By JOHN MARTIN
Asian rulers have resisted American efforts to foster human rights and open societies as unwelcome foreign intrusions that ignore cultural differences, often citing economic success to justify their authoritarian governments, according to Amartya Sen.
These arguments cannot be squared with Asian cultural history or regional economic reality. The view that Asian cultural tradition is inherently less oriented to individual rights, says Mr. Sen, is the product of chauvinism: a warped Asian reaction to Western attitudes of social and political superiority. Mr. Sen delivered his address, "Asian Values and American Priorities," at the Library on April 21, as the sixth annual Joanna Jackson Goldman Memorial Lecture on American Civilization and Government.
Amartya Sen is professor of economics and philosophy at Harvard University and has been newly appointed as master of Trinity College, Cambridge University. His many works include Choice of Techniques (1960) and On Economic Inequality (1973).
In his opening remarks, Mr. Sen noted the recent death of Cambodian despot Pol Pot, stating that the genocide carried out under the Khmer Rouge illustrated the danger of monolithic thinking. Pol Pot's communist ideology was a monolithic reading of what Cambodia needed; no deviation from doctrine was tolerated. On the other hand, the policies that permitted Pol Pot's rise to power, a reference, presumably, to U.S. intervention in Indochina, were also monothematic and destabilized Southeast Asia. The clash of these "univocal" themes resulted in catastrophe, he said.
A similar dynamic persists today, particularly in states such as South Korea and Singapore, where governments continue to defend authoritarianism as uniquely suited to Asian cultural traditions -- pointing to their rapid industrialization, economic development and low crime as proof. Mr. Sen debunked the "economic efficiency" argument by demonstrating the positive link between political freedom and the avoidance of socioeconomic disaster. Taiwan, he observed, the strongest democracy in the region, has largely escaped the current Asian economic crisis. The worst social and economic disasters, by contrast, such as the Bengal famine of 1943, which Mr. Sen witnessed in his youth, or the dislocations during China's "Great Leap Forward" (1951-1953), have occurred in the absence of democratic safeguards. Mr. Sen used these episodes to illustrate what he called "the protective power of democracy."
Nevertheless, supporters of authoritarianism insist on viewing democracy "as an intrusion, indeed, an imperialist intrusion, on Asian culture." These claims draw on the Confucian heritage, with its presumed deference to authority. But Confucius, Mr. Sen said, did not advocate blind allegiance to society or the state. To make Confucian doctrine the basis for authoritarian government, moreover, ignores the heterogeneity of religious and cultural beliefs in Asia, much of which is influenced by Buddhism. More important, this view reflects the mistaken belief that concern for individual rights is exclusively Western. In fact, argued Mr. Sen, "before the Enlightenment, it is hard to maintain a strict historical division between Western or Asian classical texts as regards individual rights or freedoms."
Rather, the supposed values gap between East and West is a fairly recent phenomenon, with roots in Western attitudes of cultural superiority, and in the Asian counter-response. Attempting to legitimize and distinguish their culture and traditions after two centuries of Western domination, Asian leaders tend to define themselves in apposition to the perceived counter-model.
"Western attitudes," said Mr. Sen, "profoundly influence Asian perceptions of themselves."
Popular and intellectual causes explain the proliferation of misconceptions and stereotypes, he said. "The search for a monolith, a univocal explanation," seduces scholars looking for formulaic answers to complex problems. False differentiation also stems from the quite ordinary fear of the unusual, and the popular belief "that peculiar things happen elsewhere."
Suspicion bred of unfamiliarity is not a new thing in the world, nor is tolerance or respect for individual rights the exclusive property of East or West. Confronted with the problems of cultural pluralism in a vast populace, the Emperor Oshaka, who ruled India in the third century B.C., enacted laws to ensure, among other things, freedom of worship. His code for equal treatment in a multireligious, multicultural empire, Mr. Sen concluded, stands out as a classic of secular justice.
Mr. Martin is in the Copyright Office.