“There are many humorous things in the world; among them, the white man’s notion that he is less savage than the other savages.” – Mark Twain
The notion of “civilization” is a particularly illusory concept, one in which the objective definition of it rarely matches the way it is appropriated. It has been used as a catalyst for propelling advancements in science and arts, but also for enslaving masses, dangerously exploiting living and nonliving resources, and more. Despite the popular notion, civilization does not require skyscrapers, iPhone 20’s, or constitutions, and yet, the global society is constantly bombarded with this concept of the ideal end a culture must strive toward. Rather, one must recognize that such a notion of civilization is heavily influenced by prior preconceptions about the norms of a social, political, and economic aspects within one’s own cultural experience. In fact, the narrative of European exploration is filled with this fallacious understanding of “civilization,” and serves in many ways as the primary source of this concept’s perpetuity. Overall, the idea of “civilization” is a significantly coercive concept and requires interrogation to be sufficiently understood.
The Exploration Rush
The explosion of exploration and colonization that happened from the 15th to the 18th century can be attributed to a number of factors. Primarily, the leaders of European nations were interested in wealth, power, and expansion of their domain. The colonization frenzy began after Portugal and Spain successfully retrieved great wealth in the form of precious metals and other resources from their colonies in the 14th century. This success drove the funding of more expeditions to find new lands that could benefit the colonizing countries. Many famous explorations, such as those of Columbus, were inspired by the dream of discovering great wealth in foreign lands. By the 16th century, other countries such as England chose to engage in colonizations of their own. England’s powerful navy allowed them to assert dominance over their competitors and potential colonizations, and they quickly gained control over new colonies. To maximize profit from their colonies, trade routes and merchant companies were developed that could make trade more efficient and lucrative, often at great cost to those who were colonized. Another important factor in many colonizations was religion. Religion provided a moral justification to the injustices done by colonizers. The native people were often either forced to convert, or captured into slavery because of their pagan beliefs. Capturing slaves also proved to be extremely profitable for colonizers, as strong, healthy slaves were in high demand. This combination of incentives, including monetary gains, expansion of power, slave labor, and religious justification created the perfect conditions for an outburst of colonization.
As we have discussed of before, the term “civilization” itself is coercive in that people don’t have a certain definition of the word and cannot truly categorize particular societies as either civilized or not. Those who use the word to categorize and describe are the ones who most usually define it, and their definition is centered around their own society and what they know. This, of course, leads to unfair views of others and stereotypes based on untrue comparisons. In terms of performative and prescriptive functions, civilization is also coercive in that some cultures may alter their traditions and structures in order to fit in better with a specific grouping. Also, there is the fact that individuals can lay claim to the definition of a civilization and therefore jurisdiction of a society.
Due to this manipulative aspect of “civilization,” the European worldview exists as a significant example of a fallacious construction regarding the way a culture should operate. Operating within a rigid system of social hierarchy and economic realism, the eurocentric model of “civilization” evolved out of a collection of ideals grounded within the European norms. Aspects like writing, institutionalized government, and established currency were seen as tokens of a fully functioning society, one that the Europeans believed achieved the fullest that humanity could offer. Thus, due to the dualistic nature of language, if “civilization” is the aforementioned concept, uncivilized cultures must therefore, be the exact opposite: without writing, decentralized government, etc. Moreover, because those social and political components are what Europeans consider to be ideal, cultures that do not exhibit those components fall victim to an immediate, condescending reaction from Europeans with this mindset. In fact, many scholars like Pierre Clastres depict this condescending reaction as an evolutionary relationship, where cultures depicted as “uncivilized” are treated as immature manifestations of the European ideal. All the social, political, and economic components Europeans regard as “civilized” are seen through this evolutionary model as the end to be achieved through development. It is through this development that perpetuates the colonial mindset as the method for raising the immature “underdeveloped” societies to the level of European civilization, turning exploitive colonization into a noble mission.
Civilization is a coercive system of power that requires one group to assert dominance over another. Civilization cannot be defined in a universal term; rather, certain groups define civilization in varying ways. “Civilizations” especially those of Western Europe, see it as their duty, or “The White Man’s Burden,” to impose their beliefs upon other groups that they encounter. This mission has taken various forms throughout history including slavery and colonization. Whites see it as their obligation to “educate” and “civilize” others that they encounter. They fail to realize that these groups have their own principles and ways of life. The European view of civilization leads to countless negative consequences. The European definition evolves to include sedentary life, monetary economy, writing, and religion. If a culture does not include these facets, it is instantly deemed savage and uncivilized. Exploration arose as a means to discover more wealth and further expand these values of civilization. Europeans would not stop until the entire globe encompassed their ideals and was “civilized.” Europeans justified their conquests using Christianity and religion. They converted pagans to Christianity and used this to justify slavery. The success of small colonies led to increased desire to colonize more, and this led to a rush to conquer all “uncivilized” areas of the globe. The world fell into a downward spiral and resulted in the world we have today: a world dominated by Western civilization, where self (Western civilization) defines the other.