How to spot a cultural imperialist

Consider, if you will, the following scenario: a group of clerics and theology experts in Pakistan, having pooled their expertise and their money, launch a political campaign to change local laws to something more aligned with Sharia law – in Washington, DC.

What kind of objections does that conjure up? Did the words “sovereignty,” “interference,” or “imposing your beliefs on other people” appear in your head?

Consider another scenario: a group of gender experts in London, England, having pooled their expertise and their money, launch a political campaign to change local laws to something more aligned with their feminist vision – in Tokyo, Japan.

What kind of objections does that conjure up?

Did you find the former example objectionable because it was a horrible throwback to the brutish ways of the past, and the latter eminently reasonable because it was done in the name of progress and helping people?  Or did you maybe find the first example unthinkable, because in each transaction the West should dominate, and not the other way around? Congratulations; you are a cultural imperialist.

The concept of cultural imperialism most clearly dates back to Rudyard Kipling’s The White Man’s Burden, a poem in which he called upon Westerners to expand their influence, asserting that “superior” Western morals and culture had to be imposed upon “savages” around the world for their own good.  While noting the ethical ambiguity involved in imposing on other cultures by force of arms, Kipling’s argument was that this was ultimately in their favor.  The men and women of Kipling’s time were largely convinced that what they did really was a good thing for the peoples that were subjugated – for their civilization, and for their souls.

Take up the White Man’s burden–
The savage wars of peace–
Fill full the mouth of Famine
And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
The end for others sought,
Watch sloth and heathen Folly
Bring all your hopes to nought.

Fast forward 100 years.  We aren’t sure that we believe in saving peoples’ souls anymore, and certainly not by force majeure – but the certainty, the absolute confidence we have that the West’s moral and ethical system should be imparted to all non-Western countries, still burns.  Last time it was Christianity – ah, but this time is different, right? This time it’s liberal ideas on minimum wages, on workers’ rights, on gender equality.  Surely that’s universal, because we firmly believe it should be. Who could possibly object to that?

We don’t question it; we don’t stop to think about it.  If we should happen to examine our own motives, we suggest that our motives appear, to us, blameless and pure, and soldier on.  We judge other cultures by our own standards, assuming we have the right to meddle with them if they displease us or fail by our own abstractions.  It’s obvious to us that we’re doing a good thing, just as it was obvious to the men and women of Kipling’s time that they were helping even as they stamped out centuries-old languages and traditions.

Any objection to this, or suggestion that perhaps the West is in no place to be doing this, given its history of exploitation, is met with an indignant, “Think of the women! The children! The workers with no unions! The starving people!”  Anything dubious must be forgiven, in the name of helping unfortunates.  Any pretext at all, to maintain the privilege the West has of meddling with the “lesser” cultures.

Take up the White Man’s burden–
Ye dare not stoop to less–
Nor call too loud on Freedom
To cloke your weariness;
By all ye cry or whisper,
By all ye leave or do,
The silent, sullen peoples
Shall weigh your gods and you.

Over a hundred years, and we still haven’t really learned from The White Man’s Burden.

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Published in: on September 20, 2012 at 3:55 PM  Leave a Comment  

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