Sat, Oct 20, 2012 - Page 8 News List

Taiwan’s great cognitive divide

By J. Michael Cole 寇謐將

In their construct of the world, Taiwanese are “stupid” for voting for President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and the KMT, for not “realizing” that the pan-blues will sell Taiwan down the river all the way to the Yangtze, for coming out to celebrate National Day on Oct. 10, for waving the Nationalist flag and for being, as only minor races can be, “brainwashed” by their political masters and the media they control. This sense of superiority somehow entitles them to accuse Taiwanese — who for lack of a better alternative have made Oct. 10 the day they fete Taiwan as their homeland — of celebrating the sons of murderers, like little fools in a demonic game played by cunning politicians.

Both extremes, which are exclusive and encourage further extremism in views and attitudes, are detrimental to Taiwan.

Informed expatriates, who have done their homework on Taiwan’s history and who are committed to its future, are denied a voice in shaping the national discourse. However, what if, instead of being unable to understand the Asian mind, foreigners, with their own unique experiences as human beings, could help expand, as Salman Rushdie calls it, the “sum total” of what is possible for human beings to perceive, understand, and be?

Why the narrow, and therefore limiting, definition of the self? Why engage in reductionism when the times, our global times, call for enlargement of the mind, which can perhaps help us find new solutions to seemingly intractable problems? Taiwan’s challenges, complex as they are, are not unique. They are human problems, and therefore universal. One need only look at the experience of Somalis and Ethiopians in the disputed Ogaden region to realize how far-away and seemingly unrelated conflicts can shed light on Taiwan’s question of identity. Or Ireland. Or Quebec. Or Kosovo.

At the other extreme, some foreigners treat Taiwanese — who know best about who they are and the everyday, pragmatic needs of their families, businesses and communities, and therefore which party can best safeguard their interests — like colonial subjects, aping Kipling’s infamous “white man’s burden.” Such an attitude is unhelpful and probably more than once has succeeded in convincing Taiwanese that they are better off staying away from insulting Caucasians who think they know best.

Ironically, the attitude of some Taiwanese in the green camp — who will latch onto and revere any white person who supports their cause, regardless of his or her qualifications, or the quality of their argument — is related to this problem. This need for validation, perhaps a symptom of Taiwan’s isolation, has spawned a number of opportunistic, all-knowing individuals who have built little fiefdoms and milked their followers to the fullest, to both egotistical and financial benefit.

Pointing out that these two camps exist does not give rise to a contradiction. What it does, in all simplicity, is highlight the fact that neither camp has ownership of the truth, whatever “the truth” means. It calls for — dare I use the word — humility on both sides, and a willingness to explore the middle ground.

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