Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Who, Really, is the Barbarian?

One final point. It is often said that racism is the result of a lack of education, that it must be defeated by civilization and progress. Nothing points to the silliness of that idea like the Holocaust. “Civilization" is irrelevant to racism. I don't even know what “civilization” means. When all your great theory, and awesome literature, and philosophy amounts to state bent on genocide, what is it worth?
Ta-Nehisi Coates Humanism and Holocaust History
What I find the most interesting about this point is that it is nothing new. While a lot of the modern conception of Conan the Barbarian is caught up in the portrayals of the character as a fur-underwear clad, hyper(psuedo)masculine, overmuscled, macho-guy, he-man, one of the basic themes that Robert E. Howard was exploring in many of the Conan stories (which were started in 1932) is that “civilized” people were routinely capable of much more egregious behavior than the barbarians that they so sneeringly looked down upon. And while we now find the concept of “the Noble Savage” to be quaint and fairly racist itself, it was often intended as a reproach of civilized men, who were often capable of committing atrocities beyond the wildest dreams of the “less advanced" peoples.

It's worthwhile to remember that the very term “Barbarian” was coined by the Greeks not because of the way that any particular groups of people behaved, but because the language they spoke - or failed to speak. According to a show on Western civilization I recall, the term “Barbarian” could easily be translated into modern English as “babbler” - as in one who didn't speak a real language, a.k.a., Greek. “Civilized” is a label that people began to give to themselves because they didn't know, or didn't want to know, that what set them apart from their fellows wasn't simply being ready, willing and able to conceptualize people who were unlike them as somehow scarcely beyond being animals. And like most self-applied labels, it is less an objective descriptor than it is a self-serving justification.
“Savages we call them, because their manners differ from ours, which we think the perfection of civility; they think the same of theirs.”
Benjamini Franklin Remarks Concerning the Savages of North America
It is easy for us to forget that labels are, first and foremost, words. And and while words may describe things, they are not the things themselves, and so the attributions that we give to words are independent of the traits of the things, or people, being described. Regardless of how invested we are in thinking otherwise.

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