Monday, September 02, 2013

Confucianism as authoritarianism

If Taiwanese are to vouchsafe their distinct identity and way of life, they will need to be daring, innovative, and defiant — everything that Confucianism tries to discourage

It’s often been said that Taiwan’s achievements in the 1970s and 80s — first by achieving and sustaining high levels of economic growth, followed by a peaceful transition from authoritarian to democratic rule — constituted some sort of “miracle.” Given the deeply ingrained Confucian traditions that influence this country, its democratization was indeed nothing short of miraculous.

Like all great religions and major philosophies, there is nothing intrinsically nefarious about Confucianism. However, what its interpreters, who themselves often are in the employ of individuals with power and authority, make of it can have deleterious repercussions for society.

Confucian “values,” if we can call them such, are top-down and tend to reinforce hierarchical systems by encouraging deference to one’s superiors, a category that includes officials, teachers, parents, and anyone older. From this alone, it should be evident that Confucianism invites abuse. While there is nothing wrong in showing respect toward one’s elders or a figure of authority, we run into problems when the values are used to stifle dissent, prevent the emergence of new ways of thinking, or to insulate mediocrities who have attained certain positions within society.

Mao Zedong quickly dispensed with Confucian thought, only to replace it with totalitarianism, which after he departed this world was in turn replaced with authoritarianism. Having undergone no revolutionary spasm such as was experienced in China, Taiwan has continued to be influenced by the Chinese philosopher’s thoughts, a legacy that exists to this day.

And that, by and large, is detrimental to Taiwan’s ability to develop as a nation. In fact, I would argue that Confucianism has arrested Taiwan’s development, which suits the agenda of a certain group of individuals to perfection. Confucian thought has replaced authoritarianism of old and has been much more successful at penetrating every sector of society. It is found in education, in the work environment, in households, and within ministries.

That is not to say that non-Confucian societies, or even liberal democracies, do not have their own problems with rigidity of thought and opposition to innovation. Every system is, by its very nature, hierarchical, a means of organization that imposes a certain level of deference and respect for authority. I certainly experienced (and had trouble with) this phenomenon during my years at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, as has anyone who has served in the military.

Taiwan faces similar problems, but Confucian thought exacerbates them, as does the stultifying adherence to he “status quo” when it comes to the nation’s sovereignty. All these forces militate against free thought, innovation, or systemic rejuvenation. Confucianism, above all, allows mediocrity, sloth, greed — treason, even — to get away, provided that those traits are exercised by individuals with a modicum of authority. By conjuring the notion of “face” — a derivative of Confucian thought — people in positions of authority can clamp down on “subversives” below them while ensuring their hold on their position. Only in such a system can an employee who works too hard, who goes beyond the call of duty, or who meets great success, can be berated by his supervisors, for his actions make them lose face. It breaks the “chain of command.” Only in such a system (and I know this from personal experience) will Small Employee be told by Big Boss that, despite there being every sign that Small Boss is incompetent and hurting the company, Small Employee must respect and follow the directives issued by Small Boss. Only in such a system will a panelist shower a fellow presenter with praise after the latter has delivered what can only be described as a pathetic waste of everybody’s time.

Aware of the cost of offending one’s superiors (from reprisals to dismissal), subordinates therefore tend to avoid innovation and are in fact encouraged to avoid transcending what is expected of them. They become automatons, which is highly convenient for those in positions of authority.

Over time, this inevitably drags everything down. Organizations gradually become accustomed to, and eventually expect, the bare minimum from their employees. Laziness and incompetence become acceptable, as long as their behavior doesn’t threaten the system.

Confucian thought is also very much evident in how the current administration has reacted to the wave of protests that has hit various agencies in recent months. The language inevitably contains references to “unruliness, “violence,” “irrationality” and lack of respect for government figures and symbols. To drive the message home, the administration also has had no compunction in resorting to harsh police measures and the court system to clamp down on dissidents, who rather conveniently tend to be of university age. Many critics of the youth movement have expectedly referred to the activists as “unruly” and “creating trouble.” In other words, they are “bad Confucians.” Little wonder that the Ma Ying-jeou administration is so keen on emphasizing Confucianism in classrooms and for visiting scholars.

The challenges that Taiwan faces are as extraordinary as they are unique. If its people are to vouchsafe their distinct identity and way of life, they will need to be daring, innovative, and defiant — everything that Confucianism, and those who wield it as a stick, try to discourage.

Confucian thought turns people into cowards. It is oppressive, restrictive, and it is authoritarian. Taiwanese cannot afford to allow this philosophy to continue poisoning its government institutions, companies, schools, and families, as only a few — groups that undeniably do not have Taiwan’s best interests at heart — will benefit. (Photo by the author)

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