An excerpt from “Time Maps: History, Prehistory and Biological Evolution”
By: Dr. R.K Fisher and Martini Fisher
Antarctica is often omitted from maps of the world, making the southern hemisphere look smaller than the northern hemisphere. Hence, anything in the north appears relatively larger than it actually is. The fact that north is always placed at the top of a map also doesn’t help since top, high and up are obviously better than bottom, low and down. Such simple factors influence our perception. In order to be able to make sense of the world we first need to be able to see things as they are.
Historians have glorified insignificant military adventurers in Europe, Irak and Egypt as empire builders mainly because events in or close to their own countries and their own times appear to be larger and more significant than events that are further away geographically or temporally. This ubiquitous geographical perspective can be seen at work every day in newspapers and on television and it is one of the sources of the Eurocentric bias in history. Since Europeans produced continuous historical records and analyses, and their influence spread all over the world during the colonial centuries, they wrote as if Europe was the central and most important part of the world – which to them, of course, it was. This bias became institutionalized in the teaching of history in high schools. The Chinese had the same bias, which is why they considered their country as “The Middle Kingdom”.
The chronological perspective is also distorting – things that have happened recently have more emotional impact, and hence seem to be more important, than things that happened a long time ago. The fact that a few thousand people were killed when a building collapsed on top of them in New York City on September 11, 2001, was devastating, and doubtless a great loss for their loved ones. Now, imagine the two million killed and enslaved when Caesar conquered Gaul and laid the foundations of what would become France – or that two million people were killed, one of the two most advanced civilizations in the world was shattered (the other one was China) and the direction of world history was permanently changed when the Crusaders invaded Palestine nine hundred years ago. Another most important historical event that ever occurred on September 11 was the ending of Catalonian independence by combined French and Spanish forces in 1714. We may not experience it as closely as September 11, 2001, but it was still a world-changing event.
East and West are relative terms that have meaning only in relation to a specific place. Their use in political geography originated with the division of the Roman Empire into the Eastern and Western Empires. The English popularized their use during the time when they thought they could be masters of the world and gradually they came to mean east or west of Western Europe. North and south were not considered at all. Instead of terms such as the “Western world”, or “Western philosophy” (as distinct from Indian, Islamic, Buddhist, Chinese or other philosophies) we will generally use the adjective “Euroamerican”.
Near East, Middle East and Far East are similarly misleading. The Middle East is not the middle of anything and to most people it is actually in the west, not the east. It would be helpful if we could replace such misleading terms by something more accurate but it is not easy. To refer to the Middle East as Southwest Asia is not good enough, since it ignores the parts of the Middle East that are in North Africa and Eastern Europe. To call it the Islamic Region is wrong since the great majority of Moslems live outside that area and the country with the largest Moslem population is in Southeast Asia. To call it the Arab Region would be considered insulting by the Iranians, Israelis, Turks, Kurds and many others, some of whom have histories going back thousands of years. There is no name for the region that is generally acceptable, but one that is more accurate than most is the simple geographical designation: the Nile-Oxus Region.
A similar problem of inappropriate names exists in the Americas. To use the term “Americans” to denote the citizens of the USA – terminology begun by Cotton Mather (1663-1728) – ignores the fact that there are far more Americans in the many other countries of North and South America than they who live in the USA. Since the 1939-45 European war, to distinguish the country by calling it Amerika and the citizens Amerikans would imply an irrelevant political judgement, even though historically it may be more accurate.
The academic language of racism and ethnocentrism is most noticeable in anthropology, but from there it affects academic history and public opinion too. “Natives” are objects of anthropology, not subjects of history; they have folklore, not culture; they have handicrafts, not art; they speak dialects (or, in some older texts, “jargons” or “pidgins”), not languages; their beliefs are superstitions, not religions; their communities are tribal groups, not societies; they have rites of passage, not celebrations; they are indolent, rather than not motivated by money; they live by traditional social roles, rather than have close family ties; and they have highly differentiated gender roles, rather than appreciating and respecting the differences.
One of the points of uniqueness of human beings is that we are probably the only species whose signals, as a matter of routine, can not be trusted even by our own kind. After any event, apart from information concerning the event itself, there are additional influences due to the corruption of information by the people transmitting it – for example the distortion that occurs in rumors, and intentional corruption by lies and propaganda. Distortion via the mass media, particularly newspapers and television, is caused mainly by the policies of the owners and the judgements of the editors. The old slogan “All the news that’s fit to print” has now become “All the news that sells newspapers or attracts viewers, and does not upset the advertisers.” The consequence is that instead of being media for news, both the parts that are agreeable to the readers and those that are disagreeable, the media tend to tell them only the parts that they want to hear. Unpleasant news, which is, almost by definition, news that reflects poorly on the self-image of the readers, is included only when it is completely unavoidable, and the issue will be relegated to the back pages of the newspapers or to late-night television viewing slots as quickly as possible. Early in the twenty-first century, we are witnessing a massive increase in this kind of distortion through the power of the internet and global television transmission.
A fine example of this is in the way historians and people in general view empire builders. Genghis Khan, for example, is a national hero in Mongolia and is considered, quite rightly, as the father of his country. Ramses II was a hero to the Egyptians but a monster to the Hebrews. The emperor Trajan was considered a great man by the Romans, and is still praised by modern historians, but he exterminated the Dacians, continued the genocidal tactics of Titus against the Jews, and tried to do the same thing to the Parthians. The Parthians were considered barbarians because they wouldn’t let him.
Alexander is called “Alexander the Great” by Europeans but in the Zoroastrian Arda Wiraz Namag is called “the accursed Alexander” – the priests of Artemus at Ephesus thought the same of him but had too much diplomatic discretion (the better part of valour) to say it out loud. So, use of the terms “empire builder” and “barbarian” is largely a matter of geography. If you happen to be behind the lines of the invading army then the invaders are empire builders, but if you happen to be in front of the invaders then they are barbarians. Of course the invaders are unchanged by the perspective – empire builders or barbarians, they are still just organized gangs of trained killers.
If we introduce new terms to correct all the present anomalies then we will have so many neologisms that nobody will know what we are talking about. The current terminology is Eurocentric, parochial, insulting, inaccurate or wrong but it is more or less understandable. We just need to be aware of its limitations and the biases it can introduce in our thinking. A first step towards that is to try to understand how the terminology arose, and why it has become so misleading.
The view of the world as one vital entity leads to the need for a history of Gaea – the whole world, or at least the whole of humanity, considered as one. That is going to be an immense task for future generations since so far we have only biased and misleading versions of about five percent of our political and social history and even less of our cultural and ethnic history. It is also true that most of the material available on which we can base written histories has been produced by Europeans, which is why in any attempt at world history an absurdly large percentage of the coverage deals with that little patch of territory. A first step towards improving the situation would be to open up some of the other areas, including some of the artistic, psychological, social, cultural and spiritual aspects that constitute a major part of our lives but never appear in official documents. Since most of the raw material has been produced by biased observers, such as invaders or religious opponents, a lot of this must initially be conjectural. The ultimate objective would be to write the history of the human race as if it were actually true that all people are created equal.
Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome fill so much space in ancient history not because they were particularly important, but because historians don’t have adequate information about any other places. While we can recognize intellectually that Europe is not the center of the world, and neither is Jerusalem, Mecca, Washington DC, or any other place, it is still true that I am the center of the world I live in, each reader is the center of the world he or she lives in, and every other person is the center of their own world. With so many egos involved, centrism in one form or another may be inevitable but we can at least try to be aware of its influence.
“Time Maps: History, Prehistory and Biological Evolution” by Dr. R.K Fisher and Martini Fisher is available on Amazon.