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.



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