Peoples have always been civilized: some people chose to behave barbarically

This piece is a commentary on University of Johannesburg Associate Professor Rafael Winkler’s “The long walk from ‘civilised’ and ‘barbaric’ to a new world view“. The author shows his bias from the get-go by defining “civilized” as merely “having good habits and fine taste, and governing...

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This piece is a commentary on University of Johannesburg Associate Professor Rafael Winkler’s “The long walk from ‘civilised’ and ‘barbaric’ to a new world view“.

The author shows his bias from the get-go by defining “civilized” as merely “having good habits and fine taste, and governing one’s life rationally”.

This casts an image of a fat, God-fearing, monarchical, fancily-dressed Frenchman (Descartes?), sitting on a leather chair in his men’s-only club, served by a ‘black’ woman, nibbling on one of France’s 1000 cheeses, sipping fine cognac and justifying his existence by thinking rationally.

But, like it or not, civilized people and nations are characterized by:

  1. having and adhering to shared, organized and implemented rules about how people should behave; and
  2. responding to violations of these rules (e.g. institutional neglect, corruption, intimidation, censorship, physical violence, destruction of property) with actions designed to prevent them from recurring – in short, effective justice.

Civilized people interact – by being polite, reasonable, and respectful.  They are civil.

Then the author suggests that the development of civilization was restricted geographically (Ancient Greece/Rome) and to certain behaviour (abiding by laws and rationally debating competitive ideas) exhibited by certain Europeans (wealthy white men) during certain time periods (the Age of Enlightenment) who associate themselves politically with certain politics (liberalism), economics (the free market) and intellectual disciplines (the humanities).

Then he expresses his “uncertainty” about what it means to be civilized. Given his definition and restrictions, of course he should be ‘uncertain’ at best.

But, if you agree with and abide by my (and most other people’s) suggested definition, civilized people and nations have existed everywhere since the beginning of humanity. Indeed, civility is a sine qua non for humanity. That’s why most free and self-identified nations have civil “rights”. They are part of “human nature” and should be inculcated into kids’ personas from day one by their parents and mentors.

Then he asks a loaded question.

“Does this connection between reason, freedom and democracy represent a particular Western prejudice?”

Of course, the correct answer is no!

Then, like Monty Python, he targets the ancient Greeks (who “will inherit the Earth”), since they promoted the primacy of reason and rationality and, for some strange reason, shared a common language, in establishing a “natural fellowship”, which he ‘links’ to a rambling passage by Aristotle.

Then, given all this, he concludes:

“I am not convinced that reason or speech is a characteristic free of prejudice”.

Of course, locally-derived civilizations are not guaranteed to be “free of prejudice”, and not sharing a common language is an outstanding way of guaranteeing the development of prejudice.

Then he leaps to the ‘concept’ of barbarism being a Greek/Western invention.

Who is the barbarian?

Well, to the Khoi-speaking ‘civilized’ people of Southern Africa, the San (the Khoi word for “foreigner” who in fact are the First People who have no name for themselves collectively) are barbarians because they hunt rather than herd animals and ‘talk funny’.  Before that, I’m sure that Homo naledi thought the same about australopithecines who left their dead to rot in the veld.

Of course, the author is using barbarism when he should be referring to ‘race’ and racism.

But he goes further when he defines a barbarian: “someone whose speech is unintelligible or who makes incomprehensible sounds like an animal”.

In short, these barbarians are not simply geographical variants of “us”. They are not human. They are “cruel, bestial savage animals”.

But, then he backs down a bit and suggests that these animals might, in fact, only be “slaves… subject to the rule of a monarch”.

This allows him to ‘address’ Islamophobia sensu lato and not just ISIS: an apocalyptic cult carving a place in the modern world by carving off their perceived enemies’ heads, obliterating antiquity and enslaving women.

Sure, there are ignorant bigots like US President Donald Trump who equate Islam with all that is evil. In the vaguely recent past, we had Hitler and his henchmen who relegated Jews to concentration camps and considered ‘blacks’ and other ‘barbarians’ as untermensch. Locally, we have some people who refer to those they don’t like or respect as ka**irs or white devils who require ‘re-education’, wealth stripping or a ‘Final Solution’.

Being, or not being, “civilized” has nothing to do with the “West’s continued military presence in the Middle East”. The ‘reason’ for this invasion and occupation has its roots in, amongst other things, the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire after WWI and the creation of Israel.

Then, he trots out the Nazi’s, religion, capitalist-classism, gender and slave-owing European colonists, but strangely not Verwoerd and his buddies. Blacks, especially socio-economically oppressed, ‘godless’ women are the new barbarians.

Sadly, like the extreme fallists, and principle-free principals and corrupt politicians, ‘civil servants’ and ‘teachers’ who blatantly neglect, disrespect, intimidate and even assault those with whom they disagree and censor or even destroy their literature and artwork, the author conflates civility with racism.

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  1. Harald Sitta Reply

    RW sounds confused … I did not get what he meant. Every civilization has a dark side.

  2. Lucio De Re Reply

    The Latin “civitas” from which “civilisation” is derived, is the modern “city”. The need for firm rules of behaviour (I’m not an anthropologist, so this is a vaguely educated guess) comes from a density of population that puts the members of a society under pressure to be “polite” to each other and “outlaws” them (effectively depriving them of the protection of the law that they chose to defy) when they misbehave.

    Thus, barbarians such as the Vandals and various Goths from the North East that invaded a defenseless Europe were considered “uncivilised”. Their behaviour was alien or strictly contrary to the norms of the time, but it was just natural to Attila to make sure that he would find no resistance when he chose to go back home, hence his “scorched-earth” approach.

    To bring this terminology into the 21st Century demands accepting its limitations or laying down clear and scientific definitions of the various aspects the various words encompass.

    And I disagree with Tim that civilisation has always existed: civilisation is an impractical burden on nomadic tribes and is essentially an offshoot of the ability to write down the accepted norms (“morals”) so they can be passed from generation to generation without opportunistic alterations by the story tellers.

    Whenever and wherever literacy slipped dramatically as it did in the Dark Ages, the net effect was also a slippage in “civilising norms”.

    The bottom line is that there isn’t an absolute concept of “civilisation”, nor that a particular civilisation (think Mayan child sacrifices) can’t look totally barbarous to one developed with different objectives to satisfy.

    (Hello, Tim. It’s been a long, long time…)

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