The meaning of occidentalism

by Terence MacNamee

There has recently been much use of the word “occidentalism”, taken to mean dislike of the Western world felt by people elsewhere in the world. I find this usage unfortunate. The term is based on Orientalism, Edward Saïd’s term. This means the historic fascination of the Western world with the East (usually what we would now call the Middle East). If we have a term “Occidentalism”, it should by rights be used for the equivalent positive feeling, not a negative one. It should mean the Orient’s premature embracing of all things Western. Japanese playing golf. Chinese going to McDonald’s. That kind of thing.

There is a difference, mind you. Orientalism was a matter of sensibility, not of ideology. Westerners could get feelings from looking at the fabled East, or whatever they called it, but they didn’t get much in the way of ideas. They didn’t think that the Arabs, the Turks, the Indians or the Chinese were going to teach them how to run their society. They certainly didn’t think the ideas and feelings from the fabled East were universal. They were just quaint, exotic, belonging to the domain of “local colour”.

But Occidentalism, taken to mean the fascination of the East with the West, would be a matter of ideology as well. Chinese, Japanese, Indians et al. don’t just like hamburgers and golf, they read Anglo-American media and books, and consume the ideas contained therein. They go to Anglo-American universities to learn from the academics there. They copy what these people do and say in institutions and organizations at home.

Eventually they may ask themselves: why are we bothering to do this? But by that stage they may have abandoned the better part of their own cultures. The Cultural Revolution was an ill-judged rejection by a younger generation of their own past. Could a new generation be embarking on a new Cultural Revolution? Is this it? Occidentalism?