Why has the idea of civilisation become a battle between the West and the rest?

“Behind the idea of civilisation we can see the emergence of a new historical process of domination of the Other.”

The process of “civilising” was not only a manner of adopting new modes of behaving, but also a mode of accepting and internalising security and order. The backdrop for this was, once again, the imposition of a standard of “civilisation” on those who were considered “uncivilised’. This standard of “civilisation” was conceived by referring to what was accepted as norms of civility.

“Just as civilisé was often used synonymously with words like cultivé, poli, or policé to designate certain social manners, so civilisation and police were often used synonymously in the same way to designate a certain kind of order.” As Foucault shows us in his work, this process of “polishing’, “disciplining” and “civilising” was considered a principle of thermodynamics of punishment with no humanitarian goals. As a result, the modern crusade for civility generated a range of mechanisms that shaped human subjectivity, but also “extended it to the international realm, becoming the ordering category of international power”.

This ordering implied a process of pacifying and taming rather than peacemaking and interconnecting. Thus, central to the idea of peacemaking at home and abroad was the defeat and destruction of the otherness of the Other. In other words, behind the idea of civilisation we can see the emergence of a new historical process of domination of the Other.

Although the concept of civility takes us back to the idea of refinement, there is no doubt that the reference here is the idea of “order” more than “education”.

“Likewise, in a text such as Adam Ferguson’s Principles of Moral and Political Science, civilisation connotes the basic ideas associated with police: ‘peace and good order’, ‘security of the person and property’, ‘good order and justice’.”

What then of the problems of progress? In truth, as Robert Nisbet argues, “From at least the early nineteenth century until a few decades ago, belief in the progress of mankind, with Western civilisation in the vanguard, was virtually a universal religion on both sides of the Atlantic.” As such, civilisation becomes a central element in the universal project of bringing “civility” to the “uncivil”. The civilising crusade of the modern world in the name of progress is a reflection of the self-consciousness and self-pride of the Western world in its own sense of “civility”.

But as Starobinski says, “the moment that Western civilisation becomes aware of itself reflectively, it sees itself as one civilisation among others. Having achieved self-consciousness, civilisation immediately discovers civilisations.”

Throughout their close relation with the idea of progress, the concepts of civilisation and civility were closely entwined with the evolution of Western civilisation, obscuring any other culture or tradition of thought.

The idea of civilisation, then, is widely accepted to be a product of nineteenth-century developments in the concept of civilisation and the widening of the net of international law. There was widespread agreement that “the general principles of law” were those “recognised by civilised nations”, with implicit or explicit assumptions about the rule of law, respect for fundamental liberties including the right to property, and the possibility of diplomatic exchange and communication. Within this, the distinction between “civilised” and “uncivilised” was simply assumed to be acceptable.

While sceptics may see this imperial truth as a conspiracy theory against the West, those who believe that the essence of humanity is dispersed in the form of cultures and traditions do not locate the ideal of humankind in only one civilisation. As Brett Bowden remarks in his book, Empire of Civilisation: The Evolution of an Imperial Idea:

“Ultimately, the endeavour to expand the empire of civilisation based largely on uniquely Western values and institutions via the extension of some form of imperial-like civilising missions to the unenlightened reaches of our world is doomed to fail, in no small part because of the violence generated by the civilised centre in the name of civilisation.”

As a result, the major driving force behind the ideal of civilising others and the idea of progress has been, the centuries, an ideal of uniformisation of mankind through violence.

As the past six hundred-plus years of Western history have demonstrated, the sacralisation of the idea of civilisation and its enforcement beyond the borders of the West was accompanied by a decivilising zeal which dismissed other perspectives and visions of the world through conquest and domination. As a result, the project of unique civilisation has brought us to its opposite: a decivilising society, where violence, fear and the logic of bellicose truth have the last word.

Today, unfortunately, we are closer to a one-dimensional idea of civilisation, expressed in decivilising terms, rather than to a genuine inter-civilisational humanity with a shared understanding. The violent fabrication of universal civilisation, therefore, takes us away from the original idea of civilisation as empathy, dialogue and coexistence among human beings.

The unjustifiable sense of superiority of the West against the Rest has many violent and decivilising consequences that must be taken into account.

As we engage in this process of decivilisation, exemplified by the first two decades of our century through subsequent acts of violence, war and terrorism since that fateful day of 9/11, we would do well to keep in mind that

“...while the project of universal civilisation is unlikely to reach the destination it seeks, serious damage can be done by continuing to pursue this goal at any cost, as we are now seeing.... The extent of what is at stake cannot be understated or underemphasised; it is nothing less than the continued suppression of ways of life that are thought of as belonging to another time, which ultimately results in the further diminution of social, political, legal, economic, and most importantly, cultural pluralism.”

The mode of existence that modern civilisation foists on us today has ironically ended up creating a decivilising society which has caused much harm to other modes of living and thinking, much of it under the pretext of civilisation and progress. Nothing indicates that these ideas will provide us a better future.

The thoughtlessness and meaninglessness manifested by this process, the rise of conformism and complacency in contemporary societies, along with the power and efficiency of “universal civilisation”, constrain people from understanding and confronting the irrational and non-empathic elements of the decivilising society. This is the setting which humanity finds itself in today.

Excerpted with permission from The Decline of Civilization: Why We Need to Return to Gandhi and Tagore, Ramin Jahanbegloo, foreword by Romila Thapar, Aleph Book Company.

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