Eastern – Western: What?

Why is this part of the world eastern and this other part, western?
via http://xkcd.com/

The use of western and eastern to describe certain parts of the world has not always bothered me. In fact, I drank the social studies Kool-Aid just like most of my peers in elementary, middle and high school. We were part of “the western world” and that was that. I wasn’t bothered…I wasn’t even apathetic. Critical thinking of this nature didn’t reach my cranial hemispheres until my mid twenties. So the world is a sphere. It’s round. West and East are sort of arbitrary directions that we use in order to reign in some control of our spinning globe.

Curiously, I found my way to Wikipedia for a rather interesting article on the “Eastern World“:

The division between “East” and “West” is a product of European cultural history, and of the distinction between European Christendom and the alien cultures beyond it to the East. Before the discovery of the Americas and the exploration of Sub-Saharan Africa by the Europeans, only North Africa and other Islamic countries to the East were known in detail, though India and China were vaguely known of. The crusades established what became a border between “Eastern” and “Western” peoples.

Basically, by framing groups of people as being in either the east or the west, we have a rather disgusting way of creating “us” and them”. Let’s call it historical semantic othering.

I was fascinated by this particular comic (really I dig all of them) in xkdc.com because I frequently mention “Western Culture” and “Non-Western Culture” in my job as an academic advisor. Are you curious as to why this occurs? Maybe, maybe not, but here’s the reason: GEO 105 and GEO 106.

GEO 105 Geography of the Non-Western World

GEO 106 Geography of the Western World

Whether or not this was done purposefully, the “West” has been placed at the center or as “that by which everything else is defined”. You’re either part of the western world or you’re not. It’s not a very equitable situation. I’ve often wondered why GEO 105 was not named “Geography of the Eastern World”.

I guess it’s time for me to send of some inquiries to the GEO Department to ask them if they are bothered by this too…

5 thoughts on “Eastern – Western: What?”

  1. Yeah, I always wondered why Europe and North America are Western, but they’re separated by a huge chunk of water. That never made much sense to me. But, like lots of ways we describe things, it makes sense from one group of people’s perspective (Europeans, in this particular instance), but not to anyone else. Very interesting.

  2. I understand your point. I teach music history courses and I must consistently differentiate between Western Classical Music and Eastern Classical Music. I understand where the term came from and the duality it creates, but I would argue that it is hardly arbitrary.

    The international dateline sets a pretty clear standard for what could be considered East and West. I can’t imagine calling China and Japan the “West” simply because they are nearly a day ahead of me. Regardless of history, the rotation of the Earth and our system of measuring time means someone has got to be objectively East and someone else has to be objectively West. We’ve got to put the dateline somewhere!

    Interestingly, for that reason the East will always be “ahead” of us. If we really wanted to be “U(.)S(.)-centric,” we could move the international dateline to New York and put China, Japan, and the rest of the “East” behind us.

  3. The term “The Western World” was at first coined to describe Europe and the Eastern world to describe the Arabs. that’s where we get the term “the West (Europe) comes from. and as the Europe slowly expanded to other lands they as well became a part of the west as long as they kept the European style culture.

    “The Western world includes Europe, as well as many countries of European colonial origin with majority European populations in the Americas and Oceania, such as the United States of America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina etc“

  4. This drawing is probably made by some american. The WEST starts in europe pointing west towards north america, east pointing east from europe.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.