A few days ago, I retweeted this from a fellow Mizzou journalist (ignore the fact that he’s a national correspondent a the L.A. Times and I’m a first-semester grad student–we’re essentially colleagues):
Oh boy, this got people talking. “As if they have to be mutually exclusive” responded one Twitterer. “Tech savvy barbarians are still barbarians,” said another. One girl asked, “I’m just curious, what would you deem ‘barbaric’? if beheading with a knife isn’t such an act.”
I’ve got a bit of a long-winded answer to that, Ms. @bileej897.* Here’s the thing about words: they don’t exist as entities by themselves. They’ve got no “true meaning” separate from interpretation. I’m going to take a page–well, a passage–out of linguist S.I. Hayakawa’s book Language, Thought, and Action on how dictionaries are written. It’s
a task of one’s recording, to the best of one’s ability, what various words have meant to authors in the distant or immediate past. The writer of a dictionary is a historian, not a lawgiver. (original emphasis)
So let’s imagine that we are dictionary writers, and we’ve gotten through our As. “Authentic” was difficult to define, but we finally did it, and after celebrating with champagne and balloons, it’s time to define “barbarian.” First question we need to ask: how has this word been used in the past?
We start with the Bible. In Corinthians, we find a passage, “I would they were Barbarians..not Romans.” Okay, so a barbarian is anyone who’s not Roman. …We look at each other skeptically. Are you and I Romans? No. Does that mean we’re barbarians? Of course not! We smile and tell our friend, “Wow, orange is definitely your color!” when that tangerine dress looks hideous on her. A barbarian would never have such great manners. But, hey. This version of the Bible was published in 1607, and it’s dealing with a historical time period thousands of years before. Phew. Moving on.
If we’re not going with the Bible, why not make a 180 degree turn and take a look at Darwin. How did he use the word barbarian in An Origin of Species, published in 1869? “Geologists believe that barbarian man existed at an enormously remote period.” Looks like he’s talking about people who have yet to discover reading, tacos, Breaking Bad: you know, uncivilized.
And let’s please not forget that Joseph Conrad text, a staple of every English major’s education, Heart of Darkness (1899). How does the British Charles Marlow describe the so-called barbarians he sees in Africa?
It was unearthly, and the men were—No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it—the suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity—like yours—the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly.
So we’ve discovered that the word “barbarian” has come to mean a wild, savage person–no, not even a person, an animal who seems human-like. Colonialism has framed it this way, that ol’ classic Us vs. Them, Domestic vs. Foreign, or in this case, Civilized vs. Barbarians. When Europeans viewed Africans, Arabs and Asians as barbarians, it became much easier to take over their livelihoods and artificially split up their lands. It became the Europeans’ moral duty to tame the beasts and evangelize.
You might protest: “No, no, not all foreigners are barbarians. You’re talking 100 years ago, but we know better now! Barbarians are people who are cruel, who are murderers.”
But even those connotations come out of a history of colonialism, dehumanizing the Other. We cannot separate words from their historical contexts. With regard to Matt’s tweet, it’s not simply that the words are “old.” They are vestiges from the violent language of imperialism.
This response gets it right:
Language has the ability to flatten people. If we consider ISIS monsters, barbarians, savages, demons, we risk losing any understanding behind their motivations. I’m not in any way defending ISIS. The group is responsible some of the most horrific murders and ethnic cleansing in memory, not to mention the severe subjugation of women among other atrocious acts. They need to be stopped, somehow.
But calling ISIS barbarians isn’t going explain their extreme religious devotion which has caused them to force ethnic minorities to choose to convert or suffer beheading. Calling them monsters can’t explain the cyclical oppressed-becomes-oppressor pattern that history can’t seem to shake. Indeed, using the language of imperialism to define the Islamic State certainly won’t stop them from becoming their own brand of 21-century imperialists in Syria and Iraq. That’s irony, my friends.
*Twitter handle has been changed, slightly.
**Note: Definitions of “barbarian” from the Bible and Origin of Species from the Oxford English Dictionary. And I wanted to dig out my copy of Heart of Darkness to find a passage where he actually uses the word “barbarian,” but my books are stacked in piles on my floor. Looking for that book is a lot more physical labor than I’m willing to do for Joseph Conrad’s sake. So I found this quote on GoodReads.