Thursday, March 5, 2015

(non-fiction) Barbaric vs civilized

All record of civilization is also a  record of barbarianism.

In the horizon of a dusty land there is a new barbarian appearing. And people are scared. The cruelty of ISIS has been revealed to the world and the human beings of civilized nations need to come forth or else be crushed underfoot. The use of the word barbaric recently seems to have gotten out of hand. So I'm tackling this so called confrontation of civilized vs barbaric with one of my own. I find the everyday definitions to be too self-serving. Let's see what google has to say about it:

adjective: barbaric
  1. 1.
    savagely cruel; exceedingly brutal.
    "he had carried out barbaric acts in the name of war"
  2. 2.
    primitive; unsophisticated.
    "the barbaric splendor he found in civilizations since destroyed"

That's the dual definition that I see thrown about. But in recent times, the first definition seems to be used the most. Usually ISIS sends a video and people become revolted. Fair enough. Hard to side with a group that is more than willing to burn prisoners in cages and to behead them with a knife. But are people in the West (and now I'm speaking specifically of me and my fellow Americans) allowed to speak in such stark terms? 

That they are seems like the most grievous example of tribalism. The likes of Chomsky and Hedges have already pointed out that we have beheaded and burned more people than ISIS ever has. Yes, our missiles and bombs tend to do that. And yes, this has happened to innocents. So using the word barbaric for these acts, for what they evoke in the bystander, can easily be shown to be misguided at best. [1]

What of the perpetrators themselves? Is it much more psychotic to kill with a knife or burn with a lighter than to use a bomb to do the same? On the surface it may seem this way, but when one adds the context of what has been done to people in the Middle East (never specifically, but as a group), then it would seem that the word psychotic (and thus barbaric) should not be used. Some more nuance needs to be added to the mix.

It seems that what most people are against aren't ISIS' acts, specifically, but the fact that it's an "other" doing it, and that ISIS seems to want to advertise what they're doing. Yet, when it's phrased that way the word barbaric doesn't apply (and if that's the line, then it's a misuse, for some of us truly believe that the word should be used for most kinds of 'barbaric' killing, as in how the victim feels).

Perhaps I'm wrong. It's happened before. Perhaps people are truly referring to the 2nd definition and saying that the methods used are primitive and unsophisticated. In this world view—one I hope only exists in the darker parts of internet comments—it's the fact that a knife is a simple tool used to behead, while a bomb with its shrapnel is something that's based on technology from a sophisticated society. And if we're to carry on talking in terms of money (that true measure of efficacy, as it would seem these days): then that bomb had research and development behind it, that bomb has jobs behind it. What of the jobs created by the knife ISIS used? [2]

I like to think that this is about something more than just what goes on behind the scenes of the weapons we use. We should understand just what these weapons do to the people affected by them. Again, this is a perfect example of manufacturing consent. That we only see our own actions through the prism of a distant explosion, while we see the actions of the enemy as viscerally as possible only goes to show that the media is trying to sway our opinions in a very specific way (as well as ISIS). Think, my fellow Americans, before you react. When someone starts to use words (especially amongst the ones not directly affected) that are meant to evoke emotions, not thought, be very careful, and hold on to your wallets—people want that at the end of the day.

Update:  Well, then, I must say that though I shy away from using barbaric or civilized in general conversation, I think that if the word "barbaric" is to be used for savage acts, it should be used for the results of any one act. So the pressing of a button, or the siege of a nation, or the chopping of a head are equal only if there are numbers of equal size. To simply base things on a visceral reaction, especially for those of us not directly affected, is foolish and as anti-intellectual as one can get.

And if we are to talk of civilized, we're venturing into more and more subjective ground. Thing is that one needs to focus on what a civilization can create. In All Quiet at the Western Front, the narrator talks of the uselessness of a civilization if its end result was the trench warfare of the Great War. Is that a fair assessment? I dare say that it is.

Are we merely saying that civilization is the sum of power? Are we saying that it is art and literature? Or is it the gilded edges of chairs and walls? Most people, with science as their new god, are of the idea that with this race in innovation that there is only one metric. There isn't, but all worshipers of a new god tend to reach into the past, co-opt it and trace a line into the future. Hard to get followers using other methods. [3]

I'll say that mass utilitarianism is still the order of the day, for both the barbarian and the civilized.

Update Apr 2015: I have to reply to what I've been hearing about civilization, and the bad rep it can get. Some say that civilization, like an overgrown colony of bacteria in a nutrient rich petri dish, may create a little beauty (in the eye of the beholder, of course), but it's mainly an iniquity that doesn't maximize utilitarianism amongst all the people, and that it mainly works as a sort of destruction of self and the immediate environment. And in the end, the beauty it creates, fleeting, isn't worth the barbarianism needed to keep it. To me this seems like a sort of Malthusian view made for the industrial age, and it forgets the good that civilization has done for us. Again, my main point was the usage of the words to label us and them rather than any reality.

And to those who think that civilization is a hall of mirrors... well I have to say that even barbarians love mirrors.

[1] Certainly Orwell has pointed out this phenomenon where what we do to others is always considered worse than what others do to us. No matter the reality.

[2] Sad to say ISIS doesn't manufacture those knives or cages. They don't have the capacity for creating such things. But this logic is weak, as we would be immediately faced with the same issue if they were found to be creating these items in some underground factory, wouldn't we?

[3] There is so much more to this topic. We could talk of the most recent 'good war' and what lessons we learned from that. It isn't clear, but I will certainly say that the Nazis were not civilized, no matter their technological prowess.

Enjoyed the writing? Here's a tip jar!

Then Subscribe to my mailing list (get stories and discounts not available elsewhere!)

* indicates required
Email Format


  1. Oh my how you have this all wrong. Well, slightly wrong but in this case the fraction of a degree means that it's all wrong: this is what makes civilization so worthwhile, so much better than any barbarianism, and that goes for the noble savage of any kind:
    Civilization is the known and purposeful push against entropy (a Sisyphean struggle, but one that all life undertakes the moment it is born) in all its forms, especially the symbolic. To give up this fight is to be barbaric... inhuman, even.

  2. Isn't this cute? Oh, I know, Barbaric vs civilized. That you are a fool, one whose skin has grown soft in civilized lands (and apparently along with your mind as well). See, the thing is what civilization does on its fringes is a reaction, a necessary one, with forces that cause that (yes, barbaric) reaction—and you want to mock this?

    Oh, irony, your sting is too much for me. Because that reaction on the fringes keeps that barbarian horde from sweeping in. It's like lamenting a cell's skin's killing of other bacteria, when those bacteria are very much going to kill the cell the moment it grows weak.

    Oh the Irony of ironies is that this "safe center" allows you to write and speak openly about whatever it is that you want. Think on it. Any barbarian with a Bill of Rights? With a Geneva conventions? Would they even twitch if they were torturing you? They won't even get PTSD over your burnt skin. For whatever our civilized faults, we are at least willing for there to be consequences for such actions or transgressions. And we are willing to listen to those without power, to heed their cries, and we don't only react to violence. There's another difference between barbarians and civilized people. I'll say nothing of art or improvement to the lot of mankind in general (or writers such as yourself).

    1. That's your reply? Though powers will always act in their own interests, that doesn't mean that we must accept inequity as a fact. Soft? Only you in your head


Please comment to add to the discussion. Be kind. But let the democratic ideal lead you. And no spamming!