Everyone everywhere has by now heard about the “Clash of Civilizations.” This Samuel Huntington concept has become universal. In the 1950s, the French economist, Alfred Sauvy had a comparable success with the expression “Third World.”
One reason these phrases gain wide acceptance is their lack of clear definition. The “Clash of Civilizations,” basically the West against the rest, is supposed to describe the world as it is. In reality, the West is vague enough to include a vast array of areas without describing their unifying characteristics.
So what exactly is West? What does Westernization mean? Why is Japan considered Western and China not? Where does Shanghai stand? Is Russia part of the West?
From these uncertainties, we can conclude that the West is not a geographic entity. It probably first established itself as a mindset when the Greeks, 25 centuries ago, perceived themselves as Western versus the Oriental Persians. Since the West has lost any clear territorial basis since then, the phrase “the West” has become a universal not a local notion.
To be Western or Westernized, above all, is a mindset which does not coincide with any continent, nor with any specific nation or religion. Huntington’s mistake, it seems, was to contain the West inside national borders: there is no map of the West.
No map can work when some Asian nations are Western (Japan, Taiwan), when non-Western groups (Muslims in Europe) live in supposedly Western countries, when some Eastern countries are partially Westernized and some Western countries (Russia) are not fully Westernized. Eventually it looks easier to define the mental borders of the West than its territorial borders.
I believe that the West is a mindset defined by three fundamental traits that cannot easily be found in the so-called Eastern civilizations: a passion for innovation, a capacity for self-criticism, and gender equality.
“What is new?”— a personal greeting since the Hellenistic age — captures the essence of the Western mind.
The non-Westerner, however, would rather place tradition above innovation. But innovation as a fundamental value explains the scientific breakthroughs of the West versus the East. It explains unavoidable conflicts with conservative non-Western societies and it also explains what we should call “the Westernization of the West.”
The West keeps destroying its own traditions, including its religions. The economist Joseph Schumpeter defined this process as one of “creative destruction.” The term could be applied to all walks of life in the West. Western conservatives are no less prone to creative destruction than Western liberals: Conservatives, indeed, are well known for inventing traditions. Take the 19th century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, who invented most of the supposedly ancient traditions that center around the British monarchy. Innovation in the West seems to be a never-ending, self-transforming process.
Self-criticism, even more than innovation, is a defining characteristic of the West.
In most if not all non-Western civilizations, pride and self love exclude self-criticism or at least the criticism of one’s civilization as such. A true Muslim or Chinese scholar cannot be defined as a true Chinese or a true Muslim by being critical of his own world. Not so in the West.