Monday, Sep 26, 2022

West is West, East is east and ever the twain have met

I knew Daniel Pearl a little. He came to a talk of mine in Paris about two years ago, and we chatted afterwards. He knew then that he was so...

I knew Daniel Pearl a little. He came to a talk of mine in Paris about two years ago, and we chatted afterwards. He knew then that he was soon going to be based in Mumbai, reporting to The Wall Street Journal on the subcontinent. Later, early in February 2001, I saw him again in Bombay, and I had the privilege of continuing our conversation. I was struck not only by Pearl’s remarkable intelligence, but also by his firm dedication to the ethics of journalism: a commitment to pursue the truth and to help create a better—and less unjust—world through dedicated professionalism. He wanted to know South Asia better; he wanted to probe and share what he would find; he wanted others elsewhere to understand the problems of the subcontinent more fully; he hoped he could make a little difference to the tormented world in which we live. It was in the cause of this ethics that Daniel Pearl gave his life.

One of the glories of professional journalism is the extent to which the committed practitioners are willing to take grave risks, and more generally, the determination and allegiance they bring to their work. This is a matter for admiration (especially from outsiders like me, who take none of the risks but greatly benefit from the risks taken by others), but it is also a subject for critical appreciation and scrutinised understanding. What is all this dedication for? What can it achieve? What difference can it make? These are questions that can be sensibly asked on the occasion of a World Newspaper Congress.

Tolerance is seen as a perennial feature of Western civilisation but Ashoka’s championing of tolerance in India in the 3rd century BC is among the earliest political defence of tolerance anywhere. And when Akbar was making similar pronouncements at the end of the 16 century, the Inquisitions were going on in Europe

In this talk I want to concentrate not on the purely informational role of newspapers (in the form of investigative reporting), but rather on combining that function with news analysis and evaluation, which can sometimes come thoroughly mixed with news reports.

Some of the news analysis that we get from newspapers comes not in the form of identified exercises of interpretation taken as a separate activity, but as part and parcel of news analysis, with implicit interpretations and evaluations. This, in general, is what we should expect it to be, and yet there is a real danger that underexamined concepts and unsubstantiated beliefs can warp the framework of understanding in which contemporary events are reported. Let me illustrate the nature of the problem with an issue of some contemporary importance, involving interpretation of current events in the light of our understanding of the past.

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In presenting global conflicts and turmoil in which we seem to be enmeshed, there are constant references in news reports to ‘‘Western’’ this or ‘‘Western’’ that, such as ‘‘Western liberalism,’’ ‘‘Western science,’’ or ‘‘Western rationality.’’

These characteristics are supposed to separate out the rest of the world from the allegedly special features of Western civilisation, and even when these terms and concepts are invoked without much discussion (often just slipped in), they can be powerful in their impact in our interpretation of current events.

Conflict between civilisations has been a popular topic for a long time, even before Samuel Huntington presented a classic formulation of that thesis in 1997, in a book with that title. This was well before the dreadful events of September 11, which has ushered in a period of open confrontation and pervasive distrust in the world. But these terrible happenings have had the effect of magnifying the on-going interest in the thesis of a clash of cultures.


Indeed, in the process of reporting on current events many news commentators new tend to assume a firm connection between global conflicts and civilisational confrontations (for example, between ‘‘Western’’ and ‘‘Islamic’’ civilisations).

In fact, the invoking of ‘‘Western’’ values against non-Western ideas is rather commonplace in public discussions, and it makes regular headlines in many newspapers as well as figuring in anti-foreign and anti-immigrant oratory (from the United States and Canada to Germany, France and Netherlands).

I would, in fact, argue that the thesis of a ‘‘clash of civilizations’’ is basically confused, and the temptation to invoke the thesis (typically implicitly) does not help news analysis at all- in fact quite the contrary. There are, I would argue, two basic problems.


The thesis of a ‘civilisational clash is confused and doesn’t help news analysis. It involves reducing people into one dimension: the ‘Western world’, ‘Islamic world’, ‘Hindu world’. The deficiency of the thesis begins well before we get to the point of asking whether disparate civilisations must
at all clash

First, the methodological foundations of the ‘‘clash thesis’’ involve a program of categorising people of the world according to some one allegedly commanding – system of classification. to see any person wholly, or even primarily, as a member of a so-called civilisation (for example, in Huntington’s categorisation, as a member of ‘‘the Western world,’’ ‘‘the Islamic world’’, the Hindu world,’’ or ‘‘the Buddhist world’’) is already to reduce people into this one dimension, since we all have so many other affiliations, related to language, literature, profession, business, politics, education, and so on.

The deficiency of the clash thesis, I would argue, begins well before we get to the point of asking whether the disparate civilisations must clash. The problem begins with an impoverished vision of a singularly categorised world, divided into little boxes. While the conceptual rot may begin elsewhere (in the academia rather than in the world of journalism), it is through the newspapers that people get used to seeing the people of the world categorised into disparate and segregated worlds – the Muslim world, the Western world, and so on.

Second, civilisational categories are far from clear-cut, and the simulated history that goes with the thesis of clashing civilisations construct a make-belief world of thoroughly hardened contrasts (partly by ignoring the heterogeneities within each culture) and also ignore historical interactions between them.

Consider the way ‘‘Western civilizations’’ is separated out from the rest of the world in these theories (a subject to which I referred earlier). The champions of ‘‘civilisational contrasts’’ tend to see tolerance as a special and perennial feature of Western civilisation, extending way back into history. Huntington, for example, asserts that the West has ‘‘a tradition of individual rights and liberties unique among civilised societies.’’

But is this historically accurate? Tolerance and liberty are certainly among the important achievements of modern Europe (leave out some aberrations like Nazi Germany, or the intolerant governance of British or French or Portuguese empires in Asia and Africa). But to see a unique line of historical division there – going back through history – is quite fanciful. The championing of political liberty and religious tolerance, in its full contemporary form, is not an old historical feature in any country or civilisation in the world.


This is not to deny that there were champions of tolerance in classical European thought, but that does not establish a unique Western heritage in this field.

For example, Emperor Ashoka’s dedicated championing of religious and other kinds of tolerance in India in the third century B.C. (arguing that the sects of other people all deserve reverence for one reason or another’’) is certainly among the earliest political defence of tolerance anywhere.


When a later Indian emperor, Akbar, the Great Mughal, was making similar pronouncements on religious tolerance at the end of the sixteenth century (such as: ‘‘no one should be interfered with on account of religion, and anyone is to be allowed to go over to a religion that pleases him’’), the Inquisitions were firmly going on in Europe (Giardino Bruno was burnt at the stake in Campo dei Fiori in Rome in 1600).

Similarly, what is often called ‘‘Western science’’ draws on a world heritage. There is a chain of intellectual relations that link Western mathematics and science to a collection of distinctly non-Western practitioners Even today, when a modern mathematician, in Europe or America or anywhere else, invokes in ‘‘algorithm’’ to solve a difficult computational problem, she helps to commemorate the contributions the ninth-century Arab mathematician, AI-Khwarizmi, from whose name the term algorithm is derived (the term ‘‘algebra’’ comes from his book, AI Jabar wa-al-Muqabilah).


Many of the basic ingredients of what came later to be known as ‘‘Western science’’ (Francis Bacon’s list in Novum Organum referred to ‘‘printing, gunpowder, and the magnet’’) all came all the way from China. Many of the mathematical ingredients, including the decimal system, came to Europe from India and the Arab world. A large group of contributors from different non-Western societies – Chinese, Arab, Iranian, Indian and others – influenced the science, mathematics and philosophy that played a major part in European Renaissance and, later, in the Enlightenment.

The West must get full credit for the remarkable achievements that occurred in Europe in the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, but the idea of an immaculate Western conception would require a genuinely miraculous devotion to parochialism.

Increasing use of a religion-based singular civilisational classification also makes the Western response to global terrorism and conflict peculiarly counterproductive and self-defeating. Respect for other civilisations is shown only by praising the religious books of ‘‘other people’’, rather than by taking note of the many-sided involvements and achievements of different peoples in a globally interactive world.

There is, for example, no historical reason why the champions of Arab or Muslim heritage have to concentrate only on religion (just on the Koran and the Shariah), and not also on science and mathematics, to which the Arab and Muslim scholars have contributed so much in the past.

The conceptual framework underlying news analysis plays a major role here. Often-repeated public rhetoric on the contrast between ‘‘Western science’’ and ‘‘non-Western cultures’’, as well as crude civilisational classifications have tended to put science and mathematics well inside the basket of ‘‘Western civilisation,’’ leaving other civilisations to mine their pride only in religious depths.

This makes it very easy for the anti-Western activists, including religious fundamentalists and cultural militants, to secure leadership roles through focusing on those issues that separate the non-Western world from the West (such as religious beliefs, local customs and cultural specificities), rather than on those things that reflect positive global interactions running through history (including science, mathematics, literature, and so on).

The dialectics of confrontation is powerfully fed by intellectual confusion that spreads from the world of academia to the world of journalism.

Careful news analysis and a more critical assessment of the conceptual framework and underlying beliefs in terms of which contemporary events are interpreted can do a lot to enhance understanding in the troubled world in which we live.

The world depends greatly on the quality of news coverage as well as the reach and significance of news analysis and evaluation, which very often come in a mixed form with apparently straightforward news reporting.

Precisely because the newspapers are so central to good functioning of the world that we have to demand more from this wonderful profession. the stakes are, I would argue, extraordinarily high.

First published on: 11-06-2002 at 12:00:00 am
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