21 October 2009

From behavioural defence mechanisms to culture and the arts

By Professor Peter Yu Kien-hong

(Published in ‘Campus & Beyond’, a weekly column written by Swinburne academics in the Borneo Post newspaper)

In June this year, a professor shared with us his seminal article on science and pseudo-science. In July, he wanted us to discuss “behavioural defence mechanisms of avoidance (BDMA)”, because many people are silent at public functions. A fair question to ask him would be whether investigation into people’s silence at public functions using BDMA is a scientific exercise or pseudo-science masquerading as science and whether it might not be better to try to understand behaviour in insider rather than outsider terms.

In natural science, you can have laws. You can test them repeatedly by conducting the same experiment to eventually come up with a law of motion, for instance. It is impossible in social science. This minute, you may have one opinion, and, in the next split second, you may have already changed your mind precisely because you are a human being with the freedom to think one way or another. Natural science seeks to understand physical phenomena whereas the social sciences seek to understand human beings, and often times a better way to understand human beings is not through using science-flavoured language, but through the history, culture, literature, and the arts of the people you are trying to understand.

So, the question that I ask myself is how much understanding is gained in devising scientific sounding terms such as BDMA to try to explain human behaviour? How much understanding do we get in trying to characterise the typical silence of Northeast Asians in public functions through the use of such terms? Wouldn’t the simple explanation of the Northeast Asian’s cultural behaviour of ‘mianzi (social currency) / lian (personal behaviour)’ in Mandarin or ‘face’ explain far more than BDMA? ‘Face’ is an insider concept that already exists within the Asian culture which Asians use to explain their behaviours and actions. For instance, the typical Northeast Asian of the old generation would rather keep silent (and thus keep his/her ‘face’) than to speak and be wrong in public.

In the typical Northeast Asian culture, the person generally does not want to utter contradictions and will not speak unless something is worth speaking. As an Asian myself, I have asked myself this tough question: When I speak, am I speaking something worthwhile or do I speak so much that I end up contradicting myself?

Are you able to simplify or compress everything of what you said and did into a model or theory of your choice? If you cannot, it simply means that the more words you say and write, the more contradictions you will commit. That is to say, you cannot even convince yourself in the first place. Not many people are like US president Barack H. Obama, II, who can overshadow his contradictions with his charismatic presentations. But even he has to watch that his contradictions and about turns do not return to hit back at him.

Consider this: How do you dissolve the obvious contradiction between saying yes and no regarding the same issue? For instance, you may believe very strongly that killing is wrong and yet a professional soldier may find it impossible not to kill an enemy in a war. So for the sake of survival one must kill. How do you justify the contradiction between your belief and your action? The only answer is for you to apply a dialectical or non-dialectical model or theory of your choice.

Here is an illustration from my life. Personally, I had a vague idea about models and theories when I got my PhD in politics at the age of 30. It took me a long time – five years – before I finally realized what a model or theory is. Six years later, I began to construct my own crab and frog motion model to understand human life and I finally arrived at my own theory of life, which I termed my one-dot theory. My theory states that if all things under the sun are conceived of as being reduced to a single dot there will be no contradiction since a single dot cannot have any contradictions. I do not expect you to accept my theory, but I have struggled through a long process to arrive at what I believe is a simplification or compression of my life experiences and my observations, and I have become more confident as a result. Needless to say, I welcome anyone to find fault with my model and theory, so that I can grow intellectually. The point is that it took me a long time before I was ready to share my thoughts with the public.

To reiterate, in order to understand the Northeast Asian’s silence in public forums, we have to take culture into serious consideration. In Northeast Asian culture, the cultural norm is for one to be very careful when speaking, and even more so when speaking in public. Asians tend to think about their face and the other person’s face. Typically, a Chinese, Japanese, or Korean would not want to offend others, even if the constructive criticism is well intentioned. After all, most of our relationships are not structured in terms of teacher and student.

In sum, I think that seeking to understand people in terms of their history, culture, literature, and arts may be more worthwhile than attempting to apply terms such as the BDMA to understand the seemingly silent Asian.

Professor Peter Yu Kien-hong lectures at the School of Business and Design, Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. He can be contacted at pyu@swinburne.edu.my.