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Spreading the Good Word: How and How Not to Teach Western Values

Jamal is a graduate of Northeastern Seminary and writes on a broad range of topics. His writings are based on other points of view.

Perhaps no other object or location best embodies the concept of Western ideals than the Acropolis of Athens.

Perhaps no other object or location best embodies the concept of Western ideals than the Acropolis of Athens.

The Wisdom of Imposing Western Values Abroad

If there is one thing Western culture takes pride in, it's their values. Yes, even those of conservative factions would be considered progressive by the standards of other countries like Sudan, Malaysia, or China, from my perspective. This has been a source of pride since European nations became true global powers and were colonizing every piece of land like crazy between the 15th and 20th centuries. And America is not immune to it, either. Yet, this is also the source of the problem when trying to export our modern, progressive values as well.

2004's "Team America: World Police" is a satire of America, both as how Americans see it and, under the surface, its own self-importance.

2004's "Team America: World Police" is a satire of America, both as how Americans see it and, under the surface, its own self-importance.

The Western Burden

As much as we like to tout our “M’erica” attitude to everybody, the fact is that a lot of our underlying morals and worldviews are descended from Europe. Since the 1990s, we began to see ourselves as disconnected from the imperialistic ways of old, condemning them wholesale and acknowledging the part they played in messing up many newer nations the world over. Borders are drawn by people living thousands of miles away, while not taking the cultural and local backgrounds and issues into consideration, often leaving many of them in a bloody state of chaos once they depart.

We proudly boasted how our democratic values were superior to local traditions because they acknowledge the human rights of the people, and this wasn’t without warrant. Many nations have indeed opted for the democratic system to run their governments, albeit their own versions of it. However, when it came to their moral values, things became much more blurred.

After the First Gulf War, America bestowed upon itself the self-appointed duty to spread democratic values across the world. We did just defeat the Soviet Union, after all, without going to all-out war as many had feared. The disaster of Operation Restore Hope in Somalia quickly changed that presumption, but not to the extent of self-evaluating our values in comparison with other nations. Over the last thirty years or so, there has been a growing view that our morals are superior to archaic ones in places like the Middle East and rural India. Laws and traditions still rooted in institutionalized religion, local rituals that sanctioned mutilations and murders, and supposed lack of modern education did not endear themselves to Western sensibilities.

Feminism, no matter which way you slice it, was seen as a better option than traditional gender mutilation and honor murders. Being allowed to make individual choices, even when it came to sex and sexual identity, was considered a sign of a modern nation, in contrast to the centuries-old hierarchies that strictly regulated or forbade such behaviors and ideologies.

Even those who came from oppressed communities in America oftentimes looked down upon the choices that their parent cultures made regarding whom they looked up to and what they believed, all while trying to ‘reclaim’ their heritage. What this then becomes is a type of neo-imperialism: no longer a “White man’s burden”, but a ‘Western burden’ to educate other nations in the values they need to have in the modern age. And it's within that attitude that the problem of encouraging human rights lies.

King Leopold I of Belgium created the Congo Free State.  Under his rule, 10 million Africans were killed or mutilated.  Today, many Belgians are aware of the atrocities and have actively rejected his achievements.

King Leopold I of Belgium created the Congo Free State. Under his rule, 10 million Africans were killed or mutilated. Today, many Belgians are aware of the atrocities and have actively rejected his achievements.

The Spectrum of Arrogance

There are differences in how the different countries perceived their own values before they even spread outside their borders. Collectively speaking, Europe’s bias arose not from their Christian, cultural foundation—which had made little difference in stemming the internal conflicts there—but rather from their leaps in technology. Changes not seen in over a millennium. The nations had learned to use their resources to build better tools to expand their power, and what they lacked, they stole: from each other and other continents. With them, the nations restored the achievements of old and expounded upon them as well. So that when later generations looked back on their Dark Ages, they took great pride in no longer being in that savage time, even if they were still fighting with each other.

Colonialism and Superiority

This is very important because it was from that vantage point that they judged the cultures they sought to colonize. When the Spaniards and Portuguese landed in North America, they didn’t see a native population that had a proud history like their own. Why? Because they had little-to-no technology to showcase their achievements. Or at least not at the level of Europe’s. This applied even more so to Sub-Saharan Africa, whom Europeans had no prior experience with. At least the Native Americans in South America had actual cities! What both regions did have, however, was resources and lots of them.

Even when Europeans did encounter cultures on par with their own, like China and arguably Japan, there was almost a resentment that people outside the “known world” could develop a culture to the same level, without any assistance or influence from European advancements. It also goes without saying that the fact that the locals also looked physically different, made it all the easier to judge anything they believed or did as outsiders. Therefore making them inferior in some way, shape, or form to their eyes. Human rights were the last thing on European minds.

America, on the other hand, judged these societies more so on racial appearance and culture than their technologies. One example of this is in 1832 when the Cherokee Nation challenged the state of Georgia’s ruling to remove all Southeastern Native tribes west. This depopulation would make way for frontier settlers to come, whom the tribes had been in conflict with, and take the land themselves. The Cherokees studied the law of their rivals and applied it, actually securing a victory when the Supreme Court ruled in their favor and against the state. Would have been a great victory, had it not been for President Andrew Jackson then ignoring the ruling and the co-ruling institution of the United States, and forcing them out anyway. This was all in spite of the fact that Native people had clearly shown that they could be just as “civilized” as the White man and still win.

Even after the 1960s, when progressive politics and morals had established a foothold in mainstream society when we looked at non-Western societies and heard stories about some of their more controversial traditions, we judged them as being archaic and savage. One need only look at how modern, American women look at more traditional, Muslim women who choose to cover their heads still, or Donald Trump’s infamous comment about Africa having shit-hole countries. Nothing has really changed.

Many Saudi women, such as Samar Badawi, consider themselves feminists and still voluntarily wear the abaya or ride as passengers in their male chauffeurs’ cars. Others, such as Manal al-Sharif, Souad al-Shammary, and Wajeha al-Huwaider do not wear the niqab nor hijab. These women all believe, though, that the best way to practice their Islam, further their rights, and be feminists is to act within their interpretation of the structure of Islamic law.

— Author Abigail Ulman on the complexities that feminism takes in Saudi Arabia, by Saudi women


As aforementioned, most Westerners have actively condemned their past attitudes, actions, and atrocities. Even if they judge other societies harshly now, it's not from the same position as their ancestors. Instead, it's from a position of learning from their own cultures’ mistakes. With the exception of far-right groups, many see the internal and global wars and crimes against humanity, as a result of past prejudices. That’s not to say that it no longer exists, but rather it's not as publicly accepted as it was during the days of the Dark Ages and imperialist empires. These older attitudes transferred over to America and it was there that major efforts were made to confront and change this history during the 1960s Cultural Revolution.

This happened at the same time as former colonies were freed, or had liberated themselves from their European conquerors. All this was well and good, but it also opened a wound that had long been sleeping. While under European/American control, their social values were attempted to be transferred over as well. How people dressed, what they worshiped, whom they identified with, and how their societies ran themselves, were all made to mirror Western culture during the time of the “White mans’ burden”. Therefore, they didn't really have a chance to evolve their own sensibilities the way Europe and America had. To find out for themselves what needed to change and what needed to remain the same. Rather, they were told.

So whether the idea was to wear pants, allow women more freedom, or that rigging elections should not be allowed, all of those are Western innovations. Because of that, those values are viewed with suspicion, especially when coming from outsiders. There is an automatic defensiveness to protect their identity when any of us question their practices, even the ones that physically harm others.

Points of Success

Some values are starting to take hold, however. The 1980s saw the proliferation of American culture across the world as the Cold War entered its final decade. Television, Hollywood, and music helped spread the ideals of American values without the use of soldiers or missionaries. People began to want the things Americans had of their own volition, such as in Romania and their obsession with the show, Dallas. And Knight Rider actor, David Hasselhoff, became the unofficial American ambassador to Germany via the show's success and his own venture into music, even performing during the fall of the Berlin Wall.

More gray was the 2011 Arab Spring, which has largely been considered a failure because resistant nations either suppressed it or it led to civil war. However, both the countries where it was and was not successful show a trend in their new generations—that even with their troublesome history with Europe and America, there are some ideas that they appreciate and want to adopt. Hip hop, an urban genre of music that developed on the streets of New York City, has become a global phenomenon, and you can find it in almost every country that has a radio, a music store, or the internet. Blue jeans are a common sight, an innovation first invented in the American northwest during the Gold Rush of 1849. And women in Saudi Arabia are becoming more and more vocal about wanting to be able to do daily things without the presence of a man, while at the same time maintaining their faith.

The most successful Non-Western nation to take in Western elements, though, is Japan. Though having a prior history with European explorers and missionaries, it shut its doors to all outsiders in 1636, until they were forced to re-open them by American Admiral, Matthew Perry. However, instead of taking on a submissive narrative, the Japanese instead learned Western ways and tech, not only quickly learning them, but adapting them in ways that still incorporated their original values. They demonstrated this again after World War Two, being the only nation to suffer a nuclear attack and seeing for themselves that some of their values were self-destructive, only to now become the leading country in Asia and yet, still uniquely Japanese.

In 1871, 17 years after Admiral Perry forced its borders to reopen, Japan sent 100 leaders and students on a world tour to learn Western ways and tech.  The goal was to modernize while maintaining tradition.

In 1871, 17 years after Admiral Perry forced its borders to reopen, Japan sent 100 leaders and students on a world tour to learn Western ways and tech. The goal was to modernize while maintaining tradition.

To Teach to Fish or Not Teach to Fish

The question then becomes where is the line between failing to spread Western values, and the success of local people taking on those same values?

The answer I believe, is that these changes in values must be a grassroots endeavor. The West came into other lands either by force or bribery, ramming their ideals down the natives’ throats. However, they did not kill it! It merely stayed in the shadows and dark places for a time. And because these foreign ideas were forced, for many residents, they did not truly take hold. It was a foreign invasion of the mind and their way of life and continues to be seen that way today.

Even modern progressive ideals fall under this pent-up ire. One of the accusations of feminism has been that despite its claim for supporting women's rights, it did not support women who choose to still hold their traditional values. It is said that even a well-known advocate for women’s education and rights, Malala Yousafzai, took some convincing of the movement’s authenticity, as she still maintained many traditional values of her native Pakistan.

The BBC published an article on August 24th, 2019, about Obadele Kambon, A Black man born in America and moved to Ghana after false accusations from the Chicago police department, to escape the racism here. Once there, he criticized the University of Ghana’s choice to keep a statue of famous pacifist Mahatma Gandhi. He believed that Africa needed monuments to African heroes rather than non-African ones: especially when some of them were known to have maintained racist views at some point in their lives. The statue was removed as wanted by the students and Kambon, so it was a self-determined choice. But I also wonder if it wasn’t possibly neo-imperialistic as well, as apparently, no one had thought to remove it before Kambon started working at the university. Just saying.

The overall point remains the same. Progressive change has a much better chance and is harder to challenge when it comes from the community themselves, rather than well-meaning Westerners. An idea that a person believes sprung from themselves has a much better chance than one that is simply taught by someone else. This doesn't remove the risk factor, and those internal demands for change may come to nothing because of violence and/or distractions from resistance within the same community, as seen in India.

This is what Westerners are struggling with now when looking at non-Western cultural practices. Some of it may be truly awful, yet an outsider pulling a ‘superman,’ swooping to the rescue, potentially worsens the situation, even if people are saved. Because it may be seen as yet another outsider looking down on the locals’ self-worth, and therefore allowing their own values to take even deeper root than before. It promotes it rather than stops it.

I believe that many progressive movements and their members are blind to this fact, caught up in their well-meaning and perhaps self-righteous intentions. However, that is the risk of any movement really. It is a human quality to get tunnel vision, not examining our own motives and if the results they produce are truly what they were aiming for in the first place.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2019 Jamal Smith