Is’civilized’ just imagined superiority?


Last week I was reading a book called Danubia, which is all about the Habsburg empire. Like most of the old empires, you won’t find it on a modern map anymore, but once upon a time is was the leading force in Europe and leaves its distinctive mark across Central Europe to this day.

In fact the Habsburgs didn’t really start to get left behind until the late colonial era. Where much of Europe had been having great fun being evil tyrants around the world, The Habsburg empire was busy fighting over the same territories it had been fighting over for centuries. The author of Danubia, Simon Winder, made a particularly insightful comment in regards to the colonial nations.

“These were societies which could resort to any level of violence in support of racial supremacy. Indeed, an interesting  global history could be written about the ferocity of a period which seems, very superficially, to be so ‘civilized‘.

Winder’s comment, and it must be noted that it was certainly a side comment rather than central to the book, got me thinking about that odd little word, ‘civilized’. This is a term rarely seen in a negative context, unless it happens to be collapsing. In that case, the said collapse is deemed a bad thing, so the civilization in question must once again be considered good up to its destruction.

At the very least one cannot escape the feeling of a dark side to the  notion of ‘civilized’ in Winder’s words. If the colonial powers were indeed the epitome of ‘civilized’, then being civilized must involve its fair share of killing, destruction and oppression. That’s certainly not what I imagine  goes through the mind of guests at ‘civilized’ parties and meetings.

To be civilized is itself relative to the existence of the ‘uncivilized’, whatever or whoever that may be. Watch any film or read any book with colonial Brits in and by some point you will be confronted with a haughty character accusing another, most likely a person of a colonized nation, of being thoroughly ‘uncivilized’. In the view of the accuser that is to say  rude, ignorant or perhaps even barbaric. What is really meant however is ‘different’ and in such a way to be inferior. At the heart of the word ‘civilized’ is a superiority complex.

Let’s take this back a step. ‘Civilized’ comes from ‘civilization’. The Oxford Dictionary gives a few different definitions, so I will take two which I feel express the implications of the words deeply.

“[mass noun] The stage of human social development and organization which is considered most advanced” 

or

The society, culture, and way of life of a particular area”

Let’s tackle the former first, as it fits best with our haughty British colonist. In labeling another society as uncivilized, a person raises themselves to an imagined pinnacle of being. You may justifiable ask, “But what if that person truly is a member of the greatest civilization on earth?”. I would argue that that has never existed. In Europe we often look to ancient Greece and Rome as the pinnacle of civilization, but numbering amongst  their contemporaries were Egyptians,  Han dynasty China and the Parthians. They were of course eventually brought down to their knees by ‘barbarian’ nations like the Visigoths. Who’s civilized now, Rome?

The fact is, the very idea of ‘civilized’ is highly fluid.

Let’s have a look now at the more egalitarian second definition. Given that civilization by this definition changes to the location, the very idea of ‘uncivilized’ becomes very difficult to fathom. Whether you live in a metropolis or a cave in Siberia you will take part in a form of civilization. With this definition, the concept of ‘uncivilised’ just doesn’t work.

So what do we really mean if we call ourselves civilized, or another uncivilized?

‘civilized’ is a word that claims a (usually imagined) superiority. It belittles those we feel disconnected from and the cultures we do not understand. It creates a framework for what is right or wrong in a world where these morals are largely constructs in the first place rather than  set in stone universal laws.

‘uncivilized’ denotes an other-ed person or society. The ‘uncivilized’ are by no means bad, just in the same way the ‘civilized’ are not necessarily good. Perhaps for the latter, the opposite is actually more likely. Two groups in conflict may well consider themselves to be civilized, whilst believing the other to be uncivilized. Sometimes that imagined belief alone is cause for conflict.

I’m going to jump right back to the Habsburg empire now just to clear something up. I may have accidentally given an impression of the former Central European power as being a beautifully egalitarian state in which its leaders abused no feelings of superiority. Sorry, but that’s not the case either. They just formed a lovely introduction to the colonial guys who have acted as my models of the dark side to being ‘civilized’.

The fact is, The Habsburg empire felt very superior for most of its history and got involved in a fair amount of conflict because of that. When you think about it, so have most societies throughout history. Sadly even today, the rising tide of nationalism sweeping the globe is fueled by feelings of superiority. The ‘civilized’ fear the ‘uncivilized’ and become alienated.

Perhaps one day, the shroud of imagined superiority will fall and then just maybe people will come to see being ‘civilized’ as a form of lowly bigotry instead.

 

 

 

 

The threat to journalism in the post-truth era


orginally posted at The Gryphon

It wouldn’t be an official Trump announcement without a light hint of outrage. This time it is journalists who had a lot to worry about. In his first press conference since becoming President-Elect – something he appears to have actively avoided until now – Trump blocked certain media groups from speaking. He accused them of cultivating ‘fake news’ and therefore should remain silent.

Trump’s stance is worrying. It shows a willingness to break unsaid rules and expectations regarding political transparency. It is also a direct attack on freedom of speech, that fundamental concept which the US claims to champion so vehemently.

Unfortunately there is popular fuel for his statement. ‘Fake news’ is becoming a norm, not an exception.  A woman in Germany, for example, reported a horrific attack carried out on a teenager by an asylum seeker. It came to light later that it never happened, but not before the fakes news had spread.

On the surface then, it may well look as if the President-Elect would be justified in denouncing fake news. The problem is that, to him, his critics are the creators of fake news. A word against Trump is not a truth. What is not ‘truth’ is now to be censored. If the alarm bells are not ringing yet, they should be.

When the President-Elect, soon to be one of the most powerful people in the world, can decide who can and cannot express their views, there is a distinct threat to freedom of the press. It is essential that all sides of debate are free to question, criticize and praise as they will, because it is fundamental to the transparency of a democracy. The powerful must be held to account and that becomes impossible when critical voices are silenced.

How does this case affect the rest of the world? It spreads. A meeting of the European parliament group ENF (Europe of Nations and Freedom) has already followed suit. The meeting, where right-populist leaders including Frauke Petry, Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders attended, likewise denied entry to left-leaning news sources. Trump has set a new precedent.

Transparency is on the way out and with it comes the rise of actual fake news. A new website has opened called ‘hoaxmap’ which plots all recently discovered fake news stories across Germany and Austria (not yet for the UK, but perhaps the website will expand in the future). The map is completely covered. Whatever you think of the media, one of its main roles theoretically is to keep the leaders of the world in check. It cannot enforce, but it can raise awareness and encourage action. If the journalistic sphere becomes inundated with fake news it will become impossible to do so. Journalists will face more false leads and a permanent threat of being blocked from important events. At the same time people will lose total trust in the press.

The protocol governing political transparency exists for a reason. That transparency is necessary for our society to function properly. If any change was ever needed, it would be towards a more transparent system; not change in which the looking glass slowly frosts over.

By Timothy Van Gardingen

Real Life


 

I wasn’t ready for it. All those years of education and now, I was about to plug in to Real Life.

It seemed as if everyone considered Real Life to be normal. Something nagged at me, screaming silently that it wasn’t so.

“Education over, I guess it’s now just Real Life from now on”, and endless varieties on that phrase had covered Facebook for weeks. After a while I even started to believe it myself; that all I had ever worked for was simply to plug in.

London’s main office for Real Life was directly next to King’s cross, to help workers living in the outreach connect quicker. Quicker, I say with gritted teeth and a particularly large metaphorical pinch of salt. No one seems to have asked why, with all the developments in work technology, why did we still rely on this outdated transport system?

We have to get to Real Life somehow, after all.

All offices were near train stations. Some thought it would be better if all the offices were merged with the head office at King’s cross, but imagine the havoc if the entire country’s population descended upon one station each morning? It’s bad enough spread across three.

A cold breeze pushed unforgiving across the grey platform. The crowd shifting towards the exit barriers payed it no heed, to them it was just another insignificant part of the daily commute. To me, it carried a sense of the forgotten. This place was new, yet I already knew something was missing.

I spotted a sudden burst of colour on one of the walls. “Remember 9 3/4” sprawled decade-old graffiti, the red paint lonely in its surrounding sea of grey. No idea what it meant. Most graffiti was just surreal, nonsensical phrases. Maybe it meant something in the past, but now each message seemed hopelessly lost. I don’t remember where I learned that word, graffiti. Most people don’t know it exists. Some are vaguely aware of the images and of the words that appeared from time to time splayed across walls. Most however didn’t even see it. As I watched the other workers scrawl like ants across the platform, it was clear none of them could even see the graffiti within a stone’s throw from them all.

A distraction. Today would be my first day of Real Life, and here I was staring at irrelevant markings from another, insignificant age. As cynical as I was of plugging in for the first time, it was a rite of passage in this most modern of ages and I couldn’t be seen as being distracted on my first day of joining the system.

Eventually I followed along with the crowds and got off platform 79. The crowd headed towards the signs marked ‘REAL LIFE – LONDON MAIN OFFICE’. It made sense to follow the pack.

 

It suddenly dawned on me that I had no idea what kind of work I would be expected to do at Real Life.  If I think back to when I was younger, my parents never talked much about work. Sometimes I might hear if they were forced to be plugged in for an hour longer, or if Reality shut down unexpectedly for part of the day, but that was about it. It suddenly struck me; I wasn’t sure what Reality even was.

 

The mindless flow of the crowd didn’t stop for my thoughts. I shook my head and managed to weave my way through the last few steps to the station’s exit. The doors led out to huge square dotted with lifts heading straight down into the ground. It was surprising to see such a wide open space considering how tight for space London was supposed to be, but it was clear from the lifts that the majority of the city was underground. The square was just a worker sorting pen: queues lined up solemnly at each lift as they filed out of King’s Cross. Anxiety filled me – I didn’t know where I needed to go. There was only one option. I followed.

 

Someone was watching. In a crowd in near-perfect unison, the slightest divergence is a scream in deafening silence. I kept walking, panicking that something terrible was about to happen. No one else seemed to have the slightest sense of fear on their stone-etched faces. Maybe I was just going mad, pressured by my new surroundings. This wasn’t the outreach anymore. The crowd marched on.

 

A red flash filled the square; a deafening crack followed. Terror now gripped my being; there wasn’t even as much as a blink to sense from the snaking bundle of bodies surrounding me. Was this normal? Were they all completely desensitized?

 

Suddenly red banners fell from the top of towering citadels enveloping the square and revealed a one word message as they draped downwards to the ground.

 

“DISCONNECT”.

 

I could just make out miniature shadows now, seemingly running along the citadels’ silhouette, releasing more banners as they went. The message of the mysterious figures surrounded the square. The message was for all the workers of Real Life to see, and yet it remained unseen. There was just me staring in fear and awe. The crowd waited for their lifts to arrive.

 

It became lucidly clear how much I stood out and promptly moved into a queue. I had no idea if I was going where I needed to go, safety is in the crowd. I still however felt watched. It must have be the shadows on the citadel. I stole one more look to the skyline. The figures were gone, but dull flashes could be seen from behind where they had been. One last banner had appeared in the short time that I had looked away:

 

“Real Life is not real life”

 

In a state of deep fear and confusion, I reached the doors of a lift down to the underbelly of London. I tried my best to forget the shadows and their banners. Maybe they never were even there – anxiety does strange things to a person.

 

The lift arrived. I guess it’s Real Life from now on.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rogue One and crisis in the Middle East: an Analysis


originally posted in The Gryphon 

The new addition to the Star Wars world, Rogue One, has painted a much darker picture than its predecessors. In doing so it has also accentuated possible existing themes related to conflict in the Middle East. The latest film goes a step further and can be seen as a damning critique not only of current events, but also of the western meddling of over a century.

The Star Wars world pitches the ‘Rebels’ against an evil ‘Empire’. If we look to history for the main causes for conflict in the Middle East, the topic of European colonialism – predominantly British – appears promptly. The empire’s leadership of course has always spoken with a British accent, although the British do seem to traditionally be evil in American films anyway. Their uniforms also without a doubt have a certain 20th century vibe; a time where the British Empire was at its strength.

The Rebel Alliance represents the resulting anger that eventually developed throughout the Middle East. Pressured by an unwelcome power from far away, each rebel is a lost soul fighting for what they or their family once knew.

Cassian Anor epitomises this resentment. A roguish character who has been embroiled in conflict since a child, he knows only war. This is the situation we now face in the Middle East. For some countries the fighting has continued for generations. A child brought up to adulthood through continuous conflict will grow to accept it as normality, no matter how tough or how much suffering and loss it inflicts.

Cassian’s speech to Jyn before the final assault of the film highlights the beliefs such a life creates. Cassian fights the good fight. He may kill and commit atrocities, but as long as he keeps telling himself that those actions are ‘good’, then he is in the right.

Here Cassian appears strikingly similar to the rebel defenders of Aleppo. On social media the defenders against Assad’s soldiers were seen to be fighting for a greater good. As the rebels broadcasted messages across the web, the sound of bullets and bombs echoed in the background. That the rebel forces in Aleppo carried out executions and launched missiles at civilians was forgotten.  The world’s sadness and pity appeared directed at fighters who weren’t as harmless as they appeared online rather than the helpless civilians left within the walls of the city.

The film would have already been made by the time of the siege of Aleppo, but what is important is the similarity of how events turned out between the Star Wars galaxy and our current reality. The rebels of Aleppo were painted as something close to martyrs and the dark side of their fight has been glazed over in favour of anti-Assad sentiment. Aleppo was no doubt a horrific moment of the conflict in the Middle East, but the reluctance to engage critically towards the rebel force’s story covers up implications that a Star Wars film helps to reveal.

Jyn Erso offers a very diferent and valuable perspective. She is the daughter of a defected Imperial scientist. Her childhood holds memories of the ‘enemy’ as normal life. She learns to hate the Empire, but not before spending years resigned to a life of apathy towards its dominion.

In the modern day, Jyn resembles the western internet community; a land where a million sad smileys are sent and nothing tangible is done. She also represents the colonial era British citizen. She is passively a player and beneficiary of the Empire’s exploitation but only comes to realise its dark side (excuse the pun) after her family becomes dissident. Jyn expresses in the film that if she accepts silently her pseudo-enslavement to the Empire, then a satisfactory existence is possible. This is the life of a citizen under a despotic dictatorship; the life many will have experienced in the countries carved from the Sykes-Picot agreement.

Though true that the film could be seen more generally as a critique of colonialism and imperialism, the more direct link to the Middle East comes from the film’s imagery. The main planet essentially shares its name with the city Jeddah in Saudi Arabia. Likewise the architecture and culture of the setting is synonymous with the Middle East, albeit sufficiently Sci-fi-ed.

Perhaps most importantly however is the Empire’s ground for colonising the planet. The empire is there to harvest kyber crystals, a fuel needed to power the Death Star’s planet-shattering capabilities. Fuel was the main point of contention in Middle Eastern colonialism too. The British Empire needed oil, and just like Darth Vader’s Empire, that fuel served first and foremost a military purpose: The British Navy.

British empiricism did however have its contemporary critics. Figures such as T.E Laurence and Gertrude Bell may be romanticised figures now but they were in some ways British dissenters. Galen Erso fills the roll of dissenter in Rogue One, choosing only to re-join the Empire in order to destroy it from within. This may not have been the intention of the above historical figures, but criticism of empirical action has certainly always been part of the conflict in the Middle East.

Finally remains the contentious issue of religion. There is an impossible to avoid link between European colonialism in the Middle East and Central Asia and the rise of radical Islam. In Rogue One, disregard for Jedha’s temple leads to the Monk character Chirrut Îmwe joining the fight against the empire. The message is clear: religion is not radical, but radicalised. A conquering land may claim to be able to bring peace to a people (the British claimed to do so in its justifications for owning India) but to disregard culture and belief can lead to violence.

Whether intentional or not, Rogue One gives a new perspective on the continuing conflicts in the Middle East. The most troubling element arising from a comparison between reality and the Star Wars galaxy is a question of perspective. Until Rogue One, the Star Wars series had a very clear distinction between who was good and who wasn’t. Somehow the blurring of those lines in Rogue One has highlighted the fact that the Empire is a past Europe and the Rebel alliance is a battered and bruised Middle East, tired of decades of exploitation and war. A question of who is ‘good’ and who is ‘bad’ is fruitless, but there remains a large amount of deficit responsibility in both the Star Wars galaxy and our own.