Posted from: Beijing, China
Couple of days ago, on my way back home, I walked past the old retired couple that live next door to me. I’ve been in this apartment for almost five years now, and though I’ve always been on wave-hello terms with the neighbors, we’d never really spoken. But this time, the wife, a Chinese lady in her mid-sixties, invited me over for a chat, and we ended up having a rollicking evening of midnight mahjong and Moscow Mules.
Four hands and two drinks in, she started to probe the edges of my Americanness, fishing for my take on Trump, religion, race, COVID, looking for either confirmation or refutation of whatever she saw about My Kind in the news. Over the years and over many similar conversations, I’ve learned to walk a fine line between diplomacy and integrity, framing my truth in a way that the other party can digest without rancor. Guess it went OK. The next day she’d left fresh cucumbers from her garden in a bag at my door.
Last week, following the rapid-fire series of cross-border clashes — Huawei, Hong Kong’s National Security Law, Tiktok — the US government ordered the closure of the Chinese embassy in Houston based on accusations of espionage, and US-China relations look to have tipped into tailspin. In light of these events, the social pleasantries of cucumber-trading are starting to feel like geopolitical micro-triumphs, a teeny tiny dike to hold back, for however short a time, the wave of animosity that has begun to engulf us. Let’s all hold hands and make hydrating, low-calorie offerings of peace.
I know. I know that smacks of utopian idealism. And it’s true, my heart is a squishy one. The rest of me, though, is less optimistic about the human condition. Nation states are built on violence, our social order is predicated on it. Given the historical record and reams of disconcerting science, conflict appears to be our birthright. Case in point, two weeks ago, I sat down with a friend for a late dinner at one of several iconically awful restaurants near the Russian embassy. Halfway through a bowl of stew, she recounted her mother’s PhD research, based partially on an early computer simulation of global conflicts over the last several thousand years. Tweak the variables any which way, and the results were a predictable downer: in every case, the aggressive societies, the ones bent on invasion and willing to pillage from their neighbors, overran the peaceful, eventually snuffing them out.
The computers, then, tell us that this is what we are: that the warriors win, and the pacifists lose. Leaving the failings of algorithms aside for a moment, and looking past the fact that these simulations, built by man, cannot reflect an objective truth, what do we do with this information? Do we embrace the probability that, given a wide enough values gap, we will always ultimately descend into conflict? Do we operate on the assumption that violence is a regrettable but necessary part of the human incarnation? If the dilemma will always come down to “eat or be eaten”, do we pour our energy into becoming the fiercest predator, and therefore protect ourselves? Seems logical. Even unavoidable.
And yet, I find something about this way of thinking repulsive. Acceptance of hostility as a necessary evil seems like a stop-gap that must exist only because we lack greater wisdom. And abandoning hope of attaining that wisdom by leaning into global conflict rings as an abandonment of our highest human aspirations, of our best selves. Perhaps more practically, though our institutions may be founded on violence, as individuals, we are biologically programmed to be traumatized by the realities of violence. If violence was a necessary state of being, then surely we’d thrive in its shadow. But we don’t. We are made unwell by our own savagery.
Where I think we tend to go wrong is in the assumption that our governing institutions exist to make our nations strong. I disagree. I think our institutions exist to keep us well, to help us thrive. Insomuch as strength enables economic, physical, and mental wellbeing, strength must be built, but strength is not an end in itself, it is a means by which to achieve wellbeing. Utilizing strength to undermine global wellbeing, or building strength at the cost of wellbeing, misses the point, and is little more than an exercise in machismo and hubris.
I guess what I’m saying is that, seems to me that while violence may benefit a state in certain respects, it doesn’t benefit the wellbeing of people within it. Don’t let the suits on either side of the aisle, or either side of the ocean, confuse you: the objectives of a nation and the wellbeing of the souls that live there are not necessarily one and the same.
I’m not saying that China should be allowed to trample the United States in the name of Kumbaya pacifism. What I am saying is that any action, including the abandonment of diplomacy with China, that moves us towards collective violence, necessarily also moves us towards collective trauma, and further from wellbeing. Let us not abandon the more optimistic path while it still lies open to us. Let us not seek to close that door before all other options have been exhausted, no matter how tired we are, or how incensed.
Computers gonna compute, but in the end, those piles of parts don’t know us. Hostility may be one of the algorithms upon which we run, but it is not the only algorithm we know. We still know how to trade the fruits of our garden with the people next door. Let us lean into that instead.