Myths of the West 1: Europe at the Centre of the World

Posted on September 10, 2011

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1. Eurocentric Diffusionism

This is the story of an idea, an historical idea, a geographical idea, a cultural idea.  Historical geographer J.M. Blaut calls it Eurocentric diffusionism or just diffusionism, and he describes it as,

the notion that European civilization—“The West”—has had some unique historical advantage, some special quality of race or culture or environment or mind or spirit, which gives this human community a permanent superiority over all other communities, at all times in history and down to the present. [1]

Diffusionism is thus a kind of Ptolemaic history.  As Ptolemy positioned the Earth at the centre of the universe, Eurocentric diffusionism positions Europe, its people, its offshoots, at the centre of the world and at the centre of history. Europe, according to this view, is where modernity began. Europe is civilization’s keeper, towards which progress is tilted.  The fate of Europe is indistinguishable from the future of the world.

In this worldview, as Blaut explains,

Europe eternally advances, progresses, modernizes.  The rest of the world advances more sluggishly, or stagnates:  it is “traditional society.”  Therefore the world has a permanent geographical center and a permanent periphery: an Inside and an Outside.  Inside leads, Outside lags.  Inside innovates, Outside imitates. … Diffusionism lies at the very root of historical and geographical scholarship. [1]

The basic story of diffusionism is this:  for various reasons (some of the reasons commonly encountered will be discussed later) Europe was more advanced than everybody else prior to 1492.  This led to their success in the long age of European colonialism, and explains their success today when compared to the condition of other less-favoured peoples.  The theory therefore positions colonialism not as a series of choices made by people for their own reasons, but as the inevitable working out of history, a Darwinian morality play where the superior idea wins.  Colonialism in this telling turns out to be a gift in disguise—although admittedly a little tough on some actors in some parts—because it is the means by which Europe spreads civilization, science and modernity to the rest of the world.

Ground up and processed through this theory, history is therefore reshaped and reinterpreted to prove that colonialism was not a crime, it was a blessing.

(When you grow up, you’ll understand, my child.  Uh-huh.)

This is a theory seldom stated explicitly by its adherents.  It’s more a conceptual window looking only in one direction, unseen itself, mostly unacknowledged, but shaping one’s view of the world nonetheless.  And it’s probably because the theory is implicit rather than explicit that it remains largely unchallenged.  Otherwise—I’m sure you noticed—it comes across as racism and colonialist narcissism.  Which it mostly is.

Operating as an unacknowledged backstory to history, to society itself, however, diffusionist thought can powerfully influence our collective worldview, all the more powerful for being unconscious.  And unchallenged as a worldview, diffusionist thinking is a defence of racism.  Unchallenged as a defence of colonialism, it becomes a defence of uneven colonial relationships.

And it has the other disadvantage of being almost certainly wrong.

But that’s a discussion for another day.

J.M. Blaut’s book, The Colonizer’s Model of the World (Guilford Press, NY, 1993) represents an extended critique of Eurocentric diffusionism.  Because diffusionism as a set of ideas is directly relevant to Aboriginal history, I consider it well worth an extended discussion here.  I’ll be starting from Blaut, of course, but ranging into other places as well.

This is the first of a series of entries on this topic.

Continued @ Myths of the West 2: Tunnel History for Juniors  3. The 5 Fundamentals of Colonizer History 4. Stargate & the 7 Rules of European Progress

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All quotes are from The Colonizer’s Model of the World, page numbers given.

Posted in: history