The Greatest Spin

05 March 2013

I’ve been reading Machines as the Measure of Men lately, which details how the West asserted dominance over “savages” using a variety of means. It’s actually quite interesting to read parallels in historical practice and reflect on how some of those practices and perceptions still play out today. Indeed, the effects of western hegemony and perceptions of hierarchy still ripple throughout non-western civilization in myriad ways.

Michael Adas begins with a discussion of the trouble the Portuguese had in trying to trade their inferior goods for silk, spices, etc… and points to western military superiority (and essentially piracy) being the last saving grace for many traders who couldn’t offer anything of comparative value on the fair market. This initial encounter shaped western judgment of the near east and east for centuries, pinning development on a very specific set of criteria, including proficiency with specific tools, literacy, and a small range of other issues.

Adas raises this literacy point with regard to Africa by noting that

literacy itself came to be regarded as a major attribute of civilized societies, and educated Europeans increasingly viewed illiterate black Africans as peoples sunk in ignorance and superstition, devoid of any learning that might be instructive for the Europeans themselves. (Adas 53)

This sentiment is corroborated decades earlier in correspondence between Mahatma Gandhi and Sir Phillip Hartog. For the sake of brevity it would suffice to say that the totality of the correspondence between these two centered on the details of some statistics which Gandhi had quoted and seemed suspect to Hartog. Without acknowledging this point at any point in their correspondence, both sides had implicitly agreed that literacy, the same criterion which the West had used to condemn Africans and other non-Westerners for centuries, was a suitable measure of civilization.

Westerners seemed to feel that literacy was of such prime importance because, logically, only literate people could access the vast wealth of texts offered by Western texts. Without speaking English, how could anyone hope to achieve the level of advancement of the West? Without identifying it, literacy as a criterion for judgment becomes code for evaluating a culture on the basis of how well it has or could assimilate to Western knowledge and paradigms.

There’s a more insidious result of the projection of literacy - specifically in Western languages - as the indicator of knowledge and civility: the monopoly of prestige and academia. Even now, the vast majority of top tier universities are Western universities, and even among those most are English-speaking. Many non-Western universities conduct their curriculum in English. These details are at the back of our mind, but why are a disproportionate number of academic journals exclusively in English? Why the same of universities? I posit that the West’s spin that knowledge and intelligence was attained through Western texts gave Western languages enough “gravity” to overcome the myriad of other cultures and languages.

This Western-centric perspective isn’t limited to literacy by any means. Adas goes on to point out that “… tools and cannons and conceptions of space and time…” were the easiest ways to judge other cultures (Adas 63). The West, therefore, offered easily quantifiable indicators - economic worldviews based entirely or largely on Western standards and experience - by which India, China, Africa, and the rest of the world could assess itself. D.D. Kosambi - himself Indian - reflects expectations of Western culture to acknowledge that “underdeveloped countries need a planned course of development, which necessarily implies a planned economy” and by extension accepts of a sundry of economic and political premises steeped in - if not typifying of - Western culture.

Kosambi observes as much: “[Speaking English] would not be bad, were it not for the insidious foreign way of thinking that too often goes with the language” - suggesting an even more pervasive and subtle undercurrent of the effects our language has on mindset, worldview, and perceptions. Indeed, he seems to uncover another bias instigated by Western influence unwittingly in his advocacy to “let the scientist be free, but let him earn his living by doing something for his country that comes in the category of vital needs”.

Kosambi traces the outline of a non-Westerner stereotype that engineering and science are the ideal paths to civility and modernity. With all of his attention focused on the imperative of becoming a scientist who produces dutifully for his country, Kosambi overlooks a crucial issue: the origin of this preference for science. Given the West’s obsession with literacy and the science and knowledge Western texts brought, it seems natural that non-Westerners would cling emphatically to engineering and science as an ideal career; these fields represent the closest a non-Westerner can get to blending in with the civilized, intellectual West. In many ways, Kosambi’s advocacy conforms perfectly to the historical model provided by Europeans to natives: science, technology, engineering and literacy are the only salvation from barbarism; in order to bring prosperity to your country, you must expand these fields, as all others are ancillary or, worse, deleterious.

Ada illuminates the West’s discourse during the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment period, wherein critiques of Chinese and Indian sciences admit that these non-Western cultures were once impressive, but have declined since their peak, and could “… recover their ancient aptitudes for the sciences and invention” if they adopted and embraced Western thought.

Why the title? Because for centuries, Europeans extolled their scientific prowess as the measure of their civilization - indeed, of Man - while offering an empty promise of inclusion to those who followed suit. Perhaps at first this was wishful thinking, but over time the veracity of these claims proved truer and truer. The narrative Europeans formed and espoused to Africans, Indians, and Chinese became a self-fulfilling prophecy in some sense; they had spun their own version of the truth so compellingly that reality bent to fit their narrative, in the form of political power, academic prestige, and economic prosperity all orbiting Europe.

Works Cited:

  • “Problems of Science and Technology in Underdeveloped Countries” by D.D. Kosambi
  • Mohandas K. Gandhi’s correspondence on education
  • Machines as the Measure of Men: Science, Technology, and Ideologies of Western Dominance by Adas, M.
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