Thursday, 8 July 2010

The Western World

The use of the word "West" in its academic context really, really bothers me. I mean when people talk about "the Western world," "Western culture," and "Western tradition." Any time someone does this in casual conversation, it's about all I can do to not chastise them for it. The word is a) grossly inaccurate and b) creates and extremely exclusionary discourse about World culture/history/politics/literature/whatever.

Point a) was pointed out by one of my profs last year. Point b) is something I realized a while ago when someone was discussing something along these lines, although I don't even remember what it was now.

When we use the word West in this sense, we do not mean any actual area of land that is actually West. We certainly don't mean the Western hemisphere:

This map clearly does not include enough of Europe, and too much South America and Africa. So, let's try adding a lot more Europe into the mix:

Horrors! Even more of Africa is included in that definition. No, what we really mean when we say "West" is a map that looks more like this:

So when you see the word "West" you should read it as "white." This is what we really mean. It no longer has anything to do with an actual geographic direction, although it did at one point before the New World got thrown in to the mix. The simple fact that it's inaccurate isn't such a big deal. There is a generally accepted definition which is accepted and understood by the majority of folks.

What I do have an issue with is the exclusionary attitude toward world history/culture/literature/whatever that this creates. The focus of so many discussions becomes the East/West divide, because this is the language we like to use. Unfortunately, when West means white and East means Asia, you end up with a world map that looks something like this:

And while I agree that East/West comparisons/contrasts are often useful and interesting, I also would like to know about Africa and the Middle East and South and Central America and Native Americans and the South Pacific. It bothers me that they are continuously excluded from our international discourse. They exist too. So let's get over our Western tradition of calling ourselves Western.

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