Why Is the West the Best?

Why is the West the best? Or is it?

I asked my Japanese wife to respond to the question, “Why is the West the best?” She answered, “Because that’s what the West says.” Edward W. Said has said as much, too, and more. The author of the highly influential and controversial work, Orientalism, Said claims that the West (Europe and the United States) has objectified the East, specifically, the Middle Eastern peoples, framing them as foreign, strange, and threatening.

Said argues that Western imperialism uses abstractions and objectifications to conquer peoples of the East ideologically and militarily. Check out this video for a description of his work and an interview with Said.

The West is not alone in this propensity for imperial mastery. Think of China’s conquest of Tibet, Japan’s conquest in Asia during the WW2 era, and the Mongol and Ottoman empires’ exploits. Still, the West takes second place to no one.

This is not just a problem for empires. Why do all of us tend to objectify people, especially people of different cultures and skin colors? Is it out of fear of losing control and the desire to gain mastery? What do you think?

This problem surfaces inside the church as well. Think of the various discussions pertaining to Lifeway’s Rickshaw Rally’s framing of various peoples.

How do we move beyond such objectification? A recent TED talk offers assistance:  encounter a variety of stories of various peoples to understand who they are. Single stories, especially from external sources, lead to misrepresentation.

Do you have other recommendations on how to move beyond objectifying diverse peoples? If so, please share them. I welcome your answers to the various questions set forth throughout this post. Thank you.

This piece is cross-posted at The Christian Post.

About Paul Louis Metzger

Dr. Paul Louis Metzger is the Founder and Director of The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and Professor at Multnomah Biblical Seminary/Multnomah University. He is the author of numerous works, including "Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths" and "Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class Divisions in a Consumer Church." These volumes and his others can be found wherever fine books are sold.

Find me on: Facebook | Twitter | Google+

  • Derrick Peterson

    Thanks for the post Dr. Metzger. I think this is an incredibly important topic, not just in the sense that we need to overcome marginalization where it is present (obviously this is enough of a priority to occupy us indefinitely) but because I think moving past occidental superiority will also help westerners (myself included) become aware of many of the blindspots within categories we use every day. We’ve had brief discussions on this in the past (and my presentation for New Wine’s Theology of Culture seminar) touched on it a bit, but I think one of the covert Western categories still hurting truly open dialogue is that of “world religions” or even “religion” in general as a genus in which things like Christianity can be classified with Buddhism, Sikhism, etc…

    I tend to agree with an emerging movement of scholarship like Tomoko Masuzawa, Talal Asad, Brent Nongbri, and others that “religion” as we commonly understand it (as essentially a spiritual or fundamentally private corner of existence that can essentially or functionally be differentiated from politics, ethics, economics, etc… is a relatively recent western invention. As Nongbri puts it in his book “Before Religion” when we often attempt to classify whether this or that “ism” (marxism, communism, Buddhism…) are “really” religions or not, what we secretly mean is whether or not they adequately mirror, or can be caused to mirror, what emerged as Western Protestant Christianity in a more or less one-to-one manner.

    This is part of why I appreciated your book Connecting Christ so much, in that with Mormonism for example you insist on not calling them a “cult” (a category that it seems to me needs to piggy back upon the questionable category of religion to be a viable category) but rather wish to deal with them in more sociological categories as a way of life or a wholistic manner of existence. I think this is a possible way forward and mirrors what might be called a truly incarnational logic: life on life engagement rather than “worldview” oriented abstractions.

    • pmetzger

      Derrick,

      Thank you for the connections you have made to “religion” in your comment. Yes, life on life engagement is far more constructive than “worldview” oriented abstractions. Your reflections help to shed light on the reality that those who control the terms of debate on the West and East and religion control the debate. As ever, I appreciate how you deconstruct for the sake of more constructive forms of encounter.

  • Alex O’Leary

    “Why do all of us tend to objectify people, especially people of different cultures and skin colors? Is it out of fear of losing control and the desire to gain mastery?”

    I am not sure that there is a simple, all encompassing answer to this question. I believe the root of the problem is fear of losing control, but by-and-large I think the major problem is ignorance. It was last semester that was introduced to the idea of structural evils. I didn’t consider myself a racist by any means. That said, I was very unaware of how much I had objectified other cultures. I was part of the generation that attended the Rickshaw Rally VBS program. At the time, I thought it was fun and exciting; I was by no means(nor do I think my church was) intentionally being racist. It came from a place of ignorance. In the video you posted with the interview with Said, there was a brief section that talked about the art portraying the Middle East. It mentioned that the art looked as if it took other art pieces as inspiration, rather than the culture itself. After enough paintings tell you that everyone in the Middle east rides on camels and carries a sword, one can easily take it as fact without so much as a second thought.

    As a white male, until recently I was under the impression that racism (with the exception of the few white supremacists out there) was no longer an issue. I have been completely blind to racism that exists all around me. Being in a position of power, I can now certainly see how the argument could be made that these structures are put in by the people in power. I have benefited from them and didn’t even know they existed! I guess all that to say, I think the problem started with people not wanting to lose power, and while that is still a big factor I think much of the problem has shifted to people being ignorant of other cultures and how they are treated. I don’t think most people are intentionally racist.

    • pmetzger

      Alex, thank you for the good point on ignorance. I believe you are right in saying that ignorance is a key factor to consider. Whether or not it is the chief reason presently, it is still very relevant. Nonetheless, while ignorance may be bliss to some, it does not mean that people are immune to criticism or are not culpable. As the old saying goes, hell is paved with good intentions. Thank you for your open and humble reflections; like you, may we all be open to growing in our knowledge and approach to engagement of such problems as racism with wisdom and intentionality.

  • Byron Chinchen

    “Why do all of us tend to objectify people, especially people of different cultures and skin colors?”

    Do we marginalize those who are different out of fear and ignorance. Possibly, and those could certainly be underlying, subconscious factors in the objectification process. However, I do believe that at the core of this issue lies the struggle for power. At the core of the issue there is a motive of control, a desire for authority over the other, and it is the cause for the pain that we see all around us. The power struggle for the post-modern individual is not something unique to our time in history, the individual struggle for success has existed in the human psyche since the fall. But, there is something more unique to the post modern individual when the issue of power is discussed, because whether we realize it or not our western (American) society (and pop-culture in general) has raised us to each believe that we are number one. But why are we all so self-consumed? Why am I always looking out for “number one”?

    Philosopher and ethicist Emmanuel Levinas believes that the “other” (the objectified individual) cannot be fully known until we have an encounter with the other person; a physical face-to-face encounter with that person. So, to this point maybe Alex is correct when pointing out the ignorance in our unintentional racism. Maybe the ignorance of the individual, especially those in places of our society whom we truly never come into contact with, exists out of a place of ignorance and uncertainty. Taking Levinas’ teaching into account, we should realize that there is a certain power struggle in the face-to-face encounter. Do I hold the power in this “relationship” with the objectified and marginalized person by never making an effort to fully know them? If I do not reach out to know the person who is hurting, whom I am essentially hurting, then how can I ever positively change the problem? Maybe it’s time to stop solely looking out for number one, and time to start looking out for numbers two, three, and four as well.

  • Colleen Milstein

    “Why do all of us tend to objectify people, especially people of different cultures
    and skin colors?” and “How do we move beyond such objectification?” I was reminded of a quote by Nelson Mandela as I read this, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

    So the question I ask myself is what are the explicit and implicit ways I learned to objectify people. What messages did I receive, what scared me, and how did I learn to reduce other people to feel better about myself?

    The second question of how do we move beyond objectification is I believe through making friends. It is relational. I have Arab friends, and despite any media image – they are my first image of an Arab. My Korean friends give me the same gifts, as do my Nigerians friends. I hope I give them that glimpse of a South African. I do not believe that stating – all men are equal – changes my thinking. I believe that being willing to make friends, ask questions, get into someone else’s shoes
    will help me see people like God does and enjoy their strengths. When I catch
    myself internally judging or wanting to write off an individual because of
    their politics or opinions, I find the only antidote to be relationship. I need
    to engage. Withdrawing causes me to reinforce my argument, engaging gives me
    opportunity to risk seeing the world in a different way. It is scary and vulnerable
    and freeing all at once.

  • Noah Hoff

    As lightly stated in class, I agree with your wife with her statement of, “Because that’s what the West says.” But I do believe there is a deeper matter at hand too. I believe that many countries in the “east” also believe that the “west is best” and therefore add to the objectification of themselves and us. I took an Intercultural Communication class last year when finishing up my bachelors’ degree. This class was taught by a Chinese graduate student who often gave his point of view as an ‘outsider’ to America to help us better understand the thought processes of intercultural students coming to study in America. He stated that when he returns to China, he will automatically be seen as much more prestigious than any other Chinese student who studied in China. He made a point that the “west” is often seen as the dream in China – the dream institution and life. He stated that Americans that come to China to teach are highly regarded in many social and business settings. So is it possible that some of the problems our world faces in objectifying/idolizing certain cultures comes the objectified/idolized cultures themselves?

  • Deanne

    Why do all of us tend to objectify people, especially people of different cultures and skin colors? Is it out of fear of losing control and the desire to gain mastery? What do you think? I think it could be a power issue. Christians want control, whether it’s within the church, government, school, or work. By losing control we become vulnerable. Being vulnerable means I might not get something I think I deserve or lose something I currently have. I find that when I step out of my comfort zone and try to engage the Chinese gas attendant or my Korean
    neighbors, so often there is a bit of surprise at first, and then there’s a
    connection. Sometimes there is a language barrier and that can make things a bit awkward, but I need to make the attempt.

    Today I got a pedicure (a rare treat!), from a Vietnamese man who did my feet months ago. He couldn’t believe that I remembered him, his children, where he lived, and his story. I wasn’t trying to stalk him, but I think he’ll remember me next time too – we’ve moved from being strangers, to acquaintances, to “I’m his client” for all future pedicures! As I looked around at all the women getting pedicures, it was sad to see everyone on their cell phone either texting, playing games, or talking to someone else, ignoring the person working hard to make their feet look beautiful. Why do you think people would rather interact on their
    phone than have an actual conversation with a real person sitting in front of
    them? I think this is a prime example of objectifying someone by not even
    acknowledging them when they’re clearly in front of you. Do you think people are ignorant or do they just not care?

  • goshenmo

    I wanted to briefly mention an additional perspective on an emerging new
    age of imperialism and how it involves both a machine gun and a briefcase (they often do, don’t they?). If you want to skip this part just scroll down to the title below.

    Does the West still claim first place in imperialism? Historically yes, but this is rapidly changing. Let’s take two regions where historical imperialism has taken a toll: Africa and Asia.

    So how is Western imperialism doing in Africa? China is now the fastest-growing investor in Africa. One of the hallmarks of a global imperialist power is in its global energy consumption. In 2010, China overtook the USA as the “World’s largest energy user”, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA) (China ‘buying out’ Africa: Top 5 destinations of Chinese money, Christian Science Monitor). China overtook the US as Africa’s trade partner four years ago (AFRICA INVESTMENT-China brings goods and roads, now Africa wants jobs). For all those roads and bridges and infrastructure projects, 85% of China’s exports from Africa are raw materials. Therefore, the potential for Africa to mine its own minerals is lost in the form of processing jobs and the wealth produced being taken out of the region, according to the African Development Bank. Undoubtedly, China’s dealings with a number of countries in the continent have created wealth and progress but at what price? Nigerian’s Central Bank Governor, Lamidu Sanusi stated China’s wholesale extraction of Africa’s resources has “all the attributes of colonialism” (AFRICA INVESTMENT, section “Vying for Jobs”).

    In reference to military imperialism, the US is second to none and it supports gross human rights abusing governments right now. In addition, the US has wielded military imperialism, at times, disastrously for other cultures (i.e. the first nation’s peoples). It’s worthwhile to take note China’s use of naval warships and its bullying of regional country as with the Philippines (A Game of Shark Vs Minnow, NY Times) and Vietnam- a victim of another countries’ imperialistic decision to declare an entire sea as their own (Vietnam protest against Chinese aggression). Far from Asian countries worrying about Western imperialism, some are clearly worried about their own neighbor’s imperialism. It increasingly appears China’s “soft imperialism” is increasingly becoming less so (China’s mostly ‘soft’ imperialism, CATO Institute, 2011).

    I just wanted to point out the possibility that Western imperialism is like an old famous heavyweight boxer who is officially the world’s #1, but whose apparent dominance is really built on a former mystique and reputation of one who is now an aged, out-of-shape former title champion- starting to lose matches against a newer, younger, better-in-shape arrival. In addition, the new contender appears to have no qualms about a kidney punch when the referee is not looking.

    Ideas to Prevent Objectifying People

    In reference to prevent objectifying diverse peoples, I really appreciated how Dr. Metzger pointed out Paul’s strategy of presenting the gospel in Athens by creating a Hellenistic cultural space and then using it to relationally share Christ (Act 17). Notice how he was upset over all the idols and yet he complements them on being “very religious”. As Dr. Metzger pointed out, he even quoted pagan poets.

    I was at a Filipino fellowship last night. A Pinoy friend was discussing with me how nearly everyone in the room (30 + people) were formerly Roman Catholic. Some came from strict Roman Catholic backgrounds where the mass was conducted in Latin. I brought up some of the concepts in class and asked him how one could relationally, in a non-worldview or commodity-idea way, share the gospel. His answer startled me- “it’s easy if you can just get them to read the bible.” It was a strong common perception in the fellowship that many felt they never had a chance to know Christ personally because they were kept away from the bible.

    So, here is my idea: I’ve noticed the cross of Christ plays a very significant role (in many mysterious cultural ways that are distinctly Filipino- self crucifixion). I asked him about asking Roman Catholic friends if they would like to do a bible
    study on the suffering of Jesus. He answered very positively. I think such a study would be a relational journey together because we all can relate to suffering.

    It’s culturally acceptable in many countries to casually bring up a conversation about God. I made a recent discovery. I currently, on a regular basis, meet up with a Muslim refugee. He knows I am a Christian. I do not try to convert him. At the same time, because of his cultural background, it is acceptable to him for me to share some aspects of my faith and, for example say, “It was God’s will…” or “God has really blessed and strengthened me…” I have actually found this to be so liberating to transcend the intolerant forced brand of cultural relativism enforced in this country that is not cultural and not relativistic but just a form of
    fascism.

    Another idea I have seen work is I had a Zen Buddhist co-worker who I could engage and tell events in the New Testament as stories. I love Zen stories! There is a key here though that one needs to follow (at least in my case). To be shared in a real relational oral story format, it is helpful to know the historical and cultural background and integrate this into the story. For example, I shared how Paul shared his “radical new belief” he experienced in Antioch and caused a riot! The point was not about trying to “convert” or “win” someone over for Jesus. It was glorifying God through relational 1) simple entertainment, 2) universal truths, and 3) the appreciation of the human story.

    The Gospel as Storying is perhaps one of the most profound ways one can relationally share the battles, poems, historical narratives, and life and death struggles across an incredible array of cultures presented in the Bible.

    So many countries are open to talking about God in a relational way. I once had a co-worker who was Greek Orthodox and was from Cyprus, share with me, his shock when he came to America and found it was not culturally acceptable to just start sharing his faith in a personal way. He said he expected America to be “the most free” to talk about one’s personal relationship with God (in a relational non-proselytizing way). I asked him what he thought were the reasons for this. He said “Because any public expression of one’s personal belief in God is a demanded sacrifice on the altar of moral relativism.”

  • Darcey

    I tend to think that there is unintentional racism. But I also think there is a lot of fear, realized and not. I think a lot of this stems from fearing what we don’t understand or who we don’t understand. Obviously, the history of the world is filled with stories of
    violence between different groups of people based on religion, race, ethnicity,
    etc. Sometimes, I wonder, as simple as it is, if one of the biggest fears of
    the west is that if they aren’t best then what will happen to them? I wonder if
    those who perhaps are more aware of the injustices and seemingly perpetuate
    them (even if it’s just by doing nothing), feel that it is almost a duty, a
    necessary evil to protect those they love, because otherwise they might find
    themselves and their families on the bottom of the pole. I wonder how much of
    this goes back to human instinct to survive. Obviously, the problem is
    multifaceted, but could this be part of it?


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