Bell I: The Particular Whoops the Universal
So far, one hundred pages into East Meets West, it strikes me that the one “drive home” point Bell wants to make is this one: the particular trumps the universal. Many of Bell’s other points about appropriate East-West discourse and human rights advocacy seem to rely on this fundamental principle. If this is indeed the “engine” that drives the car, it makes sense to start here and pop open the hood so we can take a look around (as Ross Perot might say).
I think Bell’s major argument has a few parts.
Argument A: Effective Human Rights Approaches are Local
Bell is insistent that an effective human rights approach must be “meaningful.” He also thinks that Western liberal approaches to human rights in East Asia are not effective at all – in fact, at times they are downright harmful. As a result, he argues that liberal approaches cross-culturally lack meaningfulness. But what makes an approach to human rights meaningful?
His answer: local knowledge.
Bell puts it this way, “rights, if they’re to be meaningful in practice, must have some grounding in the local culture” (91). What I take Bell to mean is that authentic values and practices (a) are responses to empirical facts on the ground specific to the circumstances at hand, and (b) spring from the way in which those facts can take on different weightings or salience when they are interpreted through the lens of the specific local culture and history in which those facts are enmeshed.
Given that for Bell this is the “Eastern” way, as he sees it in the Eastern perspective, the particular trumps the universal. Authentic or meaningful values spring from a combination of contingent sets of facts, both empirical and cultural.
Sitting in the back of the classroom not paying attention to Bell’s lesson (playing with GameBoys and texting one another, no doubt) the Western liberal human rights advocates get an “F” on the test. They are portrayed as “arrogant” and as representing their values as “the end of history” (45). Western liberals, starting with that hooligan Plato, see their values and rights as exemplifying a “universalistic ethic” that is superior to the values that spring from the merely contingencies of situated local cultures and situations. In other words, for the liberal, the universal trumps the particular.
The battleground is set.
Argument B: Strategy and Theory (or Small Pragmatism and Big Pragmatism)
These claims are prevalent throughout the book, and leave the reader asking “wait a second, Bell (I mean Lo!) – are you giving us a guide to effective strategy, or are you giving us a primer on the origin and justification of human rights themselves?” Sometimes it is hard to tell, because “Lo” seems to have little patience for the distinction itself, and seems somewhat dismissive of theory.
Still, as far as I can tell, if Bell is “Lo” then the answer is: “Both”. He thinks that the particular trumps the universal both in terms of strategy, and in terms of theoretical origin and justification. He’s a full fledged particularist (my word, not a technical term taken from elsewhere).
Let’s look at the components of this.
Strategy first – I’ll call this “small-p” pragmatism (or particularism). Essentially, Bell’s point here is one that is easy to agree with. It simply makes more sense to couch one’s efforts in terms of local cultures, history, and values and to pay close attention to the facts “on the ground” as they affect the actual people involved. Bell pushes this point consistently, suggesting to Demo that since “the functional equivalents” of liberal human rights can be pursued by looking for cultural analogues (it could be that some cultural value ends up endorsing the same behaviors a liberal human right might), there’s no real reason to push for “rights” language, or to insist that other cultures share the justificatory framework one uses to generate one’s own human rights practices (pages 55 and 97, and other places). In other words, from a strategic point of view does it really matter how people justify the fact that they embrace practices that result in people being able to speak their minds, if “free speech” is one’s concern? Find local resources, culturally, empirically and traditionally, to make arguments that secure those practices and be satisfied. (In fact, if you’ve ever had the chance to read Sam Crane’s excellent blog, Useless Tree, it seems that Sam follows this thinking often: whereas Sam often critiques the PRC for their various abuses, he always couches the criticism in terms of Confucius or Mencius).
Fair enough. But I think Bell is a “Big-letter-P’ pragmatist/particularist too (not sure about Sam). Or at least I suspect that Bell is. Here’s a rough definition: Big-P pragmatists/particularists think that truth is created via local negotiation, not found or discovered. In this context, “truth” is “a set of rights” (or values or norms). In fact, sometimes one gets the impression that all of Bell’s emphasis on effective dialogue between the East and West is partly because this is how he thinks new values and norms come into existence — and perhaps this is wht would happen if the two cultures actually “spoke to” (as oppposed to at) one another.
So: real, authentic values emerge from negotiation and consensus. A “little-p” pragmatist doesn’t think this: they think that truth (or a set of rights) is found and discovered. That said, they do think that there are better or worse ways of securing the practices that those truths/rights entail, and so they embrace the more instrumental paths, making them strategy-minded. As a result, if Bell is a “little-p” pragmatist, he actually believes that liberal ideals and norms concerning human rights are the right ones, trans-culturally. Epistemologically, we can access these truths and justify them without recourse to local contexts or knowledge.
But I think Bell is a “Big-P” pragmatist/particularist, so he’s more radical than that (notice that Big-P doesn’t rule out Little-P). And I suspect that he is.
Lo/Bell often talks as if there are no a priori bases for universal human rights claims at all. That said, it is curious on the face of it that he thinks that most of what we would, prima facie, take to be “incontrovertable” rights, such as a right not to be tortured, are not really in dispute (although not always in practice, he says) between different cultures (in this case, between the “east” and “west”). However, the fact that there is widespread agreement on the “larger” human rights issues doesn’t negate the “Big-P” pragmatist argument by suggesting that there are indeed a priori norms. Instead (he doesn’t say this, I’m suggesting it) it might be due to a common coincidental agreement between those local cultures that is rooted in a similarity of empirical and cultural circumstances (in some generalized way). So in the end even these larger shared human rights concerns — which have the appearance of universality — might be local in this way (it’s all turtles, all the down!).