Western Civilization is an Oxymoron

Not enough time to craft a perfect post (white cultural characteristic!), since I’m prepping for two different anti-racist facilitations this week and busy with the urgency (white cultural characteristic!) of the upcoming election. But I did want to kick off a discussion on White Civilization, as a precursor to the multi-part deep dive on White Supremacy Culture (Woo-hoo!?), which will come to this blog, slowly.

I just finished reading Michel Foucault’s Discipline & Punish, poorly. It’s not an easy or quick read; in fact, its 300 pages have taken me longer to read than any single book this year. There are definitely sections my eyes just scanned while my brain mulled over dinner or last night’s Seth Meyers. But what I did absorb was exceptional, particularly the relationship between behavioral discipline in the classroom, policing, and imprisonment and how they all sit under the umbrella of profit and status quo comfort.

It all brings me back to the question of Western Civilization, what that means, and how societal expectations are still set in accordance with that idea. Western Civilization has often been used as a synonym for Western Culture, but I’d like to keep them separate here. The practice of Western Culture is essentially the practice of White Supremacy, which rests on the beliefts that civilization is Western, and Western Civilization is fundamentally decent.

We get lulled into thinking of these ideas as essentially harmless and normal, so I’m gonna pull out the old 2-volume OED (yes, I am sad that I don’t own the 20-volume, thank you for asking) to help us track this idea back to its root. (Root words that is. Amirite? High five? Wait, is that even a pun?) According to our friends at Oxford, to civilize is to

Bring out of barbarism; bring to conformity with the standards of behaviour and the tastes of a highly developed society; enlighten; refine and educate.

early 17th century, unsurprisingly

The presumptions in this permeate almost every word. We were taught Western Civilization (or “Western Culture” depending on how old you are) with the assumption that European culture was highly developed, that our standards of behaviour were superior, if not God-given, that our methods of education and what we chose to teach were superior, that Western culture was more enlightened. (This deserves a David Foster Wallesque parenthetical: enlightening means either bringing light to, which assumes other cultures were living in darkness (and that light is better than darkness, and implicitly that whiteness is better than blackness); or giving spiritual knowledge to, which presumes other cultures had no spirituality or that theirs was illegitimate; and, the most ironic, mak[ing] free of prejudice and superstition. That definition emerged mid-17th century, when we had the ignorance and arrogance to assume that our philosophy and science were thus.) And of course we cannot ignore barbarism, which deserves its own paragraph.

Barbary, way back in the language Middle English, was the Island’s word for North Africa. (Did you know the Middle English period ended with the Black Death? I didn’t! Or I forgot, because the historical and cultural significance of plagues didn’t mean much to me until….) However, it was generalized to mean anything foreign, particularly non-Christian. Foreigners were barbarians. Soon thereafter (1500s), we put a more explicitly negative spin on it, just to be sure folks were getting the point, and expanded that definition to mean uncivilized or savage. (Crap. Now I have to drag out OED v2.) Savage comes from the words for woods and wild (like the Spanish selva), and was originally applied only to plants and animals. It was expanded to humans and imbued with the characteristics of primitive or uncouth behavior pretty quickly, but it looks like it wasn’t until the 16th century that the clearly undesirably and immoral application was made explicit: cruel, violent, ferocious. I do wonder whether there was a significant period of time between the different uses of the word; whether European invaders first labeled non-European folks as merely primitive (already an insult, implying that they had not developed as far as Europeans, rather than that they had developed in a different way) and then, as the native people tried to defend themselves from enslavement, rape, theft, cultural annihilation, decided that calling them cruel and violent would excuse the invaders’ behavior.

Basically, Western Civilization implies that wearing lots of clothes, writing things down, low melanin, and an insatiable drive for more of everything – land, resources, subjects – makes a culture superior, gracious, compassionate, and mild-tempered. Not doing those things makes a culture inferior, irrational, and brutal. Yet everything we know of the history of Western Civilization proves its brutality ad (truly) nauseum. If civilization is the practice of European colonization, imperialism, and capitalism, and the destruction, genocide, and slavery that made those systems possible, it’s about as uncivilized as you can get.

That’s all I’ve got for today, folks. Hang in there, and please vote asap if you’re not dead set on handing in your ballot on election day.

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