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Superiority and Separation

In a world divided and made unequal by economic and military subjugation we need to think about points of commonality

by Priyamvada Gopal

Is all enquiry into other cultures problematic? Though Edward Said's original text of Orientalism was evasive on this question, in a later preface, Said made the clear distinction between knowledge "that is the result of understanding, compassion, careful study and analysis" and "knowledge that is part of an overall campaign of self-affirmation".

Self-affirmation of this kind is everywhere and it is not harmless. Thirty years after Orientalism identified this phenomenon as one that was used to justify imperialism and invasion, "liberal" white British commentators still make magisterial pronouncements plucked from nowhere on the plight of Asian/Muslim/non-western women with no awareness of or, indeed, the slightest interest in, the history of women's activism in these regions. Others call for war-ravaged societies to be partitioned on religious lines, oblivious to complex histories of co-existence, oblivious to the ways that polarities get sharpened by invasion and imperialism and, of course, the disastrous consequences of partitions in various former colonies. Then there are the endless encomiums to freedom and progress as distinctively "western" values to be protected as such. (Why do they let residual political correctness stop them short of making a genetic case?)

Orientalism argued that uneven power relations "between two unequal halves" distort knowledge. Even in progressive milieus, non-EuroAmerican cultures and peoples remain, for the most part, objects of discussion rather than equal participants in a global dialogue. If they are heard at all, it is selectively, through their loudest and most retrograde voices. This then bolsters self-affirming claims that those cultures are inherently despotic/violent/intolerant (fill in the blanks). The result is a near-total lack of awareness of egalitarian and liberationist traditions in other cultures. Let's say this again: the "west" did not invent freedom and tolerance, far from it. In suggesting otherwise, both the so-called liberal commentator and the radical religious preacher participate in a false and damaging codification of inherently diverse cultures into homogeneous and unchanging entities. This co-operative mutual hostility does great disservice to real people and actually existing cultures.

And that includes the heterogeneous cultures of Britain, Europe and North America. A couple of years ago, then Labour education minister Charles Clarke attacked what he called the "medieval concept of the university as a community of scholars seeking truth" as well as non-productive disciplines [ie the humanities] which didn't benefit the economy in some obvious way. This kind of emphasis on quantifiable productive output at the expense of wide reading and critical thinking was the larger problem addressed by Orientalism. When knowledge is whittled down to manageable bytes of information and corporatised "applied" skills, both "our" and "their" cultures get reduced to meaningless generalisations that stress difference over connectedness.

Such segregationist thinking -- in a world divided and made unequal by economic and military subjugation -- remains the biggest challenge for our troubled times. We need to be thinking about points of commonality and intersection instead of endlessly reiterating differences. In a non-Orientalist framework, knowledge would be a shared enterprise rather than a weapon of superiority and separation. Said himself remained hopeful, arguing that "there was never a misinterpretation that could not be revised, improved or overturned".

Priyamvada Gopal teaches postcolonial studies at Cambridge University.

© Guardian News and Media Limited 2008

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