Orientalism is the idea that people in the West are very quick to make assumptions and judgments about Easterners when they are not able to fully understand and identify with their way of life. Due to the fact that Western scholars made assumptions about Eastern living they felt justified in creating these stereotypes when in actuality a previous bias towards eastern civilization was at the forefront of these assumptions and judgments. Orientalism occurs when a group scrutinizes and deems foreign cultures and concepts inferior. This means that the accuser becomes the superior and this becomes embedded in the culture through media outlets and literature. Ideas like the superior vs. inferior can be substituted for an “us vs. them” or “rational vs. irrational” or “freedom vs. oppression” mentality.
Orientalism is also known as the representation of the East (especially the Middle East), in a stereotyped way that expresses a colonialist attitude. Edward Said, a Palestinian intellect, criticized how Orientalism effected Western attitudes toward the East. Said claims when Western scholars and historians studied Eastern cultures they could not understand them because they were very different from their own culture. Therefore, information about the East transmitted back to the West was bias, sabotaged, and incorrect from the reality. Said realized colonialism was not only through armies, violence, and conquering territory but it was also displayed through literature and narrative. Orientalists were able to concoct their own ideas about the East and amplify their inaccurate concoctions to the masses through literature and other media outlets. They depicted the people of the East as sensual, exotic, barbaric, uneducated, and desperate for colonial assistance.
Western scholars observed and recorded the cultures and customs of the East, judging art and music, and generalizing whole areas through a lens of “normalcy”. What was normal or common for the West seemed to be missing in the East and without it, Western scholars depicted an “unfamiliar”, “lost”, and “backward” place that planted the seeds for Imperialism. Said makes the point that much of imperialism was motivated by the concept of superiority by the West, who felt it was needed to “civilize” or “Westernize” these Eastern countries and rid them of the “strange” customs and practices that mainly came from false stereotypes. Orientalism portrays the East as this mystical area with exotic people who are not as superior to the West. America, specifically, enforces negative stereotypes about other countries. Take, for example, Donald Trump’s request that America primarily accepts immigrants from white European countries.
People talk about the Middle East as a place that needs to corrected or saved from these “terrorists”. While without directly calling it colonization, America does continue to involve itself and interfere with the governments and militaries of countries in the Middle East and Central Asia in the name of democratic values and closer tied relations in the region. The justification of colonization of Eastern territories by replacing what clearly was an “invasion” with an attempt at “salvation” or “spread of democracy” was sold as necessary for the betterment of the world and protection of our country from the “others”.
The concept that the West is superior, and still has a hold on the East, continues to play a part in how many people view the world, especially in the United States. Even in the post-colonial world, we see a continuation of the negative portrayal of minorities in media. The choice of words or rhetoric used to talk about the East, and our own daily assumptions about things and people unfamiliar to us. Without trying to understand it, it is often easier to take the tiny bits of information we already know (or think we know) about a topic and apply it rather than trying to learn and understand its origins.
News outlets continue to paint the Middle East as barbaric and war hungry, which further feeds into the “us versus them” ideology. Not only is the news sometimes portrayed through an Orientalist lens but so are our most popular films ( Aladdin, Sex & the city, American Sniper). Whenever we read anything about the “Orient” in the news, we must look closely and examine what is really being said. Orientalism and stereotypes stir resentment and add to the troubles of the global community. How can this be resolved? It is done by trying to understand others through their own lens. Ever been in a place where everyone was different? The food, dress, drink, or the language? When people are out of their norms they may begin to think negatively of others and consider themselves better than those around them.
As human’s it is sometimes challenging to see things through other people’s lens. However, if you withhold judgment and try to understand why people do what they do, it might stop seeming so weird. Ultimately, ever culture contains some “weird” elements. In the West, we constantly sue each other, eat microwaved fast food, we wear weird costumes and go trick or treating. For us, these are normal, but for the outsider, they may appear very strange. When we are able to study and understand other cultures and religions through their own lens stereotypes, feelings of superiority, and misjudgments immediately disappear.