Don’t talk about “civilisation”

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The term “civilisation” is often invoked in modern political conversations as a device to wilfully exclude and deny the legitimacy of shared belonging (Cosmopolis column published in the Hindu Business Line, 15 July, 2017)

Last week, Donald Trump — the most unlikely advocate for any form of civilisation — stood before a right-wing crowd in Poland and called for the defence of Western civilisation. “The fundamental question of our time,” he said, “is whether the West has the will to survive… Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilisation in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?”

Never mind whether the West is actually in such dire peril (it so happens that I think it’ll be fine). Let’s try to address another problem raised by his speech. What on earth is Western civilisation? It’s a question that I’ve never found a satisfactory answer to, even though I’ve lived the vast majority of my life in either Europe or the US.

I certainly don’t think Trump can say what Western civilisation is. By his own admission, he has never willingly read books apart from his own (and since those were ghostwritten, it’s unclear if he’s even done that). Moreover, he appears disgruntled by the very liberal values and institutions that many claim define the West: freedom of the press, pluralism, an independent judiciary, and so on.

Mahatma Gandhi famously quipped when asked what he thought of Western civilisation, “I think it would be a good idea.” The implication, of course, was that there was nothing particularly civilised about the way the British ruled India. The word civilisation has always had that ambiguity, at once denoting a specific culture and a general level of cultivation. For their part, Gandhi and other freedom fighters were invested in resuscitating something called “Indian civilisation” and tapping its supposed spiritual and ethical resources in the moral struggle against British rule.

But civilisation is a deliberately vague term. We often use it when we have only the foggiest idea of what we are talking about. Think, for instance, of the Indus Valley civilisation. Were those ancient cities that sprung up along the Indus and its tributaries part of a kingdom, an empire, a collection of city-states, a single culture, or a number of cultures? We don’t know, we probably have no way of knowing, so we play it safe and slap on the term “civilisation.” It provides a flimsy roof to shelter a number of things that may be connected.

Chances are that when somebody uses the term “Western civilisation,” it is either as a rhetorical flourish or out of misguided conviction. What content can there be in Western civilisation? It isn’t about Christendom; many non-Christians have long lived in Europe and its eventual extensions in North America, while many Christians live outside the West.

It can’t just be about liberalism, democracy, and their associated values, because the West has just as ably given us imperialism, slavery, genocide, Inquisition, and the most awful experiments in totalitarianism.

The conservative philosopher Roger Scruton once cheekily suggested that Western life was defined by the sociability of drinking alcohol in public. But there are plenty of other places in the world where societies coalesce around getting drunk. Scruton, like so many other believers in the coherence of Western civilisation or Western values, was merely trying to find a way to position his own sense of identity against that of Muslims and Islam writ large.

Perhaps the clearest way that anybody experiences something called Western civilisation is in the classroom. Here, generations of students have read a certain kind of canon of literature, history and philosophy, tracing a tenuous path from Plato to NATO. That hoary tradition of education allowed men in rainy northern Europe to imagine their seemingly obvious kinship with ancient Greece and Rome, a Mediterranean world that would have looked up at the barbaric north and shuddered.

But that canon of dead, white (mostly) men is not something immutable. It was made from narrow inclusion and wilful exclusion. Any understanding of the Renaissance in southern Europe, for example, is impoverished without recognising the contributions of centuries of Muslim learning. In its artistic, scientific, theological, and political life, Europe was always shot through with the currents of other places. It has always been rather hard to track where the West begins and ends, or even where it begins to begin.

In late 18th-century Bengal, as part of his normal aristocratic education, the great Bengali reformer Ram Mohan Roy read Plato not in English, Greek or Latin (all languages that he would later learn), but in Persian. Students sitting in Cambridge or Yale might read the Greek philosopher as part of the “Western canon”. Roy in Murshidabad read Plato as an integral figure in a 1,000-year-old tradition of Islamic and Persian scholarship.

This is not to say that Plato is somehow intrinsically Persian, but rather that all our notions of cultural canons — and therefore our sense of continuous civilisation — are constructed. I’m not particularly convinced by the coherence of Indian “civilisation,” either. The history of the world is one of connection, mingling, and cultural impurity.

Any time we see “civilisation” invoked in modern political conversations, I would urge huge caution. People want to identify with a civilisation (beyond a city, region or nation) because it allows you to draw lines not just in space, but through time. People only invoke their membership to a civilisation when they want to deny others the legitimacy of shared belonging. “Civilisation” turns the past into a cudgel with which you can bash the present.

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