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Eden Collinsworth on shifting moral values east and west

Octavian Report: When did you really begin to notice macro shifts in morality and in ethics and behavior?

Eden Collinsworth: It was after I moved to Beijing, to write a book — for Chinese consumption — on Western behavior. That’s really when I began to think whether or not my own moral sense of right and wrong and my values were at all germane anymore in my own country. That is why I wanted to investigate morality the way I did. That’s how I started to write my latest book, Behaving Badly. 

OR: In your book, you use a three-pronged taxonomy to discuss these issues — politics, business, and sex. How did you arrive at those divisions?

Collinsworth: It was really the only way that I could organize my thoughts. I wanted to construct the chapters such that I would be interviewing people under these three big umbrellas. Inevitably, people’s stories are far more interesting and unbelievable than one could imagine. I’m not a social scientist, I’m not an ethicist. I was interested actually in speaking to other people and understanding their moral choices.

That was another reason why I needed these silos. I made concerted efforts to interview people whose stories were almost counterintuitive to the subject. For example, when I was investigating a provocative question — are women biochemically more suited to be more moral than men because they are equipped to give birth and nurture young? — I made a point of actually interviewing a woman who was operating very much in a man’s environment. I’m fairly sure she was a professional assassin. She was hired on an ad hoc basis to come in and deal with situations that would require the probable killing of somebody or the rescue of somebody else. I made a point with each of these subtopics to seek out somebody who had a story that would address that issue in a surprising way.

That said, frankly, one needs only to look at the younger generation to understand how morality has shifted or reshaped itself. I have a son who’s now in his late 20’s. His morals have not necessarily been instilled by me as much as they’ve been shaped by these profound changes in his lifetime, primarily in technology. My moral values were instilled to a large degree by my parents, and they were operating from a kind of rule book in terms of what was right and wrong. My son has a far more relative view of morality and in fact, he does extremely well in China as a result — he’s a China analyst, he speaks the language. I would march in with my extremely black-and-white attitude, he had a far more flexible understanding that in that country, in that culture, they were operating in a gray area.

OR: How does China’s culture get projected into the political and business worlds?

Collinsworth:  To ground it in the day-to-day operational reality of China, from an economic perspective, China appears to be operating with some form of Western capitalism. In fact, it is not. It has hallmarks of capitalism but it’s a combination of many things.

Despite promises by politicians to protect national borders, global markets will continue to shape the world. It’s important to understand who’s holding the checkbook these days. In the 1920’s, it was British firms that held some 40 percent of the global stock of foreign direct investment. In the 1960’s, America had assumed that role. China will certainly be next. It’s the world’s largest nation, its economy has quadrupled in the last 25 years, and it’s got state-sanctioned banks that supply over half the world’s liquidity.

They are taking care of themselves while the U.S. has retreated from the world stage. China is doing a variety of things. It’s engaging, it’s learning, it’s adapting — and along the way, it’s developing more confidence at the negotiating table.

Americans are slightly myopic. Most Americans do not have a passport. Most Americans have not left the country — and the fact is that the world has changed dramatically in the last 30 years. There was an assumption that China would become more like us as it was gravitating towards some form of capitalism. China will not be more like us, it has no interest in being more like us. We can wag our finger at them on human rights issues but they will continue to move forward.

I think it’s incredibly naïve to assume somehow that is not going to have far-reaching consequences. I don’t think they’re out to conquer the world, I think that they have their own issues and problems and challenges. They have to feed billions of people. They’re now literally growing food in Africa to import it back to China. They want to be respected, most especially in Asia. They have methodically bought into iconic Western companies, with particular focus on commodities.

In the U.K., which is where I’m living now, they own a piece of Heathrow Airport, as well as Thames Water, which is the big water company. In Greece, they own the largest port. They own just as many iconic companies in America. If you look at the map and you connect all these dots, it’s both impressive and formidable. I think it’s small-minded for America at this point not to understand the situation.

OR: How does Chinese morality look at the world differently from the West?

Collinsworth:  There is no home-grown religion. There’s Buddhism, an import from India. There is Daoism, which is more a spiritual philosophy than it is a religion. And there are the tenets of Confucian thought. Keep in mind, that was around for hundreds of years before Christ was born. They are really rooted in the fundamental belief that there is a hierarchy, that educated leaders become good leaders and that then makes for good people.

If you look at the political system, it’s very methodical. In order to move up the ranks, politically, they send you off to the poorest provinces. If you look at somebody like President Xi, he’s definitely put in his time. He’s pitted against Donald Trump who has come off of a reality television show and been a real-estate mogul without any previous experience. If I had to put my money on anybody, frankly, I would know who to choose — especially in a trade war.

Their idea of deference is incredibly important. The idea of saving face is an important commodity that, again, is ignored or misunderstood by the West. That’s one of the reasons why they rarely say no — they just don’t do it. Especially in business. When you’re negotiating, you look, as a Westerner, for these very cleanly defined iterations of a negotiation or an agreement. You find none. Even at the signing of a contract, there’s the belief this is an invitation to continue of a dialogue.

Deference to elders is hugely important. Indeed, Xi’s government is concerned that for the younger generation this is becoming less important — so they literally mandated it institutionally and created extra-long weekends so you can come home and visit your parents.

This is a one-party system. It’s now got a president for life who has a great deal of power that he’s consolidated. They are an economic force. I don’t know whether there is going to be a moral shift in terms of their footprint, so to speak, but certainly they’re going to be in charge of a variety of things, including financial opportunities. So I think it’s important for the West to understand that they’re coming at it from a very different perspective.

OR: Do you think that contemporary China has a different view of individual rights?

Collinsworth: Yes. There’s no doubt in my mind that they value individual rights far less than the West. There’s no doubt that there’s less emphasis placed on the individual in every sense of the word and that was for me, very, very sobering when I moved to Beijing.

On the other hand, China has brought more people out of abject poverty than any other country in the world. I don’t doubt for a moment that the Communist Party is absolutely genuine in its belief that this is what is needed to continue to move that nation forward. I admire that. I can’t say that I admire their policies on human rights. Obviously, this is a big challenge — China is a formidable part of the world now.

OR: Pivoting westward — can you pinpoint moments when you began to see shifts in moral thinking?

Collinsworth:  There are a couple of things going on. As I’ve said, I think the big driver is technology and so when I was writing this book, I interviewed this remarkable woman — a neuroscientist. She is focused on studies that have to do with the frontal lobes of the brain, which apparently have evolved the most in terms of the history of human beings. That part of the brain has to do with putting things in perspective, being able to plan, organizing your thoughts, moderating your behavior. If there is a skill to develop empathy, it’s coming from that area of the brain.

Her scientific conclusion, and it has nothing to do with passing judgment, is that when you interact with another human being and it’s face to face, a variety of things are happening. You’re watching their facial expressions, their body language, you’re listening to the tonality of their voice. All of that then allows you to gauge how you’re going to interact or respond.

Eliminating that via technology — social media, etc. — undermines your ability to develop something that’s imperative in terms of one’s morality: empathy. That could possibly explain why these discussions online ratchet very quickly to anger.

In the U.K., the average time spent in front of a screen is nine hours a day. In another several years, there will be a generation that is in front of a screen more than it’s away from a screen, whether it’s a tablet, a phone, or a computer. I think that that absolutely impacts your moral compass — you just don’t have as many reference points as you would if you had the kind of practice of interacting with people.

I also think that the political environment now has normalized to a degree a less civil dialogue. I don’t know whether it will come back or whether this is it. Morality doesn’t necessarily go away; it simply shifts to something else.

The idea of reality is now not as important as it used to be, apparently. Consider the Russian ambassador to the U.K. insisting that this poisoning of two Russians didn’t happen — or if it did happen, it was the U.K. that was responsible.

This is beyond Kafka. I worry about that.

OR: Do you think our morality is moribund or simply undergoing a seismic change?

Collinsworth: I’m hoping it’s the latter. I’m all for the middle ground; I think that things swing to the extremes and would like to think that they find their way back to the center. You’ve seen that in France. I’m hoping it works out with Macron. He is definitely the result of a swing back from the extremes.

We’ve lost our footing and we’ll regain it. I do think that technology will hurtle ahead; the debate on the other side is behind the reality of the fact that things are changing. You see this not only with this generation on the screen. One of the people that I’ve interviewed for this book was insisting that we must start to actually program morality into robots (which I thought was not really that illogical).

OR: Are we in America living now — hopefully not permanently — in a post-truth world? Are moral shifts connected to epistemological ones?

Collinsworth: I’m sure they’re connected. I think that the difference between many countries and America — and I’m very much aware of this, having lived outside of America for as long as I have — is the fact that America has a free press, and that is absolutely crucial. Quite honestly, I think that the press, for whatever reason, didn’t do their job during the most recent American presidential primary. I think they could have flushed out some part of the Trump mentality early on.

In all fairness, I do think that the American press has absolutely stepped forward and is now on point. That, I think, will help a great deal because it holds everyone accountable, including the voting public. I have great faith in the American system and its checks and balances on political power. I think it would be an absolute disaster if Trump fires Mueller because it will absolutely force a constitutional crisis. I’m not entirely convinced that the House Republicans will do the right thing.

Everyone knows what the right thing is. I don’t care what party you’re from. Morality is something fairly fundamental. You know when you’re ignoring it or you’ve chosen to do something else that’s more profitable.

OR: How do you see these big shifts playing out in the medium and long term in America?

Collinsworth: That depends upon our leadership. It doesn’t take much if there is a strong leader with an ethical sense who’s astute and also is not isolating himself or herself and the nation. It just takes one good, strong leader who inevitably surrounds himself or herself with other moral, acutely intelligent, experienced people.

The good news for Americans is that you can vote somebody out of office every four years. That is a great lifeline. We’ll see what happens.

OR: Are there shining counterexamples to the trends you’ve outlined?

Collinsworth: I think that Americans are utterly decent, given the opportunity. They are moderate. If you ask somebody, regardless of where they live, what they feel about gay marriage or abortion, for the most part they gravitate towards the middle ground. I think that fundamentally, when given the opportunity, Americans are sensible people and they also are generous.

I have borne witness now to so many terrorist attacks because I move around so much. I was in London when there was an attack on Westminster Bridge. It was both horrifying and it also gave me great hope because of what happened in the immediate aftermath. In the middle of a chaotic London rush hour, huge signs were put up above the turnstiles in the Tube wherever they could install them as quickly as they could.

The signs simply read: Not them, only us.

That was all that needed. That was an incredibly human, decent, moral reaction to a hideous, immoral act of violence. So I have great faith, still, in people.