Destination: Civilization

One Tuesday on a September afternoon before heading out to a Pilates class, I came across a highly disturbing documentary on a previously outlawed cultural practice in Afghanistan which is currently making a comeback – dancing boys. Called Bacha Bazi in the local dialect, dancing boys are young boys generally between the ages of 11 and 16 who are groomed to dance and entertain usually in women’s clothing at all male gatherings, and then are sold for sex to the highest bidder who is frequently the most powerful and politically connected man in the room.

I stumbled across this story while reading a news article about US soldiers who were struggling with their consciences. Apparently their commanders had told them to look the other way and not intervene when they found young boys, sometimes chained to beds, in the sleeping quarters of Afghan soldiers and generals. The Bacha Bazi practice had actually been banned under Taliban rule, but once US forces decimated the group during the invasion, the ancient cultural practice gradually returned. Though it is still officially illegal in Afghanistan, authorities frequently look the other way. Indeed, many of the authorities themselves are active participants in the practice.

There is one point in the documentary where an Afghan man who engages in Bacha Bazi is asked by the documentarian if he keeps boys at his home for himself as some men do. He replies that he doesn’t, and explains that he would if his wife would permit it. The documentarian, somewhat incredulous, asks if it is common for men to consult their wives before getting a dancing boy. No, he replies. He then goes on to explain that he, however, is more “cultured” than the typical Afghan man, and so that is why he consults his wife rather than simply doing whatever he wants.

In considering his reply I could only shake my head and laugh. What is considered cultured is clearly extremely relative.

It is easy to sit from the Western perspective and ridicule this Afghan pederast’s understanding of what it means to be cultured. But upon reflection, the gap between his understanding of culture and that of Westerners strikes me as being at least as large as the gap between Westerners understanding of themselves as “civilized” and that of those whom they have savaged in the most uncivil ways possible in order to create their so-called “civilizations.” In exactly the same way that his use of the term cultured corrupts its meaning, the Western use of the term civilization has corrupted the deeper meaning of the word to the point where its current usage is for all intents and purposes semantically meaningless. Advanced civilization in the truest connotation of the term, does not actually exist anywhere on this planet at the current moment. It is at best a human aspiration. A destination to which we have not yet arrived.

In his simulation argument, Nick Bostrom’s first premise is that few if any technologically advanced civilizations make it to a post-human stage. From there he uses additional premises to argue that it is highly likely that we are living in a simulation. Tech nerds of various kinds are particularly enamored with this argument because it gives an air of legitimacy to movies like the Matrix as being more truth than metaphor. At some point I will say more about the conclusions of the simulation argument and interrogate why such an argument is being made in the first place, but for now unpacking the terms in its premises, particularly the notion of an advanced civilization will suffice.

A basic tenet of philosophical argument is that the premises cannot be considered to be true if the terms being used do not have legitimate definitions. Thus, even if the argument is valid, meaning that the conclusion logically follows from the premises, it is not sound if the premises themselves are not true. The trouble is that in many philosophical arguments the definition of the terms being used are usually taken at face value and thus not subject to a sufficient level of scrutiny. The end result is that arguments are believed to be sound when they are not. It is common to believe that we have a clear and coherent understanding of common words when in fact upon deeper examination we find that our understanding is woefully incomplete or simply wrong altogether. The notion of “advanced civilization” is I believe one such example of a common expression with a presumed meaning which is in fact quite different from its true meaning. To begin to illustrate this point more clearly, let’s reconsider the Bacha Bazi case.

One could attempt to make a valid argument that in so far as the Afghan pederast consults his wife when most men do not, and in so doing shows that he has a greater sense of consideration or respect for his wife, he is indeed more “cultured” than the average Afghan man if we very narrowly define “cultured” to mean “showing consideration and respect for one’s spouse”. However, if we note that consideration and respect for others is at the heart of the matter, in so far as taking in a dancing boy is tantamount to the sexual enslavement of a child which clearly shows little consideration or respect for that child, we would clearly conclude that it is incorrect to state that this Afghan man is cultured. If being cultured includes showing respect and consideration for an adult, then he ought to do the same for a child that is far more powerless and helpless by comparison.

Just as only an extremely narrow definition of “cultured” allows one to make something resembling a valid argument that the Afghan pedophile is cultured, similarly, only a very narrow understanding of the term “advanced civilization” allows us to apply the term to the current incarnations of western societies.

Advanced civilization . . . is at best a human aspiration. A destination to which we have not yet arrived.

At the heart of the idea of civilization, particularly advanced civilization, lies a notion of cognitive, social and technological complexity, particularly when compared to other so-called “primitive” societies. Needless to say there are some highly problematic culturally mediated beliefs hidden in the notion of a “primitive society, but we can still make the argument that current western societies do not in fact meet the criteria of being civilized even without elaborating on that issue.

It seems that a large part of what has led to the western idea of some societies being inherently more “advanced” or complex than others is due to what I call the Seductive Spectacle of Superstructure. Settled-centralized-industrialized-imperialist-supremacist societies, pseudo-civilizations for short, are often distinguished by their large scale buildings and monuments, aka superstructures, the existence of which implies a certain level of technological advancement which is a western obsession of sorts.

The Seductive Spectacle of Superstructure

These impressive superstructures require the mass mobilization of people and resources for long periods of time, which in and of itself is often mistaken for evidence of true societal psychosocial complexity. However, this is a decidedly overly simplistic and reductive notion of what social complexity actually is or looks like. Termites one should note, make impressively large structures as well, and yet we would hardly claim that termites are socially or cognitively more complex than dolphins which are orders of magnitude more intelligent than termites and yet build nothing at all. As impressive as superstructures are, I would argue that they are neither necessary nor sufficient for showing that a society has truly advanced in psychosocial complexity from a developmental perspective that makes them worthy of being called civilizations, advanced or otherwise.

Rather than judging a society primarily on the scale of its superstructure spectacles, we should analyze their complexity based on their value systems and frameworks for social organization. With that in mind, if we consider that all past pseudo-civilizations and the present western ones have used exactly the same general value system and framework for accumulating power since time immemorial, namely state sponsored oppression and violence that often rises to the level of genocide and enslavement of the less powerful, along with unsustainable ecocidal resource extraction, it becomes quite clear that the same general behavior continuing to occur thousands of years later is evidence that we have failed to advance as a species.

Greater technological capacity aside, there is really nothing at all that is more developmentally advanced about 21st century societies when compared to similar societies of the past. In fact, our own research and modeling shows that current western societies, and America in particular, are likely to suffer exactly the same fate as previous pseudo-civilizations for exactly the same reasons – total collapse due to social unrest caused by massive inequality, government corruption, state and interpersonal violence, and resource pressures that are destroying the environment. Indeed, the use of brute force and rigid social hierarchy which sorts people into roles without attending to or developing their unique talents is among the most simplistic methods of social engagement that have ever existed.

A truly technologically advanced society is one which will have learned from the past and thus does not operate from the same failed supremacist paradigm that has consistently led to social and environmental collapse. A truly advanced society is one which will be able to live in harmony with the environment, and which eschews the exploitative economics and politics used to generate wealth for the few at the expense of the many. The existential struggle of the 21st century is to realize a version of society in which advanced technology does not exist at the expense of the environment or people.

Globally, there are very few if any examples of such technologically advanced societies, both historically and presently. Perhaps a few of the Scandinavian nations are getting close, but in so far as many of these societies still support or benefit from environmental and human exploitation, they are not truly there yet.

This seeming inability (so far at least) of technologically advanced societies to become socially and environmentally sustainable has led some people to believe that technology itself is the culprit, or even that there is an inverse relationship between technical advancement and psychosocial development. I believe that the latter argument while not strictly correct does raise an important issue, namely that technological advancement should not and cannot be the only metric used to determine a society’s developmental complexity, and that the old saw “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” is truer than we appreciate. Still, it is an oversimplification to suggest that technological development itself is the root of the problem.

The real trouble with technology arises when it is accumulated and wielded by the few as a tool against the many.

The vast majority of societies that have ever existed, including the ones which are considered to be more “primitive,” have over time increased their technological capacity beyond that of their ancient ancestors. It is what inevitably happens as humans respond to various environmental pressures. The difference between societies is in the rate of technological advancement, not in the existence of the phenomenon itself. The mistake that the west has made is in over-interpreting or misinterpreting a slower rate of technological advancement as prima facie evidence of a lack of cognitive or social complexity. The reality is that most indigenous societies have had a slower rate of technological advancement in part because there was less need for it. It is frankly unsurprising that groups that live in environments in which they have more access to food and resources year round have often not advanced technically as quickly as groups that live in more resource poor areas where they are without regular access to food and fuel for almost half the year. Necessity is indeed the mother of invention.

The real trouble with technology arises when it is accumulated and wielded by the few as a tool against the many. This then fuels an obsessive race to develop ever more technological capacity in order to keep minority rule in place. This is, of course, completely unsustainable, both because of how resource intensive it is, but also because the abuse of power inevitably leads to social rebellion by the exploited underclass.

One attempt to address this elite technoaccumulation problem in modern times has been to attempt to democratize access to tech. While this is perhaps one part of the solution, mere democratization is useless if it is still tied to a supremacist framework as it currently is. The elitist social structure necessitates creating ever more expensive and advanced tech to keep the hierarchical status quo in place, which in turn leads to self-perpetuating problems such as planned obsolescence and the development of inadequate/unnecessary tech which requires ongoing maintenance. See every new generation of iPhone and iPad as one example of this pointless and wasteful practice. The money and brain power being used to develop such tech excess, aka techxcess, (pronounced like the state and with the same negative connotation) would be far better spent addressing real and pervasive socio-cultural problems like creating equitable access to quality education and healthcare, and creating a food system that produces actual food, as opposed to “food product”.

It is only when a society engages in a paradigm shift and re-centers its values away from supremacist beliefs and align their resources appropriately, including their rate of technological development, that it creates the possibility of truly advancing; and, in so doing, arrive at actual civilization in the truest sense of the word, as opposed to engaging in the cancerous pseudo-civilization masquerade that has been ongoing for several millennia.

There are many who feel that current circumstances are so dire and human nature so fixed that such a developmental cultural shift is impossible, and, perhaps it is. I am not by any means a blind optimist. Nevertheless, I have come to find that the universe is capable of surprise when we least expect it. Take our cultured Afghan pederast for example. By the end of the documentary, not only had he come to renounce his engagement with Bacha Bazi as he reflected on the harm he was doing to young boys, he actually ended up leveraging his power at the request of the documentarians to help save one young dancing boy who was in the process of being groomed for exploitation. Eventually after some challenges, the boy was successfully rescued from his pimps and safely returned to his family. They then moved to a new town away from the young boy’s predators where he is now beginning school.

Sometimes, against all expectations, in the midst of the most dire of circumstances, the cloud of confusion clears and wisdom arrives. And with it, real hope