The discourse of “The West versus the rest” has certainly shaped attitudes and, hence, the realities of colonization and subsequent development of the world outside of Europe. The evidence of this is perhaps most striking in the Americas. We can clearly see the roles played by European’s existing “archive” of information regarding the outside world and the stereotypes that developed, post “discovery”, of America’s native inhabitants. I should note here that in writing this paper I am doing so, inevitably, as one caught within the bounds of the existing “West v rest” discourse.
When using terms such as “modern,” “development,” “civilized,” etc. I am doing so with the understanding that those terms will be understood as they generally have been within the framework of the discourse at issue. Europe’s preconceptions of the outside world had been in formation for hundreds, if not thousands, of years before Columbus landed in the West Indies. Thus, before any contact had been made by early explorers with indigenous peoples, Europeans already carried with them assumptions about whom or what they might find if and when they did reach far off, as yet undiscovered lands.
They came to these assumptions, we read, from four sources: classical knowledge, religion, myth and traveler’s tales. Indeed it is often difficult, among these four sources, to discern where one source ends and another begins. For example, when reports of large men living in what came to be known as Patagonia were heard at home, they almost immediately were combined with preconceptions driven by myth and classical teachings about the peoples that inhabitant distant lands and the size of the locals was greatly exaggerated.
Europe had begun, by the time of the early explorers, to consider itself as its own entity. It was made up of nations and monarchs with competing interests and different religions (types of Christianity within “Christendom”) to be sure, but Europe was a known commodity to Europeans. So when exploration yielded discoveries of exotic and unintelligible peoples, that sense of difference with the rest of the world was only intensified. In the mind of the explorer, what was European was the definition of what was modern, moral and superior.
When they came across a nation of indigenous people in the new world and could not readily identify their system of government, their definition of property or their religion, the explorer assumed that there was none. This imbued them with not only the opportunity but also the obligation to “civilize” the locals. This also brought up thorny religious issues such as whether or not the indigenous people were in fact men with souls like they were. This was a point of some conflict within Christian churches.
In the end, religious decisions were as likely to endorse the subjugation of the locals as they were to promote their equality. It should be noted that Catholic missionary Las Casas did eventually help earn the “freedom” of the natives on the basis that they were rational, soul possessing humans only to have their slave labor replaced with African slaves. This display of the ramifications of the “othering” of unfamiliar people illustrates the danger of creating an “Us versus them” discourse regarding the outside world.
Perhaps this is inevitable but it ought to be kept in mind that we are all working with assumptions, a set of deeply layered preconceived notions. With this in mind we can see that much of the poverty that exists today in the Americas has its roots in colonialism. Our previous readings have shown that as the New World was exploited for commodities by then mercantilist Europe, local patterns of survival and culture were broken often never to be revived again.
Previously unknown social stratification had been put in place, the laborers that had been forced to produce for the colonists were no longer able or willing to revert back to the pre-colonization lifestyle. The outside world had crashed in and left a permanent footprint. This same West v rest discourse is most certainly at work today. It shapes our attitudes toward far away peoples and cultures that we do not understand. It seems particularly acute when we consider the Middle and Far East.
Most westerners never travel to Riyadh or Beijing yet just about every westerner has an opinion about what goes on there and what the people are like. We have been told that we ought to fear outsiders as terrorists or economic rivals. Our discourses, ways of speaking of and understanding the outside world as separate from ourselves, are likely inevitable constructs. We should all be wary of letting them slip from being a practical means of framing a dialogue into becoming an unshakeable ideology.