America’s Cultural Revolution- The Obsession with Self Esteem

Apr 19, 2018 by

Or Alternatively- The Talk-儿子, 一个男子汉要能吃苦.Yan Shen


Mad World

An increasingly common cliché these days is that America is mired in the midst of its own Cultural Revolution. One of the most fascinatingly telling incidents to this effect occurred in a library at the University of Washington around January 2017, shortly after Trump had delivered his inauguration speech.[1] Various protestors stormed what was supposed to be a quiet place of study, loudly chanting over and over again, “Who’s got the power? We’ve got the power.”

What happened next has become the stuff of internet legend. As the Social Justice Jihadis became increasingly more disruptive, they were suddenly confronted by a bespectacled gentleman most likely of Chinese or Korean descent, who authoritatively declared, “Hey, hey, hey, hey. This is library.” A somewhat uncomfortable silence ensued and thus one of the clearest dispensations of 21st century Confucian wisdom came to pass. Although the incident was undoubtedly a source of amusement to many, to me the surreal confrontation highlighted not only just how deeply rotten modern day American culture had become, but also the clear extent to which East Asian and non-East Asian cultural values had diverged in the 21st century.

A recent article by Wesley Yang derided the fact that in contemporary American society “therapeutic concepts of harm have metastasized to encompass what we all once understood to be the unavoidable vicissitudes of daily life.”[2] His discussion focused on the increasing sensitivity of millennials, in particular highlighting the fault line separating minorities from whites. In my opinion, equating the problem with the political left misses the heart of the matter entirely. Left-wing political correctness is merely a symptom of the more insidious underlying disease, which as Amy Chua alluded to in her now infamous essay Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior, is the American obsession with self-esteem.[3] In its current form this obsession has become rather unproductive and self-defeating and it certainly transcends political and ideological boundaries.

Dunning-Kruger and the East Asian Exception

That Americans tend to seek positive feelings of self-worth is a well-known fact that extends beyond Tiger Mother style anecdotes. For instance, the famous Dunning-Kruger effect typically shows that less competent individuals have a tendency to overrate their actual ability more so relative to more competent individuals. East Asians though are a clear exception to the Dunning-Kruger phenomenon as observed.

Regardless of how pervasive the phenomenon is, it is clear from Dunning’s and others’ work that many Americans, at least sometimes and under some conditions, have a tendency to inflate their worth. It is interesting, therefore, to see the phenomenon’s mirror opposite in another culture. In research comparing North American and East Asian self-assessments, Heine of the University of British Columbia finds that East Asians tend to underestimate their abilities, with an aim toward improving the self and getting along with others.

There are cultural, social and individual motives behind these tendencies, Heine and colleagues observe in a paper in the October 1999 Psychological Review (Vol. 106, No. 4). “As Western society becomes more individualistic, a successful life has come to be equated with having high self-esteem,” Heine says. “Inflating one’s sense of self creates positive emotions and feelings of self-efficacy, but the downside is that people don’t really like self-enhancers very much.”

Conversely, East Asians’ self-improving or self-critical stance helps them maintain their “face,” or reputation, and as a result, their interpersonal network. But the cost is they don’t feel as good about themselves, he says. Because people in these cultures have different motivations, they make very different choices, Heine adds. If Americans perceive they’re not doing well at something, they’ll look for something else to do instead. “If you’re bad at volleyball, well fine, you won’t play volleyball,” as Heine puts it. East Asians, though, view a poor performance as an invitation to try harder.”[4]

The systematic tendency of East Asians to underestimate their own abilities and engage in self-criticism may indeed be part of a constellation of unique cultural traits. For instance, this kind of cultural grit also seems to align closely with observations made by others that observed East Asian IQ generally tends to have little correlation with SES, perhaps due to robustness against environmental deprivation arising from centuries of Malthusian selection.[5] This resilience against negative environmental influences also probably explains why by and large the parasitic memes of left-wing post-modernist insanity which have seemingly hijacked the minds of numerous black, white, and Hispanic Americans alike are absent amongst people of East Asian descent.

Given that non-East Asians are especially vulnerable to the dangers of bad influences, it might not be unreasonable to assume that whites suffer from the negative consequences of multiculturalism far more than East Asians might under similar circumstances. For instance, during the 2011 London Riots historian David Starkey infamously got himself into trouble for suggesting that part of the reason for the chaos in the UK was that “the whites had become black.”[6] Somewhat amusingly, Thomas Sowell has long argued that the self-destructive attitudes of blacks in the antebellum South were largely the result of their absorbing the habits and values of white Southern crackers who had immigrated from the “northern borderlands of England- for centuries a no man’s land between Scotland and England- as well as from the Scottish highlands and from Ulster County, Ireland” before the Anglicization of those places had advanced very far by the 19th century.[7] If one were to take Sowell’s thesis seriously, the fact that contemporary lower-class whites around the world are increasingly absorbing the self-destructive values of blacks surely must be considered karmic justice!

East Asian Sufferance

In part because of their own cultural resilience, East Asians are often marginalized in American society and rendered invisible. For instance, it’s long been known that Asian Americans are discriminated against in the context of elite college admissions, bearing the brunt of the sacrifice required to create affirmative action spots for blacks and Hispanics in this country. Yet discussions of affirmative action in the mainstream media oftentimes render Asian Americans entirely invisible, obliviously treating the matter as though it were white conservatives on the one hand versus blacks and Hispanics on the other, the issue of contention being the discrimination against whites in favor of minorities in this country.

If you don’t believe me, just look at when the Department of Justice recently decided to reexamine a prior 2015 federal complaint levied against Harvard by 64 Asian American groups. Numerous mainstream organizations such as the New York Times initially referred to the investigation as one by the Trump administration into possible discrimination by colleges against white applicants.[8] Even when the correct reporting of the facts began to surface later on, we were still subjected to the typical blathering accusing the Trump administration of being disingenuous by feigning interest in the well-being of Asian Americans and proclaiming that Asians shouldn’t allow themselves to be used as tools by white conservatives in advancing their right-wing agenda.[9] The fact that 64 different Asian American groups had filed a complaint against Harvard seemingly eluded everyone. One generally got the impression that Asian Americans were a group deprived of any real agency, instead being merely hapless pawns in the Game of Thrones pitting whites on the one hand against blacks and Hispanics on the other.

Another insidious example of the tendency to marginalize Asian Americans has been the rather curious phenomenon as of late of simply pretending that they aren’t even Asian at all. For instance, we constantly hear the mainstream media bemoaning the fact that Silicon Valley lacks diversity and is too white and male.[10] Yet this conveniently ignores the fact that whites are actually underrepresented overall at many of the Bay Area’s most elite firms relative to their percentage amongst the general population. On the other hand, Asian Americans generally tend to be overrepresented, a fact which I alluded to in my previous article.[11]

Asian Americans are vastly overrepresented in tech roles at Uber, while whites are underrepresented along with blacks and Hispanics.
Asian Americans are vastly overrepresented in tech roles at Uber, while whites are underrepresented along with blacks and Hispanics.[11]

Since by any reasonable definition of the terms Asian, minority, or people of color, Asian Americans surely qualify as being all three, the fact that somehow in our current national lexicon they qualify as none of those categories truly boggles the mind. Indeed, despite suggestions by scholars such as Richard Nesbitt that compared to East Asians, Westerners have a tendency towards more logical as opposed to holistic thinking and are thus less willing to tolerate contradiction, the blatant disregard for the first Aristotelian law of thought, namely the principle of identity that Asian = Asian, seems to mirror more the dialectical principal of change attributed to the belief systems of East Asians, which asserts that “reality is a process that is not static but dynamic and changeable. A thing need not be identical with itself at all because of the fluid nature of reality.”[12]

The Erosion of Meritocracy

The obsession with self-esteem and the fundamental lack of what might be described as a self-critical orientation is hardly the sole province of those on the left. Indeed, the well-established phenomenon of Asian bashing often seems to transcend many of the ideological fault lines otherwise dividing white Americans in this country.

One of the more disappointing revelations in my opinion has been the extraordinary ambivalence of many right-wing whites towards clear anti-Asian discrimination in this country. On various alt-right blogs where themes such as race realism and affirmative action are often discussed, when it comes to the issue of Asian Americans and meritocracy, many right-wing whites seemingly abandon their principles whole. Thus, while these individuals formerly denounced discrimination against whites in favor of blacks and Hispanics, we all of a sudden hear that Asian American academic success is merely the result of cheating and gaming the system. Some also suggest that colleges should take into consideration non-academic factors such as maintaining a certain campus culture or favoring those who might be more likely to donate to the school as alumni.

The fluidity with which white Americans commit to the principle of meritocracy certainly transcends mere personal anecdote. For instance, University of Miami assistant professor of sociology Frank L. Samson discovered that “in a survey of white California adults, they generally favor admissions policies that place a high priority on high school grade-point averages and standardized test scores. But when these white people are focused on the success of Asian-American students, their views change.” He describes the methodology where “the white adults in the survey were also divided into two groups. Half were simply asked to assign the importance they thought various criteria should have in the admissions system of the University of California. The other half received a different prompt, one that noted that Asian Americans make up more than twice as many undergraduates proportionally in the UC system as they do in the population of the state. When informed of that fact, the white adults favor a reduced role for grade and test scores in admissions — apparently based on high achievement levels by Asian-American applicants. When asked about leadership as an admissions criterion, white ranking of the measure went up in importance when respondents were informed of the Asian success in University of California admissions. Professor Samson concludes that “the results here suggest that the importance of meritocratic criteria for whites varies depending upon certain circumstances. To wit, white Californians do not hold a principled commitment to a fixed standard of merit.”[13]

These sorts of results are indeed rather troubling, but in light of other empirical realities such as Dunning-Kruger, perhaps shouldn’t be entirely surprising. Alas, one of the more curious observations has been the eerie extent to which many of the memes and complaints voiced by right-wing whites against those of East Asian descent mirror the numerous ways in which blacks and Hispanics have historically complained about whites.

For instance, a recent Atlantic article referenced a study done on black, Hispanic and white parents in NYC public schools in determining their attitudes towards gifted and talented programs. The article pointed out that black and Hispanic parents were more interested in making sure their child had access to a diverse school than they were in gaming the system in order to gain admissions into gifted and talented programs. Furthermore, the article noted that, “while the black and Hispanic parents Roda interviewed had their children tested for gifted, none reported paying for tutors or otherwise preparing children for the test. For them, having to practice for the test meant your child wasn’t really gifted.”[14] If this sounds almost identical to what numerous right-wing whites have been arguing ad-nauseum about East Asians, you’re almost certainly not alone in feeling this way. Personally, I did a double take just to make sure I wasn’t reading the comments section of a white nationalist blog.

The Efficacy of Test Prep and Shifting Asian American Demographics

I wanted to briefly touch upon the issue of test prep, specifically focusing on the SAT. Although the SAT has undergone various sorts of changes over the past couple of decades, most recently in 2016, historically the test has been considered to be fairly g-loaded and relatively non-amenable to extensive prep, thus contradicting many of the assertions we otherwise hear. Back in 2003, Frey and Detterman observed a correlation of about 0.82 between SAT scores and g based on analysis of historical data.[15] Furthermore, studies have generally tended to cast doubt on the efficacy of commercial test prep in terms of significantly boosting SAT scores on average.

Data from the Bell Curve suggests rapidly diminishing returns to prep on the SAT, although the math section does appear to be more amenable to improvement than the verbal.
Data from the Bell Curve[17] suggests rapidly diminishing returns to prep on the SAT, although the math section does appear to be more amenable to improvement than the verbal.

For instance, after accounting for potential self-selection biases by randomly assigning students to control and treatment groups, “the effect of commercial test preparation has appeared relatively small. A comprehensive 1999 study by Don Powers and Don Rock published in the Journal of Educational Measurement estimated a coaching effect on the math section somewhere between 13 and 18 points, and an effect on the verbal section between 6 and 12 points. Powers and Rock concluded that the combined effect of coaching on the SAT I is between 21 and 34 points. Similarly, extensive metanalyses conducted by Betsy Jane Becker in 1990 and by Nan Laird in 1983 found that the typical effect of commercial preparatory courses on the SAT was in the range of 9-25 points on the verbal section, and 15-25 points on the math section.”[16] The Bell Curve also cited earlier data in showing that there were rapidly diminishing returns to extensive prep for both the SAT-M and SAT-V, although similar to the later studies the math section did appear to be more amenable to improvement than the verbal.[17]

One point of contention raised in certain circles has been the rapid rise of Asian American SAT scores in the past 10-15 years. Some took this to be suggestive of the fact that Asian Americans, bolstered by the rise of Tiger Mothers, had somehow found a way to crack the system and thus had ruined everything for everyone else.

Data[18] shows that Asian Americans have made rapid gains over the past 10 years on the SAT relative to other ethnic groups. Nonetheless, Asian American scores reflect a clear math/verbal split.

Although on the one hand Asian American SAT scores in 2015 reflected the same underlying math/verbal split as has been indicated by the psychometric literature for decades, on the other hand Asian American scores had increased by 54 points total between 2006 to 2015, while scores for every other ethnic group had dropped slightly. In particular, the delta between whites and Asians on average had increased by 60 points over this time period.[18]

Is this necessarily prima facie evidence that something is amiss with Asian American scores? I’m not convinced. Although my purpose here is hardly to get to the bottom of the matter, allow me to suggest that the increase in Asian American SAT scores over the past decade could simply have been a reflection of the shifting demographics of recent Asian American high school cohorts. As Pew numbers show, the Asian American population has grown rapidly from around 11.8 million in 2000 to around 20.5 million in 2015, an increase of almost 73%.[19] Surely much of this increase has been due to self-selected immigration. By contrast, the non-Hispanic white population grew from around 194 million to 198 million over the same time period, an increase of only about 2%.

It’s also well known that the aggregate Asian American category lumps together various groups such as East Asians, South Asians, Southeast Asians, and Pacific Islanders. Presumably the former two groups generally tend to outperform the latter two academically. One piece of evidence for this, apart from adhering to the assumptions underlying HBD, lies in the results of the California Achievement Test. Data from the blog shows that Chinese and Korean Americans outperformed Cambodian and Laotian Americans by about 1 SD over the years 2003-2008 on the CAT.[20]

Data from the blog showing performance of Asian ethnic groups on the CAT over a period of 5 years. Scores are expressed in terms of standard deviations relative to the white score, with a negative D value indicating that the group scored higher than the reference white population.
Data from the blog[20] showing performance of Asian ethnic groups on the CAT over a period of 5 years. Scores are expressed in terms of standard deviations relative to the white score, with a negative D value indicating that the group scored higher than the reference white population.

These differences likely carry over to the SAT as well. In fact, one of the most consistent features of Asian American SAT scores over recent years has been the higher SD across all sections compared to that of other ethnic groups. While the SD for white Americans has typically been around 100-105 on each section, the corresponding SD for Asian Americans has usually been around 120-125. This seems to suggest that Asian American scores are more bimodal and reflect perhaps the differential performances of the disparate underlying ethnic groups.[21]

Data from the College Board showing SAT scores by race for the year 2015. Asian American SAT scores have typically had a SD 20% or so higher than that of white Americans, most likely a reflection of the multi-racial nature of the aggregate Asian category.
Data from the College Board[21] showing SAT scores by race for the year 2015. Asian American SAT scores have typically had a SD 20% or so higher than that of white Americans, most likely a reflection of the multi-racial nature of the aggregate Asian category.

My hypothesis is that the Asian American SAT pool has gotten more elite over the past 10-15 years, in addition to shifting a higher composition of Chinese and Indians percentage wise. These two groups accounted for almost 48% of the 73% increase in the Asian American population from 2000 to 2015. Indian Americans went from being about 16% of all Asian Americans in 2000 to about 19.4% in 2015, while Chinese Americans were about 24% in both time periods. Assuming differential age distributions among the various Asian ethnicities, it’s certainly possible that the relevant Asian American high school cohort and by extension the Asian American SAT test taking pool has become even more Chinese and Indian today compared to what it was at the start of the century.

Pew data shows that the Asian American population has risen by 73% from 2000 to 2015. Over 48% of this increase came from Chinese and Indian Americans, traditionally two of the highest performing Asian ethnicities in America.
Pew data[19] shows that the Asian American population has risen by 73% from 2000 to 2015. Over 48% of this increase came from Chinese and Indian Americans, traditionally two of the highest performing Asian ethnicities in America.

Furthermore, recent Asian American high school cohorts themselves may have become more elite due to immigration trends, a speculation which certainly has ground-level anecdotal support. For instance, a now infamous 2005 Wall Street article detailing the phenomenon of white flight from Monta Vista High in Cupertino and nearby Lynbrook High in San Jose attributed part of the demographic and cultural changes sweeping the two schools to the arrival of recent Asian immigrants.[22] Similarly, a New York Times article described how a recent influx of Chinese, Indian, and Korean immigrants to the elite West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional School District in New Jersey had caused tensions to surface between Asian and white parents there over the competitive focus of these schools. In particular, Asian Americans went from being around 44% of the school district in 2007 to over 65% by 2015.[23] Numerous other examples abound.

That Asian American SAT scores have been rising along with the increasing Asian presence at many of America’s elite STEM oriented high schools suggests that the latter may in part explain the former, although admittedly it’s hardly conclusive causal evidence. At any rate, those who suggest that Asian American SAT scores have somehow become compromised should surely at a minimum offer up more than mere repeated assertion.


The fact that America is currently mired in the midst of a modern day Cultural Revolution is surely undeniable, its effects far reaching and pernicious. Many people attribute the problem to the increasing mental fragility of our political left, and the issue is often framed along the lines of the white and non-white divide. I argued that this a fatally flawed conception. Right-wing whites, ostensibly stalwarts against such burgeoning insanity, often exhibit the same fragility as do Social Justice Jihadis and trot out at least some of the same memes. This is a cultural deficit that transcends political and ideological boundaries.

Self-esteem divorced from actual achievement is hardly a virtue. When it corrupts the capacity to seek fault with oneself first rather than reflexively find it in others, it becomes an absolute vice. Societies are at their most productive when their modus operandi is both fair and transparent. If the desire for feel-good self-esteem erodes our fundamental sense of fair play, what results in a highly multi-ethnic society such as America is the decline of meritocracy and a reversion to the most atavistic forms of tribal conflict. The increasingly toxic nature of American politics surely serves as a clear testament to this fact. Black, Hispanic, and white Americans are increasingly tearing each other apart in the public domain and by extension are eroding the very fabric of American society.

Take for the instance the tech industry, where I’ve worked for the past few years, albeit as a non-engineer. I’ve had to attend mandatory diversity training sessions, where I was taught about how to interrupt my unconscious biases and check my privilege. I also learned about how teams inevitably function better if they’re not composed entirely of white males. I suppose given the huge degree of overrepresentation of Chinese and Indian males among many of Silicon Valley’s leading tech companies, that statement seemed to me to be rather obvious. Most likely though, this wasn’t what the person leading the diversity training had in mind. Contrast all of that to the recent observations of Michael Moritz of Sequoia Capital, who pointed out the following differences between American and Chinese tech culture.

“In California, the blogosphere has been full of chatter about the inequity of life. Some of this, especially for women, is true and for certain individuals their day of reckoning has been long overdue. But many of the soul-sapping discussions seem like unwarranted distractions. In recent months, there have been complaints about the political sensibilities of speakers invited to address a corporate audience; debates over the appropriate length of paternity leave or work-life balances; and grumbling about the need for a space for musical jam sessions. These seem like the concerns of a society that is becoming unhinged.

These topics are absent in China’s technology companies, where the pace of work is furious. Here, top managers show up for work at about 8am and frequently don’t leave until 10pm. Most of them will do this six days a week — and there are plenty of examples of people who do this for seven. Engineers have slightly different habits: they will appear about 10am and leave at midnight. Beyond the week-long breaks for Chinese New Year and the October national holiday, most will just steal an additional handful of vacation days. Some technology companies also provide a rental subsidy to employees who choose to live close to corporate HQ.”[24]

Since Americans have become increasingly preoccupied with the rise of China and the competitive threat that it poses, it might behoove us to heed the words of someone like Mr. Moritz. Alas, the initial flurry of reactions to the Financial Times piece was almost entirely negative. I hold out hope though that attitudes can perhaps change over time in this country. Although many people generally tend to focus on the economic or scientific aspects of China’s rise, one of the more under-appreciated aspects in my opinion is the ability for China to project its Confucian ethos and to serve as a paragon for others around the globe. One interesting example of this has been the trend in the UK recently of adopting the so-called mastery approach of mathematics teaching typically utilized in China and other East Asian countries[25]. In light of the superior performance of East Asian nations on international assessments of mathematics such as PISA and TIMSS, the UK has both sent teachers to and had teachers come from China in the hopes of learning pedagogical techniques for boosting the math scores of British students as well. These are the kinds of productive cultural exchanges that I hope can continue in the future.

The Talk

America has simultaneously been blessed and cursed by its high degree of racial diversity. As toxic self-esteem has increasingly eroded race relations in this country, along with our belief in meritocracy, we all need to take a moment to reflect on our increasingly destructive cultural mores. One group in particular, in my opinion, stands out as a clear exception to the madness we currently find ourselves in. The cultural grit epitomized by those of East Asian descent seems to me to be the only way forward for us as Americans. The alternative is to resign ourselves to the unprincipled free-for-all that this country seems to be devolving more and more into with each passing day, with all of its attendant mean-spirited hostilities and unbridled out-group bashing. Alas, I hold out hope that this isn’t to be our inevitable fate.

Since the struggles of life have long prompted soul-searching and led parents of all sorts to have candid heart to heart talks with their children, I’m also led to recall the various bits of wisdom that my own mother imparted to me when I young. Similar to the talk that many black mothers today have with their sons or the talk that John Derbyshire has had with his own children as well[26], there is also an East Asian version of the talk as embodied by what my mother often told me growing up. I think this could serve as sound advice for all Americans irrespective of gender, race, or creed.

Source: America’s Cultural Revolution- The Obsession with Self Esteem, by Yan Shen – The Unz Review

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