The Persistent East vs. West Debate
It was Sunday afternoon when I first encountered the brochure that read “Communicating Taboos.”
The title had attracted me to ask about this brochure that I’ve been seeing everywhere, yet never had the chance to get my hand on one to read. After a brief research among my fellow students, I have gotten to know that there is a conference that will be held that week, the objective of which is to gather people from different cultural backgrounds and have them communicate their cultural taboos.
Honestly, I was very delighted to know that the Beyond Boarders club is holding forums in which people can communicate on their differences and similarities. I have always believed that sharing various cultural norms would be beneficial for all students in the sense that it would pave the way for better futuristic understanding among different cultures.
However, it was not until the night of that conference that this feeling had died out and was replaced by frustration and disenchantment.
I have entered the conference to find two big words displayed on the screen projector: “EAST” and “WEST.”
Moreover, the thing that had added to my frustration was the lecturers’ approach towards cultural differences (the extent of religious influence in a society, etc.). The lecturers had based their approach to the question of cultural differences on two vague and problematic categories: the East vs. the West.
Some questions that came to my mind were: Are we really in the 21st century?! Isn’t this old wine in new bottles?! This idea of East vs. West had been the discourse of the 18th and 19th centuries in post-Enlightenment Europe.
Briefly, the discourse aims at establishing problematic assumptions that were accepted back then for historical reasons. The first assumption is that the East and the West are static entities that are incapable of permeation, as if ideas and traditions stick to the territory and are not transferred by cross-cultural frictions. Consequently, we can claim to talk about them as separate cultural “entities.”
The second assumption is that the East (or the West) is all but one typical culture. The Egyptian culture is different from the Indian one, which is not so dissimilar to the Ukrainian one.
Obviously, I am satisfied to declare those assumptions wrong and misleading. Cultures are far from static; cross-cultural frictions (including wars) have been penetrating into the very essence of each country’s culture and have borrowed, amended, copied, and mixed different values and norms from each culture to the other.
Nor am I ready to invest in the misleading idea that the entire East is one category. I can see as many differences as similarities among, let’s say, Egyptian and Saudi cultures. Similarly, I can also see more differences than I can see similarities between the for example the American and the French cultures.
It, however, should be noted that many other problematic assumptions had been historically built upon those two basic assumptions. For example, this idea of the unchanging the West vs. its Eastern counterpart paved the way for imperialism and colonization ideologies.
The West regarded themselves not only as unchanging, but also as the “unchanging superior” culture versus the “nomadic, uncivilized unchanging” Eastern culture. It should also be noted that this article falls short of adequately describing the problematic aspects of such discourse (categorizing the East, and the West) and a thorough reading of Edward Said’s Orientalism would be sufficient for this purpose.
SO WHAT IS THE SOLUTION? I believe that the solution lies not in abandoning such an activity for its false assumptions and approach. Conversely, I believe that the best solution is to participate. We all have the responsibility to participate and voice our opinions in order to check on each others’ faults.
Sociologist would contribute to the whole activity’s overall understanding of societies and peoples; political scientists would contribute to a better understanding of the effect of different cultures on the political systems, and so on and so forth.
Consequently, our participation, and our communication would add to the overall purpose of this activity, as well as other activities.