Monday, September 7, 2015


“They’re a bunch of bloody savages. They’re barely even human.”

This is a common film cliché. It is delivered ironically by colonial oppressors, invariably Europeans or Americans. The source of the irony is, of course, that the Europeans are the ones acting like savages against the natives. It’s a common, well-understood trope.

But let’s define, culturally, what it means to be ‘savage’ from this well-known line. The ‘savages’ are looked down on due to their rejection of civilized culture and norms. But more specifically, to be a ‘savage’ you must reject this civilized culture aggressively. Passive rejection of civilization is not deemed ‘savage’: the Khoisan people are not ‘savages’, as they passively resist civilization’s influences. The Apache, on the other hand, by actively fighting back, were deemed ‘savages’ and the ensuing attempts by Americans to destroy their culture made this labeling ironic. But were the Apache civilized? Or is there some distinction between ‘civilized’ and ‘cultured’?

Undoubtedly, we must now define what we mean by ‘civilization’ and ‘civilized’. And this takes me back to intro Anthropology classes. My working definition of ‘civilized’ is ‘a distinct culture which…’ and now it gets hard.

You don’t want to say something like ‘is literate’ because that seems snobbish. There are plenty of long-lasting, successful cultures that have no system of writing. Nor do you want to disclude nomads, so you can’t say anything about that. But you’ve got to draw the line somewhere. The most common definition of ‘civilized’ runs as such: “any complex society characterized by urban development, social stratification, symbolic communication forms, and a perceived separation from, and domination over, the natural environment.”

This brings up the old European concept of the “noble savage”. In the Enlightenment, it was increasingly common to look upon non-civilized peoples as noble, even though they hadn’t figured out how to make trains yet. The sentiment may be in the right place – just because a culture or person isn’t an urban-dwelling, letter-writing type doesn’t mean they aren’t worthy of the nobility and dignity of the human race. But it is rather condescending. So we’ll adopt the standard definition of ‘civilized’ and needs must leave our nomads behind, while acknowledging that this is not a form of commentary, or judgmental decision, but instead a practical one.

Considering the historical Apache, it is clear that they wouldn’t exactly, be ‘civilized’, as they were a nomadic people. So for our definition of ‘savages’ the aggressive party needs to be cultured, and not necessarily ‘civilized’ to resist. And this makes sense. If it was one civilized group against another, it would be unlikely that the epithet ‘savages’ would be used in a genuine sense. But no one may doubt that the Apache were cultured – for culture is merely inherited understandings of a group, whether that is writing, art, laws, customs, or what have you.

So is ISIS civilized? Are they a distinct culture? We’ve established that in order to be savages, they must reject civilized culture aggressively, while possessing cultural traits, but not civilized ones.

I think it is easy to argue that they are a distinct culture. They have a clear set of rules/laws and ideas, and a particularly abhorrent religious fundamentalism due to their promotion of violence. Are they civilized? Here I would argue that, no, they are not civilized. As a nomadic peoples, and as a peoples with no real urban development, they do not qualify – although, clearly, they are trying to become so in a violent ex nihilo sort of way.

But for now, as they attempt to erase history by destroying buildings and archaeological sites, as they attempt to erase history, by burning books and killing those who stand opposed to their doctrine, as they attempt to wipe out any religion but Islam, and more specifically their own cruel variant, as they commit acts of genocide, mass beheadings, torture, rape and slavery, targeting members of the press, and using child soldiers how could we say this is civilized? 

For, in the past century, we have, as a species, begun to create bonds anew wherein we find ourselves sharing a common heritage, a common set of laws, a common adoption and value of human rights, and pride in human dignity. Our cultural lineage is the history of all peoples. To be civilized is more than the anthropological definition, as we collectively enter the 21st century. It is to be inheritor of the vision of a striving for our noblest ideals, for the inherent worthiness of all persons, and the freedom to exercise our talents and genius for the betterment of all humanity.

ISIS isn’t civilized. They’re a bunch of savages. And we can say so, and must say so, without irony, without sarcasm, without cynicism, and with the sincerest judgment. 

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