“The Grass Is Always Greener…Not Really”
Observation Series #1
The Myth of Development and Progress
In a world largely dominated by Eurocentric thought and power, many would perceive – arguably at face value – that American-European countries are much more ‘developed’ than others due to their apparent superior economic, political and social infrastructure. I will argue that we must radically rethink, or at least question, how we perceive one society as progressive and the other not. In the comparative context, American-European countries are not as ‘developed’ as we might like to think. More significantly, the very notion of what makes human progress is highly questionable.
The words ‘West’ and ‘Western’ seem to be equated with the notions of gender and sexual equality, as well as political and civil liberties, and democracy, without any sort of further scrutiny. However if we take into consideration the problems that American-European countries face and compare them with those of their ‘developing’ counterparts, we realize that there might not be much difference in terms of the nature, extent and scale of their dilemmas. I can only relate to Malaysia and Canada since I have stayed in both places for a considerable amount of time and therefore have some experience dealing with people and matters in respective regions. After months of careful observation, I have felt that differences between both nations could very well be blown out of proportion. In fact, there are many similarities Malaysia and Canada share, including the conflict between the government and indigenous people, a façade of multiculturalism maintained by its citizens and so on. A less obvious example is the level of social injustice. While it is fair to criticize China for violating human rights legislations, a Canadian citizen might want to scrutinize his own country at the same time for a notorious history of immigrant racism. More dangerously, what lies beneath Eurocentrism is a potent mix of arrogance and ignorance, stemming from unverified presumptions. Take for instance, the lazy acceptance of democracy and the demonization of other forms of political system – while I tentatively support democracy for its inclusive representation of public interests (at least on paper!), I am prepared to acknowledge the virtues of political governance in forms that might challenge democracy.
On a deeper level I doubt that humanity has ever progressed. Technological advancements, once dismissively snubbing ancient or alternative knowledge as ‘primitive’, have increasingly looked towards such sources as inspiration. A remarkable example would be Terra Preta, a rich black soil created by farmers in the Amazon forests circa 450 BC. Terra Preta contained much of the original nutrients despite existing for a long period of time. This very quality of the soil has sparked wide interest in commercial replications, which would be known as the biochar industry. If the past civilizations or societies have already achieved technological advancements unsurpassed by our present intelligence, can we still claim that they are in any way ‘primitive’ or inferior to us? Furthermore the simplicity or complexity of societal structures throughout human history cannot be merely seen as a natural sign of human progress, or rather a linear straightforward movement. The relationship between simplicity and complexity could be cyclical or something else altogether, hence requiring us to suspend value judgments. In addition, definitions of development and progress based on arbitrary, even dubious, qualities like ‘economic growth’ are myths unquestioned by the public and academia alike, for they form the foundations in the narration of human history – any challenges to the definitions would likely be seen as threats to the stability in individual and collective identities.
The grass might be greener on the other side, but the shade of green varies from context to context. More often than not we forget that matters are of the same nature in essence despite the deceptive layer of differences across geographical regions and socio-economic conditions, in various points in time.
Note: This piece is mainly a passing observation of the author, which would hopefully be developed into a longer essay. Feel free to comment and criticize in the event of disagreement.
What has gone somewhat unexamined is that the legacy of colonization. The centuries of conquering and plundering by Western powers has scarred their former territories, in such a way that the mindset of the supposedly liberated people remains sunk in the shadows of their colonial masters. While there have been calls in countries including Malaysia for anti-Eurocentric education policies in the attempt to restore the disrupted intellectual balance, more specifically a fairer postcolonial presentation of any given country’s past, its economic, political and social structures most possibly and ironically continue to be products of its colonial masters. Such structures have gained authority over time. To dismantle them would be a Herculean task.