Identity and Difference: The Meaning of “Civilization”


Civilization – a word that never ceases to appear in our societal discourse, channeling our collective desires towards an ideal end. Politicians, scholars, agents of the media, and even fifth grade world history teachers demonstrate an unfortunate propensity to throw this term around as if it is something we innately know, a core image that transcends all knowledge. “Civilization,” as a concept though, is not as simple as we would like it to be. Its meaning cannot be fixed to one specific cultural epistemology. However, history and even today prove that such fixation to a certain identity is the common view. In fact, such fixation on one’s own perception of civilization is arguably ingrained into the human psyche, a natural projection of an individual’s conception of self onto the external world of social relations. The narrative of European exploration and colonization of the New World is filled with examples of this refusal to accept the fluidity of “civilization” and insistence on perpetuating the ideal European identity to the inferior “different” cultures, continuing today in the form of “development” projects and global capital expeditions. Unless this view of civilization is sufficiently interrogated this illusory mindset will continue to harm the global community.

The Merriam-Webster definition of civilization is “the condition that exists when people have developed effective ways of organizing a society and care about art, science, etc.”  It’s not so much that this definition is incorrect, but rather misinterpreted.  But, can it really be said that there is such a thing as civilization?  Societies, countries, and cultures are just a title for the larger form of organization, yet any group of people can administer themselves under a common valuing of certain understandings of morals, tendencies, and learnings.  When “Westerners” talk about being more civilized than others, it is definitely not true.  Just because their forms of organizing a society are different doesn’t mean they don’t exist.  All societies are organized in some way and have methods of appreciating art and science.  The common conception of “civilization” is that those who have writing, as Clastres calls them, sees themselves as being more sophisticated about their knowledge of said art and science just because those “archaic” societies might not have records of theirs.  Here, otherness is once again being developed through separation of the self.  Most people only see what they are used to and know; they fail to understand and be accepting towards people from other origins and cultures due to their inability to see beyond themselves.

When Columbus landed on the Americas, he began a spiral of colonization and conquer. Spain attempts to conquer American natives, not only by taking land, but also by imposing European and Christian beliefs. As in Cabeza de Vaca, Spaniards do not even attempt to understand natives; they instantly assume that Spanish culture is superior to native culture. Explorers like Columbus studied the natives like specimens, not recognizing them as fellow humans. All throughout the age of colonization, European nations conquered other nations and pushed their beliefs on the basis that Europe contained more advanced civilization. Today, the United States tries imposes democracy upon other states (that may or may not want it) on the same claim.  Civilization also depends on power; a strict (coercive) power structure creates civilization. European and western government consists of strict hierarchal structure, whereas nomadic power structure is more loose and fluid. These two ideologies clash and lead to the strict structure creating order from the perceived “chaos” of the “savages.”

Thus, this tendency for people to reduce the other to overly simplified generalized groups has been a recurring theme throughout the centuries.  From the time of the great explorers to the present day, narrow minded views of other cultures have led to misunderstanding and wrong treatment among societies.  Several reasons exist for this injustice, including ignorance, selfishness, and the desire to conquer or impose one’s lifestyle on another.  In the case of explorers like Columbus, spreading his beliefs took precedence over learning the subtleties of the natives’ cultures.  However, his intentions were not malicious.  Columbus, like many others, fell victim to the mindset that imposing his own beliefs and religious practices was a righteous course of action, one that would prove beneficial to both parties.  A notion of moral justification lends great power to one who seeks to conquer or oppress.  Today, on the other hand, people are more likely to remain ignorant of other cultures due to a lack of proper education. The result is a feeling of cultural superiority that often leads to conflict and even hatred of other cultures.

The important point to recognize about current understandings of civilization is that they are all grounded in a certain mindset. Fortunately, mindsets do not have to be rigid, but can be shaped. If the current societal conscious that surrounds this illusory term, “civilization,” is ever to be conquered, one must first interrogate why it is that we choose to assume it in the first place. Without this, the global community is doomed to the same patronizing forms of cultural superiority that have plagued the world for centuries.


Metageography and Reality


(Wayan, Chris. “Welcome to Turnovia,” (2003)       

       “Having never been exposed to a critique of the simple geography taught in elementary school, we continue to seek correspondingly simple maps for much more problematic phenomena, expecting to see their spatial patterns conveniently arrayed in large, contiguous, colorful blocks.” (Lewis and Wigen, pg. 11)

Lewis and Wigen, in their work The Myth of Continents: A Critique of Metageography, expose the dangers of an outdated and overly flawed view of the world that plagues our understanding of world geopolitics and the population as a whole, grounded in our propensity to accept the simplicity of categorizing, grouping, and subdividing an undividable world. Metageography represents the basic building blocks of geographic understanding, providing people with the core tools and heuristics to study and understand the complexity of our planet’s geographic makeup. In fact, Lewis and Wigen refer to this as “the highest level of our geographical taxonomy” (pg. 1). While the idea of having this core set of methods to understand geography appears useful, if this conception becomes fallacious, the consequences in terms of our understanding of the world can become disastrous. Today, particular fallacies dealing with the shaping of our idea of the world map as well as the specious puzzle that is our idea of nation-states and continents both can and have posed a significant threat to our conception of the “real” world, resulting in subjugation grounded in a misleading sense of geographic superiority.

Size and Placement

One of the most fundamental instances of today’s problematic metageography is the map itself. In particular, the shaping and placing of both continents and countries feeds a false sense of geographic superiority. With something as simple as size, humans innately associate size with power. Thus, the depiction of some land masses like Europe as significantly larger than its real size or Africa as no larger than Greenland, which in actuality (as represented in the map below) should be miniscule in comparison, provides Western culture with a specious sense of security. Lewis and Wigen highlight this phenomenon: “Europe and the United States appear in swollen importance, while the rest of the world is shrunk into a distorting miniature” (pg. 10). Unfortunately this has led to further perpetuation of faulty epistemology associated with the African continent, as will be explained in the coming section. In regards to placement, at a meta-level, there really is not a “north” or a “south” part of the Earth. Such directional terms are abstract concepts, created by humans for the purpose of navigation. That Europe and the rest of the global North are featured on the top of every major world map has no basis in the reality of planet orbits or any geographic principle. However, while such placement may seem insignificant, at a subconscious level, much like the concept of heaven and hell, that which is viewed as higher than something else is naturally considered to be superior, again allowing for the further perpetuation of eurocentrism as an intuitive explanation for such geographic superiority.


(Common Understanding)                   (Reality)


Nation-States and Continents

    Despite what we are so drawn to believe, country borders are not visible from space. The interlocking machine that is the modern geopolitical understanding is entirely human made, but sadly, no longer holds any natural sense. At the fundamental level of this hierarchy, nation-states, we see a nicely fitting, what Lewis and Wigen call “a handful of fundamental units” that “[do] injustice to the complexities of global geography and [lead] to faulty comparisons” (pg. 1). Specifically, they point to Switzerland, Nigeria, and India as specific examples of countries that we refer to politically as single units, completely oblivious to immense cultural diversity that fills these countries (pg. 8). In fact, these assumptions prove disastrous to our understanding of the “real” world in the specific context of Sudan. Lewis and Wigen point to the fact that despite northern Sudan’s closer resemblance to Egypt than to southern Sudan, which has a closer resemblance to Uganda, the fact that Sudan is appropriated as a single national unit distorts our ability as a global community to recognize that their problems are not merely internal strife, but grounded in the very foundations of our metageography. Beyond nation-states, as these smaller units are combined into the larger continental understanding, our comparisons are further distorted. In the case of Africa and Asia, Lewis and Wigen refer to our propensity to see China and India’s relationship to Asia as synonymous to Germany and France’s relationship to Europe, when in reality, India and China could represent the entire continent of Europe with its immense amount of geographic diversity, a major distortion of our perceptions of reality.