They’re the systemic oppressors of indigenous cultures, minorities and people of colour. Modern western society also stands accused of abusing the environment and of being unrelentingly sexist, racist and elitist.
Or is western civilization the crucible of progress, the liberator of the oppressed, champion of reason, democracy and civil rights? Is it, in fact, as Abraham Lincoln once suggested: “the last best hope” for mankind?
Frustratingly, both these positions are correct.
Obviously, opinions vary depending on your view of history. So “What is history?” has become one of the central questions of our time.
Many idealistic and highly educated young people view history negatively, through lens devised by the 18th century romantic philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau’s famous axiom that “man is born free but everywhere he is in chains” is accusatory, in that it views society as the oppressor of humanity’s natural liberty.
Given this assumption, the past must be reprehensible, populated as it is with brutal empires, slavery and inequality.
This idea of western guilt translates into the present. The very existence of social inequality or discrimination proves the romantic point that the dominant society (i.e. white people) is actively oppressive.
This is not a trivial matter. A wave of historical revisionism has begun sweeping the West.
History curriculums are rapidly being rewritten to eliminate the error of western hegemony, which dominates traditional teachings.
This white-as-oppressor perspective has overwhelmed many of our institutions of higher learning. It’s led the president of the University of Notre Dame, for instance, to cover murals of Christopher Columbus, while the University of Pennsylvania has removed a portrait of William Shakespeare in favour of a popular black feminist writer.
However, the opposing Eurocentric historical canon has something else to say and – not surprisingly – it starts from a very different place.
At the core of the western historical tradition lies a state of nature that’s violent and oppressive. It acknowledges that the western past was nasty and cruel. In its ancient despotism, the West shared much with other global cultures, in particular the lack of any meaningful rights for individuals.
Like the romantics, this pragmatic historical tradition also views the past as reprehensible. But it also champions western civilization for facilitating human progress.
Human progress in this sense has been defined by technology improvements and rising standards of living, of course. But it also includes reforms to widen the estate of political enfranchisement and to level society through universal public education, social welfare reforms and advancements in human rights.
No other global civilization has ever been as deliberate about progress (in this sense) as modern western civilization.
Plato, Aristotle, Shakespeare and others are not just dead white men. They are originators of ideals that have inspired and led us out of the darkness into the present. And that’s not necessarily a bad place.
Certainly western civilization has been guilty of imperialism, cruelty and cultural insensitivity. But that’s not the whole truth of the West. It has also been the enabler of human rights, improved living conditions and, when at its inclusive best (which is too rare, I admit), it has improved the lives of countless people.
It should come has no surprise that while western academics are busy condemning the West, the dispossessed of the world continue to flock to us.
Western academics view history safely, free from harm in their ivory towers. Refugees, immigrants and others fleeing violence and oppression are not so lucky. They view history from the ground up, and for many of them it’s not a kind or gentle place to be.
History matters. The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves inform our values, provide support for our institutions and give direction to our future. With U.S. President Donald Trump and other reactionary forces growing stronger every day, it’s time to find a fairer and more nuanced view of the West and its place in history.
Without a more balanced view of western civilization, we might end up throwing out the baby with the bathwater. And if the past has anything to teach us, the world would not be a better place.
Robert McGarvey is an economic historian and former managing director of Merlin Consulting, a London, U.K.-based consulting firm. Robert’s most recent book is Futuromics: A Guide to Thriving in Capitalism’s Third Wave.