What we can learn by studying groups like the Uyghurs

I would argue that a lot of the people reading this post have grown up in relatively Western cultures. We have grown up with American movies and CNN news. We have attended schools where students sit by desks in square classrooms. Many of us think that majority rule (i.e. Western democracy) is a fair system – a system so fair, in fact, that it should be promoted in other parts of the world. The majority of us have completed a Western education, most likely taught in English. These are some features making up our culture.

We study minority cultures, we read about “exotic” life views and rituals. But why? What value does the study of unknown cultures hold, other than expand our cultural horizons; entertain us; make us reflect for a brief moment on our own view of reality? Will the study of groups like the Uyghurs (sometimes written with an ‘i’) ever lead to anything more than research papers circulated in a tiny group of academics?

Why do we read and write in English in graduate school? Because at some point in history, the English-speaking world won a “battle”.

We can say the same about studying Somali clan culture or Aboriginal knowledge systems. Yes, these are interesting facts and stories, but how (if ever) will they counteract the hegemonic influence of Western values?

Gardener Bovingdon (2004) notes that, “single-stranded narratives intentionally suppress evidence of historical alternatives [and that] they write competing narratives out of history” (p. 354). Why do we read and write in English in graduate school? Because at some point in history, the English-speaking world won a “battle”. The winners write history, as we all know, which is why we all understand terrorism as a bad thing. Suicide bombers, killing embassy workers in the Middle East are universally understood as “the enemy”, right? What, then, about the Western forces bombing Afghan villages, killing civilians, spreading fear, terrorizing the local population? How would the future history books read, if the villagers wrote them? The same can be said of the Uyghur civil/separatist movements. The US and UN agreed with China in 2002, in the labeling of such groups as terrorists.

History is not unbiased or true, yet the history books tend to portray them as such. It is easy to forget that, “official histories […] depend on tendentious interpretation of key terms and events” (Bovingdon, 2004, p. 356).

History is not unbiased or true, yet the history books tend to portray them as such.

The importance of studying unknown groups and narratives, then, is perhaps not to change policies or revolutionize systems. Rather, it is to continue reminding us that history is biased. The narrative of historic events that we learn in school; that we see in the news; that we read in books, are not true; they are a version of the truth. By studying the Uyghurs, we are not just learning about an alternative narrative of Chinese history, but we are also reminded that all history was once written by the “winners”. That, to me, is the most valuable argument in favor of the preservation and diffusion of indigenous cultures. I would never expect indigenous languages and cultures to challenge the current “ruling” systems, but I would expect them to function as reminders that there always are alternate perceptions of reality and history.

References:

Bovingdon, G. (2004). Contested Histories. In Starr, F. (2004). Xinjiang: China’s Muslim Borderland. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, pp. 353-374.

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