04 January 2013 Ideas

The West ain’t what it used to be

The role of language in constructing a worldview has always interested me. Terms like “Western society” and “the global North” are common ways to juxtapose the lifestyles of rich people with an often romanticized notion of Noble Savagery.

“Our Western culture focuses so much on excessive consumption.”

“We in the global North must do our part to help those in the global South.”

“The Western media is controlled by corporations.”

When we talk about a singular “Western” culture or society or civilisation, are we really thinking in terms of geography? Is there an equal and opposite “Eastern” counterpart?

This kind of language is a veil; it puts a distracting geographic veneer on statements that are actually about class and wealth. So next time you make a generalisation about culture, society, class, or wealth, take a moment to think about what it is you’re really trying to say and don’t pussyfoot around it.

The good news is that the phrase “Western [blank]” has been falling out of favour since the mid-1990s. But it’s interesting to see how its use has mirrored historical shifts in power.

I plugged in some phrases to Google Ngrams, that wonderful database cataloguing the last 200 years of the written word. We were far more focused on the Western/Eastern binary in the 1960s, but today, Western society and civilisation are not talked about in relation to an Eastern “other”.

I’m not exactly sure what to make of the recent increase in both Western and Eastern “culture”. On one hand, it could be a resurgence of binary thinking. But I think it’s rather two independent trends. “Western culture” increased sharply from 1985-1995, perhaps as English-language speakers tried to define ourselves in a rapidly globalising world. The upshot in “Eastern culture” during the same period is, I think, a result of a kind of “oriental intrigue” in the English-speaking world - the growth in popularity of Yoga, secular Buddhism, and manga/anime might explain it.

Of course, I could be totally wrong. What do you see in these charts? (Click to expand)

References to Western society, civilisation, and culture in the English language
References to Eastern society, civilisation, and culture in the English language
Sam Nabi


Paula Agata 4 January 2013, 05:10

It is very much a veil, and a term I don’t like using. Talking to kids I’m expected to teach “western,” and in particular American, culture. Well, I’m Polish. Obviously I can teach about Canada and America, but when I talk about Poland what am I teaching? It’s not western culture. Geographically it is but no one looks at that as west. Conversely, Australia, which is much closer to Korea geographically is considered to be a western country.

It’s a term I struggle with using, also because of the blanket statements it always ends in - grouping every country in with America. But more than that I definitely feel like it’s a way of saying that the “West” - us - are the rich people, the standard to be reached.

Similarly, when someone visited me recently he stated that “Korea is in the future.” I had to correct him and say that Korea is very much in the present, I think that considering it to be “in the future” is, again, taking Canada to be the standard because Korea might seem futuristic compared to Canada.

I don’t know, some jumbled thoughts on this. <br>tl;dr - I agree.

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