Blog Post

The Problem of Defining Civilization

    “Civilized” is often used as loaded ethical language.  Traditionally, whenever we praise human action, we call it “civilized,” whether it is table manners or peacemaking.  This use of the word civilized leads us to the assumption that civilization is good, and hunter-gatherer culture bad.
    The view that civilization is bad and hunter-gatherer culture is good simply flips loaded ethical language about civilization from good to bad, and allows the ethical language to flip back again: civilization, good; non-civilization, bad.  When colonists wanted to justify land grabbing, they defined their state as civilization and therefore good.  Some environmentalists, understandably opposing their greed, invert the language used to describe civilization from good to bad, and in the process define the non-civilized as good.
    This inverted language does nothing to stop atrocity against tribal cultures, and I speculate this is because people opposing environmentalists simply return ethical language to civilized as good, non-civilized as bad.  
    Suppose we say native Americans are nothing but superstitious and lazy barbarians.  When our opposition simply inverts our ethical language (superstitious to mystical, lazy to leisured, barbaric to harmonious with nature), we can simply refuse to agree with their interpretation of the stereotypes we and our opposition both hold about native Americans (as simple prelapsarians).
    All this back-and-forth does nothing to define or change fundamental ideas about civilization, nor does it allow the people spoken about to speak and contribute information that could change our assumptions about, for example, what a civilization is.  This not only is not inclusive, but it also does not help us clarify what "civilized" means.

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