The Discourse of Barbarism ⎜Conservatism and You

Yesterday, it was announced that the Conservative Party (of Canada) intends to set up an RCMP tip line so you, yes you, can report the barbaric practices your neighbours commit. Of course, the definition of barbaric is fast and loose, so it can never be pinned down. It allows the Conservatives to say that if you, as a CIS-gendered, able-bodied, white person (read: man) feel uncomfortable, you can report your neighbour for disobeying heteronormative culture. An already incredibly privileged group is getting another service; a service which allows them to confess their deepest, most racist secrets.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t a too-long set up to a joke. It is real. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry because the vagueness of this message means that marginalised persons are going to be more marginalised. The government is going to have their eyes in our bedrooms, and, this time, it’s not through our laptops but from the lips of our neighbours.

Let’s examine these sentiments a little more closely. A cursory search for the word barbarism yields this Google result:

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Barbarism thus defined suggests that what we should be reporting are the uncultured, the cruel, or both. But that doesn’t really give us much information. I think a lot of my neighbours are uncultured; they stay shackled to insular belief systems. Should I be reporting them? Should I be reporting anyone who doesn’t listen to classical music, trip-hop, indie, or all of the sounds in between? Should I be reporting anyone who doesn’t read books? In this case, I should be reporting the Conservative government because it encourages the absence of culture in Canada. Funding has been slashed from humanities and sciences alike at Canadian Universities. The long-held divide between arts and sciences is funnelling into the underfunded and silenced crowd of academics and students.

The Conservative use of the word barbarism is clever and cruel. It leaves the definition of what one might consider barbaric open to interpretation. This discursive trick gains antagonistic value, like a cartoon snowball hurling down a hill collecting more snow and speed along its course. In its first usage, barbarism was used by the Athenians to describe the Spartans. The Spartans were characterized as a warring race that was uncultured and uncivilized. (A bonus for Mr. Jean-Jacques Rousseau). I learnt this fact in the Ancient Civilizations course I took in grade 10. So, already, we have a discourse embedded in a language of war and a less-than status. Subsequent periods in history have reconsidered the Spartans; consider the film 300, based on the graphic novel series by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley. King Leonidas, with muscles that only Raphael could have sculpted, leads 300 Spartans into war with the Persian king, Xerxes. The film is a two-hour ode to Spartan bodies, bravery, sex, and urns. Both Plato and Socrates in Plato’s dialogue Protagoras interrogated the presumption that Spartans are dull because of their ability to deliver, unexpectedly, witty comments, now known as laconic phrases. Additionally, when the Spartans invaded southern Greece, they received a rather terse message from Phillip II of Macedon: “If I invade Laconia you will be destroyed, never to rise again.” The Spartans, cleverly, responded with one word: “If.” A zinger if ever there was one. A Bye Felicia of olde.

Barbarism has also been used to define primitive cultures. Remember, when European countries decided that they wanted to inhabit the world. That is the origin story of the US and Canada. The official languages of Canada are not indigenous languages, but French and English. Barbarism was a term employed when the Spanish sent missionaries to their colonies because they feared that the final judgement and salvation could not come if there were so many unconverted peoples. Barbarism was an excuse to enslave people who looked different. Barbarism was used to describe the likely fantastical accounts of the ‘savage’ and the ‘cannibal’ in the New World.

In the late-sixteenth century, Michel de Montaigne wrote an essay called ‘Of Cannibals’. The essay considers the accounts of cannibalism, reported by Europeans, of the Tupinambá peoples of Brazil. Montaigne does not seek to discredit the idea that cannibals exist, he creates context and, in so doing, reminds Europeans of their own practices that seem cannibalistic and barbaric to those who are outside of the European context. He also throws shade at European reasoning in this situation by asking them to use some. In the first paragraph of his essay, Montaigne explores the way in which the word barbarian has been used to describe the other; oftentimes, peoples returning cry at the first sound of “You’re a barbarian!” Like that scene in The Grinch where Jim Carrey ends up, to our amusement, calling himself an idiot. (Take note, dear Conservatives, you’re making us all foolish and at a dear cost). Montaigne said, “[i]t appears how cautious men ought to be of taking things upon trust from vulgar opinion, and that we are to judge by the eye of reason, and not from common report.” Montaigne’s essay says to the reader, ‘be careful what and how you believe.’ Cannibalism, Montaigne wrote, is an extreme act of warfare. It cannot be understood in isolation. European history, from the Romans, to his contemporary day, contains examples of so-called acts barbarity that are consistently excused.  Montaigne’s essay may be called ‘Of Cannibals’ but to whom is he referring? Who is it that eats up and spits out other peoples and cultures?

Again, according the European explorers through the ages, it is always the culture they encounter that was born of barbarism and an unyielding chaos. When a ship of white sailors travels the world; it’s brave and adventurous. In this mythic schema, no one else can have the role of hero. Anxiety over the myth of racial purity and whiteness gave birth to a veritable empire of literature that professed Britishness as demure, docile, worthy to rule, able-bodied, true feminine, true masculine. Boxes and boundaries were built up to define the insiders from the outsiders. The ‘not-one-of-us’ to the recognizably one of us. Scholars from Edward Said to Homi Bhabha examine, note, and reconstruct the discourse of the other, the non-white body. As Said notes, there was the artistic, literary fantasy of the East that conjured itself in the imaginary spaces of europeans. Then, there was the administrative, colonial, and imperial bureaucratization and institutionalization that created nepotistic posts for distant relatives to micro-manage colonized spaces. The creation of other spaces and other bodies also created a space where other bodies acted out the fantasies of the western reader or viewer. Whilst pointing one’s finger at an odalisque and decrying the sex-crazed ‘Eastern despots’, the western mind could climax from the fantasy of a secret, sexual pleasure dome for their own pleasure.

Bhabha, on the other hand, sees the danger in a dialectic creation of an east always overpowered by the west. Similarly, in feminist discourse, if women have always been oppressed by men, can they ever claim power and agency? There has to be space to account for, for want of a better word, other narratives. More often than not, it is not that women or non-white bodies cannot or did not have mobility and intelligence, their histories have been whitewashed through the lens and recorded experiences of white men. This is not to point the finger at all white men or white people, but we have to recognize that the things we hear and learn, primarily, do not come from the persons about whom we are talking.

So, what this shows us is that barbarism, barbarity, and barbaric are lazy words that stand in to denote an “other.” It dismisses cultures. It is an erasure of a culture outside of our own, which, in itself is a kind of ironic barbarism. Montaigne shows us that popular discourses describing another culture as barbaric often works to whitewash our own sins in favour of sensationalizing people about whom we do not know. Said explains that the West created an imaginary East to project its fantasies.

In this election, the Conservative Party, without directly saying it, taps its proverbial nose as its says “Uncle Steve wants YOU! To report your (non-white, Muslim) neighbours!” Hinting that they can protect us because we need protecting. No other party, Tory discourse cries, will tell you the truth about your non-white friends. We will, they pander to the scared, we will protect you. The cost is much more than civil liberties, dear friends. Barbarism becomes a way to de-note and other Canadians. Immediately, there is a sense of “they are not one of us.” Now, we look for cheap and easy ways to distinguish ourselves from the “them”. White bodies become Canadian. Non-white bodies become un-Canadian, dangerous, and volatile. We lose our trust in our neighbour; we lose our trust to unite with them to create a better nation; we lose ourselves. Barbarism = Harperism. I think that’s the idea that should stick.

Whilst we’re here, may I use the tip line to report the hostile ways Canada has treated and continues to treat First Nations peoples? Can everyone call in to remind our Conservatives about the many missing First Nation’s women? Can everyone call in to remind the Conservatives that women’s bodies are not your political playground? Why do you suggest that women and children are only victimized by non-white bodies? Have you looked at the statistics? Why is it, in the context of victimizing marginalized peoples, that you claim you want to help the victimized?

This ploy is just a way to distract us from the larger issues at hand in this election. It’s a way to breed fear, racism, and xenophobia. It makes Harper’s decision to limit the number of refugees appear to be the right one. It is a trick. It’s not yet Halloween, friends, and if Harper’s in office this Halloween, we’ll definitely not get a treat.


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