Posted by: Titus Presler | October 10, 2012

The Inevitable Trajectory Assumption and the challenges of the 21st century

There was an interchange this morning that set me thinking again about this century and what we bring to it.  This was the interchange:

In the wake of the news of the shooting of Malala Yousafzai, the 14-year-old Swat Valley resident whose campaign for girls’ right to education in the face of the Taliban’s destruction of girls’ schools throughout Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, I posted the New York Times story about it on a social networking site and wrote, “This is a shocking development,” before going on to say a few things about women’s education at Edwardes.

An old friend responded: “It is beyond shocking, Titus. In the 21st century, it is simply incomprehensible.”

The meaning was plain and well intended: “I thought we had gotten beyond this.  This is, after all, the 21st century, not medieval times, whether in Europe or elsewhere, with their well known horrors.  This is so far beyond familiar norms as to be incomprehensible.  How are we to understand such phenomena?”

Here’s what I began thinking about: One of the illusions of progressivism in the 19th and 20th centuries was what I would call the Inevitable Trajectory Assumption.  It was assumed that in many fields of human life and activity certain trajectories set in certain places would inevitably result in certain states of affairs in other places.

The assumption’s place of origin was, of course, the “Western” world of Europe and North America, where people assumed that technological prowess, disease eradication, gender relations, cosmopolitanism and various other phenomena as experienced in the West were so intrinsically justifiable and so socially overwhelming that they would inevitably be the norm around the entire world.

In the area of religion, secularism and the marginalization of religion in the West were assumed to be the inevitable trajectory of religion globally.  Similarly, the West’s discovery of religious tolerance – a radical break from the relatively recent past of the West itself, which included religious persecution in New England, among innumerable other travesties – was assumed to be the trajectory among religious communities around the world.  The hold of religion over gender relations was likewise assumed to become, inevitably, a thing of the dark past.

The 21st century has challenged the Inevitable Trajectory Assumption in many fields, and perhaps most notably in the field of religion.  The world of the 21st century is a much more religious place than 20th-century Westerners imagined it would or even could be.  More startling, inter-religious conflict is one of the century’s chief features so far.

How Westerners approach this is very important.

First, we must recognize that the Inevitable Trajectory Assumption was and continues to be based on a very selective view that is blind to counter-indications within the West itself.  The deadly religio-ethnic paroxysm of Nazism was not confined to Germany but drew myriad collaborators into its fever in Italy, France, the Netherlands and elsewhere.  Stalin’s purges killed millions, and Soviet persecution of Jews continued right up to the Soviet Union’s fall.  Jim Crow segregation and gruesome lynchings continued in the USA through the 1960s, racial and religious discrimination still thrive, and the country has always been subject to periodic paranoias that victimize vulnerable groups.

In other words, there has not really been a consistent trajectory to plot.  If so, an assumption that there has been any inevitability has been illusory.

Second, any critique of other peoples in other places should begin with grappling with issues on the ground and entering into an equal-footing dialogue with interlocutors.  The critique should most decidedly not begin with a sheer outrage that the Inevitable Trajectory Assumption is being challenged by what we imagine to be vestiges of the Dark Ages.

The Inevitable Trajectory Assumption, even when motivated by altruistic humanitarianism, is a product of Western ethnocentrism, which, like all ethnocentrism, is characterized by arrogance.  It is the arrogance of power, indeed, that accounts for much of the cultural anger around the world against the West and the USA in particular.

The Taliban spokesman who explained Malala’s shooting said, “She has become a symbol of Western culture in the area; she was openly propagating it.”  In itself the statement is absurd, and the act that it was supposed to justify is heinous.  Yet it’s crucial to try to penetrate the wider mindset of which this statement is just one manifestation.  That mindset is preoccupied with the preservation of a multi-featured and complex way of life – a culture – that its inhabitants sense is threatened by another multi-featured and complex way of life – a different culture that is broadly categorized as “the West.”

No one likes to affirm Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations thesis.  Superficially the phrase just seems too grave and hopeless to many.  At a more sophisticated level, the multiplication of integral communities within all nation-states and certainly within any regional sector of the world militates against the conceptual viability of anything so overarching as a “civilization,” let alone a “clash of civilizations.”  Certainly, however, there is a clash of something.  A clash of ideologies?  A clash of marginal groups?  Whatever it is, it is significant.

And it’s the new normal of the 21st century.

So: incomprehensible?  Well, we must get about the business of trying to comprehend if we are to be catalysts of dialogue, transformation and reconciliation.



  1. Experience teaches me that there is always an understandable human need behind every inexplicable action, such as the attempted assassination of Malala. I’m willing to seek what is understandable in such an action. But how to engage the humanity of those who see their cause as all or nothing — all of our culture must survive without the least influence of any other way of life, or else “we” die — that’s the big question. I guess I see what you are doing, Titus, is engaging the humanity of those who are not yet in the all or nothing frame of mind, who can envision “us” surviving even if there are some changes – such as education of girls and women. I’d like to be a part of that, somehow.

    • Thanks for this comment, Kate. You’re quite right that the notion that any culture presently exists in some pure form without any outside influence is completely illusory and typically the product of either romanticism or chauvinism rather than serious reflection. Pakistan itself is constituted of numerous ethnicities and languages, the four provincial identities – Punjab, Sindh, Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa – being just the beginning, for there are many smaller ethnicities and language groups both within the provinces and along the border in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. So the country is already a mixing pot of the first order, with much from the West relished in the urban areas and among the educated. For a variety of cultural, religious and political reasons – about which I’m sure you’ve read a good deal just in following the news – there is among some a radical anti-Western reaction that bears resemblance to similar reactions in various parts of the Middle East.

      As for being a part of the education of girls and women, Edwardes provides a perfect venue for helping with that. One major way would be catalyzing funding for financial aid for women students from poor families, where the pressure is often to prioritize the male children when it comes to education. Let’s be in further correspondence if that would be of interest to you and your community.

      Blessings, Titus

  2. Well put. Based on spending much time in the Middle East over the last years I see the region growing less tolerant and less free and more religious.

  3. […] The Inevitable Trajectory Assumption and the challenges of the 21st century. […]

  4. There is a simpler explanation that does not require judgments about cultural differences or complicated epistemological hypotheses. Look at the story of Job. It reminds us that Satan wanders around the world at will, with the result that chaos and evil is a potential destructive force confronting every ethical system. In this instance, the Taliban epitomize evildoers for they seek to destroy a young girl who seeking wisdom (that is not of their own making).. Their anti-western cultural arguments are mere rationalizations of their desire for power. That is what makes their action so shocking to so many, regardless of their cultural values or traditions.

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