Friday, 26 August 2011


Savages. “Feral savages”. Those words have been used to characterise the rioters. Not just the rioters, but all the people who belong to the “class” that rioters are presumed to come from. And because there isn’t a social class called “rioters”, pundits have rushed in to fill the description by making unfounded assumptions: they are black and brown, they have single mothers, they are on benefits, they live in council housing, they don’t have fathers.

And every time someone has referred to the rioters as “savages”, this very song would pop up in my head.

Melanie Phillips is the picture of a friendly, progressive, liberal lady who goes to yoga classes and makes vegetarian soups. It came as a shock to learn that she’s a rightwing Daily Male pundit.

I don’t usually engage with the insanity that pesters in the Daily Male, so I’ll just use her words to make a wider point. In a recent piece of hers, Phillips wrote:
“(…) the most important thing that socialises children and turns them from feral savages into civilised citizens”
That most important thing turns out to be a “father”, in case you were wondering.

I want to go back to this song because it provides a neat context on which to judge this accusation of rioters as “feral savages”.

For those who haven’t heard of it, the song is from the movie “Pocahontas”, which tells the story of British Settlers arriving to the “New World” with the intention to pillage and plunder in good old British fashion.

The word “savages” is, as you may have guessed, used by the settlers to refer to the natives. The settlers were “civilised”, and the natives were not. This state of affairs was essential for the settlers to justify the carnage they inflicted upon several peoples in order to steal their land.

Some of the descendents of those peoples, referred today as Native Americans, are still around and there is no shortage of activists ready to condemn the carnage and the destruction that the settlers brought to their ancestors.

But that’s the thing, you see: they condemn the Americans for their actions. And Britain is left off the hook. To my knowledge, Native American activists have not laid the blame for the actions of the White Man at the feet of the “Mother Country”.

It was British settlers who first arrived to America. And the idea of natives as “savages”, and of Europeans as “civilised” grew, partly, on British soil. It clearly hasn’t been extirpated yet.

I find it fascinating that these ideas share the same root with the accusations of rioters as “feral savages” in need of “civilising”. The words are the same for a reason.
And the template for dealing with the rioters is the same as the template for colonization: there are “feral savages” in need of “civilising” by the White Man or Great Father.
I also wonder if Melanie Phillips would have been able to get away with using these words in a country like Australia.

It didn’t work in the case of Native Americans, and it won’t work with the rioters. That much is obvious. The mindset that considers “brown people” or “children” (notice how in the case of the rioters those two categories are blurry) as “feral savages” is not the mindset that will “civilise” them. If by “civilising” one means educating them, clothing them, feeding them; all the noble goals that colonizers adopted and which, as you might expect, amounted to nothing. Instead, the "savages" were exterminated or turned into "second class citizens" of a nation they didn't not choose.

The problem is Patriarchy. The problem is Civilisation. And we must end both.

Note: Yes, I do know that "Pocahontas" is problematic in a bazillion ways, but I'm making a very basic point here, which still stands.


Cartographer said...

Do you think Civilisation is always dangerous? If so what do we have in its place? Do you think there is a difference between "civilisation" and "society"

Mary Tracy said...

Cartographer, my ideas about civilization coincide with Derrick Jensen. You can find out more about him in this post I wrote:

cartographer said...

That and all the links are going to take me a while to read. Thanks though. I've never heard of him before.