals are a fairly self-assured bunch, seeing liberal values as a natural and essential part of who they are. What they doubt is whether the rest of their society will be as liberal as they have always been. This perceived gap between the liberals’ liberal selves and the supposedly illiberal or insufficiently liberal societies that they inhabit gives rise to a fascinating variety of elitism—strong and weak, social and intellectual, conscious and subconscious. It is in fact surprising how distrusting East Asian liberals can be of their fellow citizens, all the while professing to believe in democratic values and the power of civil society in the abstract.

It may of course be argued that the confidence problem that East Asian liberals suffer from is a false one; just because many liberal ideas and institutions originate from Western history does not mean that people in other regions cannot benefit from them. The automobile may have been invented in Europe, but East Asians have not only benefited from using it but have arguably surpassed the Europeans in manufacturing cars. This argument is coherent, but it is not as persuasive as it may appear because it is based on the dubious premise that a political tradition is to a people what the automobile is to its consumers and producers. The argument has at any rate been unable to impress sceptical East Asians, who think that the relationship of liberalism to a people is like a sense of direction to a driver; it is something that can be acquired and refined by training, but it is also partly inherited through generations and is hence ultimately unchangeable in the short run. Genuinely liberal East Asia is possible—but not in our lifetime.

The degree of essentialism accompanying such pessimism is questionable. It is important to remind ourselves in this context that Europe has not always been a continent of liberty, equality, human rights, and the rule of law. Anti-Semitism and other traditional forms of barbarism are unfortunate and yet undeniable chapters in European history. In addition, as Michael Oakeshott wrote as early as 1939, the modern doctrines of communism, fascism, and National Socialism cannot be simply ignored because each of them “is an expression of something in our civilization;” indeed, “we cannot merely regret them without regretting our civilization.” (The Social and Political Doctrines of Contemporary Europe, p. xii) One may extend Oaskeshott’s observation still further: if liberal democracy originates from “European civilization,” so do the concentration camps. One does not need to be a Theodor Adorno to see that illiberal ideas and ideologies are an integral part of European history.

Yet the idealization of Europe among East Asian liberals is not a matter of mere ignorance. It has also been a strategic move to pile up the resources of criticism, although the move has typically been a semiconscious one. That is, East Asian liberals have portrayed Europe as a sort of actually existing utopia, against which their home societies can be measured, their problems identified, and solutions found. They have thus been able to take a short cut to act as social critics by pointing across Eurasia at a model society to aspire to, instead of constructing what John Rawls called “ideal theories” and considering how these might be applied to highly non-ideal East Asia. The strategy worked well at least until the late 20th century when Asians by and large were struggling to reach the economic standard of developed Western countries. It is debatable whether the same strategy will turn out to be as effective in this “Asian century.”

Indeed, it might be the case that the entire mode of social criticism that I discussed will eventually come to an end, as the economic disparity between East Asia and Europe shrinks and will perhaps be reversed, and as the growing flow of information and people will make the idealization of Europe—or of any region in the world for that matter—impossible. Until such time arrives (if it arrives at all), East Asian liberals will continue to feel a sense of loneliness and discomfort in their home societies. Yet those sentiments may well be seen as a blessing rather than a curse by their future descendants, because the time when East Asian liberals feel utterly at home will also be the time when they lose what has been one of the most significant sources of inspiration for social and political change in the region: imagined Europe as a liberal democratic paradise. Will the loss be followed by the emergence of a new form of political imagination? The answer is too early to tell.


* Thanks are due to Bi-Hwan Kim, Shin Osawa, and Wang Qian for helpful comments on an earlier version of this piece.

The Rationalist Prejudice

Professional ethicists seem to love controversy. I myself have been too boring in this regard, but many of my colleagues have provoked heated debate. This often spills out of the safety of academia unto society at large, as many of the past entries in the Practical Ethics blog testify to. And professional ethicists rarely regret sparking off controversy, for this in many of their view amounts to inviting more people to think and that cannot be a bad thing. Behind this is an implicit, and rationalist assumption that subjecting generally accepted – and thus hitherto uncontroversial – norms and practices under critical scrutiny is always a good thing to do. They believe that public debate over an ethical problem is likely to generate a wide range of ideas which may eventually lead to a solution; and that to make people think harder and talk openly about ethical issues has intrinsic value. It is part of the ethicist’s job, then, to be controversial. Indeed, it is what practical ethics is really about in some people’s opinion.

Is the rationalist assumption sound, though?

Certainly, there is something to be said for it. After all, many of what may reasonably be described as the achievements of human moral progress could not have happened unless somebody took the task, and often the burden, of challenging and critically scrutinising traditionally held beliefs. Slavery and gender inequality used to be taken for granted; interracial marriage used to be considered morally repulsive and was illegal in some parts of the world. Those and other past prejudices are fortunately gone. Of course, rational scrutiny by itself has never been and will never be enough to bring about significant moral and political change. It must be complemented by campaigning, pamphleteering, bargaining, compromise, agitation, mobilisation and sometimes even violence. But rational scrutiny is vitally important because good reason must be shown to promote a cause. Otherwise, indoctrination will replace persuasion, might will make right.

However, pace my over-rationalist colleagues, this does not mean that rational scrutiny is always a good thing to do. For one thing, there are many questions that do not deserve serious consideration. For example, ethicists do not need to ponder – at least for now – whether literally going back in time by time machine is a solution to historical injustice. In addition, there are some ethical issues that have been settled and settled for good. We do not need to seriously consider whether slavery should be restored, or whether a certain category of people may be massacred because they are of a ‘wrong’ kind. A society where a public debate occurs over those issues is worse than a society where it does not. If so, provoking controversy on settled issues can amount to doing damage to the society we live in. Of course, what issues have been settled and what have not is highly contestable; one should indeed raise a voice of dissent if one has good reason to do so, even if the voice is likely to upset the fabric of society. Yet one should not forget that trying to put what seems like a long-settled ethical issue back on the agenda often comes with a significant price to pay as well as potential benefits to gain.

That said, the most important objection to the rationalist assumption seems to me to lie elsewhere; it is about opportunity cost. Neither professional ethicists nor the public can afford to discuss everything with equal seriousness. Rational scrutiny costs. While we consider X, we cannot consider Y. This week’s op-ed has to focus on this issue, not others. If so, we must judge which issues matter more, which less. In our world where resources are limited, we cannot afford to critically examine everything. This is especially true in academia, where zero-sum competition for resources inevitably occurs between different branches of an institution. If a grant is given to ethics, it was not given to other potentially useful subjects such as pharmacology and social policy. Utility is not everything, but it requires due consideration.

If what I’ve said is right, then the rationalist assumption turns out to be a prejudice – and a potentially harmful one. By endorsing the rationalist prejudice, one may be taking our attention away from what really matters and doing damage to our society.

Unfortunately, professional ethicists in this age of growing academic competition and ‘impact factor’ measurement are in a way structurally incentivised to badly judge what matters. We are pressured to show that we are doing something – that our papers are cited, our ideas discussed, our output ‘making a difference’. This is a legitimate and even admirable goal to pursue, but it can work perversely today because one lazy way of numerically increasing the ‘impact’ of research is to scandalise. Defend a ridiculous ethical position you do not even believe in, and you may be a ‘high impact’ ethicist! In the long run, then, we need a better way of assessing the significance of research in ethics to reduce the incentives to scandalise and to vulgarise the discipline. A word of caution is in order in the meantime: we should resist the rationalist prejudice or we will do disservice to what we care about.

Joking about ‘the Unluckiest Man in the World’

The BBC and the production company Talkback Thames, after receiving a letter of complaints from the Japanese embassy in London, issued a joint statement of apology about an episode of the popular comedy quiz show QI featuring Tsutomu Yamaguchi, who had survived the atomic bombings of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki and died last January at the age of 93. The QI host Stephen Fry introduced him as ‘the unluckiest man in the world’ and talked and joked about Yamaguchi’s experience with guest comedians. The news has sparked national outrage in Japan. The conservative Sankei newspaper said ‘any Japanese person would find this disturbing’.

The BBC is of course legally entitled to produce and show controversial programmes. But were they morally wrong to treat Yamaguchi’s story as they did? The answer is ‘yes, but’.

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