Luther and Confucius at Work: The Convenience of Stereotypes

Words by Rui Sihombing

There’s a peculiar narrative of what lays behind the enduring stagnation of the European economy. You’ve probably heard some sort of variation of it, you might even believe it, and just for the sake of rhetoric allow me to present a stylised and exaggerated version of it. The diligent, productive industrial workhorses in Germany and the Netherlands have had to pull their weight and beyond to keep the engine of Europe running in the face of an unbearable burden. And what is that burden? Of course, the carefree Greeks and Spaniards having a party and/or siesta on the beach, sangrias and frappes paid for by the unfortunate German taxpayer. To (mis)use an ancient Greek analogy, you basically have the myth of Sisyphus, but substitute Sisyphus for Northern Europe and the boulder for Southern Europe. And don’t imagine Sisyphus happy (like Albert Camus suggested once), imagine him voting for Neo-Nazis instead. Actually, the boulder is also voting for Neo-Nazis.

The reason that I’m writing about this isn’t to discuss the actual reasons behind Europe’s economic woes. Rather, it’s because it presents perhaps the most familiar contemporary narrative of work-ethic stereotypes. The Germans work the longest hours in Europe and the Greeks work the shortest. Obvious, right? Except that it’s the other way around. The average Greek works 42.3 hours a week, in comparison to around 35.6 hours for Germany. Accounting for differences in employment rates and leave, Greeks still work far more hours than Germans. Now, we could go into issues of productivity, efficiency and whatnot, but that’s not the point here. The point is that Greeks, despite working the longest hours of any European country, are generally portrayed in discourse and media as lazy. Similar stereotypes have befallen other ethnic groups at different points in time. Let’s take the so-called industrious Germans, for example. Believe it or not, prior to the 20th century, Germans were usually disparaged by the British as lazy, dishonest, overemotional alcoholics. And it was for this reason, apparently, that Germany would never be as wealthy as Britain. Literally none of these are applied to Germans now, except maybe the alcoholic label. The idea that Germans were doomed to feudal backwardness due to their lack of work ethic sounds ridiculous today. As for the Japanese? Today we often think of the robot-like Tokyo salaryman working 70 hours a week until eventual karōshi (death by overwork). Yet even as recent as the early 20th century, the Japanese were depicted in the media as ignorant farmers who couldn’t even be trusted with punctuality, never mind operating a factory line. Likewise, a similar stereotype of peasant indolence fell upon the Koreans. And as such, it was believed that lazy old Asia would never become an industrial powerhouse.

Now, ethnic stereotyping itself is probably as old as the very first interactions between human societies. The Cretan philosopher Epimenides is supposed to have claimed that “all Cretans are liars”. But beyond these logical paradoxes by long-dead philosophers, it’s worth expanding on the manner in which cultural stereotypes act as a supposed explanation for the economic fortunes of certain states or peoples. Max Weber’s 1904 classic “The Protestant Work-Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” laid the successes of Northern European industrialisation in the much earlier Protestant Reformation of the dissident monk Martin Luther. The Protestant ethos of hard work, in Weber’s eyes, was especially conducive to capitalist growth. On the other hand, Western scholars also claimed that the economic development in Asia was being held back by Confucianism, which allegedly stifled entrepreneurial spirit by privileging philosophers and placing the merchant class at the bottom of the rigid class system. Then unexpectedly, post-WWII Japan and Korea industrialised at a rate unparalleled in human history. Suddenly Confucian values of hard work and saving were lauded as the secret behind Asian development successes. One dubious stereotype replaced with another. Today, it appears that Africa is the one mostly bearing the stereotype of lazy and uneducated peasants destined to perpetual underdevelopment. But we’ve heard this all before. As history has repeatedly shown, these views offer little more than a convenient and opportune generalisation, often to be discredited later.

Now of course it can seem that talk of the potential link between Luther & Confucius and 19–20thth century industrialisation matters little to the average Australian university student. But at least consider how stereotyping applies to job prospects for students coming from ethnic minority backgrounds. Studies conducted in the USA, Canada and Australia have all repeatedly demonstrated that job applicants with foreign-sounding names are constantly at a disadvantage compared to Anglo names with the exact same qualifications. This isn’t to say all hiring managers are white supremacists. If it were that explicit, it’d be a relatively easier issue to deal with. It’s the subconscious nature of foreign-name bias which makes it so difficult to combat. Stereotypes of cultural work ethic may have a grain of truth to it sometimes. Other times, they don’t. But at least keep in mind that whenever you engage in the sphere of work and employment, there’s probably a set of presumptions, conscious or subconscious, positive or negative, trailing right behind you.

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