Recently I have been following an online discussion group at a site called Quora.com. It has led to an outcry at the way that the history we have available for discussion, the way history is told in the world, is so damn Euro-white man-centric.
Well, it would be – we wrote it. I do not mean this in some “history is written by the victors” way, but literally, Europeans wrote their histories down; the African, Australian and American native peoples did not, certainly not in such intense detail. You have to be European to care enough to do that.
The cultures of the southern hemisphere below the desert strip from North Africa to India, didn’t write much down, but relied on images and song or story telling to record their histories. For the thousands of years the European, Arab, Persian, Indian and Chinese peoples wrote down their histories, with the exception of the Mayan and Aztec nations, who developed a fairly complex hieroglyphic system, nothing was recorded in those other continents. These opposing attitudes to historical record and its meaning make for two very different viewpoints from which to gaze upon the world and learn to understand it, even down to what you think is worth understanding.
I have spent much of my life staying or living in countries all across the southern hemisphere, and it doesn’t take long to see the vast cultural differences between those cultures that developed in the northern hemisphere and those that developed around and south of the equator. As said, there are many similarities from simple family love to a sense of harmony to reasons to get angry. But it is in the public world of ordinary social interaction that you can see societies as they operate the complicated business of living together. The cultural style, if you like, of the northern hemisphere, I somewhat coyly like to suggest, is in part a product of the weather, of course made complex and elusive over the hundred thousand years or so that Homo Sapiens has been active in the world, as far as we know (Creationists, just ignore that and carry on reading), but starting from that basic circumstance of life in the north. It gets damn cold and it gets damn hot. The cultures of the north spent those first ninety or so millennia driven into their caves for shelter, forced to live through four to seven months of freezing weather and hardly any food to be found, all crammed into a damp stone walled cavern. They had to think ahead, to plan, to store supplies and make fur coats. And they had to find things to do to while away the hours, so, in time, they got to painting on the walls, and probably telling stories to the rhythm of a drum, caveman rap about famous hunts, with illustrations on the wall behind. And eventually they got around to building virtual caves they call houses and castles and palaces, and writing vast books on all the different kinds of insects in the world and how to make a hydrogen bomb. And filming everything.
Meanwhile, down in the warm, moist climes of the tropic and sub-tropic continents, most notably Africa and South America, all you had to do to eat was go for a walk, with a weapon for meat or just your bare hands for fruit and berries. The only shelter you needed was from the rain and things that could kill you, and the danger of either didn’t last too long, even monsoons are gone in weeks, and lions just walk on after a while. All societies have much in common, we all have stories and music and ethical theories and social systems and ways to get high on a Saturday night, whatever the weather or other cultural influences.
Europe changed the world when it started revolutionising it, but people are never so dumb that they can’t clean up a mess once the messer has gone, and it seems to me most of the world keeps what it likes and dumps the rest, and the European peoples do the same vice versa.
It has been by no means one way. The southern cultures have hugely influenced the European cultures. The social influence I notice in particular, as an historian by hobby, is the sense of social interaction in southern hemisphere cultures that is so much warmer and physically intimate, a certain lightness of spirit, and an easy-going relationship with each other, even in the face of dreadful difficulties. Europe has come from a careful dance of social manners, grim determination and customary morality that in the last two or three hundred years has been changed beyond recognition. The difference in the methodology of social interactions between European and southern cultures is for me most succinctly demonstrated in the way that we don’t understand why Africans don’t say please and thank you, and they don’t understand why we do.
The interesting, one might say amusing, thing is that Europeans never seem really to learn to integrate into African society in Africa, but Africans don’t take a month to figure out how to live with Europeans in Europe and elsewhere, though it might take a few days to realise how important we think time is.
My stays in foreign lands have often been for months at a time, giving me the opportunity to get to know people properly, and I have never been anywhere where I did not meet a great majority of happy, helpful, welcoming people. I really do not understand the problem that so embroils racists of every colour. the African and Asian cultures have influenced and altered European culture enormously, more I sometimes think, than Europe has influenced those cultures, or perhaps I mean deeper changes, changes of heart, not just economic systems. In any case, considerably more than the average European knows or acknowledges. Europe’s gift to the rest of the world has been, it’s true, largely weapons and greed, but it was also “railways and the telegraph”, as then Governor General of India Lord Dalhousie said, and there has also been much that is good in European culture, if we only start with medicine, though the world generally agrees that it would also include law, literature, theatre and cinema, art, and yes, written history, and a lot more besides – microwaves, fridges, cars – and music goes everywhere, doesn’t it?
We can make this world work, but both sides have to face up to the resentment and fear, and that means learning to understand and celebrate the differences and find the similarities. Not to misrepresent or malign the political reality and its arduous often cruel history, it reminds me of my break with my parents as a teenager, and the lingering hurts of my childhood. In the end, you just have to let go, forgive them everything and become who you make yourself, who you are and no one else to blame.