Home / Opinion / What’s the ‘West’ and why does it praise others so often?

We were reminded this year that ‘the West’ is not ‘White people’. Russia, for instance, is not the West, according to the West and also Russia. Some people say Japan is a part of the West. But that is because they think if a country is rich, and has stand-up comedians and fair elections, it must be ‘the West’. But is it possible to spot ‘the West’ on a map? I don’t think all of the US will make it. Maybe the West is not a region. It is not even most people in Europe and North America. But the West does exist. Some scholars say the West is an idea. Scholars who say something is an idea usually mean it is a good idea. The West probably is, but if so, it is a good idea that thinks there is no other good idea, which makes it something sacred, like a religion. But then the West has been a sacred idea for so long, its modern description has to be more than that.

I think the West is a set of behaviours. For instance, it talks a lot. It is always engaged in articulation, especially about things you may not have thought possible to talk about. The West is big on compliments. It appreciates other people when they do something agreeable or fascinating, or when they fall in line. It has awards, tributes, odes, panegyrics, epitaphs and other forms of appreciation.

You may think all this is human nature, but the uniqueness of the Western way is in the degree. Before the West’s influence, other cultures did not invest so much effort and resources in articulation and paying public tributes. Even now they don’t. We Indians are rarely effusive in praising others in a foreign land, for there is something immodest about that. But I know people from the West who land in a foreign country and take little time to start singing praises to its artists, even declaring some of them “national treasures" when they already are national treasures. This may seem trivial but is in actuality a visible side of the powerful technique of subjective acclaim, a method of persuasion.

The West is also big on self-loathing and self-whipping, which too are ways of talking. But one of the most important aspects of the West is that its political impulse is Christian, especially of its atheists and rationalists.

The substantive part of Christianity is not anymore its fables and magic-realism, but its ancient obsession with the transmission of a moral idea. This, too, is about talking.

No other faith wishes to convince you of how right it is than Christianity through sermons and open debates. Ancient Brahmins, on the other hand, worked very hard to keep everything secret. It is possible that even the bit of articulation other faiths began doing was in response to the spread of Christianity, which believes there is only one right path, and everyone has to be persuaded to see it that way. On this medium of communication, the Christian restlessness to transmit a moral idea travel almost all major ideas that define the West —democracy, individual liberty, equality, environmentalism and so on. There is only one way to live, govern, and be right, and that is the way of the West. Everything else is evil, unless it is esoteric like innocuous cultural festivals, colourful saris and ‘mindfulness’. The origin of the European Enlightenment was in Christian monks learning obscure languages so that they could argue with people of other lands and show them why the Christian way was superior. The arguments brought philosophical ideas to Europe, in which elites marinated for decades, talking, talking, talking.

You will never hear of China or Russia seriously try to persuade you to adopt their political ways. They may praise themselves, run a clumsy propaganda wing, exaggerate their past, but they do not spend time on proper evangelism. But the West never tires of asking people to be like it. That is why it keeps talking about ideas that are more abstract than they seem, like equality and rights; and celebrates those who fall in line through prizes like the Nobel. And it condemns people who defy the Western way as despots and oligarchs, who are somehow different from its presidents and billionaires.

Nelson Mandela, even though he was wooed with Western praise, was too smart to fall for those charms. Once, when an American journalist asked him why he was friendly with people like Fidel Castro, Yasser Arafat and Muammar Gaddafi whom the West condemned, Mandela’s answer was, “One of the mistakes which some political analysts make is to think their enemies should be our enemies." This observation arrives at the very reason why the West is so sanctimonious. It praises nations, too, in self-interest. Ukraine’s current misery and miscalculations are partly traceable to Western compliments—first for its “democracy" and other Western appearances, and now as it gets wrecked, for its “courage".

The West is smug because it believes that it has reformed the world. And it has transmitted this hypothesis the best: that without the West and its invention of organized compassion, the world would have been filled with savages, alpha men would have run amok, women would have no joy, widows would have been burnt and the unlucky would have been abandoned. But the records of olden-day Western intellectuals point to something else—that mostly everything the West claims was its invention was taken from other civilizations that flourished long before its rise. Also, there is no evidence that customs like ‘sati’ in India were widely prevalent. One of the most absurd triumphs of Western historians is to have convinced some of us that Indians had no qualms burning girls alive until they were reformed by some nice guys. All of reformation itself must be a sham; it lets some people take too much credit for the inherent banal goodness in most people.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, novelist, and the creator of the Netflix series, ‘Decoupled’

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