‘How can one today speak of “Western Civilisation” except as in large measure an ideological fiction, implying a sort of detached superiority for a handful of values and ideas, none of which has much meaning outside the history of conquest, immigration, travel and the mingling of peoples that give the Western nations their present mixed identities?’
I am not sure if a review and a critique of Edward W. Said’s Orientalism are necessary, considering so much has been said before. If you combine this with the fact that I am far from an expert on either orientalism, or the Middle East and its relationship with ‘The West’, any proclamations that I make on this subject can be automatically considered redundant. But I am not going to let these two factors stop me.
The quote above is taken from the afterword written in 1995, some eighteen years after the book was first published, and it is from this quote that I would like to continue in my own words and with my own thoughts, and elaborate on what Said said.
There is no barometer to measure the imperfect against the perfect. Equally there is no way of comparing the wealth of two kingdoms, nations or societies, who previously have had no interaction. To apply social norms across an entire planet, for me, is like enforcing the four seasons in a tropical climate; while it may make organisational sense to divide the year evenly, it just doesn’t work and it never will, outside of the confines of an official’s diary. Established social and political norms may appear sound, but that is because a better alternative is unknown.
The past two hundred years for the west has seen unrivalled technological progress, but what about social progress? Because there are laws does that mean that they are just and society is happy? Because there is wealth, does this not neglect mention of the poverty and social divisions caused by wealth? There are too many critics of modernity to spend time complaining about the ups and downs and mishaps and wrongdoings of western society. What I will question is the structure that holds western society together is the belief that it is, above all, the most civilised.
“Western Civilisation” is itself a tenuous term. Civilisation ties so many different eras together within the characteristics of social and technological progress over time by a specific ethnic or national group. Civilisation relies on so many different factors; like building a house it needs to built on a strong foundation with walls to define its boundaries, windows to offer a view inside and outside, furnishings to add character, and people to function within to define and build society. Civilisation is knitted together into a beautiful, diverse, and complicated construction that cannot be separated and individually defined within the confines of a unique concept. What is unique is incomparable, because it is only one and it has no other. The other that is imbedded in a civilisation is part of the civilisation, and only that civilisation has a right to condemn or criticise it, no matter how right or wrong it may appear from the outside.
I share Said’s view that there is no such thing as the right way, and that the West’s way cannot be superior to the East. They are both fundamentally different societies that have grown organically with established traditions which have held millions together for centuries, but without each others influence, neither could conceivably exist in its present state, despite the lessons history books attempt to teach us. Our society and civilisation has preached its own hierarchy since before most modern nations were formed, before it was known the East could be reached by travelling west.
We, as people, are immersed deeply in the West, while the East is seen as an exotic accessory, something mystical and distant, something that cannot be understood and something that is quite foreign. This is to an extent understandable, but there is nothing that cannot be understood in modern Asia. Asia, or in fact anywhere I should add, should not be interpreted from a different perspective because it is not a comparable entity, like two different coloured balls or two different kinds of food. A society is a very complex formation with similarities and massive differences in every aspect of its life. In the twenty-first century civilisation has expanded beyond previously defined physical borders, and now relies as much on its internal elements as it does on external influences to survive.
In the years following World War II, words like ‘globalisation’ and ‘coco-colonisation’ have crept into vocabularies and resurfaced within East-West (or West-East) discussions. Yet this process is often viewed as one-way traffic with negative connotations due to the commercial nature of much of the neo-colonial commercial domination by many major corporations whose origins lie in North American and Western European states. By allowing corporations to grow beyond their borders we permit the impression that the West is dominant culturally, and this grows to be a shared opinion across the globe.
To say that one Civilisation is superior is white-washing the whole painting and ignoring the reality of the cross-cultural-multi-dimensionality of the twenty-first century. I’ve heard a saying that goes something like ‘the Chinese built the rail-roads’; it leaves me thinking that this was only the beginning, now ‘the Chinese’ have built most of the electronic goods that are used in most western households. If that doesn’t surprise you then a lesser known fact would be that it was the Japanese who led the drive to remove European colonialism from South-East Asia, a drive which ruined the country temporarily but which opened up the markets, so that while its two nearest and closest potential rivals were locked in civil war, Japan was able to establish an economic and political dominance over the rest of the continent, laying the foundation for companies like Honda and Toyota to lead the way with a standard of engineering as benchmark that, recent upsets aside, the rest of the world is only gradually catching up with. The opening up of the continent allowed multinationals from all over the globe to establish bases and exploit previously protected indigenous economies and fostered extreme reactions to the international abuse of national identity in places like Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar and also arguably Indonesia under Suharto.
There is more to the cross-cultural-multi-dimensionality of the twenty-first century than just commercial and economic superiority. Culturally, just as the East looks to the West for brand recognition, the West looks to the East for the unfamiliarity that is hidden behind the unpronounceable and illegible languages. Countries who interpret social behaviour differently lure travellers looking to advertise their bravery in daydreams of jungle treks and peculiar gastronomic experiences. As one of these travellers myself, I can personally list the values of the world I once sought; loud markets, spicy aromas, sweating twenty-four hours a day, crowded spaces, ancient literary traditions, cities with more people than the population of my own country, palm trees everywhere, coconuts, slanted eyes, kimonos and rice for breakfast lunch and dinner.. All this attracted my young and ignorant ego, and they still do. When I go home after being away I boast of strange experiences of laissez faire attitudes to public safety and an apparent disregard for the values that were beaten into us for years in primary and secondary school. When I first went to Asia straight out of university it was a personal escape, and one that is shared by so many other young and old men and women who leave the apparent safety and familiarity of their Western homes to learn the mysteries of the East.
But what is mystical about it? Globalisation has made it as easy for me to buy a Guinness in Shang Hai as it is in Dublin (easier in fact as you can’t buy alcohol after half past eleven in most places in Dublin) and Coca Cola has the same advertisements in Tokyo as it does in New York. The world has marvelled at the growth of Shang Hai and Dubai, Tokyo has long been considered a glittering megalopolis, and Seoul is World Design Capital for 2010. The West lags behind the Asian determination to succeed on the international stage (if we did a list of ‘World Capitals’ of modernity, Asian cities would outplace the West considerably). Is it mystical that countries and societies that were under-developed after World War II now out perform the societies which have grown accustomed to being looked upon as the leaders of modernity?
The people in the cities of Asia, despite what may be apparent, still worry about the same things; unemployment, marriage, education, taxes and what they will have for breakfast lunch and dinner. The brains behind the faces of the countless anonymous faces that pass by also want to enjoy foreign, exotic food like pizza, spaghetti, sausages, steak, and deep fried food, just like westerners obsess over curry, sushi, chow-mien and pad-thai. The expensive tour groups that travel West all seek the opposite of the individuals who migrate east; organised, peaceful and aged sensible architecture with restaurants selling food that can’t be found on your local corner. The talk in the restaurants of peculiar habits echoes and reverberates as globally as the food that they exchange and prepare so differently than what can be called authentic.
A hierarchy of societies exists only in our minds, and the minds that propagate these hierarchies are possibly the ones least open to the criticism that they are not right. The pillars that built their world may in fact be built without enough cement to hold them strong, and the only reason that they are still standing is because the wind hasn’t blown strong enough to knock them over.
Let me conclude by saying that as the world grows in population more and more every day, the environments in which we live change with every birth, for better or worse, prompting a situation that abandons any chance of a status quo. Recycling only works on plastic and metals. Everything that begins must conclude, and in anticipation of a storm that might one day be the final gust to topple the pediment supporting pillars, I will also.