This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

February 10, 2005 -east versus west

After I graduated from college, I wandered around the country for a couple of years. All of my belongings fit into a small backpack on an aluminum frame. My sleeping bag, my pack, and everything in it, added up to 14 pounds.

It's the last time in my life I knew where everything was.

Part of me looks back at that time with a certain wistfulness. How simple my life was! And how much I learned, as I blundered into one situation after another.

It could be that metaphor -- wanderer with a backpack -- still rules me.

On the one hand, I think I carry fewer mental belongings all the time: a distilled philosophy. On the other hand, I'm aware that I'm operating in an environment that seems more and more complex by the hour.

I've been thumbing through a book called, "The Geography of Thought: how Asians and Westerns Think Differently ... and Why," by psychologist Richard E. Nisbett. He writes about his journey from one idea to another.

First, he believed that all human beings think the same way. That is, he was convinced that the mechanisms of perception, categorization, reasoning to results, etc., didn't vary much from culture to culture.

Now, he holds a different belief. He has been able to demonstrate that people raised in Asian cultures (China, Japan, and Korea, for instance) do indeed see and process information differently than those raised in the West.

Westerners -- from ancient Greeks to modern day Americans -- have some predictable characteristics. We tend to see and be aware of objects. Asians tend to see and be aware of substances.

Here's an example: young students of both cultures were exposed to an object -- let's say a toy pyramid made from marble. Then they were asked to find a similar thing among some other objects. Westerners chose another pyramid, made of plastic. Asians chose a different object altogether -- made of marble.

Here's another difference. Some years back, two similar murders happened, both in the U.S. In one, a Chinese exchange student had troubles with his academic advisor. The student got hold of a gun, killed several people at his university, then shot himself. Not long afterward, a similar event occurred at an American Post Office, this time by an American worker.

Nisbett compares the news coverage of both items. In the Western newspaper accounts, the focus was on the individual: the traits, the character, the decisions, that led him to become a murderer.

In the Asian papers, the descriptions were profoundly different. They emphasized the interpersonal problems, the social environment in which the tragedy occurred.

In short, Westerners see things in terms of isolated personality. Asians see personality as just one factor in a large field of social and other factors.

These differences play out in language, in marriage, in business negotiations, in scientific breakthroughs, and more.

Each viewpoint has strengths and weaknesses. Which one is right?

That's a very Western question. Here, perhaps is a better one: which combination of perspectives will enable us to live better lives, and build better communities?

"The Geography of Thought" is available from the Douglas County Libraries.

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