Social Class and the Environment Textbook: A Course Textbook

Understanding Culture and Society: Discrepant Experiences


Said wants us to take a look at how we view history, especially regarding territories, minority groups within those territories, their experiences, and our own. He claims that when we intertwine all these things together, we don’t always have the perfect perspective, because readings of history are distorted and there's a lack of knowledge and information causing ignorance of truths, so we believe certain theories given to us, instead of delving deeper into what's being presented. Said encourages us to look at territories and boundaries from all angles: the people within them, their own understandings of history, our individual knowledge as it was taught to us, and the possible hints of inexperience and unfamiliarity that accompany a lot of our knowledge. This means that what we know may not be perfect, nor know the entire story.

Understanding/Learning about History from a Broad perspective

In order to understand history from a broad perspective, it is important to acknowledge how various groups view their own origins, especially when we discuss colonialism. There are some who believe only certain groups of people can truly understand and comprehend a certain situation because they themselves were affected by it. Said uses the examples of women, Jewish people, and colonial subjects, who have all faced distinct suppression throughout history; he is saying that we all must understand the implications of imperialism and suppression. He says that ideas such as “only women can understand feminine experience,” can actually create “polarizations that absolve and forgive ignorance and demagogy more than they enable knowledge” (Said 31). But, it is essential that he clarifies this point: “I do not mean what people mean when they say glibly that there are two sides to every question,” because it acknowledges that knowledge, learning, and experiences aren’t a free-for-all. We still have to be respectful and understanding, so as to not always play the devil’s advocate as it relates to our histories and cultures. This is all wrapped into his main point: “human experience is historical and secular” (Said 31).

Perspective of the colonized vs the colonizer

Said discusses the different perspectives of the colonized and the colonizer. He begins this discussion with a comparison of the perspectives of Napoleon and the French as they survey Egypt with that of al-Jabarti, an Egyptian religious leader. The description of the expedition by the French revolves around the stunning history and architecture of Egypt, an intellectual hub, which frames the expedition as one of learning and appreciation. The perspective of al-Jabarti differs greatly in that it revolves around the animosity he feels towards the French for coming into his land with no attention or respect for the people and the culture. This can be seen in al-Jabarti’s recordings in his book where he says, “The common meaning of life was disrupted and destruction overtook it and the devastation was general” (Said 34).  Said then goes on to a further discussion of a common attitude held by the colonizers. He describes this attitude by saying, "You are what you are because of us; when we left, you reverted to your deplorable state; know that or you will know nothing" (Said 35). This reflects the attitude that Said thinks is central to colonization. The colonizer sees his or her people as superior to the colonized. Therefore, there exists the idea that it is the responsibility of the colonizer to colonize the other because they are superior: colonization as a way of helping those considered less fortunate. Thus, it is also difficult for the colonized people to speak out against the colonizer because there exists this dynamic of superiority and inferiority. 

Continued Silence and Self-definition

This dynamic of superiority and inferiority leads to the idea of continued silence, a system of oppression. Said says that, “...historizing and disciplinary rigor either takes away or, in the post-colonial period, restores history to people and cultures “without” history” (Said 35). This quote pinpoints the underlying issue when it comes to the post-colonial period. Colonizers imposed what they believed should be the culture and history of the people being colonized. And despite it being over 200 years later, we still see these false histories instituted in people’s mindsets. These synthesized cultural identities have become instilled into the system we continuously feed and see as the status quo. “Self-definition is one of the activities practiced by all cultures”(Said 37). However, is it still self-definition if another culture is telling them how to behave or what to remember? “We have developed our own integrity and lived our own Arab Protestant identity within our sphere, but also spiritually within theirs”(Said 40). Even when colonized people believe to be culturally developing in a post-colonial region, they are restricted to the social image that Colonizers had originally laid out for them. Which is why the silence must be broken. Conversation leads to the mixing of perspectives, values, and histories. As Said says early on “[History is ] ... overlapping and interconnected experiences” (Said 32).  We must use our collective perspectives to write and understand the past accurately and as a means to escape the imperialistic loop involving the subordination of one culture over another.

Colonization lives on

While much colonization happened in other centuries, most powerfully in the 18th and 19th, Said argues that the effects of these events are still felt in the cultures that were colonized. He says that, "What concerns me is the way in which, generations later, the conflict continues in an impoverished and for that reason all the more dangerous form, thanks to an uncritical alignment between intellectuals and institutions of power which reproduces the pattern of an earlier imperialist history" (Said 39). This brings up another central idea. Here, Said is saying that while colonization occurs and ends, the effects of colonization live on much later than the event. This, he says, is at the fault of the intellectuals and the institutions of power. This is because they are the ones that are in control of much of the culture and the societal function of the colonized. The colonizers enter the colonized country and change many of the ways that the country functions ranging from politics to cultural traditions. These changes generally mimic the colonizing people. Thus, in the wake of colonization there are new ways in which the colonized country functions even after the colonizers leave. The systems, institutions, and attitudes of the colonizers live on after the colonization has ended, therefore, colonization continues to affect people even if it is no longer occurring. 


With overlapping territories comes the question of the contexts in which cultures are created. We view our imperial past a certain way, while those who may have faced oppression see it differently. Certain groups define their culture and history on the basis of what they experience. Others, however, believe the histories that were dictated to them; they can’t necessarily define their origins themselves. This poses a great issue regarding education and what we believe we know. Taking what is taught to us as fact is the reason imperialistic practices have survived in the post-imperialist era. In order to secure a future where everyone can be seen as an equal, we must break away from the identities assigned based on arbitrary factors and broaden horizons by attempting to comprehend the true struggle and values of other cultures.

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