On Being Backwards

I don’t follow too many opinion editorial writers, but I’ve been a fan of Nick Kristof for quite some time.  However, this post by Kristof has got me a little irked.  The article itself brings up the stagnation of the Middle East’s progress after the twelfth century.  Citing a new book that attempts to address the reasons for this, Kristof asks what caused the “backwardness” of the Middle East.  While the article touched on Islamic law (i.e. business agreements, inheritance law, et cetera), it was Kristof’s word choice that got me.

When asked about it, Kristof tweeted his reasoning for saying the Middle East was backwards, citing “literacy rates, female labor force participation, political systems.”  But there seems to be a disconnect.  While I agree that many governments in the Middle East have some fundamental problems, I would think long and hard before calling a whole section of the world “backwards.”  Individual people are to some extent products of their societies, but societies are not a monolithic whole – they’re made up of those individual people.

To treat a whole group of people – a group spanning from Morocco to Bahrain, Egypt to Syria – as if they were all the same is already a misstep.  To take society’s problems and extrapolate a “backwardness” of people is an even bigger one.  It seems that Kristof is ignoring that the (not backwards) people are oppressed by these oppressive governments.  Many of these governments are governed by people who are far from backwards – Western-educated, wealthy, elite – but who exploit their societies to oppress their citizens.  Often, this oppression takes the form of limiting education, targeting women, curbing political dissent.  Being oppressed is different than being backwards. I hope Kristof knows this.

This ignores the fact that backwardness is misguided to begin with.  The idea that there is a forwards and backwards, and Kristof is implying that the Middle East is one (and therefore the West is the other) is far too conceited.  He’s hearkening back to Orientalism, practically, trying to use the institutions of America to judge the lack of institutions in a whole collection of countries.  A lot of stuff happened in the Middle Ages that put the societies of the Middle East on one track and the societies in Europe on another.  Stuff like the latter invading the former, among other things.  The thriving world of Damascus and Baghdad didn’t ebb because religious law halted progress. It happened for the same reason that America made gains after WWI while Europe did not, and that Europe made gains in the 18th Century while Africa did not.  Not one particular reason, but innumerable reasons.  That’s kind of how history works.  To say a change in a whole civilization was caused by one thing, or even one type of thing, is reckless.  It’s even more reckless to argue that members of a society, because they are oppressed, are also backwards.

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2 responses to “On Being Backwards

  1. Completely agree re: ‘society is made up of individuals’, couldn’t be more on the button. It’s the same reason it annoys me whenever people target someone just because they vote for a certain political party, they don’t seem to acknowledge that not everyone who does something similar is necessarily the same (if that makes sense)

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