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Thoughts on Modernity

How come some of the things we see as non-modern or traditional remain relevant in the contemporary world?

Just think of yourself and people you know. Many of them attend religious services. Many of them would want a boyfriend or girlfriend in the future – and most likely, they will be looking for partners within the same social and cultural circles. Many of them probably envision themselves getting married, often with a presider standing by the altar, the ‘groom’ waiting down the aisle, the ‘bride’ traipsing to meet him in a beautiful dress. (Images of weddings are often such, regardless of whether partners are heteronormative or not.)

In the same vein, how come the things we think of as modern – gadgets, online learning, online shopping, banks and ATMs, GCash, emails, even electricity – remain inaccessible to many?

In fact, technology has never been more important to us as in these pandemic times, when we have had to rely on it so much. (How would classes proceed without it? How bored would you be without Netflix and/or social media?)

But not everyone in the Philippines can enjoy these modern conveniences.  Are they modern, then, if they don’t have access to modern things?

When it comes to ideas, often, some of the most closed-minded people are the ones who see themselves as progressive.

Indeed, these examples make us reconsider. Are we modern or not? What is modernity? Who determines what it is?

Let us begin with a simple definition.

Modernity is a condition characterized by particular values and ideologies. It is a way of life delineated by ways of thinking, feeling, and acting that are in contrast to the pre-modern (the age before the onset of the modern world). On a chart, it can look like this:

Screen Shot 2020-07-04 at 6.19.50 PM

As a way of life, it is also therefore, a process of being. We are still in the modern world, navigating our way through that arrow amidst changing conditions of modernity.

What should be of note, however, is that our ideas of the modern and non-modern are often based on those that have flowed to us from the West. After all, the ‘modern’ is a label that Western, mainly European, social scientists and writers used to designate the period that came with the onset of Enlightenment thinking in the late 1600s, and continues to this day.

The 1600s onwards was a time of huge change in Europe. Scientists discovered many things (for instance, the sun being at the center of the universe, gravity) that made them challenge the tenets of the church. New technology (for example, the printing press) enabled ideas to spread faster and to reach farther. Factories sprouted, and with it, the ability to mass produce. Cities emerged, and with them, new ways of living. With all the changes happening and with the power of the church in decline, people started questioning society. They started acting in ways that were not based on religious beliefs. They felt somehow, less restricted.

But let’s take this concept as constructed by Europeans a step further. The Chinese started block printing in the 7th AD, long before Gutenberg’s moveable type in the 1400s. The Middle East led scientific advances prior to Europe’s scientific revolution. Elsewhere outside the Western world, technological advances were taking place.

Why then, are we in the non-West still bound by how the West sees the world? We still observe hegemonic notions of modernity.

For instance, in these pandemic times, think of the terms we use to describe the Chinese. Think of the images associated with Middle Eastern peoples every time terror incidents occur. Japan, the third richest country in world, may be keeping its traditions alive, but its idea of modernity is inspired by Western ideals of progress. When it annexed Taiwan (in 1895) and Korea (in 1910), it did so out of the belief that a nation-state is modern if it has colonies. Under the Meiji rule beginning in the late 1800s, Japan sent citizens to Germany and France to study medicine, cuisine, and technology.

Closer to home, we also subscribe to certain notions of what comprises the modern. When a person cannot operate a high-tech gadget, don’t we find ourselves calling him/her primitive? When our PowerPoint slides are not fancy or flashy, I’m pretty sure we get a few labels too. When people are devoted to tradition and ritual, we call them old-fashioned. The fact that some of us have to apologise for not being tech-savvy enough to conduct, or participate in, online classes is also proof.

Colonisation has played a huge role in the hegemony of Western thought. The colonisers did not simply acquire territory – they were on a civilising mission. Theirs was an imposition of ideologies, coupled with the creation of political and economic institutions that ensured their dominance – in trade, in production, in skills. Thus, White came to be seen as superior, civilized; Brown/Black as inferior, barbaric. And that idea has seeped into the notions of modernity that we have now, despite advances in science and technology existing elsewhere before Europeans put a name to it.

While it is good to be aware of this hegemony, we also need to recognise the contributions of the West. Modernity is ultimately about human agency and reason. Such allowed people to accomplish and to fight for so many things. The values and practices that we espouse now  – freedom of expression, human rights, free markets, mobility, innovation – are legacies of changes that took place in Europe from the 1600s onwards. They are contemporary expressions of modernity.

Today, practices of modernity outside of the West are unfolding and spreading around the globe.

In whatever form it takes, let us not forget the groups that have been left out because those controlling modernity’s processes are often the ones limiting others’ agency. We are all in this condition. We are products of modernity. Our ways of thinking, feeling, and acting are shaped by it. But at the same time, as a process of being, we can shape conditions of modernity as well, to free others from chains… of poverty, of voiceless-ness.

Perhaps, as we weave our way through modernity, we can ask these questions:

Whose standards dominate in particular situations? What happens to groups that do not meet these standards? Why don’t they meet these standards? How can we redefine modern life to be more inclusive?


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