Sunday, October 06, 2013

civilization is created by the "others"


uio | What does it mean to be a civilized person? A civilized nation? How are these notions changing over time? And from one country to another? In the recently concluded project Civility, Virtue and Emotions in Europe and Asia, researchers from several different countries and disciplines have studied these questions. One of the initiators is Professor Helge Jordheim, Academic Director for the inter-faculty research programme KULTRANS.

Jordheim and his colleagues have studied what was considered to be civilized behaviour in Europe and Asia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

– Western identity and mores were formed by the encounter with non-Western cultures, Jordheim states.

The period studied by the researchers was one characterized by imperialism. In light of this, the relationship between “the West and the rest” is particularly interesting, Jordheim claims.

– In Western Europe, the prevailing notion was “civilization, that’s us”. Even in Asia, the idea that standards were defined by the West tended to prevail. Implicitly, the objective was: how can we catch up with the West?

A boost in self-confidence 
At the same time, there was a clear perception in Asia about not just mimicking the West, Jordheim emphasizes. The Asian countries were concerned with “finding their own path”.

– A challenge for the entire project has consisted in avoiding the pitfall of thinking that all influence emanated from Western Europe. It’s not as simple as that. For example, we can see that there was a widespread exchange of ideas between the Ottoman Empire and the Arabic and Persian cultures, which also had an impact on the Urdu-speaking population of India. Thus, the influence appears to be far less homogenous than we have previously assumed, Jordheim says.

He believes that the Russo-Japanese War in the early 20th century was a key event for the Asian civilizing process.

– This was the first time that Asia defeated the West. It resulted in a real boost in self-confidence, and had an impact on the kinds of ideas that were nurtured, Jordheim says.

Similarly, the researchers have been interested in how the civilizing influence to some extent ran in the opposite direction – from East to West.