Saturday, 19 February 2011


Civilizations that used the term “Barbarian” were classical Greece and China during the Han dynasty. The Greek use of the term was a reference to language. Romans used the same term (Barbarus from the Greek Barbaros) was then used to label the hoards of Germanic tribes that eventually penetrated the Roman Empire.That the Roman army was far more ruthless than the 'savage Barbarians' who learned some of the tricks of warfare from the Romans is not often emphasized. 

Byzantines called the tribes of the steppes barbarian, but again were the civilized Byzantines any less belligerent? The Barbarian West, as J. M. Wallace-Hadrill characterized it, was the era from the 3rd century invasions until the Carolingian dynasty (especially under Charlemagne) that strengthened and institutionalized Christendom by massively killing Barbarians who refused to accept his rule and his Christian faith. 

The term barbarian that has become synonymous with “uncivilized behavior” is ethnocentric, given that the white Europeans dismissed native people they invaded, colonized, and exploited for their natural resources and labor. For some people, multiculturalism and the institutional abuses it invited in society is barbarian indeed. For others the tyranny of white Anglo-Saxon hegemony over minority populations is barbarian. For some, 'barbarian' is a term reserved for child molesters, serial killers, and 'terrorists'. Still for others, no individual or small group action can possibly account for the brutality and inhumanity of institutionalized force that the state that has at its disposal the capabilities - police and military -  to inflict mass destruction.

Human quest for justice and fairness is and always has been subjective, given that both the critic of multiculturalism and the critic of Anglo-Saxon hegemony as they existed in specific time and place in history invoke moral absolutes to support their respective positions. Besides the moral absolutes that may give the impression of clarity of respective positions, the fact is that language and intentionality behind it make relativism even more important vehicle to understanding the human mind. 

We should take a lesson from early 20th-century philosopher of language Ludwig Wittgenstein, who spent his life trying to understand and explain the relationship between language and reality. “Language is a part of our organism and no less complicated than it,” he wrote, trying to make sense of language as expression of reality while denying absolutes. Early in life he maintained that “the limits of language entail limits of my world.” He argued that aesthetic and ethical expressions transcend what is in the mind. 

In his later years in England, influenced by Edmund Husserl’s Phenomenology, Wittgenstein drifted from his earlier work where he had argued that a properly logical language deals with what is true and that the world consists entirely of facts, toward logical positivism and closer to Existentialism. Arguing that the nature of culture and human experience play a role in conceptual consciousness, Wittgenstein was influenced by Arthur Schopenhauer and existentialism. In the mechanical and apathetic world of the early 21st century, if the writer/speaker is aware of his/her own “cultural and human experience” and accepts relativism as a given, language can be communicated with that intention with the hope of received accordingly. 

To operate under the assumption of absolutes or more accurately in the language of “moral absolutes” where we categorically demonize the other while relegating our own actions to the realm of moral necessity, necessarily invites confrontation if not a cycle of violence. The “horrifically evil acts” of 9/11 constitute “barbarism” and all those with no affinity for the cause of the perpetrators can state so categorically without any moral ambiguity.

By the same criteria, however, the deaths of hundreds of thousands of casualties and many millions displaced in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan fall in the same category of moral absolutism, or do they depending on our ideological, political, religious, ethnic, racial, social and/or cultural point of view? If we have an affinity to the Judeo-Christian West, we relegate the casualties of war to the realm of “necessary collateral damage” and we conveniently invoke “moral exceptionalism.” Taking this concept a step further, 'human exceptionalism' has allowed people in the past and today to exploit all other species and nature in destructive forms and not necessarily creative endeavors.

Wittgenstein’s logical positivism and “language intentionality” are significant in so far as they break down the veneer of empirical experiences as perceived by words - private experiences communicated through language that is public. Language is often used as “doxography”–celebrating or honoring the views of others, especially the establishment, that plays a dominant role in conditioning the mind. Resorting to doxography to describe and analyze empirical events with the intention to label, stigmatize, dehumanize and/or demonize the opponent or enemy in morally absolute terms is often rooted in opportunism, and rarely in idealism.

Refusing to accept for ourselves the same morally absolute criteria that we (doxographically) apply to the opponent or enemy therefore, is a manifestation of a value system rooted in lack of tolerance and the need to impose hegemony. Herein rests both moral exceptionalism and human exceptionalism that allows people - politicians to journalists - to justify their exceptional or unique ideology while demonizing the other. This is especially useful as an indoctrination tool when countries are engaged in conflict whether it is a form of a 'Cold War' at the diplomatic, commercial, military level, etc, or actual war glorified in mass commercial culture.

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