De-Westernizing Communication: Strategies for Neutralizing Cultural Myths
Molefi Kete Asante
It is the purpose of this paper to demonstrate that neutralizing principal stereotypes and myths often held by the Western World of African and Asian cultures is an effective way to create normal human communication. It is the position of the author that abnormal communication that often goes for effective communication is a linear, rational, militaristic approach to human relations that does not allow ambiguity and non-linearity. In fact, it seeks success that serves as a code for conquest. By neutralizing this tendency for asserting stereotypes the communicator can transform communication into a mutual human relationship.
My contention is that the Western construct of communication deeply embeds the myths of recent Western culture that must necessarily undermine common humanity in its projection of a particularistic ethos. I am quick to say that it may not be the only culture that does this, but since it is predominate in the teaching and writing about communication, then I will concentrate on it. In my judgment the western construction of knowledge as articulated by the early Greek thinkers, those upon whom so much of the Western intellectual structure rely, namely Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, create, among other things, a cultural hierarchy of knowledge that seeks to promote its narcissism as universal. Nevertheless, the supporting structure for this formal way of viewing Western thinking, that is, this Greek notion of intellectual history and philosophical tradition, is buttressed by more common folk myths articulated in less formal ways and are characterized by their widespread acceptance in the actions and behaviors of Europeans. On one hand it is possible to speak of the imperial and expansive nature of European adventurism in terms of inquisitiveness, wanderlust, and religious zeal. On the other hand, one can discover something more sinister in the quest for racial domination based in the ideology of the superiority and inferiority of races first promulgated by German scholars. This modern racial idea, to be fair, has to be disconnected from the ancient Greeks who quite readily admitted their indebtedness to Egypt, Persia, and India.
In the end the decentralizing and demobilizing of the Western international paradigm augurs well for true pluralism in communication without notions of hierarchy. Thus, I will examine the ideological framework of the Western imposition as universal, review the undergirding myths, and then present a basis for decolonizing and humanizing the structure of communication.
The Myths of Westernity
As the 16th century was the Portuguese century, the 17th century was the Spanish and Dutch century, the18th century was the French century, the 19th century was the British and German century, the 20th century was the American. We expect that the 21st will be China, India, Brazil, or Russia, we have no way of really knowing at this moment. But the combination of the European centuries gives us about four to five hundred years of solid European domination of intellectual concepts and philosophical ideas. Africa and Asia were subsumed under various headings of the European hierarchy. If a war between the European powers occurred it was called a World War and the Asians and Africans found their way on the side of one European power or the other. There was this sense of assertiveness about European culture that advanced with Europe’s trade, religious, and military forces.
The myths of the society are often found in the habits of the people. However, I am the first to admit that it is difficult to sift out the facts and to isolate the precise contributions of a particular culture and to claim that these are the key myths, without any intrusion from elsewhere, of European culture. To distinguish accurately what is Western from what is Asian or African takes considerable understanding of different cultures. In my case I have grown up in the West, been educated in its best schools and read its greatest literature, but have always taken a keen interest in my African culture, which I have also studied and read deeply. I believe that I am uniquely positioned to examine the relationship of European myths to the universalizing nature of its communication theory.
Individualism is the highest form of human expression
The superstructure of the Western world elevates the individual over the society and therefore enshrines an ethic of one against others in a situation of existential tension. All institutions of the West predicate their existence on the assertion of the individual as unique even without the group. This is in direct contrast to what often happens in an African context where the person gains his or her meaning in the midst of community. I do not exist alone, apart from my community and my ancestors; indeed, I am nothing without the texture that is given to me as a human in the midst of community.
The mastery over nature makes you more advanced
The conquest of nature became a driving force of Europe as a results of cultural change during eh European renaissance. This is a particular history, condition, and circumstances. Western philosophers universalized this idea by framing it in the concept of universal history. It defined European goals of conquest as the necessary driving forces of history and interpreted other people as backwards or primitive. Material conquest was deemed the only coin of progress. If a society lives in harmony with nature, seeing the earth as sacred enough to protect and preserve, that society is often considered in a negative manner in the West. A mindset in opposition to nature where the individual seeks to dominate nature often bleeds into a similar ideology in regards to other human beings. Conquest is conquest, whether you are talking about persuasive tactics or martial tactics.
Philosophy is the contribution of one people, the Europeans
Communication as a field of study, through many transformations, can be traced back through Western rhetoric to Greek discussants of persuasion such as Tisias and Corax and authors such as Plato and Aristotle. At that point in history we are confronted with the issue of philosophy as the source of true knowledge and we find Plato asserting that the philosopher-king was the best person to lead a civil society. There is more to this narrative of origin, however, in the fact that the Greeks, according to the European scholars of the last four to five hundred years were responsible for creating philosophy. Rhetoric, if it is to follow the best examples of Greek thinking, could escape its own fate as bombast if it crowned itself with reason and became a branch of philosophy. This history is skimpy, I admit, but it is correct enough to allow me to establish the problem that has affected communication itself.
Most Westerners, even those who write on communication, would argue that philosophy is of Greek origin, that is, it is in archaic Greek culture that we first encounter philosophy. This is what we have been taught in the schools of the West. This position, however, betrays a sense of intellectual innocence and demonstrates a lack of knowledge. Yet, as I hope to show, this lack of knowledge sits at the very entrance to the chamber of myths in the West. Theophile Obenga (1992), writing in Ancient Egypt and Black Africa, says that “philosophy is a privileged field where historical Western societies elaborate their destiny and future.” Nevertheless, this idea of the Greek origin of philosophy is a myth.
Let me put it in as stark terms as possible by referring to a timeline of major civilizations:
1. Writing originates in Egypt around 3400 BCE.
2. Menes unites Egypt around 3200 BCE
3. Imhotep builds the first pyramid around 2900 BCE
4. Ptahhotep writes the first book, 2900 BC
5. Hsia starts around 2000 BC; Shang 1523 BCE; Chou 1027 BCE
6. Homer, Greek poet, 800 BCE
So we do not even have a Greek philosopher in 800 BCE; we only get one in 600 BCE, and his name is Thales. The second Greek philosopher is Pythagoras, who was 19 years of age when he met the old man Thales.
By the time of the first Greek philosophers there had been several major African philosophers who are recorded in my book, Egyptian Philosophers. These were thinkers with names such as Ptahhotep, Duauf,Merikare, Amenhotep, son of Hapu, and Akhenaten.
By the time of Homer the Chinese had already produced the Yi Jing, around 1050 BCE (Book of Changes) and would surpass the Greeks in productivity after the Analects of Kong fu-zi.
The Western scholars embraced philosophy and wrapped themselves in it as a signifier that they held onto reason. They saw philosophy as the most learned of all sciences. They spoke of philosophy only in the context of European thinking and writing. Only Europeans invented philosophy in their minds; indeed, only Europeans could be philosophers. Other people could have thoughts, thinking, wisdom literature, traditions, legends, religions, cosmogonies, and stories, but only Europeans could possess and advance philosophy, the science of reason. This was the dominant thinking of the Europeans during the last five hundred years. This was the ideology that fueled the notion of racial superiority and helped spark imperialism making it an ideology of the white man’s burden to civilize the rest of the world. Europeans would never speak of an African philosophy or an Asian philosophy during the Age of Imperialism. If any world was used to refer to the thinking of Africans it was Ethno-philosophy, a diminutive that affirmed the inferior status of those who participated in such a philosophy.
Etymology is the science of the origin of words. The word in English that we call “philosophy” is not of Greek origin. There is no origin of the compound word “philosophy” in the Greek language. It comes into English and other European languages from Greek but how it got into Greek is another story. The two parts of the word are these: philo which means cherished or loved in the passive; loving and benevolent in the active, and is really less commonly used. Philo is also used as a substantive to mean friend, brother, or lover. However, the term philo or philos has no Indo-European origin. It cannot be discovered in a context that allows a scholar to explain it in Greek. Obenga is certain that “it is not a Greek word” (1992).
The second part of the compound word is sophós which means literally “who has knowledge of a technique,” or “one who knows.” We only have a derivative appearing in the Iliad (15, 412) as sophia which can mean the “ability to perform or to do something.” This could just as easily be a poet or a scientist.
The progressive compound of dependence is philo “who love” tó sophón science wisdom, therefore we can say philosophia is the love of wisdom or the love of wisdom. This could apply to loving research, poetry, science or eloquence.
I have not been the first to point out that the modern Greek term for scientist, sophós, does not have any Indo-European origin either. So neither philos nor Sophia can be shown to have a Greek origin, thus the word “philosophy” is not of Greek origin, and we cannot find it in any dictionary of Indo-European etymology.
If philosophy has no Greek origin, then how could the Greeks have been the first to discover philosophy? This is the fundamental myth in the Western construction of knowledge, particularly as it applies to those of us who study communication. The foundation is false and hence the conclusions about human life, behavior, and knowledge must be reevaluated. What are the consequences of this problem of philosophy’s origin? It has been the scaffolding that has supported the ideology of white racial domination and the doctrine of white hegemony; this idea of philosophy being the most advanced science and whites being the only ones who have created this “best” science constructed an aura of Western superiority. Of course, now that the scaffolding is shown to be untrue and unstable, we must turn our attention to constructing a more equitable foundation for human communication.
Asante, Molefi Kete (2008) An Afrocentric Manifesto. Cambridge: Polity
Obenga, Theophile (1992) Ancient Egypt and Black Africa. London: Karnak House.