Back in 1890, a young Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem about Burma. The poem, The Road to Mandalay, was written from the perspective of a British soldier once stationed there. The soldier reminisces about the place, an encounter with a local girl, and describes his surroundings with the kind of paternalistic grandeur of someone who believes his empire, the British Empire, to be the ultimate expression of civilisation.
The text is also dismissive of Burmese culture and religion:
An’ a-wastin’ Christian kisses on an ‘eathen idol’s foot:
Bloomin’ idol made o’ mud
Wot they called the Great Gawd Budd
For Kipling’s soldier, this is an uncivilised, heathen place, albeit alluring.
Interestingly, Kipling only visited Burma once, for three days, on his way elsewhere, and he never visited Mandalay.
This lack of experience didn’t prevent him from becoming influential in shaping the perspective of his countrymen on the place. The words he penned on paper describing this destination he barely knew became a go-to text for understanding what Burma is like.
A 20-year-old shaping one people’s understanding of another.
Which brings us to Boris Johnson, who, on a recent trip to Burma, began reciting The Road to Mandalay at the site of a Burmese shrine, while a Channel 4 camera crew filmed him.
The UK’s foreign secretary reciting a poem praising colonialism and dismissing Burmese culture, at a Burmese shrine which he is being invited to visit by his gracious Burmese hosts.
Fortunately, Britain’s ambassador to Burma stopped him before he had a chance to complete his recital and embarrass the UK further, but the episode was a glimpse into the attitude that Johnson has towards the Burmese.
Just days later, at a Conservative Party Conference event, he commented on how the only thing getting in the way of a “wonderful” group of UK businessmen turning the Libyan town of Sirte into the next Dubai was the dead bodies that needed clearing out of the way.
For Johnson, it seems that the British Empire still stands, and he’s happy to brush aside any dead bodies or cultural inconveniences that get in his way.
But this post isn’t just about Boris and his blunders. I wanted to take a moment to reflect on the very real ability that we each have to see people who are different from us as somehow less valuable than we are.
And how if we don’t pay careful attention, we can end up using other people’s small ‘incivilities’ as a way of building our own sense of superiority and worth.
In 1978 Edward Said wrote Orientalism, which looks at what happens when this natural human tendency becomes a system of thought. He demonstrates how literature and art shaped the way that Europeans understand ‘The Orient,’ and the effect that perspective has had on justice and international relations.
Orientalism in its essence is about seeing ‘Western’ culture as superior to other cultures, and the actions which accompany such a perspective.
One example from Said is how ‘oriental’ women are portrayed in colonial era literature. They are usually passive, rarely speak for themselves, and are usually there to serve the various appetites of the men around them.Orientalism, 1979: 187-188 They are objectified: helpless and inferior.
Said might argue that this way of understanding non-European women has paved the way for our attitudes towards them when they enter our societies. When it comes to discussions like enforcing a Burqa ban, the voices of the women who wear them are usually crowded out by those who choose to speak for them, in the name of justice.
While we would usually offer a European woman (in a similar scenario) the opportunity to explain why she dresses a certain way, the women of the Middle East are still seen as helpless and inferior.
From his many gaffes and blunders, it’s clear that Boris is something of an Orientalist. He adores Britain’s colonial era, and apparently has little respect for other cultures: Britain is best.
But this post isn’t just about Boris and how he is embarrassing the British people.
It’s about how easy it is to view others as inferior, and how much damage that can cause in a globalised world.
Because we each carry a bit of Boris inside us.
We’re all capable of dismissing people who are different from us as weird, uncouth, uncivilised, inferior.
It might be a neighbour. It could be a refugee. It could be someone who votes differently from ourselves.
And in coming to conclusions about people who are different from us before we’ve taken the time to get to know them, we carry perspectives about them which are, at best, naive, at worst entirely false. And we miss the opportunity to promote the kind of understanding upon which justice and change can be built.
(Image by Andrew Parsons)
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