Belief Systems: Context is Everything

Like many people, particularly during this COVID situation, I’ve been diving into reading and listening to podcasts that are labeled self-help.
For example, I can tell you how to declutter, although my own closet is a mess, because I have listened to 30 hours of decluttering podcasts while walking or doing chores. I can tell you the reasons you accumulate clutter. I could probably give a brief lecture on it myself! I am now purging and getting rid of stuff. Last PM I threw out the hospital bill receipts from my son’s birth. I had eaten some kind of shrimp salad. He’s 13. That kind of got me worn out and then ADD kicked in and I started reading a poetry book and then you know, the decluttering project got sidelined because I got bored. The goal remains!
This morning I was listening to Spiritual Thought Leader X (seems pretty cool, but sometimes, you know, a little out there, but nice and smart enough) give an interpretation of the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tze and applying this wisdom to ideas of governance and leadership. Spiritual Leader X’s expertise is that he studied this work for a year. I found myself getting really annoyed about his absurd elitist, Western centric interpretation of this book! I am not an expert in Eastern philosophy, he’s studied it longer, but it was easy to see he lacked any basic knowledge of Asian culture because of his out of context interpretation. I also felt that it was highly dangerous for his audience (whom I am guessing, well, there are probably a fair number of Trump types self-actualizing and evolving and getting spiritual en masse).
He was speaking about the ideas of governance. The fewer laws created, the fewer lawbreakers there will be. True. So in his mind fewer laws is the answer to how people should govern. Uhm…well….
All I could think about was some whacked out people using this idea to vote against health care, gun control, Affirmative Action, citing this so-called spiritual leader and his interpretation of the Tao Te Ching and/or I Ching.
What NY Times bestselling Spiritual Leader X author failed to mention while gabbing carelessly about the benefits of fewer laws is the foundational structure of FAMILY and how this functions within Asian society.
Nuclear and extended family structures mean that a strong infrastructure of support is in place in these societies–in negative and positive ways. It breeds a sense of obligation and conformity to the group (STUDY AND GET GOOD GRADES OR WE WILL KICK YOU OUT OF THE FAMILY. DATE ANYONE NOT ASIAN (name specific ethnicity) AND YOU BETRAY FAMILY, YOU LOSER). You have to put up with a lot of (GRANDPA IS A PATRIARCHAL INTOLERANT ______–fill in the blank) etc.. this extended network may include cousins of cousins and close friendships cultivated over many years.
You must be obedient to this network.
This is what psychologists may call the In-Group. The In-Group obligation means that if you have an incompetent cousin twice removed through marriage who is unemployed, but was once nice to your great aunt you are related to through a second or third marriage, and you have a business and you have a job opening and this fellow who you know is a total loser needs a job, guess what. You have to give that guy a job. Because he is related to you.
Your Out-Group behavior (nation, community you are not directly related to) and dynamics are quite different. You are probably less loyal, don’t care as much, bend the law even, because you are overextended, often, with your In-Group.
When I lived in Korea I was once standing on a subway station platform during rush hour, my back to where the train door would open, not paying attention, and the train stopped, and the swarm of bodies when the train door opened nearlycarried me into the train when it stopped. After the tide of people slightly ebbed (I could neither go forward nor backward, nor sideways, I was floating) I dropped down to my hips between the train platform and the train. My feet were dangling above the tracks. Luckily I was wearing a huge down coat, but basically, I could have almost dropped down to the tracks, but my body was torqued in a way that saved me, and I was slightly bigger, my hips at a slight angle, so I didn’t fall all the way down. I was in shock. No one tried to help me up. In fact, people started jumping around me and nearly over my head in a rush to get on the train. I hoisted myself up and then got on the train.
The subway doors closed. I was traumatized. I then proceeded to shout and say OMFG I could have died YOU FUCKING ASSHOLES. WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU etc… and then I realized…uhm…yeah, I’m screaming in shock in English and looking like a freak show and everyone speaks Korean and they probably think I am insane.
Then I hear a young woman’s voice in a heavy French accent saying: Are you American?
I say: Uh, yeah (now feeling completely stupid, after all I was shouting like an Ugly American expatriate)
She says: You are very lucky. My friend fell onto the tracks a few weeks ago!
I was really upset by this and immediately dashed off an email to my close friend Dr. Andreas Bruech, about what a bunch of terrible people Koreans were. HOW could they do this to me? WHAT WAS WRONG? Why didn’t anyone help me? I could have DIED. I’m Korean. What is wrong with my ethnic group? SUBWAY KILLERS. Andi is a Korean speaking German, an expert in cross cultural studies between Korea, US, Canada, Germany and Japan within the context of corporate relations. And he kindly explained the idea of In Group and Out Groups. That if a society is formed on an In Group level, they are so overextended, that often, someone from the Out Group barely exists. It was nothing personal. It was a question of how society is structured and of course Koreans are perfectly normal but function a lot on the In Group construction.
Ideas of nation are formed in many ways within the context of an Out Group. We care for the larger public good. Our family structures are strong, but we also rely on community support and exist within different constructions of a nuclear family. This is in contrast to many countries in the world. The US is an Out Group type of nation.
So when spiritual expert X posits that the fewer laws are better and is citing the I Ching/Tao Te Ching as evidence of a great text on leadership he is failing to look at the formation of society and family structure. You can have fewer laws if there are a lot of informal family laws or rules in place to makes sure people stay in line.
Many years ago, my uncle told me a story about a young Samoan man accused of a serious crime. There was some discussion about admitting this crime. But what led the man to finally admit it was that he consulted with his elders and the extended network agreed to support him wholly during his time in prison and to be there for him. He then went into the “system” knowing that a large group of people fully were there for him and his own family. He was loyal to his In Group. The Out Group was not as important to him.
This is just to say that groups function differently. And when we interpret ideas, remember that our lens is this if we are in the US and have grown up wholly in this system:
WHITE
PATRIARCHAL
CHRISTIAN
BUILT ON SLAVERY AND STOLEN LAND
And there are many ways we can be and are. While we must surely borrow ideas and texts from different cultures, exchange and share, prioritizing the nature of exchange, but honoring origin, the random and often haphazard, although well intended method of applying ideas across cultures must always be accompanied by a knowledge of the society from which it came.
So when you listen to these Spiritual Leaders–please remember this.
All belief systems are constructed.
WHO writes them?
WHO speaks them?
HOW do you interpret them?
Aloha. Have a great Sunday!
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