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The Hazards of Cross-Cultural Red Teaming

Are members of all cultures equally good at intuitive red teaming? Though his words might sound stilted and “politically incorrect” to our sensitive 2017 ears, F. S. C. Northrop, writing in 1946, suggests that the answer is “no.” He begins by arguing that the “ideographic symbolism” of the Chinese language yields a “superlative degree of fluidity, a capacity to convey the unique particularity, nuance, and precisely refined richness of the specific, individual experience which probably no other mature language in the world today achieves.”1 This, he suggests, generates within “the Chinese psychology” an exceptional ability to identify with other cultures: “It is doubtful,” he says, “if any other people have such capacity as have the Chinese, having visited, lived with, and immediately experience the culture and psychological reactions of another people, to put themselves in the intuitive standpoint of that people.”2 He cites examples of Chinese students living in France and the United States, who exhibit a remarkable ability to absorb the cultural perspectives and habits of their host countries. He attributes this ability not just to the fluidity of the Chinese language but also to the “ancient philosophical and religious intuitions” of the Chinese culture.3 Further, he warns that “Unless we of the Occident find in our own immediate experience the factors to which their remarkably denotative philosophical and religious terminology refers, we can never hope, regardless of our information, or our observation, to understand either the Chinese or any other Oriental people.”4
           Ames and Hall underscore Northrop’s final point when they highlight the Western tendency to apply rational, causal thinking to Eastern cultures. This “transcendental pretense,” as they call it, is based on the largely transparent Western bias that such thinking—to include normative standards of probability and risk—transcends cultural boundaries.5 This should not only serve as a caution to red teamers who embrace these Western modes of thinking as universal, it should stand as a particular warning to red teamers who engage in cross-cultural red teaming.

  1. F. S. C. Northrop, The Meeting of East and West, p. 318 []
  2. Ibid., p. 318. []
  3. Ibid., p. 319. []
  4. Ibid., p. 319. []
  5. See David L. Hall and Roger T. Ames, Anticipating China: Thinking through the Narratives of Chinese and Western Culture, 1995, p. 12. The note on risk a probability is my own extrapolation. []