There is no Third World

There is no Third World January 31, 2015

It was a bright, sunny day in April 2005. Weeks away from my college graduation, I paid a visit to the office of a staff member who over the course of four years had become very dear to me. A scholar of Latin American liberation theology, Irene had organized some of the most memorable experiences of my university years. Thanks to her, I had spent time teaching ESL to recent Latin American immigrants in the New York City area, and I had also gone on a solidarity delegation to Nicaragua. Under her guidance, my eyes had been opened to some of the world’s harsh realities and to the possibility for change. However, despite interacting with Irene in a wide range of contexts on and off campus, I had never actually visited her office. When I stepped inside, I was startled by the sight of the poster that took up the greater part of her wall: an upside-down map of the world.

My first reaction was to laugh. It really was quite silly – Russia and Canada at the bottom of the world, Antarctica at the top. But, after surveying the world in this manner, I began to see that this humourous depiction of the globe had a serious intention.

All of us have implicit assumptions about how our world works. We learn these tacit premises at a young age and may not even be consciously aware of them until a sudden surprise (such as seeing an upside-down map) confronts us with a new perspective. For some of us, the idea that part of the world – at times called the First World – is industrialized, “developed” and modern, while other parts of the world – sometimes called the Second and Third Worlds – are “developing” and perhaps not so modern – is a basic premise many of us take for granted. It is reflected in our language and indeed in our maps. From the perspective of outer space, concepts like “up” and “down” don’t have the same meaning they do for those of on the ground. In the same way, dichotomies between “modern” and “premodern” become quickly confused when, travelling to Central America, one might meet people who live in modest, dirt-floored houses but own smartphones, or who might discover, as I did in my experience as a teacher, that young teenagers in Nicaragua have a much greater knowledge of current world events than their US counterparts.

In his 2000 essay “Modernity and Difference,”* Canadian Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor (perhaps known to some of you for his incredible 2007 tome A Secular Age) argues that the assumptions many of us in the wealthy parts of the world make about the rest of it are not well-founded. Modernity, which is often seen as a move toward societies organized around secularization, urbanization, capitalism, democratization and industrialization, cannot be understood without taking into account a central aspect of people’s lives: their culture. Taylor argues many theorists of modernity view it as a singular, one-size-fits-all process that any society might undergo. The “premodern” part of the world (the “developing” Third World) will be forced to become just like the “modern” part of the world (the “developed” First World).

This scenario might seem problematic for practical reasons, such as the fact that the typical level of consumption of people in the “First World” is not sustainable, and it remains unsustainable as it spreads to other regions. However, Taylor argues that it is also problematic because it does not reflect the reality of cultural diversity. Against the dominant model of “acultural modernity,” which sees modernization as a uniform process leading to convergence, Taylor speaks of “multiple modernities” – the idea that different societies change in their own way, creatively adapting new innovations to their own frameworks and traditions.

In Taylor’s own words, “The point of the “multiple modernities” thesis is that […] adaptations don’t have to and generally won’t be identical across civilizations. Something is indeed converging here, while other things diverge”(369). One example of this is the variety of business practices in different societies; another is in the relationship between religion and the public sphere: “Modern societies obviously differ greatly in the place they have for religion, and this is so even in states that are alike in espousing some variant of ‘secularism.’ What exists under this label in India […] is completely different from its counterpart in France or the USA” (370).

For me, Taylor’s thoughts on modernity strike a chord with my own journey of becoming more aware of the world and my place in it. As a child I was consistently told that my native United States of America was unquestionably the greatest country on earth. But as I grew older I began to see some of my nation’s weakneses alongside of its strengths; when I travelled abroad to Poland, Uruguay, Canada and elsewhere, I saw that each place I visited had its own strengths and weaknesses. As a teacher in Nicaragua, I wanted to help the people I was meeting; I soon learned that I could not expect to have any positive effect on them whatsoever without respectfully listening to their viewpoints and attempting to see the world from their perspective. (For a bold, polemical statement on the built-in arrogance of many charity workers, see Ivan Illich’s “To Hell With Good Intentions“).

I do not mean to discourage anyone from reaching out to help those who are genuinely in need – both at locally and globally. Indeed, in a world marked by stark inequality, working for social justice should be a top priority. As the prophet Micah urges us, we are called to “act with justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God” (Micah 6:8). Following the examples of leaders from Mother Teresa to Dorothy Day to Pope Francis, many of us feel called to donate our money to international charities, or to sign petitions to free political prisoners, or perhaps to travel abroad on a solidarity delegation or mission trip. All of this is worthwhile – as Christians, charity is our vocation, and I would say that the more we can do, the better. But, what are the assumptions we bring with us as we carry out our charitable acts? Do we (perhaps) assume that helping others means changing them and their society to become more like us? Are we prepared to invest in them and learn about them rather than just giving them what we think they should want? Can we remember that “our” way is not necessarily the only way, and that modernity comes in many forms?

* Taylor, Charles. “Modernity and Difference.” In Without Guarantees: Studies in Honour of Stuart Hall. Edited by Paul Gilroy, Lawrence Grossberg and Angela McRobbie. New York: Verso, 2000, pages 364-374.

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  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    This is a very interesting post Jeannine. it ties in with a book I have just started reading: Una Cadegan, All good books are Catholic books. She is analyzing American Catholic literary culture between (roughly) 1890 and 1960. One of the points she makes in the introduction, is that Catholic writers and intellectuals were attempting to create a version of modernity which responded to the challenges raised by “modernism” (in art, literature, philosophy and theology) while still being authentically Catholic. So this is a “first world” example of multiple modernities.

  • Ronald King

    Jeannine, Very thought provoking. My first thought is related to the process of socialization and how we are conditioned to fuse with the intrapersonal and interpersonal psychodynamics which form the identity of our culture. The indoctrination with a cognitively distorted belief system based on a culturally narcissistic revisionist history is particularly damaging to a realistic and healthy worldview. These core beliefs are seeded within a subjective environment which becomes extremely difficult to change once the protein level for this type of subjective learning begins to drastically decrease in our early to mid-20’s.

    • Thanks for your comment, Ronald. My understanding is that we are able to grow and change in our beliefs and perspectives throughout our lifetime. Have you ever read the book “The Brain That Changes Itself” by Norman Doidge? Another good one is “Rewire Your Brain For Love” by Marcia Lucas.

      • Ronald King

        Jeannine, I haven’t read that book but I have read a lot of others. I didn’t say it’s impossible. I did say it was very difficult to learn new subjective responses.

  • Nick
  • Mark VA

    I find this article rich in content, with many observations on which to develop robust discussions. Let me pick one strand: “All of us have implicit assumptions about how our world works”:

    I would say these implicit assumptions are often first absorbed in various high school and undergraduate history courses. Norman Davies, in the Introduction to his book “Europe – A History”, elaborates on eleven “meanings and connotations” of the foundational concept “Western Civilization”, upon which many of these assumptions rest:

    Roman, Christian, Protestant, French, Imperial, Marxist, First German, WASP, Second German, American, and finally, Euro. (pp. 22-25)

    He argues that the resulting world-view assumptions are usually built as amalgams of several of these meanings, and essentially serve to “… further the interests of their authors”.

    Now, this is where the fun begins: Davies identifies four mechanisms that are often used to build these amalgams: Reduction, to compress complex narratives, elimination of contradictory material, anachronism, to present certain configurations as “permanent”, and “enthusiasms of language”, to “… indicate what is to be praised and what deplored” (pp. 25-26). The young are then taught these amalgams, for better or worse, as histories and world-views.

    And the most “insidious” of these mechanisms is “anachronism” (p. 26). This is the point where, in my opinion, the upside-down map comes in: when what we believed to be permanent reveals itself as changeable, the ground shifts beneath our feet. So, Jeannine, I think you scored a bulls-eye – your diagnosis is the same as Davies’s!

    However, my point in all of this is that berating well meaning young people for their sometimes clumsy charity (“To hell with good intentions”) is not charitable – far from it. The charitable thing to do is to educate ourselves and the young entrusted to us, so that what was implicit, is now fully within our conscious grasp. Then, once we remove that beam from our eye, we can be in a better position to offer effective charity to our neighbor.

    • Mark, I agree that Ivan Illich is unduly harsh in his statement, and his words should be taken with several grains of salt. I prefer to read his words as “tough love”; I also think it’s significant that he was speaking to an earlier generation of youth. I don’t think he actually meant to drive people away from volunteering – I think he wanted them to educate themselves first. But I agree with you that this kind of harsh diatribe is not very charitable. I plan to write something later this month about the widespread phenomenon of such uncharitable language and the negative, divisive impact it can have in our contemporary media-saturated world. Please stay tuned! 🙂

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        ” I don’t think he actually meant to drive people away from volunteering – I think he wanted them to educate themselves first.”

        I am less sure of this. I am not familiar with Ivan Illich: I have heard his name but not read his works. However, his stance is familiar to me from other sources. It is an argument that no matter what they do personally, such volunteers are agents of a system of hegemonic power that cannot be subverted from within: whatever they do, they will invariably serve to advance the agenda of “the system”.

        Now in saying this I have grown skeptical of missionary tourism, particularly the short missionary trips that drop a group of students for a week or two into some situation “to help”. But even there, the small corporal works of mercy that are performed should not be discounted or devalued.

        • Agreed.

        • Melody

          Yes, I found the Ivan Illich piece pretty harsh. I see it was written in 1968. Hopefully maybe people are better educated in how they relate to other cultures now. Probably some are and some aren’t. But I don’t want to be dismissive of kids who are trying to help others.
          One thing I somewhat have a problem with is the trend of linking the sacrament of confirmation to “living the faith” points, for things such as mission trips and other good deeds. I would rather see them do the good deeds because they are worth doing, and focus on faith formation and the unmerited grace of the sacrament for Confirmation prep.

      • Mark VA


        I feel that I instinctively picked up on an unfortunate dissonant note, but, dwelling on such a thing usually brings on indigestion – so let me try to remedy this:

        I believe that the below lecture, even though it is about Europe with a focus on Poland, provides a type of universal lesson on how to introduce young people to the wider world. Substitute “Mexico” for “Poland”, and “North America” for “Europe”, and its universal aspect becomes apparent. I especially liked the questions these students asked after the lecture:

    • MarkVA, I know of only one secondary curriculum that does everything it possibly can to stand those things you have identified as being problematic on their heads, and to dispel them, and that’s the “Theory of Knowledge” course of the International Baccalaureate. If properly taught, no student can walk away from it with their prejudices, their intellectual pretensions or their ideologies unchallenged, and, in many cases, demolished. However, religious fundamentalists hate it, and have tried to drive it out of school districts in America, because it argues–and mostly proves–the “plurality” of truth. How could it do otherwise when it calls “knowledge” “justified true BELIEF”?

      • Mark VA

        Thank you Dismas, for this information.

        In my opinion, the expansion of our cultural horizons may not necessarily lead to syncretism (“plurality of truth”, as you put it), but to a more informed, less prejudiced, world view.

        Paradoxically, this expanded world view may sometimes invite strong judgements, especially if its backbone is a universal moral framework (somehow, as a Catholic, I feel justified to say it this way without apologizing). The difference here is that if we did our “homework” well, our judgements will be better informed, defensible, and charitable.

        I think highly of the academic content of the IB program, but do need to ask a hard question: what is its moral framework?

        • As an academic programme, it doesn’t need to have a “moral framework,” but, put it another way, it is susceptible of being used profitably by any institution that has its own “moral framework”–so long as that “moral framework” is compassionate, loving and tolerant. There is, for instance, a course in the IB called “comparative religion.” That course, intentionally, does not use any one religion as a reference point for judging the verity or the worth of any other religious tradition, but it DOES broadly define “faith” as being, in Huston Smith’s formula, “a trust that ALL WILL BE WELL,” and, frankly, as a fairly “syncretist” Christian, as you call it, that seems to me to be a better definition of “faith” for the modern world than something “confessional.” Right now I’m living in a Muslim country, and perhaps if you were living here with me, you’d have a better sense of how AWFUL religious fundamentalism and blind insistence on religion-enforced “tradition” makes life for everyone but rich, “successful” males.

  • Do we (perhaps) assume that helping others means changing them and their society to become more like us? Are we prepared to invest in them and learn about them rather than just giving them what we think they should want?

    It seems to me these questions need to be asked universally at every level of helping relationship…one society to another…groups within a local community…the family…parents and youth. In many ways the ‘patterns of helping others’ follow from what we do at the most immediate level.

    Ultimately, the greatest transformations (i.e., St. Francis and the leper) happen when we discover the dignity, greatness and goodness in those we least expect it. And what can be more humbling that seeing God in others?

    In the meantime, I’m pondering your disconcerting world map image on my smartphone …and every time I try to fix it by rotating the phone it never stops being upside down!

  • Mark

    Unfortunately, Taylor’s thesis depends on the assumption that we can in fact analyze different countries or “cultures” or “civilizations” as separate things in parallel, like test cases in the experiment of “what happens when you add modernity to A, B, or C.”

    Immanuel Wallerstein destroys any such possibility with his World Systems analysis.

    The global society is a single unit. “How different cultures manifest modernity” has nothing to do with how their particular culture reacts with it or filters it. It has everything to do with where those countries are embedded in the World System, core, semiperiphery, or periphery.

    • Thank you for bringing Wallerstein to this conversation, Mark. I’ve actually never read his work (though I’ve been meaning to) but I’m somewhat familiar with the concepts of core/semiperiphery/periphery, and I think that his World Systems theory is a good alternative to rigid ideas about a First World and Third World, or a developed and developing world. Based on the little I know, I suspect that Taylor and Wallerstein might actually be complementary rather than contradictory. I will have to read that material and find out!

      • Mark

        Well not really. Wallerstein *does* believe in a First, Second, and Third World, at least inasmuch as those can be mapped onto the Core, Semiperiphery, and Periphery functions.

        The key with Wallerstein is that he doesn’t believe that these are just levels of “development” that, someday, everyone will catch up and get to First World status.

        Rather, he believes that the current capitalist world economy NEEDS, structurally, all three roles to make the whole thing work. It’s like in thermodynamics how a heat engine needs a cold sink to maintain the gradient differential that keeps things moving.

        Taylor, at least as described here, seems to be imagining that the differences between countries is neither because they’re at different levels of the same path-template, nor because they’re all different functional parts as the world traverses a single World Path, but rather that they’re all “versions of Modern” with the different versions corresponding to their different cultures.

        I think this is naive. More likely, their different cultures are a result of their structural role in the world system, NOT the other way around. I hate to sound like a Marxist, but the cultural is an epiphenomenon of the material relations, not the other way around.

    • Mark VA


      As I was looking at the various core-periphery maps devised using the World Systems ideas, I couldn’t help notice how dated they looked. It seems that with the fall of communism (a generation ago!), the global flow of capital has become greatly more dynamic.

      Perhaps the discussion below describes a much more up to date, research based analysis of the world’s capital, human and financial, system (b.t.w., this is required viewing for all mathematicians among us 🙂

      • Mark

        Wallerstein has written since the Berlin Wall fell, lol, trust me.

        • Mark VA


          It seems to me that in today’s world, this core-periphery idea would need constant updating, otherwise it would quickly fall prey to anachronism, precisely as defined by Norman Davies (whom I quoted in a post above). Just consider the developing multifaceted relationships between China and many African countries, and China and our country – where are they reflected on these maps?

          Thus, how does one contrast this rather static, in my opinion, core-periphery idea, with the dynamic flow of global capital (human and financial), as outlined by Eric Hanushek and Paul E. Peterson in the above Wall Street TV video?

        • Mark

          Wallerstein admits, first of all, that which areas are core and which are periphery is always changing throughout history. Hegemony declines, new strong states arise.

          I’m not sure why you’re obsessed with “mapping” it, or with the “flow of capital.” That’s not really what determines it so much as the strong-state/weak-state distinction and (essential to Wallerstein’s idea) the fact that multinational corporations have no single political authority that controls everything they deal with. So they can get the benefits of a weak state in one place and the benefits of a strong state in another, each under the aspect that wants those.

        • Mark VA

          No one is obsessed, Mark.

          I just wanted to sound out the merits of an idea, and you were kind enough to respond.

  • Mark
    • Mark VA


      I enjoyed our conversation, and feel that I’ve learned something. Thank you.

      Right now, I’m learning how to say “Wallersteinian Weltanschauung” – sort of a souvenir of this “core-periphery” idea.