If someone talks about the “Western world”, we all know what they’re talking about, but that doesn’t mean that everyone agrees with the term itself. In a time characterised by increasing amounts of cultural awareness, people have begun to take issue with terms such as “the West”, “the East” or even “America” when referring to the United states. These objections are certainly understandable, but are they also justified? Should we perhaps oppose these terms for being too much focused on the countries we identify as “the West”?
To be able to stop using a certain word, what we need is a synonym, a word that means the exact same thing so that the debated term becomes redundant. Many have suggested that “the First World” is that particular term, and that it can solve these issues. The First World, or the developed world, these days simply refers to the economically more advanced countries, which is an unbiased, “non-Western” term that can be used in any cultural setting. An easy solution then, perhaps?
As you can see from the fact that this post doesn’t end at the third paragraph, in reality, the solution isn’t quite so easy. In fact, there is a very big difference between the terms “the West” and “the First World”. Sure, there is a certain amount of overlap, but as already mentioned, “the First World” is an economic term, one that is ever changing as more and more countries develop themselves and move up on that ladder, while “the West” is a cultural term, one that will always keep referring to the same regions. For instance, Japan and Korea are first world countries, but they are certainly not “Western” (not to even mention the fact that “the First World” is also a contested term).
There is, then, no proper replacement for the term “the West”, but that doesn’t mean yet that we can keep using it. One typical objection is that we shouldn’t need such a term at all, because it creates a schism between the different cultures, one that we can avoid by simply not differentiating between them with separate terms. As much as that might be true in a perfect world, however, the reality is quite different. There are legitimate cultural differences that we have to be aware of at all times, things that are constantly addressed both in science and in societal and political discussions so that we can broaden our knowledge and improve our handling of these differences. To deny their existence and to make it impossible to refer to them wouldn’t solve anything, and would only complicate cross-cultural interaction.
A final objection would be that the term “the West” is ridiculous, because it doesn’t actually refer to those countries located in the west, not to even mention that a globe doesn’t have something that can be called its “western side”. And that’s true. The fact that the term is ridiculous is not something many people would disagree with. However, in a language in which tough, bough, cough and dough don’t rhyme, in which the word “penguin” meant “white head” even though penguins don’t have white heads, in which tragedy refers to “goat song” and in which your mortgage is really just a death pledge, is it really so strange to have a term that makes no sense? Language is weird, that is a given.
The same goes for terms such as “the East” or “America”. They are terms that have evolved and that are not only used in every day conversation, but also in academic work. Sure, we could, as the Italians do, call US citizens “Statesians” rather than Americans, and we could refer to Western countries as “countries with European origins”, but that is not how things go in reality. Terms are coined, they are used, and then they remain. That is not something we can change. The term “the West” is not a bad one and it doesn’t disregard other cultures. It can be freely used, without needing quotation marks, because there is absolutely nothing wrong with it. The West is just the West.
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