Taiwan’s great cognitive divide

By J. Michael Cole 寇謐將  / 

Sat, Oct 20, 2012 - Page 8

The elderly man approached the podium immediately after I finished delivering my talk.

“Not bad, but you’re not one of us, so you can’t truly understand our problem, or how evil the Chinese Nationalist Party [KMT] really is,” he said.

For the previous half hour, I had been addressing a crowd of 200 Taiwanese-Americans in Dallas, Texas, encouraging them to seek out allies in the pan-blue camp rather than regard it as an unchangeable, monolithic and invariably inimical entity. Well, so much for that.

I’d been warned, before delivering my talk, to expect this from some people, and frankly, I didn’t need the reminder, as this has happened on a number of occasions since I began writing about Taiwanese politics six years ago. Somehow, for reasons that are presumably cultural or genetic, Westerners are unable, we are told, to understand not only the “Asian mind,” but Asian history as well. No matter how deeply one plunges into Asia’s past, culture, language or contemporary events, and no matter how long one has lived there, it is impossible to get to the core; as if only Asiatic minds are capable of deciphering the mysteries of their race. How very, pardon the term, Chinese.

More than once in my years in Asia I’ve been served such platitudes by individuals who not only disregarded my six years as a professional journalist who watches, lives and writes about the news daily, but who themselves hadn’t set foot in Taiwan for years. It’s understandable that such individuals would react with condescension when informed that the KMT, rather than being an “evil” party, counts plenty of members that the pan-green camp can, and should, work with.

The KMT that exists in their minds is still the same party that reigned supreme over Taiwan during the Martial Law era and which was responsible for numerous atrocities. However, times have changed, and so has the KMT, which is now part of the fabric that makes Taiwan, for better or worse, what it is today.

Such a view of non-natives places expatriates perpetually on the peripheries and confines them to a largely non-participatory role in society. A “non-being” existence that prevents them from voting, even at the local level, even those who, rather than see Taiwan as a transitory place, have made it their permanent home. This attitude is not only race-based — it is racist.

My answer, coming as I do from a country that was built by immigrants, is to ask how Taiwanese would feel if told on arriving in Canada, or anywhere else for that matter, that by virtue of not being born there they could not possibly understand local politics and should therefore not involve themselves in them. Or how they would feel if I, as a Canadian, denied them the right to vote even after they had become naturalized citizens because they did not understand the Canadian mind and therefore were unable to make informed political choices. I would be called a racist, a bigot, for suggesting this, and rightly so.

However, this is a two-way problem. Not to be bested, there are some expatriates in Taiwan, or people based elsewhere who follow Taiwanese political developments, who also engage in similar bigotry. However, rather than assume, like some of the aforementioned Taiwanese do, that foreigners cannot “get” Taiwan, their intolerance lies on the other side of the spectrum: They, as members of the great enlightened white race, know best, and it is therefore their responsibility to educate the “child-like” Asiatics who do not know what is best for themselves. And when these small yellow people do not agree with them, the all-knowing expatriate or distant sage puts them in their place, usually by means of insult.

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.

J. Michael Cole is a deputy news editor at the Taipei Times.