• Login

“Other People"

Rethinking the dialectic of the West's perception of the East

31 March 2024

Following Israel's attack on Gaza, the East and West issued a flurry of statements and analyses either denouncing or justifying the situation. Perhaps most noteworthy has been the significant discrepancy between the Western political discourse towards the events in Gaza versus those taking place in Ukraine. While the first has been largely devoid of any humanitarian considerations as Gazans endure constant bombing, displacement, starvation, siege, and other war crimes, the latter has been permeated with slogans to support the Ukrainian people as they are subjected to Russia’s actions. Some statements have even gone so far as to hold Palestinians accountable for their situation while providing justifications for the Israeli side as it continues these harsh tactics with impunity.  

What many have termed “Western hypocrisy”, or “European arrogance,” is nothing new: Western powers have long demonstrated their double standards when it comes to their stance on events taking place in the global south as opposed to similar events occurring to the people we may lump under the label “Western”.  The fact that the events in Gaza (in the East) coincided with those in Ukraine (in the West) underscored the extent of this problematic discrepancy. This article does not seek to demonstrate this duality, which no longer requires additional evidence to be proven. Rather, it directs the discussion towards the dialectic of the relationship between East and West. This may explain why Western liberal discourse was unable to extend the umbrella of “universal human values”, on which it is based, to other people. 

The European Exception

Western culture is founded on the concept of "Eurocentrism," which is defined as a conceptual system or set of beliefs that portray Europe as the epicenter of world history and the ultimate model of progress and development. It has also presented itself as the conveyer of a value system that must dominate in order to transform the world from darkness to light, or from ignorance to sophistication and advancement. According to the Eurocentrism model, Europe's economic, technological, and political achievements can be attributed to its societies' unique way of life. 

Eurocentrism is essentially a narrative that was built over time and is ingrained in the European psyche and collective consciousness. It emphasizes European interests, culture, and values over other civilizations. It refers to Europe as a "culture" rather than a region. Its discourse posits that Europe has been the core civilization throughout history, giving it historical exceptionalism and a claim of superiority due to its dedication to reason, development, and universality. Even “modernity” is an entirely European phenomenon that Europe has sought to transmit to the world. 

Some argue that Eurocentrism is largely associated with the imperialist period and the occupation of various regions around the world. This view contends that once colonialism ended, this concept and its applications subsided. However, following the First and Second World Wars, Eurocentrism became more prevalent during the Cold War period. In the 1980s and 1990s, the concept was crystallized in Francis Fukuyama’s book, of The End of History and the Last Man, whereby the author predicted the dominance of Western values in the world. Fukuyama argued that Western liberal democracy is the final model for human development and that all societies and people will eventually adhere to and apply this model as they journey from darkness to light.

According to Eurocentric literature, the concept exists in two basic constructs: time and space. Time refers to the time used by the world, which is based on the observatory in London known as Greenwich Mean Time. The latter is a time scale based on the Earth's rotation around itself in one day, with the longitude line passing through the town of Greenwich in Britain serving as a reference point for timing. There is also the historical perspective as the most renowned division of human history is based on Europe's split: Antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the Age of Enlightenment. 

World maps are also built around European centrality. The binary divide of the world into north and south, east and west is a European division par excellence, as it is located in the north. The East was separated into the Near East and the Far East based on its countries' distance from Europe, particularly Britain. Said's seminal book, Orientalism, refers to this as “imagined geography”. European scholars drew world maps from a perspective that aligns with Western centrism and perceived global weight. Gerardus Mercator's cartographic system, which is still used to design maps today, places Europe in the center of the world. Not only so, but the estimated areas of countries and continents on the map do not correspond to their actual sizes and ratios on the ground. The map conveys an incorrect visual representation of Europe and North America because their surface areas have been considerably and inaccurately overstated.

One of the myths underlying Eurocentrism is the concept of "universalism." The latter supposes that the exceptional European culture has a framework that can be generalized in any place or time. "Other” cultures, however, are perceived nearly exclusively through a binary lens, as the concept of civilization is founded on the dichotomy of "European" and "barbaric." The Western narrative diminishes the value of other civilizations' histories and marginalizes their contributions to European civilization and human history as a whole by devoting very little room to their achievements. The underlying premise of European exceptionalism is that other civilizations are inferior. 

In this context, Eurocentrism avoids highlighting any inconsistencies within Western principles, including ones such as liberalism, democracy, and human rights. Referring to European values as noble values justifies any negative parts of European and Western history in general. Humanity in Western ideology prioritizes the Western individual, even if it means overlooking the humanity of others, who are essentially deemed of inferior rank. Civilization solely refers to replicating the Western paradigm, and all attempts outside of this model are still considered barbarism. Furthermore, the West has taken it upon itself to carry the so-called moral responsibility of intervening in the lives of others in order to pull them out of the “darkness” and into the “light”. It has also charged itself with the mission to educate them with the Western paradigm, which means eradicating everything Eastern.

The Envisioned East

In his memoirs, Ahmed Zewail describes how an administrative official accompanied him to inspect his university residence in the US in the late 1960s. She stopped him in front of the refrigerator and explained its concept, functions, usage, and manufacturing date. Zewail did not understand why this woman gave much information about a refrigerator until he realized that she assumed that this contemporary innovation had not reached the countries of the East, where people still lived in primitive ways. When Zewail revealed to the woman that he knew about the "refrigerator," she was taken aback, but did not abandon the mental images embedded in her conscience. Instead, she attributed Zewail's knowledge to his being an educated person even as he attempted to persuade her of the existence of this device in most Egyptian homes from the moment it appeared.

Karl Marx famously stated, "They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented"! Similarly, the West viewed the East as incapable of understanding or representing itself, and Europe was interested in examining the Orientals during the colonial ages, which became known as Orientalism. After assuming hegemony, the United States dispatched scholars to complete the mission. Regardless of how inconsistent Orientalist literature is in its understanding of the region’s residents, it continues to be the most important component of Westerners’ perceptions and expectations of Easterners. Edward Said, who made the most significant addition to Orientalism, claims that what inspired him to study the latter was the vast gap he perceived between the literature and the East, which he knew through actual experience as an individual of Eastern heritage. Said highlighted in one of his interviews the shock that swept over American culture following Egypt's victory over Israel in the October War of 1973. This was not due to Jewish communities' regret at Israel's defeat, but rather because society did not expect a country in the East to prevail or achieve anything remarkable similar to the West. Since Israel is located in the East according to the Western geographical division but expresses the Western model whose roots were planted by Europe and cared for by the United States, it is a Western initiative in an Eastern land that does not fit the Orientalist picture. Stereotypes drawn from Orientalism helped to create a hegemonic framework for controlling the East and strengthening Western imperialism over it. 

Edward Said defines "Orientalism" as an understanding of the East based on the special place it occupies in Western European experience: It is a construction which in its entirety is the anti-Western image, idea, personality, and experience. Orientalism is contained in a mode of discourse that allowed European culture to develop and even create the East, as Said pointed out. Said also defined Orientalism as a collective institution that deals with the East: One that studies it, monopolizes its description, resolves its problems, reconstructs it, and dominates it. 

Despite some believing that Orientalism is on the decline or has even ended, its impact lives on in the Western psyche. It is perpetuated in Western discourse and caricatural depictions that can still be seen in recent Hollywood movies. Even the representations closest to fantasy are nonetheless strongly anchored in the Western worldview toward the East. The symbolism that Orientalism instilled in the Western mind regarding the East remains powerful, so much so that even the evolving image of the East has not been able to remove this congealed picture. Whenever modernity emerges from the East, it is considered an exception that does not represent the East as a whole. These preconceptions, which are being reconstructed in many ways, have provided the West with ample reason to act in whatever way necessary to allegedly protect and save the populations of places that are unable to protect themselves.

The White Man's Burden

Despite the controversy raised by the American discourse, which has largely lost credibility and attributes the conflicts the world is witnessing to the duality of democratic and authoritarian systems, the American foreign policy doctrine remains unchanged. It still emphasizes that the United States has responsibilities that include confronting authoritarian regimes, supporting democracies around the world, and inaugurating alliances with friendly countries that share its global perspective and goals. This grants the US and the Western bloc the authority to intervene in the affairs of (supposedly non-democratic) Eastern countries in order to change them into democratic systems based on noble Western principles, thereby propelling the globe toward stability and progress. 

This doctrine is no different from what is known as "the white man's burden.” The idiom was coined in the twentieth century and became popular as a result of a poem written by the British poet Rudyard Kipling, an advocate of Western colonialism in the late nineteenth century. Kipling urges the (white) public to perform a difficult task assigned to them because of their race. The mission in question required Europeans to travel to other countries and serve a foreign people they had subjugated; an untrustworthy, almost primitive people. Who else is accountable for disseminating the benefits of the Industrial Revolution and Western civilization as well as spreading the torch of enlightenment to these sullen people, denouncing half of them as devils and the other half as having childish minds? 

It is well known that the controversy that arose from the creation of the concept of the white man's burden played an important role in Congressional debates over whether America should annex the Philippine Islands following the Spanish-American War. Between 1901 and 1902, the United States entered the Philippines and killed thousands of Filipinos. 

In a well-known interview, US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was asked if the humanitarian cost of the sanctions imposed by the United States on Iraq in the late 1990s, which cut off food and medicine to children, resulting in the deaths of half a million Iraqi children, was a justifiable price for American policy. "It was a difficult choice, but a worthy one!" Albright replied. 

Some may believe that the myth of the white man's superiority has vanished following all of the momentum caused by revolutions, human rights laws, as well as movements for equality, and justice. However, even within American society, white men continue to have privileges and advantages. In his book "Economic Dignity," Gene Sperling, former director of the American Economic Council, states that for every $100 earned by a white American worker, a black worker receives $61, and a Hispanic worker receives $54. These income inequalities and opportunity gaps only grow and accumulate throughout a lifetime of work between the lowest and highly paid. If this is the case of United States citizens, what about those outside of the Western world? 

Monopoly of the Narrative Industry

To this day, many European countries, in addition to the US, celebrate "Columbus Day" in honor of Christopher Columbus' trip to the Americas. The journey is depicted as if an empty land without a people was discovered, and the narrative utterly dismisses the resulting human and cultural catastrophe that ensued. Using the same rationale, the Western narrative minimizes analogous humanitarian disasters throughout history, including the slave trade, racism, the use of nuclear weapons at the end of World War II, and the killing of a quarter of a million defenseless Japanese citizens. 

What is peculiar about these Western practices is not only their brutality, but the narrative that accompanies them for instance, after dropping nuclear bombs on Japan’s Hiroshima and Nagasaki, US President Truman delivered a historic statement hailing the humanitarian disaster, stating, "The bombs not only ended the war, but they did so in the most humane way as well!"

One of the most important foundations given by the theory of Constructivism in international relations is the concept of narrative and the role of language in depicting reality. Political speeches link acts and decisions to narratives that make them logical and appealing to the public. Constructivism holds that all facts around us are socially "constructed." Humans shape the world and bestow upon it specific meanings. Constructivism suggests that language shapes both the world and the relationships that exist within it. Language establishes norms and standards, communicates aims and intentions, gives several perspectives on a problem, topic, or facts, and identifies security threats. 

In this context, the West did not hesitate to create and monopolize narrative-making tools. In Western (liberal, no less) regimes, media, cultural, and artistic institutions are just as vital as security institutions. In fact, many of these organizations are actually tools employed by security institutions. It is no secret that Hollywood, which is supposedly governed by artistic and creative standards, is one of the most important tools of American foreign policy. It has been utilized, for example, during critical historical moments and served as perhaps the most important American weapon in the war on communist thought. For that reason, the West does not hesitate to equip its many media institutions with all of the tools required to preserve its hegemony and control over the "narrative" around the world. 

Yet another potent example of the importance of narrative is the one utilized to justify the US war in Iraq.  The West was able to construct a narrative in which Iraq possessed dangerous weapons that threatened humanity. Iraq, along with Iran and North Korea, was portrayed as part of the so-called "axis of evil" by US President George W. Bush, who claimed the country was developing weapons of mass destruction and supported terrorism under Saddam's leadership. Any observer of Western discourse will discover that it is adept at developing terminology and labels that describe and frame a given perception of the “other”. Western propaganda is built on this very influential symbolism, which is used to shape impressions of current events, other cultures, and Western behaviors. 

The United Nations’ inspections of suspected weapons locations in Iraq yielded no results, and the United States was unable (even after the invasion) to photograph, record, or display any evidence of the purported weapons. And yet, the Western coalition led by the United States did invade Iraq, and Saddam Hussein was eventually executed with the blessing of Western nations, who portrayed it as if Washington had saved the planet from the Big Bang, much like Hollywood films.

The West perceives the rise of alternative narratives as a serious threat. At the start of the Ukrainian war, many Western countries who support freedom of speech and the free press banned the "Russia Today" media platforms because they felt it had an influence on international and domestic public opinion. The West is now being challenged by China’s TikTok platform as it propagates a different narrative about the Gaza war than the one the West has been presenting for decades. A comic strip depicting the situation has been circulating in European newspapers. In two frames from The Simpsons, Director Skinner wonders: "Am I so far from reality?" Then he firmly declares, "No," it is the children who made a mistake," as older generations in the West believe that their youth are being brainwashed by social media platforms. In the same context, Nikki Haley, the Republican Party's presidential candidate, has advocated for a complete ban on the TikTok platform in the US. She declared unequivocally during a primary election discussion that " for every 30 minutes that someone watches TikTok every day they become 17% more antisemitic and more pro-Hamas." Earlier, a Republican member of Congress referred to TikTok as "digital fentanyl," accusing it of brainwashing young Americans against their country and allies. 

For the West, the prolonged conflict in Gaza is more than a humanitarian crisis. It is a predicament that has demonstrated to the West that other narratives and people are challenging its hegemony. It is a threat to the European narrative and its supposed values umbrella, which was used to rationalize its actions. It is for that reason that we find Western positions more aggressive and tense in their support for Israel.  The fear of losing control is a risk the West must contend with not only in the Middle East, but throughout the East and within its own territory as well, because Israel represents Western symbolism in the East. 

Recent changes have had little impact on the historical principles and pillars that molded the Western conscience and identity.  The framework through which it perceives itself and others, particularly at the policy and government levels, has remained largely steady. However, the interactions that we are witnessing today between younger generations, mainly Z and Alpha, and the global scene indicate that this framework is being disputed by the rise of new actors in the narrative industries. Will these new variables be able to sway the Western conscience on what is going on in the East, or will Western exceptionalism survive? The results are still uncertain, and the question remains: Will the West undergo a grassroots transformation?