‘Barbarians’, ‘Savagery’ and ‘Primitive’ Society

I have been watching a few history programmes recently that have made me think about the concepts of ‘barbarian’ and ‘savagery’. And about the meaning of primitive culture. The implications of the words and how they are applied can tell us a lot about the prejudices and misconceptions of history, and people in the modern day. In turn, they can have applications for sustainability – as we grapple with making sure that we create a greener, more ethical future and find a pathway forward for humanity.

History is written by the victor. And those who define the narrative of ‘civilisation’ are often biased by the concept of ‘otherness’. Roman conceptions of Britannic tribes, for example, have informed and shaped much thinking about these peoples. Barbaric and savage, primitive… these are subjective terms. When looking at history, we need to be aware of who is telling a story, and why, from which perspective.

But even the more enlightened among us can fall prey to the same warped perspective issues. We may look down on peoples or cultures that we feel are outside the trappings of our modern world. Equally, we may embrace, even without knowing it, concepts like the ‘noble savage’ – and form romantic notions of other cultures from our own perspectives. We need to be just as cautious of positive notions as we do of negative stereotypes.

In sustainability, there can sometimes be a tendency of romanticise ‘primitive’ culture – societies which are devoid of the trappings of modern ‘civilisation’. But of course the truth offers a much more complex picture. We need to learn from all cultures – whether they are ‘primitive’ or more elaborate and ‘civilised’.

And in order to do away with bias, we need to be cautious of words which pit one culture against another, and somehow imply a hierarchy between them. And we need to understand our own perspective and the tendency that brings to warp the truth when seeking out sustainable solutions for our world.

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