There’s an interesting post over at normblog* in which he comments on the apparent controversy over whether or not the US President was correct to bow when he met the Emperor of Japan. Those who are criticising Obama are accusing him of being subservient. The Washington Times for instance accuses him of selling out

what America… is about

which is that

all men stand equal and are entitled to look even a king, maybe particularly a king, straight in the eye.

This is apparently due to Obama being

sired by a Kenyan father, born to a mother attracted to men of the Third World and reared by grandparents in Hawaii, a paradise far from the American mainstream.

No matter that, according to one blog which commented on this editorial, the author is the son of a man who defended segregation – not the most obvious example of men being allowed to stand equal, although it was for a long time a big part of what America was about for some of its citizens. After all, What kind of person judges a person according to their parents?

What i am really interested in is the unease around respect, which when talked about in the abstract is usually considered to be a good thing. From childhood on, we are urged to respect others. In fact, we are commonly told that all human beings are worthy of respect. This being the case it could be argued that Obama’s mistake is not in bowing to an emperor, but in only bowing to an emperor. He should bow to everybody. Everybody should bow to everybody. In fact, I remember reading a book about Buddhism which contained a description of a monk even bowing to an insect (or some kind of small creature anyway) that he encountered as we walked along a path.

“Well… maybe,” you might say. “But that isn’t what i have a problem with. My problem is with the idea that any human being is ‘higher’ than another – and that is what bowing says to me.” Surely however that is exactly what respect means – to hold someone in a higher regard than yourself. For example, when we say we respect our elders, we imply that they are above us in some way: wisdom, experience, endurance of hardship; hence the fact that as synonyms dictionaries offer words like: veneration, admiration, reverence. The idea that we should respect all our fellow human beings actually rests on an assumption that we can find some aspect of any other human being in which they exceed us.

By way of objection, you might mention an artist, X, who says that he respects another artist, Y, who is quite obviously his inferior; but actually what does X respect? It could be that Y achieves so much despite the fact that he is less talented than X, that he works harder, that although his work isn’t overall of the same standard as X’s it nevertheless excels his in some areas: variety, quantity, commercial success. This list would be very long indeed if i were to try and identify everything it is possible to respect in another artist, but the point is this: for X to respect Y there must be some relevant area in which he feels that Y is his superior, or else X is lying.

One question raised by Obama bowing to the Emperor Akihito is whether or not he is indicating respect for – suggesting as ‘higher’ – a social hierarchy based on birth, rather than personal achievement. This reflects the fact that emperors, indeed like most of us, are both people in their own right and representatives of the ‘system’ or ‘organisation’ in which they have a role. As the Emperor of Japan, Akihito can be perceived as representing the a hierarchical social system; but equally he can be seen as representing the Japanese nation of which he is head of state and at a state occasion that would be the more obvious way to interpret behaviour towards him. Obama of course represents the American social system – in a number of interesting ways – as well as America as a country. Are there no ways in which Japan as a nation might be thought to be worthy of respect by America?

Still, you might protest: bowing isn’t our way. The problem with this objection is that bowing is the Japanese way and politeness, which is the way we show respect to people we do not know, is culture-specific. It is as meaningless to insist on showing people respect according to the rules of your own society as it is to insist on speaking to them in your own language. When Americans were looking European ‘kings’ in the eye it was as part of a shared and understood – even if contested – story in which the Europeans are the old colonial, dominant power overcome by the new freedom-loving American underdogs. That isn’t necessarily the case when Americans go into Asian or African countries – which reminds me: an Asian perspective on Obama’s bow can be found here.

Thinking about it, much of the anxiety around Obama betraying American ideals by bowing down in front of Akihito can be seen as fear of a foreign ‘language’ – of lacking mastery over the symbols of communication and, by extension, of the story being told. If we shake hands we feel we know what the gesture means; never mind that it might have a different conotation for the person we shake hands with. In the case of some bloggers, hidden behind rhetoric about equality, there is an even keener fear – one of not having mastery in the political domain. Japan’s come a long way since those days immediately after World War II when General McArthur could feel quite confident he had no need to bow.

* normblog has an even more relevant post here, but i hadn’t seen it when i wrote this.


2 thoughts on “R.E.S.P.E.C.T

  1. The basic rule for most is usually ‘When in Rome do as the Romans do’ isn’t it? So if they bow you bow. If they shake hands you shake hands. You wait for the person who made the invite to make the first move then as the guest you simply follow suit by copying their greeting. I don’t get all this silly over analysis of what used to be such simple matters.

    • I know what you mean, but i think there is something more at work here. The idea of the American who doesn’t bow down to superiors is very similar – indeed derives from the same ethos – as Quaker ideas about hat honour.

      Basically, as you may know, this was a rejection of feudal notions of social hierarchy in which the common man bowed down to the noble man, etc. The Quakers rejected this by refusing to raise their hats to anyone, refusing to use titles such as “Your Majesty” and addressing everyone with the familiar “thou”. In the 17th Century this was revolutionary but only because its meaning was understood. The reason it was understood was that the people with whom the Quakers were using this behaviour had the same ‘language’ of social gestures and also shared the same history and social context. By contrast, exported abroad hat honour might not be understood: as outsiders Quakers would not have the same right to criticise as they would at home and there might well be no comprehension of the historical origins or ethical underpinning of the behaviour.

      So with the Americans: when they were just insisting on their rejection of hierarchical politeness in America or in Europe it wasn’t a big deal. What’s interesting is the problem that this highlights around the relationship between politeness and behaving ‘ethically’, especially as these might seem on first glance like natural bedfellows (since both are related to treating others ‘well’).

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