The Western world has constructed an “oriental” and “exotic” image of the East in an effort to other these cultures while asserting a subtle tone of Anglo dominance. Many accounts of Eastern cultures written by Westerners throughout history have marveled at the vastly different cultural atmosphere in ways that dehumanize and degrade the people of these countries.
There has been a continuous portrayal in Western media, literature, and travel accounts of the East as both inherently violent and dangerously lascivious. This idea of orientalism is both racist and inaccurate, yet there are some tangible cultural differences that create the rift we perceive between Eastern and Western cultures, such as the idea of Western individualism contrasted against Eastern communitarianism.
While the West perceives their liberal, individualist nature as unquestionably superior, the East’s communitarian cultural atmosphere may have been their greatest asset when faced with the global menace of 2020: the coronavirus pandemic.
By “East,” I am referring to South Asia, Southeast Asia, and East Asia. Contrastingly, the “West,” as referred to in this article, includes all member states of the European Union as well as Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
The culture of the East is generally communitarian, while Western culture emphasizes individualism, a distinction that has deep historical roots. Western culture is heavily rooted in the philosophy of ancient Greece, whereas much of the foundation of Eastern culture is ancient Chinese philosophy. Nisbett notes that the Greeks focused on logic and its application to cognitive functions.
When explaining phenomena, the Greeks also tended to focus on the given object and the properties it might possess. Contrastingly, the Chinese focused on fields of forces and the relationships between actions, leading them to recognize the force behind tides earlier than any Western philosopher. Chinese philosophy also places a heavy emphasis on hierarchical relationships and interactions at each level of society, from the individual to the ruler. However, due to the ancient Chinese philosophers’ lack of focus on logic, they made little progress in geometry, something the Greeks excelled in.
The tendency of Eastern cultures to focus on relationships highlights the importance of community, hierarchy, and interpersonal relations, while the emphasis on logic and fixed rules in ancient Greece is fundamental to the individualist Western worldview.
One of the ways in which this cultural difference is manifested in the modern era is that people from Eastern countries are more likely to categorize things by their relationships to other things, whereas Westerners are more likely to categorize things based on fixed rules. For example, when shown an image of a cow, grass, and a chicken, American children pair the chicken and the cow, stating that both are animals – a fixed category. Conversely, Chinese children pair the cow with the grass, stating that cows eat grass. Chinese children’s focus on relationships between cows and grass highlights a respect for social structure as well as the cultural values of community and family. Meanwhile, American children’s focus on categorization according to a fixed rule emphasizes an individual approach through the application of logic in Western culture.
When COVID-19 was first discovered in China in December 2019, the Western world was quick to place blame on “exotic” Eastern cultures for this new virus, characterizing them as primitive and unsanitary. Former United States President Donald Trump repeatedly referred to the virus as the “Chinese virus,” and there was a marked increase in discrimination against Asian-Americans. However, as of January 8th, 2021, China had recorded 97,306 cases of COVID-19 and 4,795 deaths. Japan and South Korea, despite their high population densities, have had around 300,000 and 72,000 cumulative cases respectively. India had 10 million cases and 150,570 deaths. The United States, on the other hand, has a population over 4 times smaller than that of India, and has more than twice as many cases and deaths: 21 million cases and 358,111 recorded deaths. The UK, France, Italy, Germany, and Spain also rank among the 10 countries with the highest cumulative total of COVID-19 cases, whereas the only Eastern country in this bracket is India.
I posit that the reason for these harsh differences in COVID-19 cases and deaths are the varied cultural attitudes. Face masks, a proven inhibitor of disease transmission, have been stigmatized in Western countries as a violation of individual rights and an unnecessary measure that exists only to spread panic. However, it is common practice to wear a face mask even when one is afflicted by a simple common cold in Eastern countries like China and Japan.
Eastern cultures view face masks as a way to protect the community from the diseases an individual may carry, but this concept was so foreign to Western individuals that infographics had to be disseminated by the Center for Disease Control and other health authorities to explain the benefit of face masks to both the wearer and others. Similarly, Eastern countries swiftly enacted lockdowns for public health purposes, while Western countries lagged, hoping to avoid an infringement on individual rights. Eastern countries also implemented surveillance technology, contact tracing, and extensive testing in order to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Western countries avoided taking these measures because strict rules and invasive surveillance measures run counter to the protection of individual rights that is deeply ingrained in Western cultural values.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, individuals in Eastern countries have readily accepted the trade-off between individual rights and the public good, allowing for increased government intervention for the purpose of protecting the larger community. By contrast, Western countries have proven that individual rights remain at the top of their priority list, even when the cost comes out to hundreds of thousands of lives. While there is clear value in the protection of personal liberties, such as the freedom enjoyed by many Western individuals, there is equal value in recognizing the plight of our fellow citizens and taking the necessary measures to protect our neighbors.