Saturday, April 15, 2006

What is this thing, "The West" that you keep talking about?

This was a question I posed on a listserve of Muslim academics last month. The person to whom I had addressed this question wrote a long email, an ode of sorts, to all the wonderful things that she claimed were exclusively synonymous with "western civilization".

She said that "western civilization" was defined by "a set of ideals developed in the post-enlightenment period", including: "a personal rights based system of order", "human rights", "citizenship", "individual expression", "creativity", "sense of security in tolerating critiques", "tolerance of racial and religious diversity" and "freedom".

She also added that she believed she owed "the wonderful things in her own life", "her education", and "her ability to critique", to "western civilization".

Quite a phenomenal list. Below is my [slightly edited] response to her, written from my position as a Muslim, a woman, and a person of colour, also living in what is called, "the west".


The way I work through things is basically I take them apart and look at them and ask the question, "what does this have to do with the price of flour?"

Let me just break down briefly my problems with your definition.

I flat out don't believe that there is this thing that can be termed, "western civilization" that exists as a self-contained entity. All the things you mention did not pop-up in Europe without the deepest engagement in the material realities, and the literature and theories of non-European [I mean this just geographically] cultures and histories.

You are describing something that never actually existed, except as an imaginary. The reality is that cultures and languages and ideas etc., all emerge from the smelly soup that comes out of people sharing a planet together. And no one "civilization" has a right to claim exclusive title to these things.

As well, all the things you list as characteristics of "western civilization" are not absolutes. In fact all of it contains huge contradictions and tensions. And this fantasy of a "western civilization" that invented human rights, and dissent, democracy, critique, blah blah blah, is riddled with the much uglier reality of inequality, racism, fascism, slavery, patriarchy, blah blah blah, that is intimately embedded in the former.

Now I am not saying that we should be critics for the sake of just being annoying, or griping. I mean that the foundational LIE of the "West" having a superior "civilization" is the critical myth that enables so much of the injustice in the world we live in to go on. And that lie MUST be broken down and exposed.

This is not "west bashing". Absolutely, we should engage with all the ideals of justice from every source that they come from. Let us not, though, reify the delusion that one side is unblemished, and the other monstrous. Neither of which is true.

For example, I identify as a feminist and have worked in the women's movement in various capacities. I am also passionately committed to democracy and the power of enfranchising all people in the process of working towards a more just and more empowered world. And yes, the suffragists of the first wave of the feminist movement in the "west", pioneered the cause for women's voting rights.
Cool. They rocked. Woo hoo. Indeed.

However, I never will forget, nor will I allow to be sidelined, the fact that these white women were on the whole organizing against women of colour and men of colour. Their arguments for the enfranchisement of white women were made explicitly as a way to hold at bay the "threat" posed by communities of colour, to the economic power of their "race".

Both of these facts are true, and both have to be taken as part of the history of the women's movement.

This doesn't mean that I now think that voting should be rejected as it is only a stupid idea envisioned by bored rich white women, nor do I think that those women should be uncritically hailed as being my foremothers in the struggle.

What I do recognise is that the fact that I now, in my brown body, can vote in Canada and even run for MP, is directly linked to a huge history that involves many many different forces, that contain both the praiseworthy and the hideous.

A short list of which is:

- the initial dispossession of the First Nation's people and the genocide against them,

- the colonial occupation of this land,

- the wars of nationalism and greed between the British and French occupiers of this land who also were fleeing persecution and famine,

- the creation of a limited democracy, with rights only for the wealthy, the white, and the male, but that nevertheless seemed to think it was based on equality for all [go figure],

- the building of an economic structure that ensured prosperity through the reliance on an unequal system of the distribution of wealth and of the powers of global capital

- a racist history of immigration policies,

- and a varied history of social movements that fought bitterly and in complex and conflicted ways to include more people into the body of the "nation".

Am I happy that I can vote and stand for election in Canada? Absolutely.

But I think I owe that, and my education, and my other material and intrinsic privileges, not to some mythical fantasy of a superior civilization, [and by implication its charity towards me], but to a complex history of pitched battles in which those who were left out of the myth have, and continue, to fight to be let in. And to ideals and ideas that have emerged from the process of people far away from one another, and yet in dialogue with eachother, continuing to think and write, and speak and fight for a world in which there would be more justice than they saw around them in their lives.

I like to think of that as the human civilization.


10 comment(s):

  • you spelt color wrong - in The West we spell color

    C O L O R ---- there is no "U" ...

    By Blogger redwood, at 4/15/2006 04:55:00 PM  

  • spelling is correct "colour" in English but correct "color" in American.
    Just to be pedantic.

    By Blogger Lexcen, at 4/15/2006 08:08:00 PM  

  • You're freedom to think for yourself and express your ideas is an intrinsic quality of that "Western Civilization" you claim does not exist.

    By Blogger Lexcen, at 4/15/2006 08:11:00 PM  

  • I think the idea that there is free speech in the West is twaddle. Try going into a local pub in Yorkshire, where I live, and suggest the following:

    Persistent thieves should have their hands amputated;
    Gays should be executed;
    Adultery should be a criminal offence;
    Polygamy is fine, providing men are wealthy enough to keep more than one wife;
    Men are above woman, because only they are obliged to fight in war;
    A good wife consents to sex providing she is not ill or mentstruating;
    A man should give his wife all his wages to keep the family and house, and she can keep whatever money she earns for herself;

    How far down the list do you think you'd get before you'd be either beaten up or thrown out?



    By Blogger Julaybib, at 4/16/2006 03:22:00 AM  

  • I always find it interesting how someone can read something, come to the end of the argument and respond in ways that reveal they have understood absolutely nothing of what they read.

    By Blogger itrath, at 4/16/2006 10:55:00 AM  

  • In trying to establish parameters of discourse more in keeping with the real world, always assume problematized parameters will be ignored by those with entrenched positions. Solution - if possible, argue humane position on their home ground!



    By Blogger Julaybib, at 4/16/2006 01:53:00 PM  

  • fab. just a quick nod to Said and his powerful body of work that helps to demystify "the West" and show how this imaginary always exists in relationship to the imaginary of the "East". anyone who hasn't read Orientalism - well, do.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4/16/2006 03:22:00 PM  

  • The problem as I see it is simply that no matter how many times you repeat that it is not your intention to bash the 'west' or hail the 'east,' there will always be a substantial sum of people who will not be able to read outside of the box of either/or, stigmatization/valorization. A lot of it isn't a matter of factual knowledge so much as it is of 'emotion towards' -- in particular when looking at someone coming from 'eastern/islamic' cultural roots so sweepingly attaching themselves to the idea of the 'west,' often what you're looking at is a sense of having been threatened or damaged by the 'non-western' side of their own foundation. (Ditto for the reverse situation.) It's like pointing out to an arachnaphobic that non-toxic spiders are harmless, or that running to the other side of the room when they see one doesn't mean they have escaped to a spider-free zone.

    By Blogger MLL, at 4/16/2006 03:22:00 PM  

  • i like to think that the pitched battles between neo-neo-progressive-classicists of "opposing" stripes reveal in their gusto enough new cultural ideas that ordinary people can sift through them and find new fun things to wear that are just the right thing for the times... nearness to money being the distorting factor... it all depends on what your definition of "equity" is...

    (that was a fabulous piece itrath, thanks for putting it together)

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4/17/2006 09:54:00 AM  

  • The Neurocentric provided a decent view of "The West" in an article he wrote a month or so ago (about half way down):


    "The concept of ‘The West’ is a convenient category, but it is not a reality. There is no such thing as “the contribution of West”, for what we actually have are the contributions of individuals."

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4/18/2006 12:04:00 PM  

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