Vanity thought #561. In defense of racism

No, not really, of course, speaking in favor of racism in public would be suicidal, and what I have to say today would actually be against racial theory, but this weird title would be appropriate for the article this entry is based on – Why Americans are weirdest people in the world.

This article challenges some very basic assumptions about equality of people of the world, in terms of equality of their aspirations, their perceptions of happiness or fairness and so on. This is not news, of course, and the article isn’t signed by Captain Obvious, but in the West we’ve been fed this idea that there are some universal rights and truths that resonate equally across all humanity. Now someone came up with numbers to prove that it’s wrong.

I was surprised to learn that even optical illusions affect people from different backgrounds differently. This is a nice example:

Two lines are of the same length but people who grew up in urban environment unfailingly see them as different. The reason is that their world is filled with straight lines going into the distance and so they have a strong sense of perspective. Basically, they see it like this:

People who grew up in the country are not accustomed to such geometry and so a less susceptible to this illusion.

This is just one interesting physiological example, the core of that article and research behind it focuses on perception of fairness across the world.

Their experiment is simple – two people are given some money and they can keep it if they agree on a sharing deal from the first try, no negotiations. One person offers a sharing formula and the other has to accept or they both get nothing.

Logically speaking the offer should be 50/50, fair and square, but in reality people’s perception of fairness differs wildly from one community to the other. Some would offer only 5% and their partner would agree to it, others would offer well over 50% and have no regrets whatsoever. Only Americans are statistically close to 50/50 split – if they give too little, their partner would punish their greed by refusing the deal, and they never offer more than half.

In American view fairness is when both partners get an equal amount of money, and by conducting this experiment all over the world the researches found out that this perception of fairness is extremely unusual, hence the title – Americans are weird.

When people evaluate what would be a fair split they have so many things to consider and judge according to norms of the societies they grew up in. Would they be perceived as stingy? Would accepting more money would be considered as exploiting generosity? When they think what would be acceptable to both parties they don’t know their identity, they only know they are from the same community so peer pressure, or desire to conform to social norms, also plays a large role.

Another optical illusion illustrating this point is this:

People from individualistic societies (read America) see that the rod in the center is always vertical – their upbringing taught them to consider and focus on central element in great detail, while people from communal societies are easily affected by this illusion because they see position of the rod in relation to its surroundings.

They cite another example of this – if you show people a picture of aquarium people from individualistic societies would describe the main fish in great detail while people form communal societies would talk about weeds and rocks and all kinds of background details that Americans would not even consider remembering,

These findings are pretty important in politics and economics – policies and values from one country do not resonate with voters in another, justice system from one place can’t be transplanted on another and bring the same results. When multinational corporations or governments go for land grabs in poor countries their offers of compensation to robbed peasants should also reflect local concepts of fairness.

Okay, but what has it got to do with Krishna consciousness?

Well, we need to build a varnashrama society with our own ideas of what is fair, what a mutual benefit is, what are the rights of our members are, what is generosity, what is stinginess, what is greed, what is responsibility and so on.

It has got nothing to do with racism but with educational system and environment. Same people educated in different countries accept new attitudes and stick to them. What we need to learn is how to do it our own way, how to shape our education and our society so that it is conducive to remembering Krishna and respecting other devotees.

So far our gurukulas are apparently teaching children the American way, and our wider community also shares the outside value system regarding fairness and rights. When talking about every day things we appeal to “common sense”, but this common sense is not as common as we think, it’s shaped by materialistic or religious, individualistic or communal societies we grew up with. We don’t have Krishna Consciousness system of values yet, or at least it hasn’t reached our everyday life, jobs, problem solving procedures etc.

Also, much of our internal debates are about the same clash of values – rights of individuals, like gays and women, for example. What is fair to them from American point of view is not the same what is fair to them from Prabhupada’s books. Some people find it very hard to accept, while others, like me, find it impossible to compromise with “American ways”.

Answer that question and all confusion would go away, though I don’t believe there will be reconciliation. That’s a whole another topic, today I’ve only discussed its foundations.