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.