of no fixed subtitle
March 11, 2005
Western Civilisation a Contradiction in Terms
18 years ago
Asked by a journalist what he thought about Western Civilisation, Gandhi replied, "I think it would be a good idea." The worst thing is that I can't even bring myself to be surprised any more by stories like this.
Another Abu Ghraib story, and you somehow extrapolate that to discount the whole of Western civilisation?
It's the "another" part that's the problem.
you somehow extrapolate that to discount the whole of Western civilisation?
Or is it a "contradiction in terms" because this is happening in the middle
Another Abu Ghraib story, and you somehow extrapolate that to discount the whole of Western civilisation?
I know I wouldn't carry out the sadistic acts we have heard about in recent years, but I'm not sure that you wouldn't, anymore. So yeah, "the whole of Western civilisation".
Come on - this is surely right in line with one strong strand in the traditons of Western Civilisation. We're hardly strangers to cruelty and death. Rome was not built by delicate diplomacy and the Church didn't spread its message by good works and faith alone. But civilisation it was for whatever that's worth.
Yeah, I suppose you're right. But we have kidded ourselves that we have learned from the inhumanity of our forefathers. Better to be done with civilisation, I say. At least the Barbari weren't deluded.
Yeah, let's go back to the golden days of yesteryear, when we believed that animals were gods, or that women were pack mules. Those were the days my lad. We'd get up in the morning, throw someone's daughter into the volcano/sea/over the cliff, to ensure we had a good day and the gods were appeased. Then off to beat our slaves, to get them in the mood to work in the fields.
Civilisation as a group thing seems to work in the west, but individuals seem to devolve pretty quickly. Wait, here we go:
Monkeyfilter: Better to be done with civilisation, I say. MonkeyFilter: Off to beat our slaves, to get them in the mood to work in the fields.
zedcaster - of course we don't do those things anymore. We are endlessly inventive - we have new ways of being cruel and inhumane to our fellow human beings. Mostly, as someone who studies Western Civilization for a living, I just wish it would get over itself. Sure, it's top dog now, but who knows what will come in a few hundred years. Just a few hundred years ago, Eastern Civilization made Western look like a mewling dirty pup who didn't even know how to clean up it's own doodoo (literally), if one measures by such things as technology and cleanliness of cities. But is technology really the measure of a civilization? What about morality? Western civilization is terrific at granting individual rights, pretty crappy at taking care of the elderly and needy, let alone the environment. It's rapidly raping the planet and sucking most of its resources dry, like a huge, glistening, ravenous slimebeast from an anime nightmare which has glommed onto Europe and North America but doesn't mind eating the rest. If we have no habitable planet in a century, who will be quoting Locke then? It also happens to be the one I'm stuck in, which is why I'm interested in understanding it. But there is no end to history, there is no civilization will prove itself stronger/better/more moral/more stylin'/whatever - because they will just keep jostling each other for top place. Unless they start to merge - already they all influence each other, just like Arabic chemistry fed into European science to go back to the Middle East as Western science. Then probably we'll bump into some alien race we can feel superior to until they whup us bad. Who's on top will keep changing, though I can probably guarentee it won't be me, or anyone I especially like. In three hundred years, who knows but that we're talking about the ineffable qualities of the New Zealand civilization that allowed them to conquer the world with their soft attack of over the top epic films and sour fruit, and trying to figure out why it was that the U.S. never developed the epic film to its full potential.
At the same time, I would like to note that there is no civilization on the planet, no culture of any kind, who are "strangers to cruelty and death". It is the one defining fact of the species. Every time I think we have discovered all of the ways to be nasty to each other, humanity shows me that I have way too litle imagination. Sorry if this is all bitter, but I am very tired of the "Western Civilization sucks" - "Western Civilization is better than a handjob from God" debate. It just
, and we have to live with it, so we might as well try to improve it. That said, maybe we could work on that before heading off to interfeer in the rest of the world, motes and beams and eyes and all that.
Another pet peeve of mine, if we're counting these things, is appeals to authority such as "as someone who studies Western Civilization for a living". Nothing personal, jb, but that way of attracting attention gets a scowl from me.
but I am very tired of the "Western Civilization sucks" - "Western Civilization is better than a handjob from God" debate. It just is, and we have to live with it, so we might as well try to improve it.
How exactly can we improve it if we aren't allowed to discuss its relative merits? Random change?
Oh stop it, skrik, if we are talking about software then someone who writes computer programs for a living will likely have something important to say, same with history and society and whatever else one might be discussing that is in any way complex. If you disagree with jb, take apart his argument and mak him look even more foolish for claiming familiarity (which isn't the same thing as authority), but don't white about him sounding haughty if he's actually making sense.
(jb = she)
- would you prefer me to lie? I get paid to study Western Civilization. I also get paid to teach Chinese Civilization (at least the last 300 years of it), but I am far less competent at that. (You take your teaching assignment as they come). Actually, I didn't bring it up so much as authority, but to point out that I don't dislike it. It's my civilization - how can I hate what has shaped me without hating myself? I think European History is fascinating, and of course incredibly important to understanding our contemporary Western society. But it's my job to stay objective, to neither be rooting for or against it. If history were written that way - well, it would be damned annoying and pretty useless. And as a European historian, and a British historian, I get especially annoyed at the neo-Liberal cheering section because they are messing up my front yard.
- I don't really know. If I knew, I would be much happier. And carry more picket signs. That was just me trying to not be totally pessimistic. I guess, we just have to recognise that to a small degree we do have an influence in what our civilization values, and try to act. But I have no idea how (and I don't see collective action going anywhere but annoying). Though I wonder - if we change what our civilization values radically, is it still the same civilization? Is the civilization of Luther (patriarchal, communal, deeply religious) really the same as that which is praised by neo-Liberals (suposedly egaltarian, individualistic, secular)?
Space Coyote: What argument is there in anything jb wrote to take apart. Looks like another "I hate my own culture diatribe" to me. Other than, prehaps, the point suggesting that only the evil shibboleth of Western Civilisation is responsible for environmental problems. Anyone who know anything about current affairs, or environmental history, would know that's a crock of shit, so it's barely worth rebutting.
would you prefer me to lie?
Monkeybashi forbid! I would prefer your arguments to speak for themselves. The self-loathing of Western civilisation/ culture is something that you are, as a student of history, required to take into account. If you don't, you're not studying things the way they really are. You may, of course, dislike the critique (of Western society), but that is a personal opinion, not a professional one.
, I was saying I dislike the whole "western civilization is the best" / "western civilization is the worst" debate. I think it's a silly thing. If I were studying the twentieth century (which I do not), then yes, I would want to take into account the simultaneous self-loathing and self-congratulation of Western Civilization in our times. But I don't, and that's one of the main reasons. I can't stand the "culture wars" either - they may me wish I were back in Canada.
, I'm sorry you did not believe the bit about how I do not hate my culture. I can have serious questions about some of its values, but it has made me who I am. If I hated European history, I wouldn't have a pile of books on the Reformation beside me right now; I am fascinated by Europe, and would love to live there one day. I do wish to change certain things about my culture, good things I think we can learn from our own past without bringing back that which we do not see as good. I respect the communalism and strong neighbourly bonds of pre-modern Europe, while having no desire to replicate its heirarchy. Is one possible without the other? I don't know - it may not be. The environmental point is perhaps a weak one - I was belying my own Western centrism. One of my interests in my research is around the interaction between environment and economy that has led to the current situation in western society. You are right to point out that just about all other civilizations have similar problems with using up environmental resources, though perhaps you could have found a less rude way to express it. I was actually thinking of the current justifications for resources overuse, which are predicated on ideas specifically developed in recent Western Civilization (lazzez faire, the necessity of improvement), ideas which are themselves often lauded by those who laud Western Civilization without thinking of the potential drawbacks. But it is very likely these ideas are not causes if the same phenomena appear over and over again in different cultures/civilizations. Perhaps it is just inevitable for we humans to eat ourselves out of house and home. Though it's funny that you think "Anyone who know anything about current affairs, or environmental history, would know that's a crock of shit, so it's barely worth rebutting," considering that there has been an important book written on this by an environmental historian, which other environmental historians very much disagreed with, but still thought was worthy enough to write rebuttals of (I'm sorry I have no titles for you, but I cannot find the historiography essay on environmental history that I just read the other day). It is actually a serious field of debate - if you have something to contribute on environmental attitude and its relationship to behaviour in other civilizations, I would be very happy to learn.
Perhaps a non-civilisation-specific banana break is in order.
Why don't we all join in a salute to the greatest hemisphere on earth, the Western Hemisphere! The dancingest hemisphere of all!
Yes. A kid was held prisoner (nowhere does it say he was tortured in any way) This is by far the worst thing that has ever happened. We had a good run, but lets face it, it's over. Take down the Eifel Tower, bulldoze the Colisuem, burn the Magna Carta and the Consitution, torch every book ever written, and lets go back to sqautting in ditches poking berries up our noses ASAP. It's only right.
Hey, those Eastern Hemisphere bastards want to rumble, I'm ready.
*combs extra pomade in hair, readies switchblade, practices dance moves*
drjimmy: yes! I intended to ask Skrik what those of us who live in the west would be left with if we got rid of western civilization, but now I don't have to.
Maybe we could build a world civilization?
Ever the optimist, aren't you, jb?
Not usually, unfortunately, BlueHorse. I wish I were - as I mentioned above, if I thought I had a good handle on answers, I would have more picket signs and be much happier.
Wow, so the outrage over Abu Ghraib is officially over, huh? Now no matter what they do, even with kids, it just gets a shrug here because it wasn't the holocaust? I think the argument being advacned was that since we're over there to bring Democracy and Western Civilization Values™, and this is what we're doing, it's kinda overpriced, innit?
Democracy and Western Civilization Values on the ground, especially in wartime? Sure, they probably should have sent the kid to Disneyland instead, but, it being a war, shit gets mixed up. I don't think they should have held an eleven-year-old; however holding that
; ie. Western Civilization; and the
of wartime detention of suspected enemy combatants (be they aged 32 or 11) are on an even footing is a weak premise by which to disparage Western Civilization. And before we get to, "yeah but how a civilization functions under times of distress should be its measure", I think Western Civilization fails no more, nor less than any other. War blows for everyone, and theory has stopped neither spears, swords, battle axes, arrows, daggers, mustard gas, landmines, machetes, bullets or suicide bombers.