About

Cultures, societies, people, need a moral frame for major actions. That what they are doing is right, correct, sanctioned by the moral code that they adopted for themselves. The notion of a civilizing mission grew out of French and British colonialism. Colonialism was a different beast from the Genghis Khan type of conquer, plunder, return home, repeat. Colonialism, like slavery, required masterly residence amongst the natives for a more efficient extraction of economic value. The wealth and resources to be gained from empire may have been the primary motive, but no self-respecting colonialist wants to go back home and say to his children – I stole this from a native, son, and it will be yours one day. The moral code framing empire was Christian and the objective was, came to be, ostensibly, to save the brutes from their own barbarism. Rescuing peoples from themselves conferred rewards, it was not theft, but the just reward for doing God’s work.

Enlightenment arrived in Europe very soon after their empires and colonies. It would take a century or two for European enlightenment to establish itself and displace the bible and the church from their central role in European personal and cultural life, as the sole moral frame. The encounter with Africans, with Indians, with East Asians exposed Europe to wealth, to resources, and peoples mired in primitivity. They needed to be civilized, remade in the likeness of the colonizer. And who better to do it than missionaries, already imbued with the necessary impulse to save people. Even if they did not always need saving. Lord Macaulay’s Minute on Indian Education summarizes the enterprise, the civilizing mission.

The work of the missionaries rested on a crucial principle, empathy, that underpins civilizations of all stripes. It is not a coincidence that the life of Jesus and the Buddha both revolve around empathy, compassion. Natural human empathy harnessed to a religious text, empathy in the colonies channeled itself through the moral framework of the Christian church. The church’s missionaries were the glue that in many ways helped to hold the empire together, helped train the natives in European ways, a native bureaucracy reflecting the values and sensibilities of the master culture. Fast-forward a few centuries and we have the Peace Corps, channeling the same impulse, but within a different moral framework at a remove from religious doctrine;  one could say a born-again missionary. And later still, we have a caricature in the form of Sally Struthers on TV. The civilizing mission takes many shapes and forms – a symbiotic link that brings spiritual rewards to the one while deliverting economic rewards to the other.

Domination and subjugation rest on violence. The type and scale of violence required varies by context, but subjugation of whole nations or sections of a society necessarily involve gradated degrees of physical violence. To subjugate Afghanistan and Iraq, the US had few constraints on the violence it inflicted because the intent was not to live amongst the Afghans or Iraqis as occupiers. Napalm and carpet bombing, or marauding hordes, defeats the purpose if the objective is to subjugate a nation for free or cheap labor. The purpose is defeated if the violence kills off too many coolies in the colonies or slaves on the plantation.

Domination and subjugation rest on violence. And, unfortunately, the empathic impulse is too often implicated as the flip side of that same violence. The violence of colonial rule was softened by the work of the missionary. The “secularized” Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, etc. take the place of the missionary as a response to the violence of modern wars. It is, in a sense, an expression of our own “civilization” that we volunteer our time and/or money in times if distress, be it the violence of war or the violence of nature or economic violence. When we look in the mirror, we want to see a “civilized” person looking back. And when we see something lacking, we set out to change it, make a difference. Gandhi and Martin Luther King were not out to civilize Indians or blacks, and not out to explicitly civilize their respective colonial or racial master class, but incontrovertibly, both of them challenged that master class to look in the mirror and see for themselves if they measured up. Redirected teh civilizational gaze. The civilizing mission in a different form, from a position of subjugated weakness. I would argue that the early Christian missionaries of empire and the “missions” of Gandhi and King were all responding to the same impulse from within – empathy and compassion. What made Gandhi and King, and Mother Theresa, nobler is that they pursued objectives that raised the dignity of a people without lowering that of others.

But these enterprises were responses to visible forms of violence, state violence, the violence of control, of law and order and economic exploitation. Relatively easy to spot and respond to. Bring in a different kind of violence, non-physical violence, that suppresses the population and keeps it within certain bounds. And when some of them stray, break the bounds, old-fashioned physical violence whips the slaves back into their assigned quarters. The violence used to train and subjugate populations to be subservient and obedient is psychological violence. Slavery and racism, the subjection of “untouchables” by Hindus, misogyny – they all rest on the subject populations absorbing the idea and believing as fact their own inferiority and weakness.

Control through control of self-worth. The word “nigger” so encrusted with negativity that the person of whom it is used, had little chance to escape from its oppressive weight. A slave did not have and could not carve out a space from which to echo, through a time-warp, Patrick McGoohan: I’m not a nigger, I’m a free man. The many connotations of the word nigger, internalized, the idea of the polluting “untouchable”, internalized, is an existential shackle that binds the black person subserviently to the white, the “untouchables” to the Hindu upper castes. The feminist fight against “weaker sex”, “hysterical” and other disenfranchising words was and is an existential fight. The woman who believes she is of the weaker sex is, by the very self-definition she has accepted for herself, weaker than a man. She may have been coerced by the cultural brain-washing of centuries to accept the label “weaker sex” and all that it implies. “Nigger” and the “weaker sex” have many things in common. Not least the weakening of the self and sense of selfhood, that comes from accepting or being coerced to accept descriptions of the self whose sole function is the lowering of self-worth. Psychological violence. The civilizing mission of the British, with their single shelf of a European library outweighing millennia of Sanskrit and Arabic literature, eventually failed in India; possibly because Brahminical India had a head start of centuries in creating a subservient class through mechanisms similar to those the British were now using on them. And that the English second-born, seeking their own fortune, were using to such devastation in the Southern colonies.

The impulse to civilize – ourselves, others, both, is tied to our own self-conception. We wish to be more civilized than animals, to know that we are evolved in ways that definitively separate us from animals. We wish to be more civilized than is implied by the violence of our fellow beings, their violence drags us down.

Over the last many years I encountered abusive behavior (analyzed elsewhere on this site) that forced me to think about how emotional and psychological abuse, control that involves no physical violence, works. The society-wide use of psychological violence to make whole groups submissive is mirrored, more subtly, by psychological and emotional abuse between related individuals. The US Administration on Aging estimates that as much as 90% of elder abuse occurs at home with the abuser being a family member. Not an ill-trained, over-worked, or indifferent worker in a home for the aged, but a family member at home. As with child abuse when it first emerged from the silences of shame and taboo, people are for the most part reluctant to even acknowledge it exists in epidemic proportions around the globe, never mind getting involved. Which begs the question – how far from the cave have we come? Can we claim to have left the cave behind because we carry no physical club with which to bludgeon our fellow beings into submission? (That still happens on a massive scale, but for the most part through state violence. At the individual level, most societies have outlawed domestic violence.)  We have a handle on physical violence, but psychological and emotional violence? If we posit the civilizational journey as one of mastering our brutish nature though our empathy genes, the mirror genes, and yet there is no dearth of psychological violence targeting whole classes of people by societies and just as often by states, and ninety percent of elder abuse, psychological violence against our parents, occurs at home – how civilized are we really? In the very asking of that question also lies a civilizing mission.