Are we civilised or are we savages? It all depends on your definitions of those words, really. With our houses, cities, businesses and commodities, we seem to be a developed (or developing at least) world, advanced enough in our technology to be ‘civilised’. We control our emotions, our tempers, our desires, and attempt to blend in as functioning members of this civilised society. But underneath, our primal desires continue to burn; we are creatures of passion and sex, we resort to violence and war to solve problems, we have selfish, greedy desires, and by these accounts we are still savages. But are these things savage, or simply part of being human? Is ‘civilised’ really who we are, or just a facade constructed by society to dress up and disguise our basal instincts?
Savage tends to have connotation of the wild, of primitive human beings from thousands of years ago. We appear to have advanced far beyond that, with our knowledge of the world and the universe continuously expanding, and our technology become more and more advanced. We are creatures of ingenuity and creativity, who have made brilliant discoveries and constructed fantastic inventions over the centuries, to make our world more civilised than our caveman origins. But not every country is so advanced; some are still war-torn, poverty stricken, and ‘developing’. Are those people savages? Of course not. They are no less civilised than the rest of us, their country is simply not yet able to meet the requirements to call itself ‘developed’. They were born into unfortunate circumstances in most cases, conditions beyond their control, but that absolutely doesn’t make them savages. So, this definition is civilised is not all encompassing.
Are we civilised then, in our emotions and behaviours? Humans have learned to co-exist with each other, adapting our behaviours to fit into the society we have developed. We are polite and well-mannered, often not saying what we really think, because it would be frowned upon to do so. Perhaps in modern times, we are becoming more open in that way, but a few hundred years ago, in the times of lords and ladies and courtship and class, manners were of the utmost importance. We scale our emotions, making them appropriate to our circumstances; we cannot just scream at those who anger us, or break down in tears any time we are upset. We control our emotions, allowing them to be released at the correct, appropriate time. ‘Savage’ usually means someone more primal, who has no such social obligations, and lets loose whenever their feelings strike. It means raw emotions and desires, with reckless actions and outcomes. Savage is about basal instincts, doing what it takes to survive. Our civilised society shows kindness to others, offering compassion and charity to those in need; savagery, at least in primitive context, means survival of the fittest, even if that means being cruel and selfish to do so.
But have we really advanced beyond that then? We have our manners and our political correctness in polite society, but does that mean those primal desires have been erased with evolution? Not entirely. As a kindergarten teacher, I’ve watched young children squabble and wrestle over toys, each fighting for what they deem to be of the utmost importance, and they can be quite ‘savage’ in their actions at times. I’ve seen them hit or play pranks on each other, simply out of dislike for each other. I’ve seen outright theft. I’m not saying all of them are like that all the time; most of the time they are sweet, well-behaved children. But these incidents are a result of instinct, because they are too young to have fully learned (though they are in the process) all of the correct, civilised behaviours that we adults follow every day. And even as adults, we can be guilty of selfish, perhaps even savage, behaviours from time to time; we just know when to reign them back. And our world still has war, has violence, has poverty, wreaks havoc on our environment and the other species that live in this world… all typically for selfish reasons. So, are we really all that civilised?
Yes, we’ve come a long way from our savage, primitive origins. Yes, there is kindness and compassion and good manners and advanced technology in the world, making us more civilised than we once were. But those primal instincts don’t go away. And there are still atrocious acts occurring every day because of our selfish desires. So are we civilised, or are we still savages?
Inspired by the prompt ‘Savage‘ on The Daily Post.