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Clash of cultures

The phrase Western values is frequently used in academic, press, and diplomatic discourses to describe a wide array of political and civic values, social tendencies, and personality traits. It is central to the thesis of a “clash of cultures” in explaining various global conflicts, especially Islamist extremisms.

The phrase was made popular by Samuel Huntington, the late Harvard University political scientist. According to Huntington, the West is headed toward an epochal clash with other cultures because they reject Western values. And, indeed, many non-Western peoples aver rejection of the said Western values. What often goes unquestioned is whether both sides are referring to the same realities. What this book demonstrates is that “Western values” means different things to different people. And that spells trouble for world affairs.

A search of the Lexis-Nexis database found that Western statesmen, academics, and especially journalists use the phrase Western values to refer to a wide range of characteristics. Among them are the readily identifiable values of freedom, liberty, democracy, rule of law, egalitarianism, individuality, gender equality, tolerance, and protection

Many faces of cultural chauvinism 1 of civil rights. Not as commonly identified as “Western values” but are so characterized in Western press reports are charisma, pizzazz, humor, sarcasm, populism, charity, civility, reason, reciprocity, considerateness, public relations, self-reliance, and, yes, five course meals. In addition, there are characteristics that are reported to be distinctly American, among them grit and the can-do attitude.

On the other hand, nefarious political and civic behaviors are reported as characteristic of countries that lack, or are in transition to, Western values. Among such are nationalism and civic transgressions such as corruption, inefficiency, mismanagement, and ethnocentrism.

Because the basis of the various chauvinisms is reductive, there is much bifurcation and ambivalence. To the Westerner, for example, “Western values” are desirable values. But to Islamists, they connote decadence and to Chinese communist leaders they are harbingers of political disorder and even anarchy.

Remarkably, these cultural chauvinisms have their domestic equivalents within countries around the world. In the United States, for example, it is manifested in the growing toxicity of partisanship or what Fukuyama calls “the politics of resentment.” After Donald Trump won the presidential election in 2016, most analysts pointed to economic anxiety among the white working class as the major factor. However, a study conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and The Atlantic in 2017 found that anxiety over America’s cultural identity was the decisive factor.

Nearly two-thirds of the white working class say American culture has gotten worse since the 1950s. Sixty-eight percent say the U.S. is in danger of losing its identity, and 62 percent say America’s growing number of immigrants threaten the country’s culture,

Anna Green writes in The Atlantic (May 9, 2017) in summarizing the findings.

Another study conducted by PRRI and The Atlantic in 2019 found that a significant percentage of Americans (20-25 percent) live in a cultural bubble. That is, they rarely interact with people of other races, religions, and political affiliations. This is intensifying the political divide, the study concludes.

And yet, the choices Americans make every day—about where to live or go to church or send a kid to school, about whose book club to join or whom to invite over for dinner—influence the way they see the world, and especially how they see politics,

Green writes in a summation in The Atlantic of February 1, 2019.

“When people largely surround themselves with sameness, they may find themselves left shouting across perceived divides, unable to see their reflection in anyone who stands on the other side.”

The inability to see one’s reflection in others is, of course, the operative issue here. The problem is multiplied tenfold in the context of international relations and contestations. American identity is, of course, a subset of Western values. Yet, as will be discussed in subsequent chapters, there is much contradictions and equivocation on what these constitute.

It is in this thicket of communicational confusion that world affairs are conducted. It is a world in which—to excerpt from W.B. Yeats’ “The Second Coming”—“the falcon cannot hear the falconer” and so “things fall apart.” The objective in this book again is to expound on this obstacle to improved global harmony.

The next chapter elaborates on the notion of “Western values” from the perspective of the West. The three chapters (3-5) that follow discuss how this notion manifests in Western press coverage of global affairs. These are followed by two chapters (6 and 7) that turn the table and examine Western values from the perspective of non-Westerners. It is, in effect, a look at non-Westerners’ cultural chauvinism. Chapters 8 and 9 are about contestations over democratic ethos, with Chinese communist leaders rejecting it outright while other countries lay claim to it and rebuke the West for asserting ownership.

Chapter 10 sketches the history of cultural chauvinism, dating back to the early years of intercultural interface. It was then that the major races were formally placed in a hierarchy of superiority, with the black race being placed at the bottom. And Chapter 11 is a counter-point by African and Africanist scholars.

The last two chapters (12 and 13) discuss commonalities and the forces of political and cultural convergence. They lead to the conclusion that Francis Fukuyama’s declaration of “the end of history”8 may have been premature but it is certainly foreseeable.

The book ends with a short postscript in which the author recounts a personal encounter that well illustrates the muddied nature of identity claims.

Notes

  • 1 Examples: Brown, Ashley, ‘“Least Desirable’? How Racial Discrimination Plays Out In Online Dating,” NPR, Morning Edition, January 9, 2018. https://www.npr.org/2018/61/09/575352051/least-desirable-how-racial-discrimination-plays-out-in-online-dating; Belinda Robnett and Cynthia Feliciano, “Patterns of Racial-Ethnic Exclusion by Internet Daters,” Social Forces, 89, 3 (March 2011): 807-828, doi:10.1093/sf/89.3.807.
  • 2 Francis Fukuyama, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment (New York: Picador, 2019).
  • 3 Kwame Anthony Appiah, The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity (New York: Liveright, 2019).
  • 4 Appiah, The Lies That Bind, 31.
  • 5 Appiah, The Lies That Bind, xii.
  • 6 Appiah, The Lies That Bind, xiii.
  • 7 Appiah, The Lies That Bind, xv.
  • 8 Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Free Press, 1992).
 
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