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If the reader is a user of facebook or any comparable website, he or she may be familiar with the following viral post:
“An anthropologist proposed a game to the kids in an African tribe. He put a basket of fruit near a tree and told the kids that who ever got there first won the sweet fruits. When he told them to run, they all took each others hands and ran together, then sat together enjoying their treats. When he asked them why they had run like that as one could have had all the treats for himself, they said: “Ubunto. How can one of us be happy if all the other ones are sad?”. ‘Ubunto’ in Xhosa culture means ‘I am because we are'”
Though the authenticity of the Ubunto story is uncertain, the word appears to be real and to have roughly the same meaning attributed to it. If this is the case, the concept is surely pleasant, even admirable. But is it really so original or sophisticated?
If the adoring Westerners cooing over this story could stop crying with happiness for one moment, they might recall the similar Western phrase ‘all for one, one for all’ – or indeed many hundreds of other equivalents around the world.
Human solidarity, yet another way of describing ‘Ubunto’, is an innate quality invested in the human condition by the legacy of biological evolution. It is not something one needs to give a name to. It just exists – ineradicably, albeit in differing endowments from person to person.
As many cynics have noted, the only reason Western audiences are so enamoured of the Ubunto story in particular is because it appears to align with a very old and sentimental fallacy; that of the ‘Noble savage’.
The Noble Savage has been part of Western art – particularly literature – for centuries. Put simply, the idea is that undeveloped cultures (especially African, Amerindian, Asian and Middle Eastern cultures), though on the surface less sophisticated and morally developed than those of Europe, nevertheless retain valuable ancient wisdom the West may profit by relearning.
You can see the cultural effects of this notion everywhere you look; from fridge magnets emblazoned with Confucian and Native American spiritual maxims, to the kind of the meme mentioned above. The West cannot seem to get enough of ancient non-European ‘wisdom’. It is substantially more popular even than Western philosophy, including the immortal works of Nietzsche, Kant and the ancient Greeks – (when was the last time you saw a Plato fridge magnet?).
Of course, being the cultural bigot that I am, I do not believe that Crazy Horse is the equal of Nietzsche. In fact, to be perfectly honest, I don’t think they even belong in the same category. Nietzsche was the greatest philosopher of the last 500 years. Crazy Horse, though undoubtedly noble in the military sense, made only commonsensical remarks about his own life and about a political struggle he ended up losing (to Europeans).
Historic Third World philosophers, like historic Third World mathematicians, physicists and inventors, are extremely thin on the ground. The vast majority of celebrated non-European thinkers are products of the past 100 years, a century marked by non-European adaptation to European domination and cultural hegemony.
This is not a coincidence. When European civilisation – now de-racialised as ‘The West’ – made the first breakthrough from localism to worldliness, the broader world was still filled with savage darkness. And long after the enlightenment began, Asians (including those dwelling in the now impressive Japanese and Korean cultures), Africans and Amerindians continued to exist in a twilight condition of subsistence agriculture and mind-numbing ritual.
In India, now home to internet entrepreneurs and industrialist billionaires, widowed women hurled themselves onto burning funeral pyres to satisfy perverse notions of marital duty. In Japan, now the epicentre of global technological innovation, Samurai (normal people in strange clothes) cut their stomachs open to amend for ‘dishonourable’ failures in martial etiquette. There is evidence of cannibalism in Southern Africa as late as the Victorian era. And so on…
The European explosion – the multinational enlightenment – was the beginning of true civilisation. Though periods of greatness in North Africa, the Middle East, Mexico and China had been observed centuries before this point, it is only after this seismic event that civilisation in its contemporarily recognisable form began.
So why do Westerners, those to whom the most credit belongs, now look back at pre-civilisation with such a powerful nostalgia? Why do Brits and Americans, looking at memes on Apple Mackintosh computers, interpret the word ‘umbunto’ as a proof of Third World superiority? And why are non-Europeans, Asians especially, increasingly more cognizant of Western superiority than Westerners?
Since these questions are interconnected, a single answer may suffice for all of them. The West, unlike the rest of the planet, is infected with a virus of civilizational exhaustion; a crisis of civilizational confidence. We Westerners have grown so used to the blessings of modernity that we have come to take them for granted. It takes real mental exertion for us to imagine (honestly and accurately) a world without the internet, refrigerators and Starbucks restaurants. And with a thick fog of relativism further obscuring our vision we are inevitably tempted by the idea that such a condition is more ‘wholesome’, ‘substantial’ or culturally complex than that in which we now live.
But it isn’t more wholesome, of course, nor more substantial, complex, romantic… It is inferior by almost every measure. And if anyone needs evidence of this contention, one can experience pre-civilisation for a very paltry sum these days. One can fly over to Ghana, Chad, North Korea or Afghanistan and live cheaply for whole years at a time. The reason we don’t want to dwell in such places, would not even dream of doing so, is because anti-Western sentiment is based on lies, illusions and errors of logic.
The West (including the Western-inspired cultures of Japan and Korea) is the only true civilisation on Earth. The further you go away from it, the further you go away from all that is valuable, good and worth living for.
The Noble Savage myth is the first step down a very slippery slope. It is best not to take it, even if that means not sharing a heart-warming post on social media.