28th November 2016 ¦ Adam Clay.
Violent crimes and massacres perpetrated by individuals or terrorist groups are frequently referred to as ‘barbaric’ or ‘savage’ (1). But what exactly is meant by that? If you turn to a dictionary, you will find that these words refer to ‘wild,’ ‘uncivilized,’ even ‘animal (non-human) behaviour.’ In other words, not only is it tempting to draw a line between ‘them’ and ‘us,’ but this line also usually deprives ‘them’ of their humanity – if not completely, certainly to a significant extent.
When using such terms and thinking this way, we are however displaying a paradoxical behaviour, as French anthropologist and ethnologist Claude Lévi-Strauss points out in Race and History, a short text which the UNESCO commissioned and published in 1952 as part of a series on racism. In Part Three entitled “The Ethnocentric Attitude,” he writes: “This attitude of mind, which excludes ‘savages’ (or any people one may choose to regard as savages) from human kind, is precisely the attitude most strikingly characteristic of those same savages” (RH, 11-12). Whenever we exclude certain human beings from what we consider as ‘human’ or ‘civilized,’ when we describe them in terms that associate them with animals or that deprive them of their humanity, we are paradoxically behaving exactly like the people we are wanting to consider ourselves different from.
Lévi-Strauss goes on to explain that this behaviour is present all over the globe: “many so-called primitive peoples describe themselves as ‘the men’ (or sometimes – though hardly more discreetly – as ‘the good’, ‘the excellent’, ‘the well-achieved’), thus implying that the other tribes, groups or villages have no part in the human virtues or even in human nature, but that their members are, at best ‘bad’, ‘wicked’, ‘ground-monkeys’, or ‘lousy eggs’” (RH, 12). Like such tribes, which they would have considered themselves superior to, the Nazis saw themselves as excellent and well-achieved all the while negating the humanity of people in concentration camps. Equally paradoxically, the Nazis were, in turn, considered barbaric and inhuman, especially after their camps were discovered. Such labels and the way of thinking they imply and convey are therefore traps and, as Lévi-Strauss puts it, “by refusing to consider as human those who seem to us to be the most “savage” or “barbarous” of their representatives, we merely adopt one of their own characteristic attitudes. The barbarian is, first and foremost, the man who believes in barbarism” (ibid.).
Only a counter-intuitive way of thinking, of speaking, and of reacting to events can therefore lead us out of paradoxical behaviours that constantly have us perpetuate what we are condemning. One might feel that it is counter-intuitive or that it contradicts ‘common sense’ because it goes against a widespread human tendency – one which, as Lévi-Strauss points out, is encountered just as much in suburban commuters as in individuals living in the Arctic or in hunter-gatherers in tropical rainforests. This uncommon move is simply the irrevocable affirmation of the complete and equal humanity of all people, including terrorists, violent criminals, and Nazis.
As an aside, we can wonder whether our dehumanising tendency might explain why zombie stories have been popular in Western fiction, film, and video games. Indeed, zombies provide us with the humans-that-aren’t-human that we tend to consider violent criminals or terrorists as, but this time with legitimate biological reasons for excluding them from humanity. Thanks to their ‘zombie’ status, we escape the paradox that Lévi-Strauss points out, so that we can go smash the heads of what looks like a human being all the while feeling beyond reproach (2).
It was at first difficult for some people to believe that the horrors of concentration camps had been a reality, and even more so that ordinary human beings had coldly organised and been responsible for these. Similarly, it can be unsettling to read books that give violent criminals a voice and tell their stories – such as Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood – because they force us to recognise as human that which we might spontaneously be inclined to exclude as fundamentally and essentially different from us. But wanting to simply eradicate ‘savage’ terrorists, ‘barbarous’ criminals or ‘inhuman’ Nazis (or wishing we could treat them like zombies) blindly perpetuates the attitude they display: the inability to see in the other a human being like oneself. Ceasing to believe in barbarism and no longer using the terms that reflect this way of thinking thus isn’t simply an idealistic stance, and it isn’t just a way of being intellectually coherent (rather than paradoxical). It also prevents the idea and belief in barbarism from spreading and from perpetuating itself – as well as racism, which pertains to it, as Lévi-Strauss argues. Conversely, we will not be able to prevent dehumanising tendencies from getting a foothold as long as we continue using human/inhuman or civilised/barbaric dichotomies that are part and parcel of these tendencies. Ceasing to believe in barbarism is therefore also a way of continuously asking ourselves what else in our societies, what other words, attitudes, and ways of thinking, indicate that we might still be negating the humanity of other people, be it a little or a lot, consciously or not, in our words, behaviours, or deeds.
With a focus on Heidegger and Emerson, Adam’s PhD looks at how poetry implies care. Beyond his interests in such areas where philosophy and literature intersect, Adam is an enthusiastic and qualified language teacher with three nationalities (French, English and Polish). He is also skilled in Aikido and enjoys photography.
Article edited by Alice De Galzain, Bradley Copper, and Chien-wei Pan.
(1) According to the following wikipedia page entitled “Reactions to the November 2015 Paris attacks,” 14 different countries or organisations used words “barbaric,” “barbarous,” “barbarity,” or “barbarism,” and 3 used the terms “savage” or “savagery:” https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reactions_to_the_November_2015_Paris_attacks
(2) Zombie scenarios can, in fact, be much more complex than this and can raise ethical issues too, particularly when a virus is made responsible for zombies. For instance, when zombies aren’t simply ‘the walking dead’ and when they can be cured, the question of how we see mental or physical illness is raised.
RH: Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Race and History. Paris: UNESCO, 1952. Print.