An Essay on Art, Science, Literature, Philosophy, and the Psychopathology of Asian America
(15 min read)
THE MEANING OF LIFE
“The unexamined life is not worth living.”
According to Douglas Hofstadter, American professor of cognitive science, AI researcher, and part of the same Santa Fe Institute crew as Stuart Kauffman, human consciousness is an illusion²⁹. That’s not to say human consciousness isn’t real, but there’s no physical site for it located within the brain. Rather, different neuronal structures are interdependent, and these, as well as the self-referential feedback loops involved in cognitive processing, together give rise to the experience of human consciousness as an emergent phenomenon. This is similar to Christian author C.S. Lewis’ conceptualization of the Holy Spirit, which he characterizes as the mood at a party where True Believers congregate. If any of those True Believers depart from the congregation, then the atmosphere dims, especially if those that left were the life of the party. In the same way, if a human being suffers an injury to the brain, like Phineas Gage who had a railroad spike driven through his skull, they lose, in a sense, some properties of their consciousness. The same holds true for the Collective Consciousness of a community of humans as a whole. Belief systems give rise to an aggregate Group Imagination, the Source of all Power, with its own logic and axioms, which then operates in real life through individual persons. What axioms, then, arise out of the Asian American Imagination, and what consequences can we observe from holding these beliefs?
In the course of my travels and in my work done in this space, I have had a chance to “take the temperature”, so to speak, of various Asian American community members that have found themselves in leading positions within different industries or at the heads of various Asian empowerment organizations. Being deeply immersed in the marginal collective Asian American social structures that exist in this country, I have also had a chance to talk to many folks on the ground regarding their personal experiences and outlook regarding America, anti-Asian racism, and their positioning in a white supremacist society as a whole. Based on my interactions, dialogue, and research, I have distilled the overall axioms that underpin the community’s Collective Consciousness into six commonly held postulates, regardless of whether one is part of the Asian American “elite” or “masses”:
- White Supremacy isn’t real.
- White supremacy is real, but anti-Asian discrimination isn’t that bad.
- White supremacy is real, and anti-Asian discrimination is bad, but it’s not a big deal, look at Black (and Middle Eastern/LatinX/LGBTQ, etc.) people.
- Anti-Asian discrimination is a big deal, but I take no personal responsibility for changing it or perpetuating it.
- Anti-Asian discrimination is a big deal, and I’m complicit, but I didn’t mean to be.
- Anti-Asian discrimination is a big deal, I meant to be complicit, but it’s all Asian people’s fault anyway.
Every Asian in America has either heard some variation of these six axioms before from other Asians or has unthinkingly spouted these lines themselves. Interestingly enough, the form and structure of these unquestioned beliefs (which are completely, flat-out, factually wrong, when not merely cowardly or selfish) is eerily similar to the Narcissist’s Prayer:
That didn’t happen.
And if it did, it wasn’t that bad.
And if it was, that’s not a big deal.
And if it is, that’s not my fault.
And if it was, I didn’t mean it.
And if I did
You deserved it.
One of the more salient features of this collective Asian American belief system is the fact that usually, our combined narcissism would manifest as a way to defend our own grandiose perceptions of ourselves. Instead, we have literally adopted the narcissism of the White Man to defend his actions: the racist Scramble for East Asia, his continuous imperialist meddling in the affairs of sovereign Yellow nations for his own benefit³⁰, his centuries-long campaign to ethnically cleanse Asians from the face of this country³¹ and this planet, and the systematic discrimination that herded us into segregated schools³² when there was “too many” of us, trapped us behind barbed wire fences³³ in San Francisco because we were seen as disease-bearing vermin, and continues to engage in a ruthless program of racially based eugenics³⁴ against the community via negative media depictions³⁵ and cultural erasure³⁶, while robbing us of our taxes, our wages, our labor, our dignity, and our safety and lives without granting back one single iota of meaningful representation.
Frank Chin, of course, was shrieking from his crag about this massive corruption and colonization of our collective mental space as far back as 1972:
“There’s racist hate and racist love. If the system works, the stereotypes assigned to the various races are accepted by the races themselves as reality, as fact, and racist love reigns. The minority’s reaction to racist policy is acceptance and apparent satisfaction.
One measure of the success of white racism is the silence of that race and the amount of white energy necessary to maintain or increase that silence. In terms of the utter lack of cultural distinction in America, the destruction of an organic sense of identity, the complete psychological and cultural subjugation of a race of people, the people of Chinese and Japanese ancestry, stand out as white racism’s only success.
The ideal racial stereotype is a low maintenance engine of white supremacy whose efficiency increases with age. The subject minority is conditioned to reciprocate by becoming the stereotype” — while protesting they are not! — “live it, talk it, embrace it, measure group and individual worth in its terms, and believe it. Those stereotypes operate as a model of behavior. It conditions the mass society’s perceptions and expectations. When the operation of the stereotype has reached this point, where the subject race itself embodies and perpetuates the white supremacist vision of reality, indifference to the subject race sets in among mass society. The successful operation of the stereotype results in the neutralization of the subject race as a social, creative, and cultural force. The race poses no threat to white supremacy.”
— Frank Chin & Jeffery Chan, Racist Love
The other, more important point here is the real-world consequences of clinging to a system of thought built on top of faulty premises that are divorced from reality and contradict one another. When you have self-contradictory axioms, or your axioms do not align with empirical reality, you are unable to generate useful theorems for how to navigate the material world around you. This has a paralyzing effect on the community as a whole, which can never come to terms or an agreement around next steps or plans for collective mobilization, given that almost all Asians in America are operating off of one of the six axioms of the White Narcissist’s Prayer. All actions taken, all individual strategies pursued, all ideologies promoted, only serve to further the White Man’s supremacy, and never erode it or promote the general welfare of Yellow People as a whole. We have become the Racist Beloved — the Model Minority. Any and all personal, social, creative, or cultural thoughts, statements, or habits we adopt as Yellow folk while operating off any of these principles are, fundamentally, meaningless.
What is Meaning? Meaning is coherence: the degree to which things and events conform to a set of logically consistent principles. These principles can then be called the Teleology³⁷, or Purpose, for those things and events. Creating Meaning in Life, aka making things coherent, is the process of using underlying principles to construe, structure, understand, and make sense of life events, relationships, and the self. For something to be meaningless, there either exists no set of consistent principles from which observable behavior can be logically inferred, and/or even if such principles exist, Life does not obey them. This fundamental gap between Principle and Action in the Universe is known as the Absurd.
In 1942, hot on the heels of the artistic avant-garde movements, one of my other favorite Frenchmen, philosopher Albert Camus, published the founding text of the Absurdist movement, The Myth of Sisyphus. Absurdism was the inevitable intellectual cul-de-sac of Nihilism that emerged as an offshoot of the various avant-garde movements and their fiery spirit of Rebellion. In their quest to overthrow oppressive hierarchies through destroying or inverting all the old symbols and devaluing the highest values, including God Himself, some folks soon found that it was very difficult to discern any overall meaning to their lives.
Absurdism was born out of taking Moral Nihilism to its inevitable philosophical conclusion — a rejection of all inherent Meaning to Life. Camus dared to consider the possibility that the entire Universe and all that we know is devoid of any immanent teleology, which is why jarring, unpredictable, and grotesque situations continuously crop up in real-life, seemingly at random. Examples could be someone farting in church during a sermon, dying suddenly in a car crash, or a stray rocket flying into Big Ben for no reason. What is God’s Plan? How can an endless, bizzare, novel multitude of aberrant and chaotic phenomena constitute some greater cosmic pattern? And if, as we suspect, there is no larger scheme that makes it all hang together, how can we possibly lead a meaningful life in an incoherent World devoid of meaning?
Camus has a strong will to live, and he spends his entire book grappling with how to give birth to a meaning for his continued existence, if he accepts the axiom that there is no inherent meaning to the Universe or Life. He does not want to die or commit physical suicide. Yet neither does he want to commit what he considers “intellectual suicide” — taking a leap of faith on a belief system, like the Father of Existentialism, Søren Kierkegaard, did with God. He ultimately concludes, correctly, that the only meaning to Life is experiencing Life, and that Human Meaning is something human beings construct.
OVERCOMING THE ABSURDITY OF ASIAN AMERICA
“That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.”
— Friedrich Nietzsche
In psychology, constructs³⁸ are mental models — schemas³⁹ — that help us make sense of the empirical world around us, including ourselves. Constructivism represents a revolution in the theory of cognitive processing and epistemology, and it blossomed forth from Camus’ profound insight that human beings narratively construct Meaning out of Life. Throughout the early and mid-twentieth century, psychologists such as Jean Piaget and George Kelly upended the entire way we think about the mind and its role in perception, leading to the widespread adoption of their ideas in the field during the 1970s and 80s in America.
Previously, the role of the mind during perception had been seen as largely passive. Under the old paradigm, external stimuli enter into our consciousness via the senses, and trigger associations, leading to cognition, or thinking. This has been the model used since 18th century Scottish Enlightenment philosopher and empiricist David Hume⁴⁰, of the infamous Hume’s Problem of Induction, who said we first perceive the world through Impressions, which then form the basis of our Ideas, the weaker recollection of those empirical impressions. Under this paradigm, human perception is purely an externally directed affair — the material phenomena of the world enter into our consciousness via the process of sensory perception, and then provide the raw material for conscious thought through evocation.
However, the Constructivists posited that the process of perception itself is shaped and molded by our own preconceived notions of the world — our personal constructs, the informal systems of axioms and internal logic that serve as our operating principles, which is properly called our Motivations. The ways in which we expect to experience the world, alters how we feel about it and act. Of course, human society as a whole also operates on social constructs, group paradigms for parsing Meaning out of Reality. Social constructs form the architecture of what is known as intersubjective reality⁴¹, social reality, on top of the material foundations that make up Society as a whole — its superstructure⁴².
George Kelly’s work on personal construct theory illuminates an interesting road ahead for Asian America. It is no secret that many Asian Americans of my generation suffer from a silent epidemic of psychopathology — otherwise known as “mental illness”. According to Kelly, psychopathology arises when a system of construction, the heuristics⁴³ on which we think and operate, chronically fails to characterize and/or predict events in real life and is not appropriately revised to comprehend and predict changes in the social world (which is what Existentialist Frenchman philosopher Sartre refers to as “good faith”). Given that Asian Americans have adopted the White Narcissist’s Prayer, is it any wonder that we experience rampant and chronic mental illness due to our perpetual state of denial to the objective reality of living in a society that empirically treats us as inferior beings, if not outright sextoys and chattel? According to the American Psychological Association⁴⁴:
“For Asian Americans, it isn’t just objective social status, but their perception of their social status in society—those who see it as low have higher rates of disorders,” says David Takeuchi, PhD, a principal investigator for NLAAS and a professor of sociology and social welfare and director of the Diversity Research Institute at the University of Washington.”
We also have this robust finding from Vickie Mays, professor of health policy and management at UCLA, demonstrating how discrimination can absolutely be harmful to your mental health⁴⁵:
“We now have decades of research showing that when people are chronically treated differently, unfairly or badly, it can have effects ranging from low self-esteem to a higher risk for developing stress-related disorders such as anxiety and depression,” says Vickie Mays.
And when the mental health of one person is affected, it can produce a domino effect extending beyond that individual. “We know that when people have a psychiatric disorder, it’s not good for any of us,” Mays says. “For example, it can affect parenting — a depressed mom might not be able to interact with her child in a way that best promotes that child’s development, leaving the child more vulnerable to certain behavioral disorders. In that sense, we all suffer from the effects of discrimination.
Gilbert Gee, professor in the Fielding school’s Department of Community Health Sciences, did a 2007 study to determine the extent to which Asian Americans who reported being the victims of discrimination were more vulnerable to developing clinically diagnosable mental disorders. Even after taking into account other potential causes of stress, Gee found a clear relationship between discrimination and increased risk of mental disorders.
More recently, Mays has collaborated on a study showing that experiencing significant amounts of discrimination over time can lead to changes in the way the brain processes information, disrupting, for example, the regions involved in planning and decision-making.
“When we’ve had these experiences and anticipate that other incidents might lead us to be discriminated against, it can interfere with our ability to cognitively function at our best,” Mays says.”
What then, can be done to address this rampant epidemic of “Asian mental illness”?
George Kelly’s fundamental view of human personality was that people are like naïve scientists who see the world through a particular lens, based on their own uniquely organized personal constructs, or heuristics, which they use to anticipate events. However, because the masses are naïve, they often employ heuristics for construing the world that are distorted by idiosyncratic or wrongly interpreted personal experiences, that are not applicable to the world at large or their own personal social situation (sound familiar? “I’ve never personally experienced anti-Asian racism, therefore it doesn’t exist!”). This is also the reason personal eyewitness testimony is no longer considered reliable in courts of law.
In order to solve for the Guilt and Anxiety that emerge as a result of operating on heuristics and motivations that are not aligned with Reality, we must chart a new path. We must be willing to adopt new systems of belief, that are better able to accommodate the actual material existence in which we are all embedded and live in. And we must provide a new set of Motivations, one that is able to grant a sense of Meaning to the whole enterprise of Asian American advancement, both personally and socially. We can no longer be naïve to White Supremacy/Racism. We must become enlightened. We must become avant-garde.
Our good friend Albert Camus was never able to actually make this last leap. Ultimately, in his frozen desire for intellectual self-preservation, Camus made a Choice, No Choice at All. Instead, he chooses to endlessly continue his Sisyphean quest to find a system of belief that requires no faith in axioms or First Principles, and which will definitively give him the answer to the meaning of Life, even though he knows no such definitive answer exists. This is typical of philosophers. Aristotle said much the same thing, positing that the ultimate teleology of Mankind was the acquisition of Knowledge. This is why Aristotle was the tutor, and his student was the Conqueror⁴⁶. We Asian Americans, as an oppressed people, would do better to heed the words of Marx in his 1845 Theses on Feuerbach: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”
In order for the Asian American community to band itself together materially, in the real world, in the spontaneous, self-organized way that leads to social revolution, and finally end racial discrimination, imperialism, and oppression, it first needs some damn Self-Awareness, and must be inculcated with Self-Discipline. Individual members of the community must be made aware that they all have a shared destiny and are currently under attack in every sphere of ordinary human existence with facts, figures and empirical evidence, and no, they do not get to opt out of the struggle. We are all brothers and sisters and comrades in a militant, centuries-long struggle against the erasure and holocaust of our collective existence — physical, mental, and spiritual — in the United States of America and globally.
To accomplish this aim, we may now consider the words of Simone de Beauvoir when referring to Frantz Fanon, the Black revolutionary psychiatrist, philosopher, and writer from the French colony of Martinique, who inspired both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. here in the States, and remains one of my greatest personal heroes:
“And once, when Sartre had made some comment, Fanon gave an explanation of his Egocentricity: a member of a colonized people must be constantly aware of his position, his image; he is being threatened from all sides; impossible to forget for an instant the need to keep up one’s defenses.”
In order to combat the debilitating and deleterious psychological influences of the global Euro-American superstructure, Asian Americans must learn to cultivate a real, healthy Ego, one that is not based in the narcissism of the White Man, but is rooted in our heritage, our culture, and our collective psychology as a militant resistance force against Injustice and Racist Genocide here on Earth, in the real, everyday world of human experience. This is the only way we will ever be able to cast off the shackles of Mental Colonization and become what we were meant to be: true, liberated, spirited Freethinkers, known in the modern parlance of Millennials/Gen Z as “Woke”⁴⁷. In light of this, allow me to offer up this humble proposal for a new catechism for Asian America, one that we can call the Proud Asian American’s Prayer:
- White Supremacy is real.
- White supremacy is real, and anti-Asian discrimination is bad.
- White supremacy is real, and anti-Asian discrimination is bad, and it’s a big deal compared to anybody.
- Anti-Asian discrimination is a big deal, and I take personal responsibility for changing it as my solemn Duty.
- Anti-Asian discrimination is a big deal, and I refuse to be complicit.
- Anti-Asian discrimination is a big deal, I refuse to be complicit, and recognize that our oppression IS NOT OUR FAULT IN ANY WAY.
Only when Yellow Peoples of the Earth, both individually and collectively, adopt this new Prayer, will we be able to bring forth a new wave of Consciousness and Social Action — a neo-Asian American Movement — one that will dash down upon the rocks all these bleached sepulchers of neoliberalism and zombie neoconservatism, and raise up the Shining Spirit of our People in Peace and Co-Prosperity. My fellow Asian Americans, dare to be avant-garde!
Henri Ducard: A vigilante is just a man lost in the scramble for his own gratification. He can be destroyed or locked up. But if you make yourself more than just a man, if you devote yourself to an ideal, and if they can’t stop you, then you become something else entirely.
Batman/Bruce Wayne: Which is?
Henri Ducard: A legend, Mr. Wayne
— Batman Begins (2005)
Examples of avant-garde movies: Sorry To Bother You, Get Out, Snowpiercer, Branded, Equilibrium, Dark City, The Matrix
Written by Albert Joon-Ho Hur
[Edited by J]
- I Am A Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstadter (2007)
- A Treatise of Human Nature by David Hume (1738)