The Corner

People Want to Know, cont’d

Strewth — 61 comments? I really wasn’t trying for the comment-thread gold there. You never know what will get people excited.

I’ll try to deal with some of the points raised by commenters.

Sloppy googling.  I’ll offer a qualified mea culpa here. The origin of the post was as follows. I was browsing the Daily Telegraph blog — reasonably enough, for an ex-Telegraph employee. I picked up Ed West’s post titled “Why is there no looting in Japan?” Ed’s post includes, at the end of the second paragraph, a link. I clicked on the link. It brought up the Google query on “why no looting japan” with the sensational number of hits I recorded. I thought: “Wow, that’s interesting. I’ll post it to The Corner.” I did so. Then I went and did something else. This is a group blog, not the Proceedings of the Royal Society. You don’t necessarily get an hour’s worth of research behind every single post; though you do get diligent follow-ups like this one if we’re not out of town, or busy with editorial chores, or incapably drunk.

It is true that a more incoherent Google query will bring up a similarly large number of results. (Who knew there were so many Japanese restaurants in Tooting?) The Google search engine isn’t that dumb, though, and will make as much sense of a query as it can. The results from those incoherent queries pertain to no common theme, and they are smeared over a long time period. Ed West’s query, on the other hand, delivers page upon page upon page of people who in the past few days have been asking why there’s no looting in Japan, as opposed to a ten-year mess of soccer reports (there is apparently a trophy called the Golden Boot), computer reviews (slow booting), and occurrences of the idiom “to boot.” Plainly the fact implied by my subject line is a true fact.

Some of the Google results are from crazy people.  Well, that’s the Internet for you. The majority of the results are not from crazy people. They are from sane people like Ed West and me who are curious about the issue. “An idea is not responsible for the people who hold it,” and a Google query is not responsible for all the psyches behind the results it returns.

It’s callous to use such a terrible calamity as a launch pad for sociological explanation.  I just don’t agree. As it happens, I have been working through the Teaching Company’s Neuroscience of Everyday Life course. A great deal of our foundational knowledge in neuroscience comes from studying brain-damaged people. If this part of the brain is damaged or missing, and the patient exhibits this odd symptom, then we have a clue as to what this part of the brain does. Yet every such case of damaged brain represents a personal tragedy of some degree — perhaps a high degree. Should we then forgo the knowledge derived therefrom? Who would say so? None of those suffering in Japan are suffering any more as a consequence of our curiosity, and by pondering the lack of looting, we might end up wiser than before, to the advantage of all.

‘Why is there no looting in Japan?’ is a Bad Thought which only a Bad Person would have.  I cannot find words to express how much I detest, despise, and contemn the mentality behind such comments. At best it is obscurantist; at worst, it is totalitarian. In both cases it is puerile.

I might grudgingly admit that the category “bad thoughts” is nonempty. If I think about robbing a bank, for example, or committing an assault, those could fairly be described as bad thoughts. I’m not sure I ever have thought about robbing a bank, but I have certainly contemplated committing assault many, many times. However, I have never actually followed through and committed an assault; and I assume the same is true of the great majority of my fellow men. The ratio of occurrences of this particular bad thought to actual instance of assault must be millions to one. The badness of the thought therefore seems to me an extremely diluted and inconsequential kind of badness.

And such thoughts are intentional thoughts. I don’t see how you can claim even that minute degree of badness for thoughts that are merely interrogative. “Why is there no looting in Japan?” does not strike me as a bad thought at all, just healthy curiosity about human affairs. It seems to me a strange — and, to be frank, pernicious and loathsome — kind of mentality that sees badness in mere curiosity.

There are some other comments along related lines, such as that I am cowardly for posing the question without offering any suggestions as to the answer. On that point, see below, where I submit my own not-very-astounding opinion.

John Derbyshire is a Bad Person.  Well, we should never be smug about our moral net worth, and it’s a ticklish thing to judge one’s own case. I do think, though, that commenters who think I am a Bad Person ought to be a bit more specific. In what way am I a Bad Person? I work hard, pay my taxes, and observe the speed limits. I am loyal to my friends and faithful to my wife. I nurture my children and try to guide them to good citizenship. I strive to practice good manners and consideration when dealing with strangers. I do not covet my neighbor’s ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is my neighbor’s. In what respect am I a Bad Person? This is not a rhetorical question.

* * * * *

OK, why is there no looting in Japan? Let’s try some candidate explanations.#more#

Racial or ethnic homogeneity.  No, that can’t be it. Haiti is racially and ethnically homogeneous, yet there was looting a-plenty after their earthquake. It might be the case that homogeneity is a necessary condition for the exceptional good order we see in Japan, but plainly it’s not a sufficient one.

I think it probably is necessary. Evidence is not hard to find: see here, for example. Homogeneity is still not sufficient, though. I grew up among working-class English people who were perfectly racially and ethnically homogeneous. We thought people from the next county were exotic. Yet some of my co-ethnics sometimes behaved very badly, and would certainly have looted their neighbors in the aftermath of an earthquake.

The Japanese are a smart people. Smart people don’t loot.  Like any other large population, Japan’s contains people at all levels of intelligence. Defining “not smart” to mean “IQ of 90 or below,” a mean national IQ of 105 implies that 16 percent of Japanese are not smart. That’s around 20 million — several tens of thousands in the afflicted areas. Why aren’t they looting?

Why, in any case, would we assume that smart people don’t loot? Very smart people have done very wicked things. Leopold and Loeb were pretty smart. Joe Goebbels had a Ph.D. (literature), in a time and place when only the smartest of the smart got one. If smart people will commit murder and help organize mass murder, why should we think looting is beneath them?

It’s their culture.  I get mighty irritated by people who trot this out in response to some question about human behavior. It is epistemically empty — a tautology, in fact — a knee-jerk cant response with no mental processes behind it. “Culture” neans “how people customarily behave.” If I ask you why these people are behaving like this and you reply: “It’s their culture,” your reply is equivalent to: “They behave like this because this is how they customarily behave.” Oh. Thanks.

The Japanese are highly civilized people who don’t behave badly.  Obviously false: Rape of Nanking, Bataan Death March, anti-Korean pogroms, etc., etc., etc. Try this one on Mrs D. My wife’s late father was born 1933 in Manchuria. His older brother was conscripted by the occupying Japanese into a forced-labor brigade. The family never saw him again.

All right, they can be beastly to non-Japanese, but they don’t behave badly towards each other.  A quick scan of Japanese history refutes this. The chronicles are replete with civil wars fought with utmost ferocity, as well as much status-based cruelty. The story of the samurai testing out a new sword by decapitating a random passing peasant is well known. I don’t know if it’s true, but it fits quite well with what I know of pre-modern Japanese social arrangements. Japanese politics was exceptionally brutish well within living memory.

My own best guess at an answer would be something like this.

Population genetics, as it affects those parts of the nervous system involved in social behavior, together with geography and a long common history, predisposed the Japanese to strong ethnonationalism and social stability in a well-organized and well-supervised hierarchical order. Under premodern conditions this did not preclude intracommunal violence under codes widely understood and enforced; but in the affluent post-WW2 world, with good standards of health and education, and under imposed consensual government following certain highly salutary experiences, these old factors directed the Japanese to an exceptionally high level of nonviolent social cohesion and intense but benign racial-national consciousness.

All right, reading that through I see it’s only a tad more explanatory than “It’s their culture,” but at least it offers some clues for further inquiry. Can anyone do better?


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