Saturday, February 20, 2016

Civilising Missions Miss Civility

Armenia was the first state in the world to adopt Christianity as its official state religion. From the 12th to the 17th century, there was a legendary land of Prester John. A Christian kingdom cut off from the Christians of the West by the Muslim world. The Portuguese believed they had discovered this legendary land in Ethiopia in the late 15th century. Christianity became an official Roman doctrine only under Constantine in 313. He set his capital up in Constantinople (originally the Greek colony Byzantium) which then became the stronghold of the Muslim Caliphate in 1453 as IstanbulFrom 661-1492, Spain was part of the Muslim World. Things change. Ideas change. Cultures change.


When we think of the world, the only way we can think of it is as we see it now. It is ridiculously difficult to think of a world with hardly any people and no concept of a nation. That is the normal state of affairs. The world population only hit 1 billion in about 1804. Most people were illiterate. Stories from elsewhere spread slowly. Any fighting they did was with people largely similar to themselves. And fighting leads to itchy feet and migration.

When colonies were set up by adventurous PhoeniciansGreeks or the slow migrations to America, Australia and the Polynesian Islands... it wasn't the same as us hoping on planes to the opposite side of the world. People got cut off from each other. They developed new solutions to new problems. We are a creative bunch. We grew apart.

We recently ran out of space to run from problems. We lost the escape hatch. Our various attempts at living in bigger groups connected through religion or nations are stabs at figuring it out. 

FeudalismMercantilism, Nationalism, Capitalism, Communism, Fascism, Self-Determination, Apartheid, and Global Citizenship are experimentsThe first written constitution in the world was the one put together in Medina. A group of tribes who had been warring invited Muhammad to become a mediating authority. The writing of the Quran as I have heard it explained seems similar to the writing of the constitution of America. One of the reasons the idea of separating Islam from the state doesn't make much sense to Muslims is that is what Islam is all about. Islam was founded as a way of creating a harmonious society for people of the book. Christianity was far more interested in Orthodoxy... the details of what you believed. Islam was more interested in Orthopraxy... the details of what you did. I believe we all believe in a more harmonious world, we just disagree on the how.


Why then was modern colonialism different? The thing I struggle to understand is how the dividing up of Africa, the Americas and Australia was compatible with the period of time I had known as the birth of Liberalism. A time that saw the start of the fight against slavery. A time that saw the birth of the belief in Natural Rights of all men. The fight against hereditary privilege, state religion, absolute monarchy and the divine right of kings. How did the birth of Liberalism happen to be at the same time that intellectualised racism using scientific language and justification arose? How was a man like Rhodes both a liberal and a poster boy white supremacist? The men at the forefront of drawing maps of large areas to conquer and subjugate changed the idea of colonies from small fortifications that gradually grew, to dominating the whole area. Genghis Kahn also dominated areas, but even that form of 'colonisation' seems different. The stories are of him seeming to try and learn from the best bits of the cultures he conquered (admittedly after the customary genocide).

Even Adam Smith, who seems very liberal for the time, still writes in tones that leave me feeling deeply uncomfortable despite his belief in the Natural Rights of man. The problem as I see it, lies in the idea of the 'Civilising Mission'. The belief that there are stages of development from barbarous to civilised. That there is one type of civilisation. It is deeply patronising and I recognise the emotional response in my abhorrence to being told what to do. I work well with people, but I wouldn't want to be my boss if I had to tell me what to do. I absolutely loathe involuntary hierarchy. Imposed respect. If I am working for you, it is a gift. A partnership. An exchange. Not an obligation. I can suck it up and follow instructions for a while, but eventually this Donkey will rise. Kick. Fight. The assumption in a civilising mission is that you are better. That the Civiliser has absolutely nothing to learn. That the boss is teaching. That the boss has nothing to learn. Rubbish. Always rubbish.

'The Civilising Mission'

The project of decolonisation is not one of stripping out one identity. Of changing who is in charge. The project of decolonisation is breaking down the idea of a hierarchy of ideas that are tied to one group of people. Of investing in a better society. No one has a monopoly on solutions. Science has moved on from the terrible ideas that institutionalised racism. Race is no longer a scientific concept. The lingering thing that is a deeply rooted concept, and the thing we all have to fight, is the idea of superiority.

Race as a Scientific Theory is Dead

Even the idea of 'Social Mobility' bothers me. It implies people need to be enabled to 'move up'. Development implies help is required to move from barbarism and savagery up to civilisation. It doesn't see the strength, power, energy, and social wealth that lies in communities that do things differently with less. What is needed is the killing of the idea of archy. We don't need instruction or permission. We need community. From the various options of constitutions that are being built up around the world, I think we can build institutions and laws that can build the parameters for how we agree to treat each other. That allow us to learn from each other rather than control each other.

'I have never met a man so ignorant that I couldn't learn something from him' Galileo Galilei

From that point we can build relationships of respect. We can listen to each other. We can learn from each other. We can build on the best bits. We can choose the flavours we like. People have always moved. Things have always changed. We are just learning to do it together as partners rather than imposing our ideas on each other.

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