I spent last summer working for a nongovernmental organization in Delhi, India. One weekend I took a day trip to see the Taj Mahal. On the bus back, I struck up a conversation with a fellow traveler — a deceptively young-looking Swiss man. He had spent months traveling throughout Latin America and Asia. Toward the end of the bus ride, he summarized his travels with a comparison. He told me “our” societies in the West are different than in non-Western countries. In the West, he told me, we share fundamental values and a way of life. He thought Argentina was more Western and thus felt more at home there. Back at my office in Delhi, one of my bosses would make similar comments, comparing “Western” America with “Eastern” India. For Westerners, it often seems that understanding foreign cultures is easier by comparing them to the West, which ostensibly has a similar set of values, or shared civilizational foundations. But comparisons that contrast a totemic “Western world” with the rest of the world are misleading and problematic.

The “West” is a racial and religious category. For a country to be Western, it must have a majority white population and a history of Christianity. Japan is a democratic country with a capitalist system but is not Western. Latin American countries are debatably Western just as they are debatably white.  

The categories of race and religion do not have the explanatory power to sufficiently understand another individual or society. To understand the differences between life in China and France today, you cannot simply consider the differences between Christianity and being white with Confucianism or Daoism and being Han Chinese. Doing so would not give you any meaningful understanding of the differences between modern France and modern China, nor of people that live in the two countries. But, when people talk about the “West,” they don’t usually think it as a religious or racial category, at least not consciously. So, what do people mean when they compare the “West” to the rest of the world?

The idea of Western values and civilization as fundamentally different from those of “Eastern” or non-Western societies stems from European imperialism. Europeans tried to schematize the vast swaths of people they encountered with the endgoal of maintaining imperialism. Guided by “social Darwinist” ideas, the scholarship of non-Europeans by 19th-century and early 20th-century Europeans was terribly flawed. The comparison of the West and the rest of the world developed to simplify human diversity in a way that justified the subjugation of “primitive” races and peoples by an advanced assortment of “Western” countries.

For example, James Mill, the leading 19th-century British “scholar” of Indian history, made sweeping conclusions that Indians and other non-Western colonial subjects were primitive. He shrugged Indian intellectual advances, like the creation of the decimal system, or the philosophically-rich Bhagavad Gita, as primitive “hieroglyphics. The British, he concluded, could spread their advanced, Western thought and technology to the primitive peoples of the East.

Today, the idea of the West versus the rest of the world is by no means as racist as it was during the age of imperialism. As Amartya Sen, a Nobel Prize-winning Indian economist, noted in his book “The Argumentative Indian,” Westerners who today rely on the simplifying comparisons to the West often do so because they want to understand other cultures rather than dominate them. Understanding other cultures through simplified comparisons with the West can help people intensify their own identities through contrast, as Edward Said noted in his theory of Orientalism. But, use of the comparison of the “West” and the rest of the world should still be avoided.

Today, the most politically influential version of comparing the West to the rest of the world is Samuel Huntington. His seminal book “Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order” asserted the world was divided into distinct civilizations that naturally opposed each other. He attributes the primary difference between Western civilization and other civilizations to the development of liberalism rooted in individual rights and liberties in the West. This way of thinking is rife with potential for prejudice.

The idea that non-Europeans have different, lesser civilizational values is a strong argument against an inclusive immigration policy. If too many non-Westerners live in the West, how long before “their” civilization replaces “ours”? Similarly, if each civilization has such distinct values and character, then maybe more progressive “Western values” of human rights, women’s rights or democracy are not legitimate outside the West. This civilizational way of thinking is attractive to Western xenophobes, Islamic fundamentalists and dictators alike.  

Luckily, it isn’t hard to discredit Huntington’s divisive argument. The development of individualism and liberalism can be found in non-Western histories. Early versions of private property existed in the Qin dynasty starting in 221 B.C. Mencius, a disciple of Confucius, thought anyone could become emperor on the basis of their merit. He also conceived of an early social contract by which an emperor could be overthrown if his rule did not benefit the people. In India, Amartya Sen argues in “The Argumentative Indian” a long tradition of heterodoxy, public reason and tolerance laid the groundwork for democracy. And Indian rulers like Ashoka and Akbar ruled a tolerant and multicultural empire, where religious tolerance, choice and interfaith dialogue were encouraged. And even in histories where finding liberal traditions are harder, like Japan’s, liberal ideas and governance can still be adopted, as is the case with modern Japan.

If you’ve taken any liberal arts classes on a modern college campus you might agree with me. A key principle for many liberal arts courses seems to be to warn you not to essentialize or generalize. Essentialism can be defined as “attributing natural, essential characteristics to members of specific culturally defined (gender, age, ethnic, “racial”, socioeconomic, linguistic…) groups.”

It is easy to look at the world through generalizations that explain dizzying difference and complexity through simple comparisons of different social groups. But that same thinking, though not inherently racist or bigoted, contributes to some of our biggest social problems. All forms of bigotry hinge on essentialism and generalizations. Thinking with less essentialism and less generalizations would promote individualism and tolerance, something that should attract both liberals and conservatives.

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