Beranda Opinion English Myth of East-West Cultural Dichotomy

Myth of East-West Cultural Dichotomy


It is common knowledge that many Indonesians, both academic and nonacademic, elite and non-elite, create a dichotomy between Western culture and Eastern culture. The word “West” refers to countries in North America (the United States and Canada), Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand. In short, Western culture refers to “Caucasian culture”.

Meanwhile, “East” refers to the Asian region, including East Asia and Southeast Asia (including Indonesia, of course). Western culture is usually defined as being intellectualistic, individualistic, selfish, capitalistic, liberal, secular, atheistic, profit-oriented, and so on. Meanwhile, Eastern culture is characterized as almost the opposite of Western culture, namely spiritualistic, theistic, collectivistic, and so on.

Furthermore, Western culture is often negatively labeled or stigmatized. For example, it is described as not having manners, barbaric, likes going to war and committing acts of violence, having free sex, lacking social solidarity, not caring about local traditions, and so on. Meanwhile, Eastern culture is often labeled positively, such as being friendly, polite, gentle, peaceful, dislikes violence, likes helping others, cares about local traditions, and so on.

Just a myth

In practice, this dichotomy is just a myth. As an Easterner who has lived in the West for a long time, I think that the black-and-white segregation of East-West culture only exists in the imagination. It does not exist in the real world, or is only partly true. Narratives about Western culture being all bad and negative or Eastern culture being all good and positive are completely invalid.

In reality, good/bad and positive/negative exist in both the West and the East. A number of characteristics and stigmas that have been attributed to Western culture also exist in Eastern culture, and vice versa. A number of stereotypical labels and characteristics that have been attached to Eastern culture also exist in the West. For example, the West is not only home to intellectuals, but spiritualists as well. There are many individuals and spiritual groups in Western countries, including branches of Sufism, yogi communities, Buddhist spiritualists, New Age followers, theosophical societies, and so on. On the other hand, the East is not only home to groups of spiritualists and mystics, but also to various groups of intellectuals and scientists.

So, the dichotomy of “Western intellectuality” versus “Eastern spirituality”, for example, is no longer relevant. Even now, countries such as China, Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea are intensively building various world-class education and technology centers and universities that will become the future mecca of intellectual and technological societies. As a result, many universities in Asia have now entered the ranks of the world’s top institutions and have the potential to shift Western dominance.

A number of countries in the Middle East, especially in the Arab Gulf region, such as the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, are also competing to build world-class universities that rely on advanced technology (such as artificial intelligence), scientific research, and the spirit of intellectualism. Saudi Arabia, for example, has built a prestigious international-standard campus, such as the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, which is now led by president Tony F. Chan, a Stanford-trained Chinese-American scientist and former president of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

The assumption that the West is synonymous with secularism, liberalism, or atheism and agnosticism is also not always accurate, because many faith-based conservative militant groups in the West are strongly anti-secular and anti-liberal and condemn various social practices they consider to be nonreligious. For the last several decades, the phenomenon of public religion, the deprivatization of religion in which religion plays a central role in the public sphere, has been infecting some Western countries, especially the US.

This phenomenon prompted the late Peter L. Berger, a renowned sociologist and one of my mentors in Boston, to revise his classic thesis on the secularization of religion in his book, The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics. Even though the East (especially the Middle East, India, and China) is the birthplace of various world religions, secularism and liberalism are also present in this region, introduced by various groups, such as academics, scientists, technocrats, politicians, governments, business people, and so on, especially since the end of World War II.

Individualist vs collectivist

Then, characterizing the West as an “individualist society”, which is wrongly assumed to be a society that is selfish and lacks sensitivity, concern, and social solidarity, is also very wrong. In reality, philanthropic groups and charitable organizations for global humanitarian missions are mushrooming in the West.

Western society also regularly raises funds in various ways for various humanitarian programs, education, scholarships, and others, both for people in Western countries and in other countries around the world. For example, the Mennonite Central Committee has a global humanitarian program in almost all countries in the world. Meanwhile, the East, which has been labeled a “collectivist society” and is assumed to like helping others and each other, as well as minimize egoistic and individualistic character and behavior, does not always happen in practice.

Just look at the culture of gotong royong (mutual cooperation) that used to be the character of Indonesian society that has now faded. Many people don’t care about others when queuing for government assistance, distributing basic necessities, or at buffets. From this simple observation, we can see that the characterization of Eastern society as a collectivist culture is not always accurate. Social solidarity, if it occurs, usually happens only in small groups and does not cross religious, ethnic or humanitarian boundaries.

Barbarity vs civility

Another inaccurate characteristic is that it stigmatizes the West as a violent society and the East as a peaceful society or the West is identified with barbarity and the East with civility. The West does have a dark history of violence, such as colonialism, imperialism, war, ethnic cleansing, racism, and “barbarianism” against both local and foreign residents. However, the East is also beset with violence. Colonialism, imperialism, war, ethnic cleansing, racism, and “barbarianism”, are not the monopoly of only the Western world. The East is also the same. Barbarity is not only happening in the West, but also in the East.

If the West had Hitler and Mussolini, the East had Pol Pot and Amangkurat I, who was very cruel and barbaric and killed thousands of clerics, including his own brother and father-in-law. The massacre of millions of human beings in 1965-1966 is also part of the dark history of violence perpetrated by Eastern society. Brutal and barbaric acts of terrorism have also been carried out by Eastern nations.

Where is their conscience? Where is their common sense? Where is their religion that teaches solidarity, peace, mercy, and compassion?

Today, the image of Eastern society as full of love, compassion, peace, friendliness, and tolerance seems to have disappeared from the Motherland [Indonesia] as a result of various incidents and acts of violence that come and go without stopping, such as violent attacks, beatings, persecution, terrorism, expulsion, and murder. Eastern people who are said to be friendly and peaceful can suddenly turn into crazy, cruel, and inhuman people.

Meanwhile, many people, instead of condemning these heinous acts and acts of violence, are applauding, cheering, and bursting out laughing at the barbaric events that unfold before their eyes. Where is their conscience? Where is their common sense? Where is their religion that teaches solidarity, peace, mercy, and compassion?

Big nation

Akhirul kalam [Finally], a great nation is a nation that is willing to take clean, good, and positive things from wherever it originates – West or East, North or South – and eliminate dirty, bad, and negative things wherever they come from, whether from home or abroad. Indonesia will become a great nation if it is able to do this. On the other hand, Indonesia will shrink in stature if it continues to live in a culture of hypocrisy, fostering an East-West dichotomy that exists only in the imagination.

Note: this article was first translated and published by Kompas

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Antropolog Budaya di King Fahd University, Direktur Nusantara Institute, Kontributor The Middle East Institute, Kolumnis Deutsche Welle, dan Senior Fellow di National University of Singapore.


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