What is a ‘Westerner’?

A dialog from Bob Corbett's Haiti-L, December 1995

Date: Wed, 20 Dec 1995 20:44:27 -0800 (PST)
From: Bob Corbett <bcorbett@crl.com>
Subject: What is a “Westerner”?
Message-Id: <Pine.SUN.3.91.951220145640.4555A-100000@crl8.crl.com>

Date: Wed, 20 Dec 95 16:52:17 CST
From: Erlyne Josma

The term “Westerner” is being thrown about rather loosely, but no one has clarified as yet what they mean by the term. What makes Brian Corbett more western than a Haitian?

Date: Thu, 21 Dec 1995 06:33:37 -0800 (PST)
From: Bob Corbett <bcorbett@crl.com>
Subject: What is a “Westerner”? Haines Brown responds
Message-Id: <Pine.SUN.3.91.951221063218.6907G-100000@crl14.crl.com>

Date: Thu, 21 Dec 1995 9:28:27 -0500 (EST)

[This text slightly revised 8-97]

Erlyne asks, What is a “Westerner.” Let me try to respond.

Undoubtedly the term “Western” is bandied about loosely, and there are certainly dangers in being careless with it. But I think it can be defined in a useful way. However, we have to be very careful of starting assumptions.

One assumption is that “Western” stands in fundamental opposition to the term “Eastern” or “Oriental.” This reflects an Enlightenment view that there exists a profound cultural distinction between the two regions. The cultural tradition that began with ancient Mediterranean Civilization and evolved in the Middle Ages and Renaissance represents a distinct cultural coherence that is different, or even opposite or contradictory to, the culture of Asia. We call this culture “Western.”

A second assumption is that there is a dividing line between East and West, perhaps running along the Urals, Caspian, Caucasus, Black Sea, and from there through the Mediterranean, passing around Iberia into the Atlantic. The location of this line has been debated, but the issue is not so much locating it as it is to define and justify the categorical distinction it marks. This distinction is language group.

The third assumption is that an inherited cultural coherence serves to identify and explain the basic character of its heirs. Europeans and European immigrants to the New World are essentially “Westerners,” and this fact, more than any other social category, equips us to understand their behavior.

I find that each of these assumptions presents serious difficulties.

First, the essentialist argument that attempts to reduce the culture in the West and in the East to ideal types or empirically verifiable generalizations has been seriously challenged in recent times. The effort to do so tends to ignore both cultural diversity and cultural change in both areas and to underestimate their mutual influences. This is most evident in the case of Asia, but it applies to Europe as well, for both areas have enormous cultural diversity. The construction of a cultural ideal type tends to marginalize cultural minorities and people of color as inferior, alien, or insignificant.

Secondly, drawing a linguistic line between East and West makes little sense. While such a line might roughly serve to identify the region in which European languages prevail, it ignores the profound linguistic divisions in “Asia.” If the prevailing language group were the basis upon which to divide the world into regions, then the East-West dichotomy would collapse.

Furthermore, culture does not reduce to linguistic distinctions, and the construction of geographical categories based on language appear to be artifacts of nineteenth-century reductionist nationalism. For example, there is a consensus today that Mediterranean Civilization derives from Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the Levant. The latter two areas are part of Asia, and the first falls into the limbo created by the adoption of the perspective of the northern hemisphere. Although South America and Africa have land masses significantly south of the equator, they are marginalized. Their history is often left to anthropologists as if there was none. To avoid applying this to Egypt, which was elevated as an important “root” of Western Civilization by James Breasted at the Oriental Institute (n.b.), it had to be detached from Africa. To accomplish this, the category “Near East” was invented in order to salvage Egypt for Western Civilization, while jetisonning Africa. That Africa was and continues to be a major source for Western culture can then be safely ignored.

Third, this approach to the identification of just who people are raises yet another difficulty, although perhaps a philosophical one to which not everyone will be drawn. That is, we are not prisoners of our past, but create ourselves in the present within constraints inherited from our past. I would argue (I will spare you, though) that cultural heritage only defines the relative probability of the possible outcomes of our self-definition in the present. A Haitian, while primarily heir of a African cultural tradition and therefore not Western by inheritance, nevertheless can embrace non-African cultural elements to be fully Western: he could learn French; he could become a capitalist. For different people, the ease with which these identities are achieved depends on their personal inheritance such family culture, wealth and social class. But in principle, a Haitian can become “Western” just as an anthropologist from the US can move to Haiti and “go native,” becoming to some extent an heir of African cultural traditions (I recognize there is an assymetry here).

Having criticized the notion of “Western,” I nevertheless think it has some practical use. If it refers to the prevailing cultural tradition of Europe and European immigrants to the New World, recognizing that this tradition itself is complex, evanescent, and undefinable beyond some vague generalizations, then it has a certain practical utility as an indicator of the likely cultural traits of the people living in these areas. The emphasis here is on probability, not on what is legitimate or significant.

The danger is when the term “Westerner” is used ideologically. If it implies one can distinguish between western cultural elements by calling some “really” western and others alien, then there is a danger of justifying power relations by implying that it is the dominant group defines the culture rather than seeing culture as a complex of patterns of behavior or thought that are different for everyone and all equally legitimate (although perhaps not equally efficacious in all circumstances).

Worth adding is the danger of underestimating not only the importance of global cultural interaction, but also its value for defining who we are and our possibilities in life. There is a danger of placing people into the prisons of their various pasts, rather than grasp that their fate depends far more on their joining together and struggling in the present to build a happier future. If our roots define us, then the branches and leaves we struggle to produce pale in significance.

If we can avoid using the term “Westerner” ideologically, I think it has a certain practical utility. Unfortunately, many give it an explanatory power which it really lacks.

Haines Brown

Warping with ZOC (V2.11)