The West is the Best: Ideas of Civilization in Western Europe caused by interactions with non-western cultures

Anthropologists Professor Helge Jordheim, Academic Director for the inter-faculty research program KULTRANS and his colleagues at Oslo University show how what was considered civilized western behavior in the 19th and 20th centuries was heavily influenced by interactions with non-western cultures. Western European nations’ interactions with non-western cultures such as in eastern cultures influenced a need to define what it meant for a country and its individuals to be civilized, which would indicate their nations “higher” status on the world (Simmones 2013). Jordheim said, “It is important for all countries to appear civilized. How civilized a country is considered to be determines its position in the ‘global pecking order'” (Simmones 2013). Jordheim in an article covering his research continued, “In Western Europe, the prevailing notion was ‘civilization, that’s us’”(Simmones 2013). Although culture from Western Europe was very influential around the world, the Ottoman Empire, Arabic, and Persian cultures were also looked at for their influence and definition of their cultures when interacting with non-western cultures.

Jordheim and his colleagues used books in the 19th and 20th centuries in etiquette, literature in political culture, among many others to study the ideas that strongly influenced how western nations and civilizations believed they should be formed, to project their social place in comparison with other cultures, making a distinction between, civilized, lesser, and un-civilized nations or cultures. For the western nations to consider themselves civilized, each individual would make their behavior conform to ideas of a civilized culture. Jordheim and his colleagues found Scandinavian countries to differ from western civilized notions and desire to be civilized due to the Scandinavian view of nature and man.

Notions of civility distance humans from nature. Nature is a strong aspect of Scandinavian culture and is “the ideal” not civilization, making notions of civility conflict with traditional views in the countries (Simmones 2013). Socialization of expression of emotions differ in Scandinavia compared to western European cultures whom attempting to appear civilized prefer restricting the expression of emotions, “In many other countries, the civilizing process entails that emotions must be curbed. This is not necessarily so in Scandinavia. Emotions that are presumed to be natural, such as courage, anger and maternal instincts, are also regarded as desirable,” Jordheim said in an article titled Civilization is defined by ‘the others’ in Science Daily (Simmones 2013).

1. Simmones, Kamilla, University of Oslo. “Civilization is defined by ‘the others’.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 3 October 2013.