Saturday, July 15, 2006

The West and the Rest: Where Does Their Rage Come From?

In my previous post I summarized my presentations at the recent Cornerstone Festival in the Imaginarium venue. In this post I will summarize my seminars in the Cornerstone YoU venue. My series in this venue brought a cross-cultural perspective to the anger of the non-Western (majority) world at the West in a series titled "The West and the Rest: Where Does Their Rage Come From?" I made it clear from the outset that I was attempting to present the insights of intercultural studies and related disciplines to this topic rather than a perspective that was either politically Right or Left, Conservative or Liberal, Republican or Democrat. Although it is impossible for anyone to be completely objective (we all bring our presuppositions and biases to any and all subject matter), I was attempting to look at broad international tensions (that include but are not limited to the global war on terrorism) from the perspective of culture.

In my first session I noted that the major difficulty we have is grasping any other sense of cultural awareness (let alone acceptance) simply because our individual cultural experience is taken for granted as the way things are and the way things should be. Culture is like the air we breathe in that we take it for granted unless we experience cultural otherness. Evangelicals often then compound the problem by "baptizing" their American and Western cultural values as biblical and Christian when the situation may have more to do with culture than theology.

In order to help my audience step outside of their cultural boxes I had them go through two cross-cultural exercises, both taken from chapters in Richard A. Schweder's Why Do Men Barbecue? Recipes for Cultural Psychology (Harvard University Press, 2003). The first exercise came in the form of sleep order arrangements where audience members were given a family of a given size with two parents and multiple children but with differing dwelling sizes ranging from two to four rooms. Participants were asked to divide the family sleep arrangements based upon these differing room arrangements. This exercise reveals that Europeans and North Americans tend to value the "autonomous couple" sleeping together and independently of the children whenever possible, whereas other cultures, such as those in Asia, tend to value the parents sleeping separately and with individual children. In fact, Asian cultures tend to view the Western sleep order pattern as psychologically damaging to children and aberrant, whereas Westerners wonder whether the Asian pattern (particularly if replicated in the West) does not hint of child abuse.

The second exercise involved a look at female circumcision, sometimes called female genital mutilation, that is practiced in a number of cultures, particularly African and Muslim cultures. I summarized the negative case frequently presented against it usually presented by European and North American physicians and human rights advocatates, and then shared the contrasting medical, psychological, and experiential evidence. If we listen to the multicultural voices of women, some 80 to 200 million African women participate in this practice, and some have shared their displeasure with it. However, the vast majority of African women who undergo the procedure do not regard it as maiming, mutilation or oppression by men or Islam. Their concept of body image and sexuality causes them to affirm the practice. From their cultural perspective the “natural” state of the female sexual organs is repulsive and unclean prior to this procedure, whereas after the procedure they are associated with cleanliness, beauty, and adulthood.

My point is utilizing these exercises was not to change anyone's desires in the area of sleep order arrangements or female circumanycision. Instead, my point was to use these provocative examples as a means of helping Westerners to become more aware of your cultural assumptions. The second example illustrates that our own assumptions and perceptions of beauty and disfigurement are assumed to be universal and transcendental. Differing cultures have very different ideas as to these and other practices. Consider how routinely we accept male circumcision and other forms of bodily enhancement surgery (breast implants) which those in the Third World would consider mutilation. So while we might think and say “Yuck!” in response to the thought of certain sleep order arrangements, or female circumcision, someone from another culture might look at our cultural practices and say, “Yuck, what kind of barbarians are those who don’t circumcise their genitals!”

My second session sought to build on the ability to check cultural assumptions as a means of creating understanding of non-Western rage and violence. (Understanding in the form of mental comprehension of cultural reasoning is not to be confused with condoning terrorism.) I part company with many conservatives at this point in that I believe understanding the root causes of the rage are important if we want to move beyond responses to the symptoms of terrorism in order to address their root cultural causes.

I began by setting the cultural stage and noted the retribalization of large swaths of humankind based upon ethnicity, nationality, and religion. I then introduced the concepts of Jihad as a metaphor for an anti-Western, anti-universalist struggle, and McWorld as a metaphor for rampant consumerism taken from Benjam Barber's book Jihad vs. McWorld. In the case of Jihad vs. McWorld we find one group of cultures pursuing a politics of identity, the other a politics of economic profit. From the non-Western perspective, Jihad might be considered a response to colonialism and imperialism and their economic children, capitalism and modernity. While this might be a bittler pill for Westerners to swallow, as Barber writes, Jihad is not only McWorld’s adversary, it is its bastard child.

As we reflect further on our cultural assumptions we might also consider our notions of terrorists as "enemies of freedom," as they have been labeled by Western leaders, and those who also stand against “the universal values of the human spirit” (meaning, presumably, not only freedom, but also democracy and the consumerist aspects of Western culture). Such thinking reflects American notions of “common sense.” We have to be careful here in our cultural assumptions of common sense. Common sense may be common, and it may make sense, but maybe not! Some of our cultural presuppositions (like the primacy of individualism and privacy) are not genuinely common at all. The common values shared (to differing degrees) by Western societies generally are sharply at odds with those of the non-Western cultures that confront them.

My next session interacted with the writing of Meic Pearse in his book Why the Rest Hates he West: Understanding the Roots of Global Rage. While most Americans, particularly our political leaders, view America as the great agent of freedom and democracy around the world, many times the non-Western world, particularly those in Muslim countries, view us as great Barbarian Juggernauts steamrolling over other cultures. Why these differing perceptions?

As Pearse notes, Westerners are often perceived by non-Westerners as rich, technologically sophisticated, economically and politically dominant, morally contemptible barbarians. Why barbarians? Among a variety of reasons, Pearse cites despising tradition, the ancestors and the dead, religion, cultural shallowness and triviality, sexual shamelessness, loose adherence to family and tribe, and an absence of honor. In the non-West, shocking as it will be to American evangelicals, Western values (often equated by evangelicals with Christian values) are onsidered antivalues, and Western culture anticulture, exported under the guise of consumerism. As one Iranian leader put it, “When you see some people here dressed in American-style clothes, you are seeing the bullets of the West.”

The point is that seeming justifiable economic, political and military actions from the Western side of the fence look very different from a non-Western (majority) point of view. Our talk of human rights and free trade appears to be self-seeking. You may not agree with the non-Western preceptions, but you do have to grapple with it.

My final session shifted gears to look at the implications for cultural clash between Western evangelicals with the shift in growth and vitality in Christendom from the Northern Hemisphere to the Southern, a topic I have touched on in previous posts while discussing the work of Philip Jenkins.

I concluded this series with a summary, and by noting that for non-Westerners, our cultural ignorance, both of our own culture and non-Western cultures, and our assumptions of cultural superiority and imposition of Western culture on the Two Thirds world, results in us perpetuating our history of cultural imperialism. And then, curiously, we wonder why we’re hated.

For those who would like a further exploration of these topics:

Benjamin R. Barber, Jihad vs. McWorld (Ballantine Books, 1995)

Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (Oxford University Pres, 2002)

Meic Pearse, Why the Rest Hates the West: Understanding the Roots of Global Rage (IVP, 2004)

Richard A. Schweder, Why Do Men Barbecue? (Harvard University Press, 2003)

Image from Benjamin R. Barber, Jihad vs. McWorld: How Globalism and Tribalism are Reshaping the World (New York: Ballantine Books, 1996) modified cover photo


Neil E. Das said...

John, thank you. The exercises you give are helpful to get people to shed their cultural pre-suppositions or subjectivity. I teach a non-western lit class and spend a good deal of time trying to do the same thing. Coming to a positive or live and let live on female circumcision, though, is still somewhat of a hard task, particularly concering some of the more extreme forms.

I am very interested in the issue of getting the church to look at the bible and its mandates not just from a western perspective. Not that there is not anything drastically wrong about western culture and civilization and what it has brought to the world (though it certainly needs critiques) but it should not be the lens through which we view the Scriptures.

John W. Morehead said...

Thank you for your thoughtful comments here, Neil. I appreciate your concerns about female circumcision in some of its more extreme forms, but again, my intention is to help Westerners think outside of their cultural presuppositions, not to encourage Western women to undergo the procedure. I know you understand this.

As to viewing the Bible through other cultural lenses, this too is a great area of interest for me. In seminary and my own previous private study of Scripture I have interacted with plenty of Western theology, but my studies in missiology and culture have also given me an appreciation for Majority World theology and their perspectives on many of the main themes of Scripture. I hope that a new generation of Western theologians and pastors is coming along in the West with a more global hermeneutic for Scripture and framework for ministry.

Matt Stone said...

There's another dimension to this John.

Not only has America failed to win the hearts and minds of the Islamic world, it has also, to a much smaller but still significant extent, failed to win the hearts and minds of other Western nations such as Australia where I live.

In texts and popular media globalization is equated, not only broadly with 'westernisation', but also far more narrowly with 'Americanisation', and you need not go as far as Saudi Arabia to find resentment at American corporate-driven cultural bulldozing.

Note also that the 'Axis of Evil' language and civil-religious posturing of Bush is deeply alienating to many Aussies, even those who support the war. Our prime minister John Howard, arguably the Bush government's staunchest supporter, wouldn't dream of using such language at home because he knows this. Real cultural differences emerge even this close amongst allies. If it can happen so close, is it any wonder that its magnified a thousand-fold at further remove.

What the American public has to wake up to is it's universal values are no more global than America's 'world series' baseball.

philjohnson said...


There is another area that needs to be discussed which serves as a "pinch me on the arm" reminder.

The topic of globalisation itself needs to be brought under scrutiny.
We have heard the term used in various discourses over the past 15 years, and it has become such a familiar term (and idea) that we are probably inclined to start talking almost as if it constitutes a fact like "breathing oxygen".

What we need to have discussion and reflection on is whether the discourses of our time on globalisation are actually "new". We tend to think that digital technology, air transport and electronic communications have "at last" enabled humans to breach the geographic and cultural barriers of previous times. In one sense we can say that if you have access to the funds and technology then "yes" you can overcome the problems of "distance".

However, the same kind of discourses took place among European and American societies during the 1920s and 1930s. The world was now "global" because of the telephone, radio, motor cars, aeroplanes, and faster passenger liners. And as TV was invented in the 1920s its imagined "power" for the future was the stuff of techno-fantasies. Alongside of the then "new technologies", the notion of "globalisation" (though not the actual word) also loomed large in specific political discourses because of the emergence of the League of Nations. If we re-examined the technological discourses (and fantasies) of the period 1920-1939, and the political and business aspirations for "one world", we would be surprised. We would begin to realise that what has been ensuing since 1989 (fall of Berlin Wall) in our discourses about technology changing the future, about the "new world order" and the power of corporations to make the world "one world" is almost a re-run of the 1920-1939 period just that we have new political and corporate players and new gadgets.

This very point about a re-run of the same old song, has been discussed in "Global Metaphors", a book published by Pluto Press in 2001. The text was written by Jo-Anne Pemberton who is a senior lecturer in political science and international relations at the Uni of NSW. (I must add parenthetically that Jo-Anne is a very astute and sharp thinker, and an excellent student of history; I know because she and I were in the same history classes at high school).

The shock and collapse of the 1920s discourses occurred with the Nazi, Fascist and Japanese militarist actions of World War Two.

If we look at those who propagate globalisation discourses today in political and corporate sectors, and combined that with the familiar and popular yet naive techno-fantasies of many middle-class "geeks" (how the world is being transformed by blogging, cell phones, blackberry sets and ipods), we might have a rude awakening --- is this deja vu? It suggests that in general we are all very prone to accepting some familiar discourses as "given" simply because they crowd out other points of view. It would be intriguing to examine how "romantic" views of technology may be affecting and reshaping missional discourses, and to what extent does that warp our vision and even weaken the way missions are now thought of and practiced in some quarters.

And if we also recall how at precisely the same time various "future visions" were projected forth in the 1920s discourses the malcontents of post WW1 fed directly into the Nazi and Fascist states emerging, and its culmination in WW2, we might also start to reconsider what malcontent factors are currently seething and not just in the obvious media focus on disaffected parts of the Islamic states. And feeding into that discontent are hard-line right-wing views that circulate in some Christian circles in the USA and in Eastern Europe (more than just the KKK seeing themselves as "Christian Knights").

If hard-line Muslims "hate the west", what about the internal hate seething inside the West about the "alien other", the incremental build up of resentment toward the "alien" and "religious other", and what kind of strife is likely to ensue inside Europe from the Atlantic coast across to Moscow?

We need to seriously consider that neo-Nazi networks have undergone a Renaissance in Scandinavia, Germany, France, and throughout Eastern Europe (including Russia) and in the USA. An astonishing revision of the Nazi programme has taken place so that the Slavs (they were on Adolf's list of racial inferiors earmarked for decimation) are now equal partners in the new Aryan vision. If anything is to be intuited it is that increasing tribal identities and reforged forms of national sovereignty are alive and well and stand as a "denier" to the simplistic and positive visions of globalisation that we hear all too often.

John W. Morehead said...

Matt, I experienced what you are talking about firsthand in my trip to Australia a few years ago. I asked how Aussies felt about Americans and was told that they like us as individuals but don't care much for us as a nation. The reaction of Canadians was even worse. So I appreciate the cultural distance and friction even between allies.

Philip, you raise important questions related to globalization that need to be explored in this regard as well, but one can only do so much at a Cornerstone Festival and blog post!

Matt Stone said...


I remember when September 11 first happened. The visions we started recieving on our screens were unreal, unbelievable, shocking and we stopped dead, mourning with America, stunned into silence by this tragic act of violence.

Then I remember Bush getting on the telly a few weeks later, completely bewildered and saying 'I can't understand why they hate us, I mean, we're just so good' and me thinking, 'well you've just unwittingly answered yourself in that one sentance.' The naive arrogance and hubris it expressed. The indifference to others. Aussies were guffawing all over the place, again in unbelief. If our Prime Minister had uttered words so self-absorbed he'd be cut off at the knees. It was clear to me then that Bush had no idea how his words were received by other cultures. Here was a man with global reach but only a parochial consciousness - dangerous! This elephant doesn't see us ants -watch out!

Your assessment above is fairly representative. Aussies generally find Americans quite pleasant as individuals. You're obviously one I am particularly fond of. We feel a certain bond and are certainly concerned when you're targetted by extremists. We consider America to be a great ally, arguably our greatest. We just get concerned when your governments and corporations seem to (to quote Stephen Covey) show they have a circle of influence that extends way beyond their circle of concern.

On Philips points, I agree and recall a book some time ago which referred to the three globalization periods of the industrial era. I also remember the goldern straightjacket motif of that great book 'The Lexus and the Olive Tree' and 'Goldern Arches theory of conflict avoidance' and agree that despite the pifalls of globalization I'd rather have it than not.

What we need is a more humane globalization, and America is a key player in that. So what we ultimately would like to see is a more humane America, a more globally aware America. We'd like to see yall getting out and travelling the world a bit more, getting to know it.

Here's a quote from a recent SMH article:

"Australians are eager to gobble up the world around them. Per capita, we travel more than anyone else in the world. A year overseas after high school or university is nearly universal among those who can afford it - and those who can't afford it save until they can: $5000 for a trip overseas is an infinitely more affordable financial goal than $50,000 for a deposit on a house.

In contrast, 80 per cent of US citizens don't own a passport and, broadly speaking, their knowledge of the world outside their borders reflects this.

When the singer Chris Brown visited Melbourne in May, he was dismayed to discover it was cold. Many Americans who discussed the incident online seemed to think there was nothing ignorant about it. Why would anyone expect them to know the meteorological intricacies of far-flung continents like Australia? Indeed, why would anyone expect them to know the northern and southern hemispheres are in opposite seasons? While Australians are excited about the outside world, the US is excited about, well, the US."

I'd like to think us friends could balance each other out a bit.