Civilisation (and culture) be damned!
I’ve promised myself – and it is part of my manifesto for this personal blog – to consider and try to get under the skin of points of view that aren’t naturally aligned to my own worldview. It may sometimes lead me to alter that worldview or to reinforce what I already believe.
The main source material for this blog entry, an article from a few years ago by philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, is one such. Memo to self: the important thing is to have an open mind right from the start of reading.
But I studied the article having recently read and hugely enjoyed Tom Holland’s “Dominion”, a highly readable journey through the historical events and influences that have led to what might loosely be termed the western world, both geographically and philosophically. Some further thoughts from that book are on my stack for a future blog entry, but suffice to say for now that its central message is of a Judeo-Christian silver thread running through the whole development including – inescapably – the fundamental ideas shaping its post-religious, sceptical modern forms, even radical atheism. The reason I mention this in my preamble becomes clear later on.
In making my way through another stimulating read, John Kay and Mervyn King’s “Radical Uncertainty” (watch out for another future blog entry), philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah is cited, a name I’d heard before but not read directly. So, I chose to google (well, duckduckgo) him and discovered online an interesting Guardian article dating from 2017 under the heading of “There is no such thing as western civilisation”. Now, there’s a challenge to my own worldview, but one that I would want to approach with equanimity.
The article is available at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/nov/09/western-civilisation-appiah-reith-lecture and is in fact an abridged version of one of the BBC’s Reith Lectures he had been invited to give that year. My intention in this blog entry is not slavishly to paraphrase Appiah’s train of thought (much better to read it in the original) but to see how it might nudge my own worldview.
In a sentence, Appiah seems to argue that, in every conceivable respect, “western civilisation” is utterly misplaced as a legitimate notion and that instead it is a misshapen, phantasmic confection brought about by expedient accretions of self-regard, unadmitted appropriations both cultural and material from other – inevitably nobler – civilisations, and uniquely devoid of an ethics worthy of the term.
Am I putting this summary too strongly? As I said, I suggest you read the article for yourself.
Especially given the prominence of this strongly expressed point of view and its platform given via the prestigious BBC Reith Lecture series, no reader – or listener – can meaningfully engage with his argument and then remain on the fence. So complete is its attempted demolition job, not only the dismantling of every edifice but the sowing of salt into the surrounding fields to ensure total despoliation, that it is implicitly presenting a binary choice: Sign up to what is a majorly fashionable work of civilisational eradication or Dare to defend the manifestly indefensible.
Any chance that Appiah’s polemic is simply theatrical rhetoric, that western civilisation is not entirely bad after all and in truth has some redeeming features? Not a bit of it. To him it is a concept irredeemably tarnished and fit only for denigration: “we should give up the very idea of western civilisation”, Appiah concludes. So, not even destined for the dustbin of history, for how can you consign to the scrapheap something that never really legitimately existed?
With the gauntlet thrown down, how does the reader of that article then react? How do I react? How does the reader of this blog react? (As I have already urged, read the source article, not just its refraction through the prism of my interpretation.)
To half-answer now my own challenge immediately: yes, Appiah’s article has nudged my worldview a little because it included some facts previously unknown to me and a commentary that forms an interesting narrative; it highlighted a fascinating ancient map by Herodotus (a differently sourced image is at the top of this blog entry – do take a look) that informs my understanding of the ancients’ view of where the edge of the world was; it taught me that Mahatma Ghandi’s famous saying, in response to the notion of western civilisation, “I think it would be a good idea” is almost certainly apocryphal; above all it forced the refinement and sharpening of my sense of identity and belonging.
Changing the demolition metaphor to a maritime torpedoing, to what driftwood of civilisational wreckage, then, am I clinging? And is it large enough and with sufficient source of basic nourishment to keep me afloat and alive? Or is it just an illusion that there is any place of safety and succour in this nasty, brutish, postmodern “western” ocean? And, if not, are there rescue ships in the vicinity in the forms of other civilisations that are for some reason spared by the predator?
I think there are four aspects to how I would like to respond to Appiah’s challenge.
The first is to ask what exactly Appiah is objecting to.
The second is to consider that last question of mine: Where are the civilisational rescue ships, if any such exist?
The third is the “What is really going on here?” question.
The fourth is, after those three, “What does this mean for me and my worldview?”
Taking the first of these, what then is Appiah’s gripe with western civilisation? Fundamentally, he seems to consider it illegimitate. Why illegitimate? Well, firstly, he argues that the label “European”, antecedent of “western”, is inchoate because it originated only as a loose label applying to those fighting against the spread of Islam into the continental landmass now labelled Europe rather than for anything in its own right, and that it has remained inchoate ever since. Secondly, that its subsequent synonymity with “Christendom” is incoherent because Christianity was never either monolithically applied across the continent and nor did it entirely replace or fully assimilate non-Christian belief systems such as paganism. Thirdly, because any exceptionalist claims on its behalf are bogus, whether because foundational sources are shared with others or because its ethical system is not, in Appiah’s eyes, in any case distinct. Fourthly, and inevitably, it is fatally compromised by being bound up in a sense of racial – here, white – supremacy and, um, imperialism.
To sum up: western civilisation is “not at all a good idea”, according to Appiah, and frankly illegitimate because it is inchoate, incoherent, bogus and compromised. And, to boot, it committed suicide in Flander’s Fields in the early 20th century. There, all gone bar the shouting!
At this point, however, it all starts to get a bit murky because Appiah’s focus seems to become more diffuse as the article goes on. He turns his sights to “western culture” which, unsurprisingly, he damns pretty much in the same terms as western civilisation. But more than that, he uses his dismissal of western culture to debunk the very idea of culture as an overarching concept. Instead, it is only ever a global pick’n’mix market of cultural subcomponents, a help-yourself smorgasbord in which, to select one of his examples, menu options include Franz Kafka and Miles Davis, Islam in New York and Christianity or democracy in Dar el Islam.
Back to the question of what Appiah is actually objecting to: is it civilisation and culture as meta-concepts or merely their manifestations as western civilisation and western culture?
The second of these is I think easy to answer: as far as he is concerned, there can be no such thing as a culture agreed by a particular community as to which mix of cultural subcomponents it should comprise; this to him is quite simply a contradiction in terms. Any sense of a shared culture, whether fixed or dynamically evolving, must therefore be merely a transitory coincidence because it is only ever the arbitrary summation of individuals’ freely arrived at atomised cultural selections. There is therefore no such thing as a common Chinese culture. There is no such thing as a common Russian culture. A common Latina/Latino culture. A common Islamic culture. A common African culture. A common Christian culture. A common African American culture. So then move to a finer grain: no such thing as a common Libyan Islamic culture, common African American culture in Georgia, and so on and so forth until we reach irreducibly atomised individuals à la classic intersectionalism.
The first, whether civilisation is legitimate as a concept, is more difficult to answer because Appiah is somewhat contradictory in his assertions. Talk about civilisation fizzles out as he becomes increasingly animated about the question of culture, although he does seemingly acknowledge the brute fact of western civilisation in admitting that other civilisations can choose to adopt elements from it. On the other hand, his closing sentence is of a type with an adapted John Lennon “Imagine there’s no civilisation – it’s easy if you try”. Real Brotherhood of Humankind stuff, and just let’s lose every intermediate grouping in between that and the individual, isolated person, especially groupings you don’t happen to like.
But let’s suppose he does believe in the concept of civilisations and the principle of their legitimacy, just not western civilisation. Couched in the terms of my paraphrasing, his objection to the latter, let’s remind ourselves, is that it is inchoate (ill-defined), incoherent (impure), bogus (non-unique origins and foundational sources, discrepancies, discontinuities) and compromised (racial supremacy, conquest, imperialism). The obvious thing to do would be to apply these criteria to other civilisations to see how much better they might do.
I’m not going to attempt an in-depth analysis here, but just to lay out a thought experiment. Here’s a scratch list of civilisations, ancient and modern (which, granted, is not so very different to a list of empires – a debating point in itself perhaps for another day): Incan, Aztek, Roman, Persian, Ancient Greek, Maya, Ancient Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Chinese, Brahmin-Hindu (the last two surviving into the modern day) plus, borrowing from Samuel Huntingdon’s Clash of Civilisations, currently existing civilisations comprising Orthodox, Islamic, Buddhist, African, Latin American, Japanese and, would you believe it, Western. (I’m using Huntingdon’s list for convenience but do warn myself and readers that it’s at best a reasonable organising principle but with plenty of apples-and-pears problems mixed in, e.g. implied heterogeneity of central and south America, ditto the Orthodox world, overlap between these two and the notion of western civilisation etc.)
Acknowledging the limitations of the exercise up front, now take your pick from any or all of this list and apply the objections I’ve encapsulated from Appiah’s article to each civilisation in turn. I’d reckon it would be hard not to award at least three out of four objections to almost every single one of them, perhaps in differing permutations. Certainly, all of them are compromised in various ways; almost all of them are bogus, not least in applying Appiah’s preoccupation with historical continuity; most are arguably incoherent and/or inchoate.
Such an outcome would mean that pretty much every one of these civilisations is also delegitimised according to Appiah’s criteria. I am going to be charitable and accept that his Reith Lectures and associated Guardian article were necessarily restricted in scope and that, in respect of equivalent analyses of the Rest Of The World, Appiah has either not yet got round to it or has done so and I haven’t so far chanced across it.
Delegitimising the concept of civilisation as well as that of commonly agreed culture would nicely fit a postmodern narrative that, er, there is no such thing as a narrative, no such concept as an overarching progression. Appiah may consider himself a postmodernist, in which case no surprise that all such concepts are bunk, or he may not, in which case I do look forward to reading his assessment of Islamic civilisation (which he cites several times as a counterpoint in the article) and also to the rest of them. But in the meantime, to close this first question (finally), I conclude that within the terms drawn Appiah is objecting specifically to the legitimacy of the reality of western civilisation even if he totally rejects the notion of commonly agreed culture, whether “western” or any other.
Turning to the second question, expressed in terms of whether there are any civilisational rescue ships to pick western survivors, I believe I have already answered this on Appiah’s behalf. If he has torpedoed western civilisation using the criteria he selects, for consistency the rest need to go down too. None has legitimacy according to application of his criteria (even if he half-resists the postmodern temptation to abolish the very thought of them) but at least there is now a bunch more sea debris to cling to. Any plastic waste bobbing around with the general wreckage will obviously be the West’s fault, no shadow of a doubt.
The third question is “What is really going on here?”
One of the things I passionately believe in is that we must embrace a multi-polar way of looking at the world. By this I mean that history and current events need to be viewed and interpreted through a number of different standpoints, whether geographical or cultural, the better to appreciate different perspectives as waypoints towards truer empathy and better means of consensus building. (To cite a tiny micro-example, I have found that my Indian and Kenyan in-laws have a greater natural multi-polar feel for Hungarian history than does the island nation of the British.)
But what I don’t mean by multi-polar (and I am sure I am exposing myself here as an amateurish International Affairs wannabe) is the trashing of one pole/civilisation/culture as part of an exercise to level the field for all-comers. That way to my mind leads to gross distortion and the risk of a backlash, especially when it does all seem one way. This is where I would very much hope that Appiah, whose article I am leaning on quite heavily here to test my own views, is better than simply to be part of that systematic trashing of the West that is so fashionable in these days. From both outside its bailiwick and within. There has to be a more respectful, more even-handed, more nuanced and fairer way to arrive at multipolar viewing lenses. I want to hand Appiah the benefit of the doubt that, with other civilisations in his crosshairs, he would address them against the same criteria. Why wouldn’t any fair-minded person act in such a way, at least as a matter of principle even if in practice expediency and personal preference allowed a humanly understandable measure of partisan distortion? What is there to lose thereby?
Finally, to the fourth point: What does it do to my own worldview? To my sense of identity and belonging that, as for everyone, is necessarily tied up in whatever civilisation (civilisations?) I find myself encompassed by. Whilst these are rhetorical questions, I also add a gentle nudge towards any readers who have got this far in my blog entry: that is part of what I am intending with these thoughts. As I said before, neutrality seems not to be an option here, given the force of the challenge.
I don’t share in the postmodern angst about overarching narratives and thus accept that civilisations and cultures do exist, and that they can in fact be commonly understood and shared experiences, environments and understandings. So. what do I think about western civilisation and Appiah’s outright attack on it? In other words, how do I relate to his objections to it?
Let’s go in reverse order, touching first on the universally unpalatable fourth one. In the terms set here, western civilisation has indeed been strongly compromised in its history and, arguably, even in relatively recent times through the realpolitik of the Cold War and such like. As I have already argued, that is hardly unique, if hard to come to terms with. But does it fatally damage the very concept? I don't think so, whether applied to western or any other civilisations. That is what they have always done and we would all cherish the hope that the future might be different.
Next, claims of bogus. Appiah’s attempt to discredit the development from the “Europenses” who repelled the Muslim army at Tours in 732 via the entity styled as “Christendom” through to its “western civilisation” manifestation does indeed turn up discontinuities and discrepancies and, yes, foundational sources such as Greek classical writings are indeed shared with Islamic scholarship in earlier centuries. As to non-unique origins, an inescapable fact is the central presence of Christianity throughout, something there is a modern tendency to downplay, and as per Tom Holland I include in this evolutions of Christian thinking that led to separation of religion and state and indeed to agnostic and atheistic ways of thinking which are inescapably and uniquely bound by the very Christian way of seeing the world they become in opposition to. Given that Christianity is by definition not geographically bound, it is hardly a feature unique to the west.
I think it is fair to say that those identifying, however vaguely, with western civilisation will emphasise different foundational – or re-foundational – waypoints, whether the pre-Reformation days of relatively uniform Christianity, the post-Reformation settlement (albeit after unbelievably bloody warfare), the Enlightenment or modern democratic and rule-of-law frameworks within a secular sphere. Not everyone will want to recognise or acknowledge the silver thread of Christianity (or, more correctly, Judeo-Christianity) for various complicated reasons including metaphorically cutting off the very philosophical branch they are perched on (pace Tom Holland).
The question in my mind is whether such a multifarious historical provenance is a disqualifier for legitimacy. I don’t think this is at all obvious as a conclusion, but it is where I begin to think Appiah does have a point, and this leads me to consider his two other objections.
Using my own paraphrased categorisations, Appiah accuses western civilisation of being inchoate (ill-defined) and incoherent (impure). Cutting to the chase, I agree with him, but draw the opposite conclusion: I don’t think these render it illegitimate. Quite the contrary. I want to argue that these are fundamental and positive attributes that help to explain its progression, survival, mutation and readiness to reform from 732 to the present day. As a subscriber to western civilisation it is something that I am proud of, this “big tent” mentality that allows for porous fuzziness at the edges and dynamic diversity within. Far from being a sign of intellectual or philosophical weakness, it is I reckon a huge strength and reason enough to induce envy in some who would belittle it and whose own sympathies may lie with more brittle civilisational instances. Is Appiah one of these? I don’t think so, but his polemic does leave it open to suggestion and I find myself wondering aloud whether he would enjoy similar liberties and security from repercussion in attacking the very essence of, say, current Chinese or Islamic or Buddhist civilisations, whether identifying with them or not.
Three quick closing comments.
Firstly, there is a separate discussion to be had about what lies at the root of western civilisation’s malleability. Again acknowledging Tom Holland, I would argue that the decoupling of religion, state and indeed ethnicity gives western civilisation a portability, durability and universality all borne of a two-way permeability that is not necessarily characteristic of other civilisations, especially those for which religion and state are tightly coupled.
Secondly, I would totally agree with an inference that the label “western” is an outdated and self-constraining term given its professedly universalist intent and that it needs to be replaced in time by another label. If geographical demarcation is out, and religious denotation and other waypoints such as “Enlightenment” inappropriate as insufficiently inclusive, then what should it be called? Answers on a postcard.
Thirdly, I do believe western civilisation in its post-war form is guilty, having retrenched and largely discarded its colonialist tendencies, of holding the presumption that its universalist notions are self-evidently so to all people once enlightened. This was duly and naively built into the constitutions of the United Nations and other supranational and global institutions at their respective foundations. Since then, other civilisations of the world have mounted strong challenges to the very fundamentals of these institutions in, for example, considerably reshaping how individual freedoms are defined, expressed and protected. The sense of personal liberty varies strongly in and between countries such as China or Iran, let alone those at the bottom of global indices of freedom including Sudan, Zimbabwe, Bolivia, Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Cuba, Venezuela and North Korea (this list is from https://www.heritage.org/index/ranking?version=438 and is about economic freedom, but equivalent rankings of press and individual freedoms are closely correlated).
One thing is for sure: if western civilisation’s ideas including those about freedom and the rule of law are truly universalist, it is and always will be a perpetual struggle to explain to advocates of other, competing civilisations that this is the case, whether intellectually, philosophically or geopolitically. Perhaps ‘tis the lot of any erstwhile global hegemon but it has been part of the story, in constantly evolving form for centuries now, and it will doubtless be the story of this century too. It is also for this reason that I personally think Appiah’s calling cry of “I am human, I think nothing human alien to me” begs much the same questions of humanity in a world of competing ideas, systems and civilisations: What it is to be part of a heterogeneous, free human civilisation that somehow muddles through even though it is inchoate, incoherent, bogus and compromised. In other words, what it is to be messily human.
Western civilisation “not at all a good idea”? Over to you: what do you think?