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February 14th, 2006
Tue, Feb. 14th, 2006 09:02 am

Last week I debated some people about the ideas of liberal feminist Betty Friedan, who recently died. Friedan came out of a Marxist intellectual tradition, but by the time she published her most famous book -- "The Feminine Mystique" -- in 1963 she had renounced recognizably communist ideas, like collectivism or mistrust of the market. Instead, her book advocates individualism and the market as the solution to the sense of boredom, alienation and frustration that 1950s women felt, trapped in suburbs and expected to live up to impossible images of happy housewifery.

My critique of Friedan (which shares many points with Germaine Greer's critique of her; it was Greer's "The Female Eunuch" which sat on my mother's bookshelf, not "The Feminine Mystique") accused her of believing that the following values were unproblematical: the market, the masculine gender, freedom of choice, individualism. Congruently, Friedan thought that the following values were problematical, entirely made up or ready to be broken down: staying outside the market, the feminine gender, a sense of obligation to others, collectivism.

I've discovered that it's almost impossible to find an American, no matter how left wing, who believes that collectivism is a virtue. In fact, debating gender issues with Americans is enormously frustrating because many of them will challenge any statements made of any level intermediate between "the individual" and "everyone in the world". Any statement about a group of people (the Japanese, women) is immediately condemned as generalization, "essentialism", or stereotyping. Taken to extremes, this involves the absurdity of Americans trying to debate women's issues without any definition of who or what women are. "Women" don't exist. (Oddly enough, though, Americans are never in any doubt that men exist.)

When Americans look at the woman question and when they look at Japan, their anxieties about groups, their love of individualism and faith in the market make them see the same tendencies: women and the Japanese are leaving group orientations, becoming more individual, entering the market. Hurrah!

Here, for instance, is an American communications academic called Todd Holden looking at images of subjecthood in Japanese TV commercials:

"Identity in commercial communications is not just about "we Japanese" any more. Increasingly, messages of identity are about the personal search, encouraging individuals to find their own way, to live for themselves, to seek, express and receive affection, to become more self-centered and personally goal-directed. Such themes reflect a departure from the past - where identity was often mediated by the group and/or conferred by products. Multiplied, and reproduced in numerous situations in conjunction with a variety of stars and social practices, such messages possess the potential to reorient members of Japanese society in ways that already appear to be emergent in the larger life world. [sic] The author suggests that such "adentifications" carry the prospect of exerting considerable sociological effect on the Japanese nation and its culture in the years to come."

It looks so reasonable, doesn't it, so liberal? People are being set free from groups, led to the market where they're free to be individuals rather than cogs in a wheel, mere objects. But these "liberal" values are actually neo-liberal. What about freedom from the market? Why deconstruct the group but not the selfish, atomised individual? What about the ways the market objectifies people? What about the virtues of collective living?

What if collectivism is such a core value to Japanese culture that attacks on it are attacks on Japan, even when couched in the language of "liberating" individuals from the onerous chores of group life? I came across an account of Japanese collectivism by Chen Zhuo which gives a much more positive view of Japan's group-mindedness than any American account I've read, and which doesn't consign collectivism to the past.

"Japanese Core Cultural Values and Communicative Behaviors" lays out a model of Japanese attitudes and values which rings very true to me. This is a Japanese mind- and feeling-set that I know, respect and love. What's more, we don't even have to be "essentialist" to agree that these values matter: "interpersonal competence," says Zhuo, "should not be understood as a static concept or list of characteristics but rather as a quality which arises in the process of interaction". In other words, the behaviors listed below (and shown in Zhuo's diagram) are summoned and re-inforced by our interactions with Japanese people, whether we're Japanese ourselves or not.

WA:
harmony, unity, sharing; this is collectivism's sun. It's the desire to be one with those of your group. People are not one thing, but WA highlights the aspiration to be one. To feel, see, think and live together rather than apart. Of course people are different individuals, but it's best when they want the same thing. The unity and harmony of the group takes priority over individual responsibility, authority, or initiative.

ENRYO:
the effort to avoid explicit opinions, assessments, or other displays of personal feelings in order to prevent others from thinking badly of one.

SASSHI:
refers to the listener's ability to guess or understand the speaker’s meaning even before he's finished saying it. There's a line in a song on my new album which expresses it: "Someone says what we're all already thinking, and we laugh."

AMAE:
is mutual dependency, the kind of relationship in which one person belongs to a group and depends on another’s love.

AWASE:
the ability to adjust to the changing situation or circumstances so as to solidify and maintain the benefits of the group, not the self.

KENSON:
negation of individual ability in order to maintain the nature of the social collective relationship and to avoid individual heroism which would disturb the group interests.

TATEMAE:
the outward surface of a building, a metaphor for concern for what can be seen by others.

GIRI:
a type of obligation felt toward others who have done something good for the person and a sense that one will be forever in the other’s debt.

JOUGE KANKEI:
respect and honor in Japanese hierarchical society. Almost everyone can find vertical relationships that are viewed as good and natural in everyday life.

KATA:
a form of standardization. For Japanese, when people do things in the same way and one knows what to expect, it is believed much easier to develop WA.

Marxy as usual has an individualist conspiracy theory to explain Japanese collectivism; he thinks that collectivism in Japan has been imposed from the top. In other words, he thinks that collectivism serves the interests of hidden individuals (aristocrats in the past, presumably, or shadowy figures now):

"Throughout time, Japan always had collectivism enforced by a very small ruling class, and it is only recently that there have been equal rights (both political and economic) mixed with the collectivist instincts. Debate still exists whether elitism still guides the system, but Japanese collectivism is not an ahistorical, apolitical problem detached from economics or social structure.

"If you don't care where your collectivism is created (there surely must be some social or cultural structure that induces collectivist urges, no?), than sure, Japan is "collectivist." Otherwise, you have to at least note that 95% of Japan's existence featured collectivism for the bottom working for those at the top... I doubt that every single Japanese person enjoys collectivism more than individualism, but am not in a position to make a universal statement about which is more satisfying. (Although I've overreached in the past, clearly.)

"As a foreigner, can you really go on about how great collectivism is when you've only experienced it as a free product? One reading of Momus' philosophy would clearly be: I enjoy collectivist Japan because it doesn't infringe on my super-individualist lifestyle."

Of course, although I can feel myself being collectivized every day I spend in Japan, and although I think collectivist behaviors (if only ultra-politeness, or consideration, or the avoidance of selfishness) are "summoned and re-inforced by our interactions with Japanese people, whether we're Japanese ourselves or not", I can't entirely dismiss Marxy's point. The closest I've come to experiencing full collectivism was going to boarding school, and I didn't enjoy that much.

What I will say, though, is that Marxy's ad hominem route straight to my bad motives and my supposed exploitation of collectivism, rather than to its virtues, simply shows how much he's a part of his own American culture; not only are ad hominem arguments the result of an over-emphasis on individualism, they share with conspiracy theory a fascination with shady motives benefitting only the subject, or some small minority, and an obsession with bad vertical power relationships -- minorities exploiting the majority. This is one side of every coin, but to look for it in everything isn't just cynical, it's boring. And it makes you wonder whether the people who search for this kind of reading don't actually want it to be the case; aren't actually in love, secretly, with self-interest and domination, and don't actually find them rather reassuring.

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