What is the difference between "civilized" and "savage"?  

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mwestwood's profile pic

mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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While the denotation of civilization is an advanced state of human society in which a high level of art, science, religion, and government has been reached, there are, indeed, people in such environments who are not civilized.  There is a clever story written by Witi Ihimaera entitled "His First Ball" which recalls Katherine Mansfield's "Her First Ball," a short story about the first ball attended by a young English girl who has grown up in the outback of Australia and has not acquired all the experience as have the other young civilized ladies in attendance who ridicule one another.  In the story, Ihimaera, himself an indigenous person of Australia, Tuta Wharepapa receives and invitation to a ball given by the English.  Later, he discovers that he is invited to provide entertainment for other guests.  But, in defiance he and an extremely tall young lady, who is also a curiosity, dance together.  Tuta analyzes the situation and arrives at the definition of what it means to be truly civilized:

Dance, but using his own steps.  Listen, also,  not to the music of the band but to the music in his head....But they needed to come in on their own terms....as real people they were and not as carbon copies of the people already on the inside.

 

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coachingcorner | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Senior Educator

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The 'terms 'civilized' and 'savage' depend, like beauty, on the ideology of the beholder. For example, while it may seem civilized for us to squander hours of our precious lives sitting in cars on smog-filled highways, polluting the ozone layer and guzzling gas and other limited natural resources in order to get to work - this would appear uncivilized to -say an aborigine person who has been brought up with a deep love and respect for nature. Aborigines may have preferred to walk the bush for miles, living on 'the fat of the land' and have found this to be a very civilized way of life. It may be that a good measure is in how humans treat each other. The boys in 'Lord of the Flies' by William Golding appear to start off as civilized but soon become savages in the way they mistreat one another.

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The distinction between both terms have been used to justify some of the worst treatment of one human being at the hands of another.  Throughout the period of Colonization and Imperialism, nations such as those within Europe and America were seen as "civilized" society whose primary function was to bring civilization to the "savage" worlds of other nations, whose individuals were, for the most part, of color.  These indigenous people were seen as savages because they lived a way of life and represented a mode of existence which was different than the established "norm" of Europe or America.  These "savages" needed to be "civilized" by the refinement and perceived superiority of the West.  In the final analysis, there can be little criteria to substantiate such a claim, and one could even argue that the subjugation of entire races of people, economic and social exploitation, as well as the development of enslavement as a practice might have actually shown the "civilized" nations behaving in a more "savage" manner than any indigenous person could have ever tried to be.

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readerofbooks | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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This is an interesting question. People and nations will have different answers. More importantly, we need to keep in mind that terms like civilized and savage are socially constructed. Let me give you an example. The ancient Greeks believed that non-Greeks were barbarians. They did not share the same forms of government, have the same virtues, and did not speak Greek. When the Romans came along, they pretty much did what the Greeks did before them. Non-Romans were barbarians. My point is very simple, each society has different definitions of what it means to be civilized and savage. More times than not, other people are savages and your own people are civilized.

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brettd | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Over time, humans, or at least Europeans and Americans have tended to define civilized as those with more advanced technology.  Because this technology gave or gives us an advantage over some other cultures or societies, it was justified with an assertion that the other cultures or societies were savage.

I don't believe in the term savage.  There are certainly warlike, aggressive cultures, or those with cultural or religious practices I can in no way endorse or support, but that doesn't mean I am civilized and they are savage.  There are simply different cultures in this world.  Always will be.

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Lorraine Caplan | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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I agree with the first response to this question, that these are not agreed upon terms but would also point out that "civilized" and "savage" are largely terms used by imperialistic powers to characterize those whose countries are colonized as savage. History has innumerable examples.  The culture of India was in full flower when people in Great Britain had virtually no "civilization" at all, yet they were considered to be savages. The same is true of China. Aboriginals were savage because they went walkabout, I suppose. And, just think, the people in the United States were considered savage, too, from the perspective of the British Empire.  And we, , in turn considered Native Americans to be savage. I personally do not think these are authentic terms that advance any understanding of history.

pohnpei397's profile pic

pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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There is no way to objectively define who is civilized and who is not.

When we are talking about ancient history, we tend to define a people as civilized if they lived in one place, had a stable system of government, and were literate.  By contrast, savages are people who are more nomadic or who do not have a stable form of government.

Of course, there are many shades of gray here.  What if you are nomadic and have a stable form of government?  The Mongols had this, but many people would call them savage because of the way they behaved.

Or think about the concept of stable governments.  What does that mean?

So it is hard to draw a bright line between civilized peoples and "savages."

 

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thewanderlust878 | Student, College Freshman | (Level 3) Salutatorian

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This is a great question, though it is difficult to answer. I really enjoyed reading the previous answers and I think it's fascinating to read other's viewpoints on this subject. In my opinion, I think that society deems what is civilized and what is savage. However, I don't believe this is right because something that someone deems savage (slurping your soup in America) may be civilized somewhere else (in Japan it is required that soup is slurped). 

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mauriceh | eNotes Newbie

Posted on

While the denotation of civilization is an advanced state of human society in which a high level of art, science, religion, and government has been reached, there are, indeed, people in such environments who are not civilized.  There is a clever story written by Witi Ihimaera entitled "His First Ball" which recalls Katherine Mansfield's "Her First Ball," a short story about the first ball attended by a young English girl who has grown up in the outback of Australia and has not acquired all the experience as have the other young civilized ladies in attendance who ridicule one another.  In the story, Ihimaera, himself an indigenous person of Australia, Tuta Wharepapa receives and invitation to a ball given by the English.  Later, he discovers that he is invited to provide entertainment for other guests.  But, in defiance he and an extremely tall young lady, who is also a curiosity, dance together.  Tuta analyzes the situation and arrives at the definition of what it means to be truly civilized:

Dance, but using his own steps.  Listen, also,  not to the music of the band but to the music in his head....But they needed to come in on their own terms....as real people they were and not as carbon copies of the people already on the inside.

 

Mr Ihimaera is not indigenous to Australia, he is a New Zealander and indeed one of our pre-eminent writers, as indeed Mansfield is also.

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onlytoofar | (Level 2) eNoter

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Where there is extended family life the people are perfectly civilized discounting relative morality to a degree,all of which is my opinion.I find certain human practice regarding female babies and disfigurement of genitailia to be a cultural fossil that must be stopped as well as mistreatment of women regarding some wedding rituals and do not consider these worthy of our gift of being human as a culture.

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krishna-agrawala | College Teacher | (Level 3) Valedictorian

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Use of the words civilized an savage as opposites is reflective of the natural tendencies people have of viewing people with culture, beliefs, mannerisms and customs different from their own with a jaundiced eye.

The words like civilization were originally used to refer to societies in ancient times that were well advances in march of humanity towards cooperative living  and technological progress. However people started to use related words like 'civil' and 'civilized' for behavior and people that conformed to your own view of what constitutes good behaviour including some superfluous socially defined good manners. This was contrasted with less civilized people,  who were bracketed with people living in forests rather than in villages or towns, and hence were considered as untrained wild or savage in comparison for the refined (or domesticated?) people.

If we leave aside our value judgement, the word savage, used as opposite of civilized should refer only to people who lived or still a life that is characterised by use of social institution and technologies that are not very well developed.

In a country like India, where for thousands of years civilized people of towns and villages lived in peace and harmony with tribal, neither exploiting them economically nor trying to treating them as inferiors to be improved, do not use terms like savage to describe them. They are just described as people who live in forests. Another popular English word used to describe them is "tribal" in recognition of the fact that there are many different tribes of these people, each with its unique culture.

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