Wednesday, 27 September 2023

Alice (I)

This series is an illustration of family life — all the tensions, joys, ups and downs that go with the territory of being in a family. My family is a microcosm for the dynamics occurring in many other families. We are no different. As a psychotherapist I have listened to many stories and it is interesting that what has been revealed to me, after fifteen years of practice, is not how different we are to one another, but rather how alike we are as people. It is what we share that is significant. The stories vary but we all experience similar emotions. We are all vulnerable to feelings of anger, grief and depression. The list goes on…  

My daughter Alice, born with Down’s Syndrome, is no different to any other human being. She feels what you and I feel. However, our society does not acknowledge this and her very existence is given little or no value. Alice has entered a world where routine genetic screening at twelve weeks gestation is thrust towards birth prevention rather than birth preparation. Whilst we make our selection and decisions in private, the effect on society is that 92 percent of Down’s Syndrome babies are terminated at the pre-natal screening stage. Indeed, prior to the introduction of screening, children such as Alice would have been severely marginalized and ultimately institutionalized and given little or limited medical care. 

I was deeply shocked when Alice was born as an ‘imperfect’ baby. It was not what I had expected. Our first experiences in hospital did little to diffuse this. The pediatrician pulled back her legs, pushed her thumbs deep into Alice’s groin, and promptly announced that we should take Alice home and treat her like any other baby. But she didn’t feel like any other baby, and I was fraught with anxiety that rippled through to every aspect of my relationship with her. My anxieties penetrated my dreams. I dreamt that Alice was swaddled in a blanket and that I had forgotten all about her. I unwrapped the tight bundle that she was nestled in, to feed her, only to discover her body was covered in a white fluid — a fluid of neglect; and yet I was unable to feed her, unable to respond to her basic needs. 

On reflection I saw that Alice was feeling my rejection of her and that caused me further pain. I saw that the responsibility lay with me; I had to dig deep into my own prejudices and shine a light on them. The result was that as my fear dissolved I fell in love with my daughter. We all did. 

I wonder how it might be for Alice to be valued without distinction, without exception and without second glance. 

This project is for her, for Alice.

by Sian Davey, series "Looking for Alice"

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photographs by Sian Davey via and via and via and via and via aand via 

Tuesday, 26 September 2023

The Family Transmission of Ethnic Prejudice

Generally speaking, research on the intergenerational transmission of ethnic prejudice is rather scarce. According to current socialisation theories, the transmission is a bidirectional process involving both parents and children as active persons influencing the outcomes. Transmission becomes a negotiation process. In the context of values, it was suggested that children do not imitate their parental values but interpret them in innovative ways. During adolescence, asymmetrical constellations of earlier periods are renegotiated and relationships outside the family become more important. Adolescents start considering diverse categories and become quite active in the transmission process (Zagrean et al., 2022).

Studies concerning the transmission of ethnic prejudice have unfortunately focused almost exclusively on childhood, thus leaving the adolescence phase under-investigated (Crocetti et al. 2021). Around the age of seven to eight, children begin to consolidate a preference for their ethnicity and progressively reach an identification with their ethnic ingroup. The research involving parents and pre-school- and school-age children (up to 12 years) showed mixed results. Indeed, some of them found a high degree of similarity between the parents’ and the children’s ethnic prejudice (e.g., Epstein and Komorita 1966; Katz 2003), while others reported only a moderate or low similarity (...). Castelli et al. (2009), in their study involving Italian parents and biological three- to six-year-old children, found that the parents’ explicit and implicit negative attitudes1 towards immigrants predicted those of their children, but only in the case of the mothers.

In their systematic review of research articles (four databases: Ebsco, Scopus, PubMed, Web of Science), a study carried out in 2021, Zagrean et al. (2022) addressed the following research questions:

(a) To what extent is there a vertical (between parents and children) and horizontal (between siblings) transmission of ethnic prejudice within the family?
(b) Is the family transmission of ethnic prejudice unidirectional (from parents to children) or bidirectional (between parents and children)?
(c) Which individual and/or relational variables influence the transmission of ethnic prejudice within the family?
(d) Can adolescents’ intergroup contact experiences affect the family influence on adolescents’ ethnic prejudice?

The findings show a moderate bidirectional transmission of ethnic prejudice between parents and adolescents which was influenced by variables such as the adolescents' age, their birth order, their and their parents' gender, the parents' income and the quality of the family relationship (in terms of warmth, closeness, parenting style). The parents' influence and the adolescents' ethnic prejudice were reduced by the adolescents' positive (and frequent) contacts with peers of different ethnicities.

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- Zagrean, I., Barni, D. Russo, C. & Danioni, F. (2022). The Family Transmission of Ethnic Prejudice: A Systematic Review of Research Articles with Adolescents. Social Sciences, 11(6), link
- photograph by Joseph Szabo (1978) via

Monday, 25 September 2023

Recruiters Getting Ageist Guidelines

In a survey, 105 hiring professionals were asked if age discrimination was a problem they encountered. 92 of them (88%) said yes and 87% knew of other hiring managers or recruiters who had not considered a candidate because of their age. 58% said that they had experienced ageist guidelines from their clients or from managers and that they had been instructed to pass on a candidate because of age. When advocating for older job seekers, they often see hiring managers turning these candidates down citing stereotypes such as "culture fit, lack of drive, and outdated skillsets" as reasons. The recruiters reported anecdotally that, at times, they were asked to source "young and pretty" candidates or, in one case, a "blonde and attractive female" (via).

photograph by Joseph Szabo (1975) via

Sunday, 24 September 2023

Ingrid Pollard, Black Diaspora and the British Landscape

“Look at that landscape. It’s a managed landscape, the trees have been taken away, there are dry stone walls, there are sheep. Everything about it is fabricated for industrial rural use. The barbed wire, the telegraph pole, the tarmac. Stereotypes about Black people are constructed in exactly the same way.”
Ingrid Pollard

Photographs above and below from the series "Self-Evident", "a series of eight portraits of black men and women posed in English countryside scenes. Each of them holds an object associated, with the Afro-Carribean diaspora. These range from tropical flowers and a conch shell to objects with more stereotypical connotations such as fried chicken and watermelon." (V&A)

The British pastoral landscape has been an ongoing fascination. The degree to which black people are made to feel "other" when they appear in the countryside, anywhere in the UK, was explored first in the 1980s, with Pastoral Interlude. (via)

Pastoral Interlude (1982-1987) is, in fact, Pollard's most famous work. In this series of images and texts, she pairs photographs of Black people in rural English environments "with words that sit in uneasy tension with the images", pointing towards histories of empire and slavery with words such as: "I wandered lonely as a Black face in a sea of white" or "searching for sea-shells, waves lap my wellington boots, carrying lost souls of brothers and sisters over the ship side". The texts are no captions, on the contrary, text and image are in opposition.

People immediately say [about Pastoral Interlude]: ‘It’s about alienation. It’s about white landscape, Black people. It’s eerie,’. It gets bashed into whatever shape people want to put it in. People want me to say that I'm alienate because then they can say: 'Oh, I understand that. Black people should be in the Caribbean or Africa, that's where they came from.'
Ingrid Pollard

"When I left my parents, I used to go with friends to the Lake District. I wouldn’t see another black person for a week, and you would notice. It was hard. My white friends would be going to relax, and it would create anxiety for me. I appreciate the countryside, but it wasn’t particularly relaxing. I just wanted to do something about that. 
In England there’s a very specific way of viewing the rural, with land ownership, and the colonial aspect of Britain where they went around clearing land. It’s a long, complicated history. People later came from overseas seeking opportunity in England, but it’s the repercussions of colonialism, and the way it has affected particular countries, that people are feeling now. 
It has changed over time—there are a number of organisations encouraging black people to visit the countryside, and the National Trust are using pictures of black people in their properties. Things are changing slowly, and it’s never quick enough. My work came out of that, but I was looking at very specific areas like Cumbria, not just the general countryside. It’s still very relevant."

Ingrid Pollard

I was working as a screen printer as well as doing photography, and I was working with a number of people. The politics were very different, with Thatcher in power, and it definitely impacted me. I didn’t come from a middle class route of going straight from school to university. I had ten years between school and getting to university. I was a cleaner, a gardener and I was unemployed for a while. My parents were immigrants, and I was dyslexic. I didn’t know anyone who was an artist, so I didn’t think about that as a career. Being an artist is about resilience, but that starts from age eleven. It wasn’t my route.
Ingrid Pollard

At school they had low expectations of black kids, and I didn’t have any black teachers—even in terms of just setting an example. That makes an impression.
Ingrid Pollard

Ingrid Pollard is a British photographer, media artist and researcher. She became active within the London lesbian scene at a time it was still a "white feminist world", then as part of a Black lesbian breakaway group. The first conference of the Organisation of Women of African and Asican Descent was held, which was, as Pollard says "mind-boggling" since there were "like a thousand Black women here who called themselves feminists". It was out of this social and political context, that she created series such as "Pastoral Interlude" or "The Cost of the English Landscape" (via).

I look at how in terms of representation, in paintings, in prints, how they've represented black people outside those metropolitan areas– or in the rural areas. You think of the industrial revolution, the 1800s, that was a splitting point for the majority of people who stopped being in the rural areas. They came to be in the metropolitan areas. The machinery took over in the rural areas, but in cities particularly. When we talk about the rural, I'm thinking about hundreds of years. So it's that about England– who is pictured where doing what in particular pieces of work or who is associated with class, money, land ownership and how that's been represented in paintings.
Ingrid Pollard

Photography was being impacted from the very beginning, how they saw other lands, what reflection was on power, class, etc because there's never one without the other. I'm interested in those binary oppositions– here and there, them and us, before and after. I'm interested in the history of photography– now things suddenly jump into the digital not knowing its relationship to class, discoveries, colonialism, etc.
Ingrid Pollard

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photographs via and via and via and via 

Saturday, 23 September 2023

How does it feel to be a problem? W. E. B. Du Bois on the unasked question.

Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.

And yet, being a problem is a strange experience, -peculiar even for one who has never been anything else, save perhaps in babyhood and in Europe. It is in the early days of rollicking boyhood that the revelation first bursts upon one, all in a day, as it were. I remember well when the shadow swept across me. I was a little thing, away up in the hills of New England, where the dark Housatonic winds between Hoosac and Taghanic to the sea. In a wee wooden schoolhouse, something put it into the boys' and girls' heads to buy gorgeous visiting-cards -ten cents a package -and exchange. The exchange was merry, till one girl, a tall newcomer, refused my card, -refused it peremptorily, with a glance. Then it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil. I had thereafter no desire to tear down that veil, to creep through; I held all beyond it in common contempt, and lived above it in a region of blue sky and great wandering shadows. That sky was bluest when I could beat my mates at examination-time, or beat them at a foot-race, or even beat their stringy heads. Alas, with the years all this fine contempt began to fade; for the world I longed for, and all its dazzling opportunities, were theirs, not mine. But they should not keep these prizes, I said; some, all, I would wrest from them. Just how I would do it I could never decide: by reading law, by healing the sick, by telling the wonderful tales that swam in my head, -some way. With other black boys the strife was not so fiercely sunny: their youth shrunk into tasteless sycophancy, or into silent hatred of the pale world about them and mocking distrust of everything white; or wasted itself in a bitter cry, Why did God make me an outcast and a stranger in mine own house? The "shades of the prison-house" closed round about us all: walls strait and stubborn to the whitest, but relentlessly narrow, tall, and unscalable to sons of night who must plod darkly on in resignation, or beat unavailing palms against the stone, or steadily, half hopelessly watch the streak of blue above.

After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the N*gro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, -a world which yields him no self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, -an American, a N*gro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

The history of the American N*gro is the history of this strife, -this longing to attain selfconscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He does not wish to Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa; he does not wish to bleach his N*gro​ blood in a flood of white Americanism, for he believes -foolishly, perhaps, but fervently -that N*gro blood has yet a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a N*gro and an American without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without losing the opportunity of self-development. (...)

W. E. B. Du Bois, excerpts from "Strivings of the N*gro People" (1897)

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photograph by Gary Winogrand via

Friday, 22 September 2023

Cursed by Night. By Hannah Price.

Cursed by Night is a series of photographs taken between 2012 and 2013 in Brooklyn, Harlem, Harford, CT, and Philadelphia, PA. In it, my lens portrays a world of darkness to which black males are unfortunately tied, and by which they find themselves cursed. Together, these images form a narrative in which the aiblity to perceive the subject of each portrait is disrupted by the fearful projections of those who understand the world in rigid terms of black and white. This narrative finds its basis in reality: advancements in mobile photography and video have allowed the disturbing frequency of racial fear and its consequences highly visible. We all know how this story often ends.

The darkness of nights acts as both a backdrop and a shroud in my portraits. The subjects belong to it, but in this context they are visually and conceptually obscured by it. A famliar visual language dominates the images: the sharp shadows cast by street lamps, the empty sidewalk, the atmosphere of foreboding. We recognize this as the sterotypical landscape of danger, of menace, of black and everything associated with it. In these photographs, the darkness distorts the representation of its subjects, rendering them as threats, or as invisible. We recognize this as the stereotypical landscape of danger, of menace, or the absence of light and everything associated with it. In these photographs, the darkness distorts the representation of its subjects, rendering them as threats, or as invisible.

"Black" is inseparable from a dense web of figurative connotations, all of them negative: impurity, sin, death, evil. These associations make up the lens through which blackness is perceived by many, and ultimately they are inherited as the burden (the curse) of black men. By using this black and white mode of seeing and following its conventions, Cursed by Night aims to challenge and reveal its power. 
Hannah Price

My role as a photographer is to communicate visually. And personally, for Cursed by Night, I want to document life and politics along with adding the concept of horror. Black men being racially profiled has existed forever in America. Using visual techniques to force a conversation on this particular social issue was my personal goal. Mostly, I hope to just make people think about how they themselves react to black men, even though the work is dark and projects innocent black men in a negative light (which is what racial profiling does). This blatant imagery allows me to talk about the concept and how it affects innocent people’s lives –sometimes by taking their lives.I am also proposing that reaching an understanding of the difference between reality, and the perceptions maintained by non-black people, is the only way we the people can help end this curse.
Hannah Price

photographs by Hannah Price via

Thursday, 21 September 2023

Born this day ... Ellis Haizlip

Ellis Haizlip (1929-1991) was the creator, executive producer and host of the TV show Soul! The vision was not to just entertain but to display and promote the variety of Black American culture and  to self-critically reflect various aspects (via) offering viewers "radical ways of imagining - of hearing, feeling, and seeing - black community". For instance, Haizlip refused to divide Black arts into high and low culture and made room for both. The show was extremely successful. In 1968, more than 65% of Black American households watched it regularly (via).

(...) the hour-long variety show was nominally meant to showcase an intrinsically Black perspective on art and politics. In practice, it proved to be something far more radical. (via)

Before Oprah, before Arsenio, there was Mr. SOUL!” On the heels of the Civil Rights Movement, one fearless black pioneer reconceived a Harlem Renaissance for a new era, ushering giants and rising stars of black American culture onto the national television stage. He was hip. He was smart. He was innovative, political, and gay. In his personal fight for social equality, this man ensured the Revolution would be televised. The man was Ellis Haizlip. The Revolution was SOUL! (via)

In the late 1960s, the federal government "sought to redress the grievances of Black communities by giving Black people a louder voice (or simply a voice at all) in publich media". In this very atmosphere, "an unusual show" with the mission to present "a panoramic display of Black artistic sensibilities and political expression" was born: Soul!. (via)

Most pivotally, “Soul!” was a hub of candid, ranging, and often radical Black social and political discourse. Melissa Haizlip explained to me that the show’s producer, host, and creative architect—her uncle Ellis Haizlip—had “an expansive approach toward Black culture.” At a time when a burgeoning Black nationalist movement called upon Black Americans to coalesce under a single ideology of liberation, Haizlip said that her uncle saw to it that “Soul!” presented the true “fluidity of Black thought and Black identity.” (via)

The primary function of Soul! is to give alienated black people a voice. And since TV probably is the most popular medium today, Soul! tries to fill the void for blacks who aren't urned o by any other medium. With this black priority, we don't have to become a multi-purpose program. Black people turn us on every week because they know they will see an undiluted black show. (...) I feel that RB music, especially with many of its new lyrics, forms the floor for black pride. It is totally ours and cannot be purchased or properly imitated by anyone else.
Ellis Haizlip, 1968 (cited in Ebony, March 1972)

(...) unrivalled music, dance, and poetry programming weren’t being deployed just in the service of making good television. Week by week, show by show, segment by segment, Ellis knew that he was helping shape notions of what being Black in America could even mean for hundreds of thousands of people. (via)

When accused of reinforcing stereotypes of "happy folks who just love to sing and dance", Haizlip responded:

Our job is to present black culture, and R&B music is a vital part of that. Entertainment can be a deep business, it's not all just finger-propping time. We give exposure to black artists of all types - people whom you practically never see on 'white' TV, and I feel good about what we're doing. 
Ellis Haizlip (cited in Ebony, March 1972)

We've actually presented black poets from the very beginning of Soul! and that has been revolutionary. Just name one other consistent TV outlet for those black poets who have been playing such a major role in helping black people deal with today's reality.
Ellis Haizlip (cited in Ebony, March 1972)

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photographs (Haizlip in his office at Channel 13, 1970, by Alex Harsley) via and via

Wednesday, 20 September 2023

The Times of Hyper-Masculine Car Adverts are Over

An online car sales site combined data gathered from a survey carried out among 2.000 car buyers with a study by a panel of 12 drivers (from all over the UK, age 18 to 64). The panel looked at adverts and reviews of brands such as BMW, Bentley, Ford and Jaguar and came to the conclusion that so-called hyper-masculine marketing is turning off both female and male consumers (via).

Since the start of car advertising, women have consistently been patronised, derided, or seen as merely objects for men to acquire, or an accessory. In the ’50s, Ford made coats and handbags designed to match cars, but only last year, Renault brought out nail polish to match the car – oh, and bonus, you can use it as a touch-up paint too. Us silly women are always scratching our cars while parking! Some of it may be slightly more subtle now, but it’s still there. Men go on epic adventures, winding along cool roads on exciting mountain passes in car adverts… women, they drive the kids to football practice, or go shopping in their pyjamas.
Rachael Hogg 

73% of Brits agree that car advertisements either personify gender stereotypes or only address men; luxury sports car brands are found most guilty (by 82%) of being presented as "too masculine" in ads. Small cars (including Fiat 500), on the other hand, are perceived to have the least masculine advertising. 68% of car buyers (77% of women, 58% of men) find gender stereotypes in car ads off-putting, 83% feel disconnected from car marketing, 76% of female drivers do not believe car brands understand women's car buying needs.

Asked about advertising in general, i.e., in all industries, 52% said they found hyper-masculine advertisements patronising, 45% thought the ideals of men and women portrayed were impossible to live up to, 59% believed that they reinforce gender stereotypes that no longer reflect how men and women see society (via). The times of hyper-masculine car adverts are - or should be - over. 

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photograph by Claude Nori via

Tuesday, 19 September 2023

“Helpless and a cripple”: the disabled child in children’s literature

For more than a century, children described as "cripples" were part of children's literature. Othered and constructed as objects of pity, they were there for other child characters and child readers to sympathise with them. Only the child who was disabled as a result of disobedience was not an object of pity. That way, authors sent the clear message that you shall always obey your elders otherwise this horrible fate might be yours. A great many nineteenth-century books asked child readers to either pity the disabled child or to see the temporary disability as a sort of punishment and lesson since suffering would turn them into better persons.

The able-bodied characters and able-bodied readers were superior to the disabled child. A physical norm was communicated, the disabled child was a deviation from the ideal. The Romantic Child was "innocent, unspoiled", often physically attractive and rather contrasted the child whose disability was described in detail.

In Evangelical writing, the attractive innocent often served as a role model for the reader. "Daisie's Pocket Money" from 1902 is a good illustration: 

Daisie is described as’a dear little creature, with flaxen hair and blue eyes’4 – wouldn’t all readers want to be like her - and, if they couldn’t be like her physically, they could emulate her goodness. She saves her pocket money in order to pay for an operation for her friend Edith, who ‘fell and hurt her spine’ and cannot sit up. Her money, of course, is not enough but the ‘great doctor’ is touched by Daisie’s innocent appeal and visits (and cures) Edith anyway.

According to Perry Nodelman, "children's literature represents a massive effort by adults to colonise children to make them believe that they ought to be the way aults would like them to be". Hugh Cunningham sees a manipulation of the public using sentimental appeals on behalf of children, of the homeless, of the disabled. Both, in fact, children's and adult literature did this equally. Robert Pattison points out that these books are political since the child character and the child reader are used "to expose the imperfections of the world" around them and to foster the author's ideologies.

Many of these writers for children were thus doing as Peter Hollindale points out Charles Dickens did for adults, in using the child as ‘a lens or measure by which adult practices can be socially and morally exposed.’  Authors wanted to develop compassionate (and generous) children, but they wanted this to continue into adulthood; the compassionate children of today were to become the child rescuers of tomorrow. (Hillel, 2005)

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- Hillel, M. (2005). "Helpless and a cripple": the disable child in children's literature. In (eds) R. Finlay & Salbayre, S. Stories for Children, Histories of Childhood, Volume 2, (127-137), link
- photograph by Simon Pope (London, 1973-1975) via

Monday, 18 September 2023

There is no such thing as western civilisation. By Kwame Anthony Appiah.

"(...) Someone asked Mahatma Gandhi what he thought of western civilisation, and he replied: “I think it would be a very good idea.” Like many of the best stories, alas, this one is probably apocryphal; but also like many of the best stories, it has survived because it has the flavour of truth. But my own response would have been very different: I think you should give up the very idea of western civilisation. It is at best the source of a great deal of confusion, at worst an obstacle to facing some of the great political challenges of our time. I hesitate to disagree with even the Gandhi of legend, but I believe western civilisation is not at all a good idea, and western culture is no improvement.

One reason for the confusions “western culture” spawns comes from confusions about the west. We have used the expression “the west” to do very different jobs. Rudyard Kipling, England’s poet of empire, wrote, “Oh, east is east and west is west, and never the twain shall meet”, contrasting Europe and Asia, but ignoring everywhere else. During the cold war, “the west” was one side of the iron curtain; “the east” its opposite and enemy. This usage, too, effectively disregarded most of the world. Often, in recent years, “the west” means the north Atlantic: Europe and her former colonies in North America. The opposite here is a non-western world in Africa, Asia and Latin America – now dubbed “the global south” – though many people in Latin America will claim a western inheritance, too. This way of talking notices the whole world, but lumps a whole lot of extremely different societies together, while delicately carving around Australians and New Zealanders and white South Africans, so that “western” here can look simply like a euphemism for white.

Of course, we often also talk today of the western world to contrast it not with the south but with the Muslim world. And Muslim thinkers sometimes speak in a parallel way, distinguishing between Dar al-Islam, the home of Islam, and Dar al-Kufr, the home of unbelief. I would like to explore this opposition further. Because European and American debates today about whether western culture is fundamentally Christian inherit a genealogy in which Christendom is replaced by Europe and then by the idea of the west.

This civilisational identity has roots going back nearly 1,300 years, then. But to tell the full story, we need to begin even earlier.

For the Greek historian Herodotus, writing in the fifth century BC, the world was divided into three parts. To the east was Asia, to the south was a continent he called Libya, and the rest was Europe. He knew that people and goods and ideas could travel easily between the continents: he himself travelled up the Nile as far as Aswan, and on both sides of the Hellespont, the traditional boundary between Europe and Asia. Herodotus admitted to being puzzled, in fact, as to “why the earth, which is one, has three names, all women’s”. Still, despite his puzzlement, these continents were for the Greeks and their Roman heirs the largest significant geographical divisions of the world.

But here’s the important point: it would not have occurred to Herodotus to think that these three names corresponded to three kinds of people: Europeans, Asians, and Africans. He was born at Halicarnasus – Bodrum in modern Turkey. Yet being born in Asia Minor didn’t make him an Asian; it left him a Greek. And the Celts, in the far west of Europe, were much stranger to him than the Persians or the Egyptians, about whom he knew rather a lot. Herodotus only uses the word “European” as an adjective, never as a noun. For a millennium after his day, no one else spoke of Europeans as a people, either.

(...) What matters for our purposes is that the first recorded use of a word for Europeans as a kind of person, so far as I know, comes out of this history of conflict. In a Latin chronicle, written in 754 in Spain, the author refers to the victors of the Battle of Tours as “Europenses”, Europeans. So, simply put, the very idea of a “European” was first used to contrast Christians and Muslims. (Even this, however, is a bit of a simplification. In the middle of the eighth century much of Europe was not yet Christian.)

Now, nobody in medieval Europe would have used the word “western” for that job. For one thing, the coast of Morocco, home of the Moors, stretches west of Ireland. For another, there were Muslim rulers in the Iberian Peninsula – part of the continent that Herodotus called Europe – until nearly the 16th century. The natural contrast was not between Islam and the west, but between Christendom and Dar al‑Islam, each of which regarded the other as infidels, defined by their unbelief.

(...) We have, then, a clear sense of Christian Europe – Christendom – defining itself through opposition. And yet the move from “Christendom” to “western culture” isn’t straightforward.

(...) But the golden-nugget story was bound to be beset by difficulties. It imagines western culture as the expression of an essence – a something – which has been passed from hand to hand on its historic journey. The pitfalls of this sort of essentialism are evident in a wide range of cases. Whether you are discussing religion, nationality, race or culture, people have supposed that an identity that survives through time and space must be propelled by some potent common essence. But that is simply a mistake. What was England like in the days of Chaucer, father of English literature, who died more than 600 years ago? Take whatever you think was distinctive of it, whatever combination of customs, ideas, and material things that made England characteristically English then. Whatever you choose to distinguish Englishness now, it isn’t going to be that. Rather, as time rolls on, each generation inherits the label from an earlier one; and, in each generation, the label comes with a legacy. But as the legacies are lost or exchanged for other treasures, the label keeps moving on. And so, when some of those in one generation move from the territory to which English identity was once tied – move, for example, to a New England – the label can even travel beyond the territory. Identities can be held together by narratives, in short, without essences. You don’t get to be called “English” because there’s an essence that this label follows; you’re English because our rules determine that you are entitled to the label by being somehow connected with a place called England.

So how did the people of the north Atlantic, and some of their kin around the world, get connected to a realm we call the west, and gain an identity as participants in something called western culture?

t will help to recognise that the term “western culture” is surprisingly modern – more recent certainly than the phonograph. (...)

So the very idea of the “west,” to name a heritage and object of study, doesn’t really emerge until the 1890s, during a heated era of imperialism, and gains broader currency only in the 20th century. When, around the time of the first world war, Oswald Spengler wrote the influential book translated as The Decline of the West – a book that introduced many readers to the concept – he scoffed at the notion that there were continuities between western culture and the classical world. During a visit to the Balkans in the late 1930s, the writer and journalist Rebecca West recounted a visitor’s sense that “it’s uncomfortably recent, the blow that would have smashed the whole of our western culture”. The “recent blow” in question was the Turkish siege of Vienna in 1683.

If the notion of Christendom was an artefact of a prolonged military struggle against Muslim forces, our modern concept of western culture largely took its present shape during the cold war. In the chill of battle, we forged a grand narrative about Athenian democracy, the Magna Carta, Copernican revolution, and so on. Plato to Nato. Western culture was, at its core, individualistic and democratic and liberty-minded and tolerant and progressive and rational and scientific. Never mind that pre-modern Europe was none of these things, and that until the past century democracy was the exception in Europe – something that few stalwarts of western thought had anything good to say about. The idea that tolerance was constitutive of something called western culture would have surprised Edward Burnett Tylor, who, as a Quaker, had been barred from attending England’s great universities. To be blunt: if western culture were real, we wouldn’t spend so much time talking it up. (...)"

by Kwame Anthony Appiah, 2016, via The Guardian, full article: LINK

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photograph by Raphael Albert via