Opinion | Op-eds

The West and everyone else

I’ve been living outside of the United States for a little over a month now. Cars drive on the left here. Bike lanes are more packed with commuters than the roads themselves are packed with cars. The Tube closes at midnight on weeknights and at 12:30 for those who want to stay out super late on the weekends. And, as one unlucky American friend of mine learned, you can’t refer to Queen Elizabeth II as “Lizzie.” The first real culture shocks I felt studying abroad in England this semester were the difference in the education system and the shift in priorities placed on academic work.

In one class that focuses on human rights and world politics, we discuss the authority of Western democracies and their interference in non-Western societies, notably in Africa and the Middle East; this distinction most often comes across as The West versus The Poor. The Western “democracies,” as they are called, are both the perpetrators and the justified critics in such discussions. The West seeks to rescue the barbarians of the so-called “uncivilized world” from sub-Saharan Africa to the Amazon to the desert of Afghanistan by handing them our perceptions of what human rights are, penned by Locke, Hobbes, and the United Nations. For example, referring to female circumcision practices as female genital mutilation implies condescension and disgust, but the localized term “cutting” refers to accepted cultural norms and values.

This dichotomy of the West and the rest of the world is appalling to me because it both dehumanizes developing countries and asserts that they are more authentic cultures without industrialization. At first, I felt that this alarming presentation was unique to the white guilt of the former British Empire, which, though a Western democracy, has committed its own human rights violations, notably the massacres in Amritsar, India, and Derry, Northern Ireland.

But doesn’t Columbia teach the exact same dichotomy?

What do you gain from taking African Dance, anyway? (Seriously. I implore someone who has taken this class to tell me what intellectual enlightenment they experienced regarding Africa in the comments.) We are given a list of classes, a majority of which lie within the fields of anthropology and history, aside from specific regional studies, such as Latin American or East Asian studies. Perhaps a psychology course on perceptions of race and ethnicity would be more intellectually appealing than, say, Sex in the Tropics (which I’m sure is quite stimulating, nonetheless). These courses fetishize non-Western cultures when they should be providing comprehensive studies of them.

The Core makes up a third of our academic studies and is grounded in the Western canon, from literature to music. We should be incorporating these race and ethnicity studies into the Core. We’ve already incorporated some works by women into the Core, with Jane Austen in Literature Humanities and Mary Wollstonecraft in Contemporary Civilization. Last week, the university began a lecture series on feminism in the Core discussing whether Ovid was actually a proto-feminist and how those books of the Metamorphoses are passed up for the aggressive and paternalistic tales of Troy. But the various classes on “American history since 1945” neglect to mention the illegal and inhumane detention of thousands of Japanese-American citizens in the western United States by the American government.

Our Western democracies are so concerned with being politically correct and racially sensitive that our discussion of culture is distorted. We are the white West, they are the colored Other, and we are Civilized. Yet I say they are civilized, in their own way. The world isn’t black and white. In order to truly understand non-Western cultures, we must not tiptoe around them. The polarity of studying non-Western culture both as underdeveloped and more genuine is unhelpful, as is the chasm between repenting for the actions of our forefathers and still considering ourselves superior to everyone else. We distinguish between the West and the non-West, but how can they be separated in our highly globalized world? To separate these cultures is irrelevant when they have been interacting with and shaping each other for centuries.

History is a comprehensive analysis of events and their causes and effects. If I’ve learned anything as a history major, it’s that there is the victor’s perspective and the loser’s perspective, and then there’s the truth.

The author is a Columbia College junior majoring in history and political science. She is currently studying abroad at University College London. She is the managing editor of Helvidius and a former director of finance and strategy for Spectator.

To respond to this op-ed, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

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Anonymous posted on

As a tangential thought to the idea of educating Columbians on internalized perceptions: I've always thought that a sociology class would be a good substitute for the global core requirement. I can't even count how many white, male liberals I've encountered on this campus who claim that there isn't any institutionalized or structural racism whatsoever in the U.S. Really.

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Anonymous posted on

Of course there's institutionalized racial discrimination in America. It's called affirmative action.

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Anonymous posted on

Seriously, stfu.

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Anonymous posted on

You see, if we all took that class, fewer people would stop pretending that "reverse racism" is a real thing.

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Anonymous posted on

Please check out this article to see how america became what it is.

I can hardly say anything to add to its explanation of "western" attitudes toward black people.

http://opinionator.blogs.nytim...

Sounds like Thomas Jefferson to me!

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Anonymous posted on

thanks for posting this, a very interesting piece.

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anon posted on

Yes, you will have a rude awakening in Europe, especially the UK, which is extremely self indulged. The US does not see the world as the West vs the rest (Poor) the way that Europe does. We are much more liberal, diplomatic, and accepting in our ideas and focus. Columbia does a good a job as it can to teach about other world cultures, as we are much more of a melting pot than any other nation and any other city in the world.

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Anonymous posted on

So we're writing a piece on the West and the rest:

-Travel abroad and discover a totally new culture (i.e. Britain)? CHECK
-Name drop a few Core Curriculum authors and write them off as racist/white/paternalistic? CHECK
-Make the insightful observation that democratic governments often do ugly things? CHECK
-Assert that all civilizations are civilized in their own special way? CHECK
-Use the phrase 'the world is not black and white,' ? CHECK
-Make vague references to 'our highly globalized world' ? CHECK

Oddly enough I agree with you on a few points, but this article is the most banal piece of crap I've read in the Spec in a long time. It reads like a cross between a freshman's first gender/race/class-studies essay and a Fareed Zakaria column.

This is bad, and you should feel bad.

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Anonymous posted on

wow. great comment, would read again. what tripe this column is.

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Anonymous posted on

I don't disagree that many similar op-eds have been written, but still—the majority of people (at Columbia, let alone in the US) don't understand this. "American Exceptionalism" is alive and well. (See a few comments up.)

For this anthro major, the issues she discusses are pretty well-established. But I'm not naive enough to think that most people understand them, so I welcome op-eds like this, facile though they may seem.

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Anonymous posted on

The USA IS exceptional. I'm not saying that it does all things well or that it's the only country that can do things well, but pretending like the opposite is true--that only chance and circumstance allowed us to become the world's only superpower, that there is nothing that separates our culture and practices from the rest of the world's, and that there's nothing about this distinction that contributes our economic and political success--is as small minded a view as the one that lies on the other end of the spectrum.

Also, on a more stylistic note, saying that you're not "naive enough to think that most people understand" the things that are so obvious to you, makes you come across immensely arrogant.

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