Johns Hopkins Gazette: March 10, 1997

Clash of cultures:
Why Can't We All
Just Get Along?

Mike Field
Staff Writer
In Canada, a male American Indian facing the prospect of a painful tribal initiation rite appeals to the courts, claiming that his rights as a Canadian citizen safeguard him from being forced to undergo cruel and unusual punishment. The court agrees.

In Australia, a complex legal dispute involving aboriginal rights revolves around the justice and fairness of laws passed in the 18th century. Eventually, the case ends up before the Australian Supreme Court.

Although the cases may appear unrelated, to history professor Anthony Pagden they are of a kind. These, and countless other legal and political disputes occurring in countries around the world, are rooted in a clash of cultures that erupted slightly more than 500 years ago. It is a clash, Pagden believes, that continues to this day.

"What I have been interested in, primarily, is European attempts to legitimize the early period of conquests that begins with Columbus," said Pagden, who recently arrived at Hopkins after teaching at Oxford, Princeton and Harvard. "My work is predominantly concerned with events of the 18th century, a time when the intellectual response to empire led to notions of universalism, cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism."

That period marks the culmination of the great age of discovery, when Europeans got into sailboats and began heading off into the vast unknown. Almost immediately, they started bumping into islands and nations and entire continents of people undreamt of in their philosophy.

How they accounted for other cultures and belief systems foreign to their thinking--and how those attitudes reverberate to this day--is the focus of much of Pagden's work.

"Most Europeans, and certainly all of those who traveled to America in the first three centuries after the discovery, belonged to intellectual cultures which were convinced that everything in the world conformed to a pre-ordained set of laws-- the law of nature--and could be made explicable in terms of that law," wrote Pagden in his 1992 book, European Encounters with the New World.

The problem, he suggests, was that the Europeans (like most peoples) were ill-equipped to assimilate or understand people whose cultures did not neatly fit within the framework of their own world view. These new peoples were, to greater or lesser degrees, refusing to obey the "law of nature" that European man had proclaimed.

The Europeans' natural response was then to impose their own frame of reference upon what they had encountered, omitting or submerging what did not fall within the grid of Western European rationalist philosophy. The new cultures were then represented to the rest of Europe--to those back home--not as they truly were, but as those doing the describing wished them to be.

It is this tendency, which Pagden calls the European "objectifying habit," that he believes has led to many of the seemingly irreconcilable differences between native peoples and later arrivals that persist to this day.

"For all European cultures," he writes, "the beneficiaries of a Greek ethnocentrism require the presence of something against which they can represent themselves, invariably to their own advantage. This, it could be said, is precisely why Europeans have always taken such an interest in other cultures, and in particular those which, in the terms by which they judge excellence, were notably inferior to their own."

Anthropology, he notes drolly, "is a Western European science," one that, until relatively recently, was almost exclusively devoted to studying societies and peoples deemed "primitive." That perspective has led, inevitably, to many of the social conflicts that bedevil contemporary society, both among Europeans, and in the lands discovered and colonized by them.

Pagden is uniquely qualified to write about and research these issues from a pan-European perspective. An Englishman who spent much of his early childhood in Chile, where his father worked as a businessman, he speaks fluent Spanish and is at home in both the English and Spanish cultural milieu. He earned his undergraduate degree in philosophy and literature from the University of Barcelona in the 1960s.

"My education was cut somewhat short because the universities at that time were seats of opposition to Franco and his regime, so the government simply came in and closed them down," Pagden recalls. "Some of my friends ended up in jail." Pagden continued his training at Oxford, where he later taught, moving from there to the Warburg Institute in London and eventually on to positions at Princeton and Harvard. "For the past 20 years I've been back and forth across the Atlantic on a regular basis, but always to the East Coast," he says.

Along the way, he published several books relating to his interests in the manner in which Europe and the Americas have interacted over the years, including The Fall of Natural Man: The American Indian and the Origins of Comparative Ethnology; The Spanish Empire and the Political Imagination; and The Uncertainties of Empire: Essays in Iberian and Spanish-American Intellectual History. This semester, he is teaching some of these ideas in an undergraduate course titled Comparative Theories of Empire: From Rome to the Cold War.

One of Pagden's fundamental assertions is that there is a continuum of European belief concerning other societies that persists to this day. "From ancient Rome to the World Bank there is a certain constant in European thinking about the rest of the world that privileges certain cultural beliefs," he says. "If you are to look at World Bank literature you cannot help notice a certain similarity to tracts composed in the 18th century. There is a similar drift in meaning and expectation."

As an example, he cites two policies of European development that have their genesis in 18th-century political thought and are as vital or more so today. "These are the concepts of democracy, which is seen as a natural, cross-cultural aspiration, and human rights, which is the assumption that all humans have rights and they exist throughout the world," Pagden says. "This is not to say that there aren't human rights, but rather to call attention to the fact that the concept is a social construct, one that leads Europeans to make certain assumptions of moral worth. That's the underlying theme in much of my work."

Although some portray the European conquests of the Americas as unmitigated rapacious exploitation, Pagden draws a more complex picture of expectations and assumptions.

"Many people in the 18th century, and even earlier, perceived there was a mistake being made and that this was not the way to go about treating other people," he says. "Their bottom line was that it's better to be friends than enemies. Even those who had no love for aboriginal peoples could understand the cost was too high."

Yet even those who advocated most strongly for more humane and compassionate relations were ultimately at a loss as to how, precisely, the different cultures could successfully coexist. It is the essence of the problem that persists to this day, as illustrated in the Canadian and Australian court cases. "The attempt now is to try to establish some just relationship, but it is almost impossible to do so in any coherent way," Pagden asserts.

"Part of the reason is the conquest has changed the nature of aboriginal people themselves. What is going on in many places today is an attempt to mitigate, to make up--to morally pay back- -for past injustices," he says. "But the trouble is, there's no moral capital you can invest to pay back the debt. You can't create an identity for the aboriginal people and give it back to them. Most aboriginal people today live in multicultural worlds where they are not the dominant culture. Some of the responses in liberal Western communities seem, in my opinion, misguided."

For Pagden, the moral and social dilemmas facing contemporary society can best be understood, and perhaps most effectively addressed, by looking to the past. "We study history because we want to understand who we are, and how we got to be the way we are," he says. "What I am doing is fundamentally concerned with contemporary relationships among peoples. It has, I think, immediate and direct modern consequences."

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