A Civilized Discussion on Civilizations

The language we use and the words we choose convey our thoughts and attitudes about the world. This seems straightforward enough but for some reason has recently come to surprise some people. We should not be using certain words over others because they are “politically correct.” That’s not the point. The point, instead, is that we, as a society, and as individuals, need to start reassessing our everyday usage of language, as it more often than not actually expresses implicit thoughts we may have about certain groups of people or institutions. This is why it’s important to be aware of the sort of terminology we decide to opt for or against when partaking in dialogue, whether it be in a formal or informal setting.

An example of an incredibly problematic word that I realized has been significantly unexplored, at least outside academia, is the notion of civilization. This seems like a relatively simple concept. Civilizations include varying races, genders, ages, classes, etc. So why do I feel the need to pick this unnecessary fight? Because calling something a “civilization” implies that there is something that we are deeming “civilized,” as opposed to those that we don’t assign the label to. And that’s what it comes down to, the implications that quickly evolve into allegations against groups of people who we consider to be “uncivilized,” or not a “real civilization.”

When we talk about civilizations, in definitional terms, we think of large groups of people who live in close proximity, oftentimes near a body of water, as this may help provide fertile soil for agriculture and as a point of trade, and usually features some loose form of a culture, which may include languages, religions, beliefs, traditions, foods, etc. This appears to be seemingly unproblematic. But the stage has only been set up for disaster. By labelling one thing a civilization over any other means that we are somehow deeming other groups to be “uncivilized,” not quite on par with those that have been accepted by society as a true civilization.

This kind of presumption that “civilization” somehow means that these individuals are “civil” and can act in a cohesive and collective manner for mutual gain and communal socioeconomic progress is an incredibly subjective and relative view. The societies that are then deemed to not be civilizations carry then with them a negative connotation, with words like “tribalism” being associated with terms like “barbarism” and “savagery.” It ought be time that we stop using words like “savage” or “uncivilized” or “third world” to describe the lifestyles of those societies that we don’t fully understand, and more importantly, appreciate. Is it possible for tribes to be “civilized”? Of course it is. Is it plausible that a civilization be “uncivilized”? It would be insulting to readers to have to answer that sort of question, as the answer ought to be apparent enough.

We must change our perception of what we consider to be a civilization and those that we arbitrarily decided was not one. It’s time for our educational system to stop praising colonialist expansionist views and begin celebrating and understanding native cultures and societies. Just because one society wasn’t as aggressive to demand its acknowledgment as a “legitimate” collection of humans cooperating with one another does not mean that it does not merit the title of being called uncivilized, or believed to somehow be inferior to any civilization.

The first way to start this conversation is to stop and think about the ways in which we use terms like civilizations for certain groups while not for others. Native populations, for instance, are rarely referred to as civilizations, whereas other militaristic, agricultural, and commercial cohorts of people are considered to qualify for the title of being a civilization, a completely useless, and quite honestly, irrelevant distinction, one that need not even be made.

A second way is to approach the topic from the other end, the one that is being dismissed and neglected. This could start by a sort of reclaiming of those terms that are meant to stain and tarnish the otherwise good name that certain groups have while others do not. This would include reclaiming terms like “barbarian” or “tribal,” along with others. The term “barbarism” originated from Ancient Greece, when individuals who could not speak Ancient Greek were said to be making incoherent sounds when speaking foreign languages, which to the Ancient Greeks sounded like “bar, bar, bar.” Hence, anyone who spoke a language other than Ancient Greek was considered to be a “barbarian.” This terms originated almost harmlessly, but now carries a great weight, one that is far too easily tossed around and painted upon societies that we don’t understand or appreciate, simply because they seem foreign or strange, or because we have been underexposed to them in any educational setting.

It’s time to redefine what a civilization really is. It’s the 21st Century, and like hell are we going to consider certain societies “civilized” but not others, especially when some of the “greatest modern civilizations” that the world has ever seen include frightening instances of violence, infringement of basic human rights, as well as the systematic oppression of groups of individuals, it’s time that we stop using this double standard. It’s time we either acknowledge that we’ve never seen a civilization thus far, and we’re still a part of a fairly young species trying to figure this planet and our place on it out, or that civilizations come in many different shapes and sizes.

It’s about time we admit that a civilization can no longer just be a large group of free white men who frequently  decide to eat food together, trade some supplies, and are situated by a river. Human societies are more complex than that. And it’s about time we admit it.

This article was written by Amar Ojha, founder and writer at dusk magazine. 

2 Comments on A Civilized Discussion on Civilizations

  1. I think two ideas are being conflated: development and civilization.

    I firmly believe that it is true that, on average, having more information is going to make you capable of being more moral. You have to care and try to do so, and that precedes it, but having more resources, more knowledge, more education, etc. can make you more developed.

    Native Americans were capable of great wisdom, but they just weren’t capable of seeing much beyond an animistic and theistic worldview. They didn’t have the level of scientific knowledge to be able to be truly aware that they were one species with everyone else and a different species from chimps, or to know about the Big Bang, or to have an accurate history of their tribes. That’s not an insult: they didn’t have those tools.

    Morality, psychological and personal development, science, literature, etc. are all complicated and interrelated ideas. And we have competing intuitions. On the one hand, we want to recognize many different ways of living the good life and honor the intelligence and tenacity of all sorts of peoples. On the other hand, we want to respect the intellectual hard work of scientists, philosophers, intellectuals, and regular people who all have built on knowledge from the past and expanded it into the future.

    As for the Third World: That was actually independently chosen by the Non-Aligned Movement. The whole point was to say, “Look, we’re not capitalist and European or Japanese, nor are we Communist and Chinese or Russian or North Korean or what not. We’re a third world. We’re a third group with a third development philosophy and we have different needs”. The modern term, “developing world”, and other terms like the “global South” are all basically the same. Yes, those societies are on average poorer and often have social challenges you can trace to their development. The issue


    • (Comment got clipped): …The issue is that if you want to talk about people struggling, you always have to deal with the jerk who wants to blame them for it. Ducking out of that isn’t helpful.


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