On Civilisation

Can we have an objective definition for civilisation? I am of the opinion that since the whole concept is a cultural construct, it can’t possibly be observed and codified in absolute terms. Because a person’s opinion on any given doctrine is highly dependent on how it is treated in the culture they practice.

With that out of the way. Let’s actually think about it a bit more agnostically. What is a civilisation? Is it a country? Is it the government? Is it the Constitution or legal code? Is it a religion? Is it merely a group of people who share a common set of beliefs (in which case, is a political party or a Facebook group a civilisation)? In discussions about civilisations, I often find this scope missing. To my mind, it is the most important thing. Without setting out a scope, how can we engage in any meaningful dialogue, goal posts will keep getting moved.

For the sake of the argument, let’s stick with the traditional idea of civilisations = nations. How do we measure a civilisation’s success then? We could look at longevity, after all time is the fiercest of forces. The one who has lasted the longest surely deserves the crown.

Or we could look at how free people are in a given civilisation? But herein we walk into one of the traps. From what people have told me so far, it seems that continental Europeans are way more comfortable giving away their freedoms for the “greater good” than citizens elsewhere. Nothing inherently wrong with it, but it does pose a problem in this context. If we were to come up with a metric based around freedom, such countries will rank lower than where their citizens would expect themselves to be. They will complain loudly, rightly so, that they are not religious about freedom and shouldn’t be penalised for it. In their minds, requiring citizens to have a ID card is no big deal, esp. when it makes the databases neater. But in the mind of many a Indians (me including), British, Americans etc. the idea is tantamount to a government treating citizens as slaves. I won’t be told how to go about minding my own business by the tossers in the Parliament whose pay check comes from my pocket.

This leads us to a very fascinating topic. Cultural priorities. I find it fascinating because amidst all the other intangible bullshit that makes a civilisation, this is one of the very few we can measure, albeit rather circuitously. There’s a catch though. Cultures evolve and consequently priorities change over time, so this metric can’t give us a Greatest Civilisations of All Time ranking.

Cultural priorities do tell us what matters to people. We know that independence matters more to Brits than cooperation at the cost of sovereignty. How? 52% of them told us so not too long ago. That’s something we can pin a number on. I like that. Given enough resources, we could probably have a whole catalogue of civilisations and their respective priorities. Cool.

But how do we rank them? I think we can’t. Civilisations, as a whole, aren’t worse or better than one another, they are just… different. We can very well rank them on specific matters. Nobody (almost) agrees genital mutilation is a good idea. Nobody believes open defecation is great. So we can, and we must, criticise civilisation where such behaviours are observed. But there are very few things that are so obviously retarded. Most points of contention between civilisations are in a much greyer area. So if we were to calculate say a civilisation index, each culture will give different weighting to different features and we’ll end up up with as many equations as there are cultures. One’s love for a universal ID card is backed by a perfectly logical assertion and so is my hatred for it. The defining factor is our priorities – convenience for the system vs convenience for the individual. Which one should have more weighting? Even in a country as small and as homogenous as Luxembourg, you’ll find people on either side.

Which brings me to my original point. How do we scope a civilisation then? If half of Brits love EU and half of them hate it. Then could those two halves be considered one civilisation? They obviously have wildly different priorities. Thus, I don’t buy the civilisations = nations theory. In my experience, I have seen the contrary. Nations tend to be made up of various civilisations, every country has its Nazis, Tories, Libtards, snowflakes. One, amongst the multitude of civilisations within a country, enjoys the majority mindshare and thus their cultural priorities come to define that era. India went full socialist, swung full tilt to the right, and now swinging back ever so slightly to the left again. We could faithfully run an analysis of how nations have behaved in the last 2500 years or so and come up with justifiable synopses for a nations “most favoured civilisation features”. And if indeed you do that, you’ll find that the history written by Europeans is largely propaganda and US trade practices are littered with protectionist fuckerage.

Obviously cultural priorities translate to political agendas which play out in the form of economic policies. But I have deliberately avoided using wealth or productivity or innovation as a yardstick. Two reasons.

First, people don’t apply the same moral standard to the wealth earned from colonising and starving millions that they do the act of colonising and starving millions. Europe earned its wealth through coercion and a blatant disregard for human life. Mexican drug lords get rich the same way. But our attitude towards them is wildly different.
Second, productivity or efficiency is not a universally desired trait (although wealth is, undeniably). For Indians, broadly speaking, self-determination is more important than efficiency. There’s a strong notion of “we know this is not optimal, but this is how WE want it, and it’s inefficiency doesn’t bother us as long as we get to choose how we do things”. That’s why villages here are self-governed, they are given the money and they decide among themselves what to do with it.

To conclude, I think of civilisations as players in a football team. Each, even the smallest of them, have a role to play and each have their strengths and weaknesses. Just as we can’t compare a striker and a goalie, I can’t think of a meaningful, unbiased way of comparing civilisations as a whole. I will be the first one to admit that their individual features can be compared, but it’s important to realise that the outside of a few obvious howlers, most such judgments rely a lot on subjective experiences and beliefs.

If you really must know what’s the greatest civilisation on earth. It has to India (or China). The oldest civilisation that’s still alive and kicking and has always been a significant player culturally and politically (to her own detriment). But then again, aren’t we all a little biased?