So many times, I’ve heard people recently returned from the Developing World crying crocodile tears about how “guilty” they feel for living in the West. Guilty for what, exactly? For the fact that we live in such amazing countries and those outside the West do not? How obscenely, nationalistically, ethnocentrically self-congratulatory.
Feeling sorry for people who live in a country that is not materially rich or Westernized is incredibly condescending. Just because they rank lower on a culturally-specific scale (whether of wealth, “quality of life” (a peculiar synonym for Westernness), or self-reported “happiness,”) designed by Westerners, or because they lack the consumer goods ubiquitous to a “developed” society, does not mean we should feel sorry for them.
I’ve often heard that Westerners don’t ever have a right to complain about their societies, which is incredibly arrogant, implying that our “advanced” nations lack problems worthy of criticism. As though our (extremely inequitably distributed) material wealth somehow makes up for all of the empty, spiritually-impoverishing perils of modernity and other shortcomings; as if it somehow makes us happier or more fulfilled.
It can also be used as yet another excuse for Western meddling in the world, for if the West is “better” than the rest of the world, Westerners should immediately drop what they’re doing and “help” (i.e. assimilate) the poor Third Worlders. The writer Paul Theroux was criticizing the same phenomenon when he wrote that, “the impression that Africa is fatally troubled and can be saved only by outside help – not to mention celebrities and charity concerts – is a destructive and misleading concept.”
Don’t get me wrong. Actual famine, war, and natural disasters are horrible calamities, but are comparatively rare in the “developing” world. What we often call poverty is only poverty in the most subjective, Western sense. If someone lives in a modest hut with no electricity or running water, do not arrogantly assume you live a better life than they do. Do not assume that just because they don’t have an iPhone, a graduate degree, a gym membership, and a white picket fence, it means they are unhappy or unfulfilled. Do not pity them. They may very well have more reason to pity you.
In 1978, while in exile in the United States, the great Russian dissident writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn gave a commencement speech at Harvard University. Observing life in the West with the insight that perhaps only an outsider could possess, he voiced his criticism:
“Every citizen [here] has been granted the desired freedom and material goods in such quantity and of such quality as to guarantee in theory the achievement of happiness, in the morally inferior sense which has come into being during those same decades. In the process, however, one psychological detail has been overlooked: the constant desire to have still more things and a still better life and the struggle to obtain them imprints many Western faces with worry and even depression, though it is customary to conceal such feelings. Active and tense competition permeates all human thoughts without opening a way to free spiritual development.”
Solzhenitsyn raised the question of whether or not we really are any better off in the materially-drunk world. Does material wealth in fact lead to spiritual decline (which we can’t quantify with our “objective,” “international” measures)? Does access to an infinite supply and variety of consumer goods simply lead us to want more and more, like a narcotic? Has our advanced entertainment technology seduced us into withdrawing from more meaningful aspects of life? Is it in fact harder to find meaning with an easy life?
Aside from the perils of consumerism, it would appear that certain aspects of modernity in the Western world have poisoned human interactions. We too suffer from calamities, but ours are quieter, more subtle, and less CNN-worthy.
One writer has recently pointed out that, “Across the Western world, physicians and nurses have begun to speak openly of an epidemic of loneliness.” One fifth of Americans are unhappy with their lives because of a crippling feeling of loneliness. As we retreat to our vapid suburbs, and become more fully integrated with escapist, alienating technology, rates of loneliness are going way up. “We are living in an isolation that would have been unimaginable to our ancestors […] our bonds are less meaningful and less easy.” Social connections are growing broader but shallower. Close friends are being replaced by therapists, we’ve become workaholics at mostly unneeded jobs to distract ourselves from the emptiness of our lives, and we’re becoming more and more obsessed with our pets. We’ve even built robots to keep us company, and scientists tell us it’s only a matter of time before we actually begin to have sexual and romantic relationships with them.
Human interactions in the West have even declined to the point that the very word “friend” has been significantly weakened in modern times. Whereas in the past, a friend referred to someone whom you loved, now it merely means “someone with whom one enjoys spending time and sharing activities.” Dictionary definitions of friend have changed from incorporating “benevolence and intimacy” to merely “liking” someone.
The famous anthropologist Wade Davis points out that what we call “modernity” is simply a subjective expression of cultural values. He writes about the downsides of modernity in the United States:
An anthropologist from a distant planet landing in the United States would see many wondrous things. But he or she or it would also encounter a culture that reveres marriage, yet allows half of its marriages to end in divorce; that admires its elderly, yet has grandparents living with grandchildren in only 6 percent of its households; that loves its children, yet embraces a slogan — “24/7″ — that implies total devotion to the workplace at the expense of family. By the age of 18, the average American youth has spent two years watching television. One in five Americans is clinically obese and 60 percent are overweight, in part because 20 percent of all meals are consumed in automobiles and a third of children eat fast food every day. The country manufactures 200 million tons of industrial chemicals each year, while its people consume two-thirds of the world’s production of antidepressant drugs. The four hundred most prosperous American control more wealth than 2.5 billion people in the poorest eighty-one nations with whom they share the planet. The nation spends more money on armaments and war than the collective military budgets of its seventeen closest rivals. The state of California spends more money on prisons than on universities. Technological wizardry is balanced by the embrace of an economic model of production and consumption that compromises the life supports of the planet. Extreme would be one word for a civilization that contaminates with its waste the air, water, and soil; that drives plants and animals to extinction on a scale not seen on earth since the disappearance of the dinosaurs; that dams the rivers, tears down the ancient forests, empties the seas of fish, and does little to curtail industrial processes that threaten to transform the chemistry and physics of the atmosphere.
For the sake of contrast with a society outside the West, let’s briefly examine human interaction in Russia.
Russian dictionaries define drug (friend), which is used far more often in Russian speech than “friend” is used in English, using words such as “love” and “devotion,” and expressions such as someone “on whom one can rely for everything,” with whom you are “spiritually close,” and may share everything, “both joy and sorrow.”
The American journalist Hedrick Smith, who reported from the Soviet Union in the 1970s, wrote about friendship in Russian culture:
“relations between Russians are usually more intense, more demanding, more enduring and more often rewarding […] They commit themselves to only a few [friends], but cherish those. Within the trusted circle, there is an intensity in Russian relationships that Westerners find both exhilarating and exhausting. When they finally open up, Russians are looking for a soul-brother, not a mere conversational partner. They want someone to whom they can pour out their hearts, share their miseries, tell about family problems or difficulties with a lover or mistress, to ease the pain of life or to indulge in endless philosophical windmill tilting.”
As we can see, life in the West often has less tangible, but no less substantial voids. I don’t mean to romanticize all that is foreign, but believing your own culture is superior to all others is just as absurd. I’m just pointing out the futility of calling one society “better” than another.
Perhaps instead of crying for “Those poor people living in backwards countries,” we should step down from the pedestal and realize that our own societies are no better. Perhaps we should drop the self-righteous guilt.