To what extent are the common labels “Western civilization” and “Eastern civilization” accurate?
In high school I once took a European history class, and the textbook we used was a rather famous one entitled Western Civilization. Interestingly enough, the text begins with discussing Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations. I was surprised to see this, for how can the ancient Middle East be considered part of Western civilization, when nothing else from the same region is considered so? It is from that moment onward that I began to see the extremely arbitrary division between the Western world and the Eastern world. I believe that we, living in modern society, should abandon these obsolete terms completely, and here’s why.
An unfortunately common way of describing humanity is the dualistic notion of “East” and “West”, where the West includes Europe and its descendants, like Australia and the USA, while the East includes, well, everything from Morocco to Japan. There are several problems created by this misleading classification system.
First of all, grouping civilizations into East and West is an exceedingly Eurocentric system that does not belong in our modern, global era. Let us not even focus on the obvious problem that the terms are misnomers, since one can clearly see that all ‘western’ countries are not geographically west of all ‘eastern’ countries. Centuries ago, Europeans used the two terms to contrast their civilizations, located on the western end of Eurasia, with basically everything else. Due to their romanticized and falsified knowledge of other cultures, they grouped all of Asia (and often north Africa) into a single category. In reality, some of the various civilizations encompassed in the term “East” are as different from each other as they are from the West. What unifies this multitude of groups into the category of East? It is evident, in my opinion, that there is not a unifying bond between what some would call the Eastern world. It includes diverse linguistic, ethnic, and religious groups.
Also, a major problem of East and West classification is that simply ignores a large portion of humanity. Where do, for example sub-Saharan African civilizations belong? What about the indigenous civilizations of the Western Hemisphere and of Oceania? It is just foolish to ignore complex civilizations that had their own traditions, arts, and achievements.
A similar but slightly different point is that the system of East and West does not hold standards for the defining characteristics of either side, so there are embarrassingly large gray areas. Where does Latin America fit in? Where do Pacific island nations fit in? Where do southwest Asian and north African cultures fit in? On some lists one will find them as part of the East, and in others as part of the West. Indeed, there is no true criterion for whether or not a civilization is part of the East or the West.
If we look at religion, for example, Western faiths would include the Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, whereas Eastern faiths would include Dharmic and Taoic religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. Most, if not all, countries would fall into one of these categories based on the dominant religion, but we see that this division is not the same as the conventional notions of East and West.
If we consider linguistic groups, we are left with a swirly haze in which drawing any line for East or West would be rather arbitrary.
So then…is East versus West based on skin color? That would be a very meaningless boundary, and inaccurate as well. It is common to see some of the peoples of the “East” (i.e. Turks or Persians) with just as light or lighter skin color than Hispanics or Europeans from around the edge of the Mediterranean. Saying that the Western world is that of white people and that the Eastern world is that of colored people is illogical, and more importantly it reflects an outdated mindset.
Furthermore, labeling one section of the world as Eastern and the other as Western implies that because these two regions are heterogeneous with respect to each other, they are homogeneous within themselves. This is not true. Within Western civilization, there are several ethnic, linguistic, and cultural groups as well as opinions on religion. There are different political systems and social norms as well. The same is even more true for the East. How can the East include Arabia, Persia, India, China, etc. when all of these civilizations have had distinct origins, traditions, and other traits? Again, many of these groups in the “East” are as different from each other as they are from the “West”.
Viewing the world as comprised of two finite constructs of East and West leads to identifying with one as the “self” and viewing the second as the “other”. Not only does this make one see the other side as different, but also as inferior, as the Europeans who originally used this terminology viewed the East. One is constantly in a competitive struggle against the other and cannot see many similarities beyond the differences; it becomes not a classification of East and West, but more of East versus West. Edward Said’s famous treatise Orientalism is all about the misconceptions and prejudices attached to the usage of the words “oriental” (East) and “occidental” (West), and of course he does a much better job in explaining it than I can.
I would like to add that I am not denying the shared heritage between certain regions of the world. Surely there is a connection between, for instance, western European countries and the United States – but they compromise just one cultural group out of many, not in a binary East-or-West world. In short, we must understand the reality that there is no such thing as an “Eastern civilization” and consequently there is no “Western civilization” either. It is these terms to which I am opposed, for the classification of cultures is more complex than a system involving two categories. Instead, there are several, like South Asia and North Africa, and each should be given its proper, respective recognition.