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You will develop an essay from the following prompt:
Debates over the concept of 'civilization' still influence how we attach value to past and present societies and people. Evaluate the theories of civilization in the context of the societies examined in class. What do you think are the most important factors in determining the substance of civilization?What is Civilization?
"There are many humorous things in the world; among them, the white man's notion that he is less savage than the other savages" (Twain, 213). In this Mark Twain quote from, Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World, one can easily substitute the word savage for the concept of civilization. A solid, working definition of civilization is difficult because perspectives on the term vary greatly and allow room for individual interpretation. To better understand the complexity of defining civilization, we will investigate some limitations of the traditional definitions of the term, as well as its historical use as a tool to justify the domination of native peoples.
The word civilization comes from the ancient Latin word civis, which means "inhabitant of a city." Therefore, in its purest sense, civilization is the ability of humans to live together in social groupings. The modern definition of civilization, however, has expanded and come to mean: an advanced state of intellectual, cultural, and material development in human society, marked by progress in the arts and sciences, the extensive use of record-keeping, including writing, and the appearance of complex political and social institutions (Akers Chacón, 6 February 2012). Western European colonists created division throughout history by using their culturally biased interpretations of civilization to preserve and maintain long standing structures of inequality.
Take for example the Kumeyaay Indians of Baja California; based upon their lack of written language and apparent hunter-gatherer method of subsistence, Spanish settlers did not consider their 10,000 year old society to be civilized. What the Spanish did not realize, was that it was the Kumeyaay who had planted, burned and kept the land healthy, and thriving for thousands of years. They were witnessing a cultural landscape as well as a natural one, a land sculpted by nature, but perfected by man (Carrico, 21). Although the Kumeyaay had no written language, they passed along their culture, traditions and history through songs. Unfortunately, the Spaniards were unable to recognize the unique accomplishments of this substantial society. As anthropologist Edward Spicer said, "The Spanish view in respect to the process of civilizing was not that they were replacing existing functional institutions and cultural traits, but that they were giving the Indians things which the latter did not have" (Carrico, 23).
The theory of race was invented during the time of slavery to support systems of domination based on color lines which were also used to justify conquest and colonization (Akers Chacón, 6 February 2012). Native Americans at the time of conquest suffered immeasurable inhumanity under the pretense of becoming 'civilized.' Through the ethnocentric lens' of Spanish settlers, the native population were wild, untamed, barbarians, likened more to a colony of bees than a civil society; they believed them to be slaves by nature, inherently inferior (Patterson, 60). Taking advantage of this perceived inferiority, Spanish colonizers used temporary grants called encomiendas, to force local Indians into slave labor. Subordination and exploitation of this sort was legitimized by claims about the superiority of European civilization (Patterson, 72). The European tendency to characterize other civilizations as being underdeveloped has been with us since the sixteenth century.
The North American colonists of Plymouth survived the winter of 1620-21 thanks to the generous help of the Wampanoag Indians who supplied their food and then, despite hideous crimes against them, patiently taught the Pilgrims how to cultivate native crops to sustain themselves (Weatherford, 112). Such was the case with many other native communities who extended themselves to their foreign oppressors. Limited by the overly-defined, excessively rigid traditional definitions of civilization promoted by the European ruling class, the native people of North America did appear to be "uncivilized." What the American Indian's lacked in formal "civilization" however, they made up for with their capacity for humanity and legacy of rich agricultural traditions. They were also intuitive enough to realize that the Europeans had not come to trade, but to invade and possess Indian land (Takaki, 35).
When the word civilization was coined by supporters of the Enlightenment in the 1760's, the ruling classes of the world sought to install a civil society in which social relations would be based on the principals of market exchange (Patterson, 68). Developing this new society would require a human workforce comparable in size to the colonists newly acquired territories. In Baja and Alta California, native people such as the Kumeyaay were captured and held prisoner in Catholic mission systems, forced to labor for the Spanish encomienda. One Kumeyaay Indian describes his experience being captured while trying to escape from Mission San Miguel in Baja California, "...I found a way to escape; but I was tracked and they caught me like a fox; they seized me by lasso as on the first occasion, and carried me off to the mission torturing me on the road" (Carrico, 19). As Jean Jacques Rousseau noted in his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, the civilizing process had different implications for the lower and the ruling classes (Patterson, 70).
North American Indians were considered primitive by European colonists, but were often responsible for providing their oppressors with the skill sets necessary to survive in their new territories. Ironically, Spanish colonists and missionaries charged native people with being barbarians while simultaneously using "civilization" as justification for kidnap, torture, imprisonment and exploitation. The European settler's socio-cultural construction of race and national identity occurred within the economic context of competition over land (Takaki, 39). Surely, native people who suffered the inhumanity of colonization would not support the opinion that their European colonists were "civilized." There have always been alternative understandings of the meaning of civilization because the world is seen differently from each rung of the social hierarchies (Patterson, 58). When attempting to determine the substance of civilization, one must remember that perspectives on the term vary greatly and allow room for individual interpretation.