“Are they savages? I mean…do they have religion?” These were questions fielded in my direction when discussing my recent travels. I am at a loss to answer. I hesitate, “What do you mean by savage?” She shakes her head. “That’s not the right word, it’s not coming out the way I want it to…Are they Christian?”
She struggles to articulate the heart of what she wants to know and I struggle to even digest this word savage. It leaves a bitter taste on my tongue and immediately saddens me, though I cannot explain why.
By savage do you mean to say uneducated? Poverty stricken? Unconverted? Not yet colonized? Living with traditions and speaking a language we cannot comprehend? Less than human?
Curious if my instinctual response was correct, I looked up synonyms for the word savage. The results were even worse than I expected: “heathenish, barbaric, uncivilized, Neanderthal.”
I despise this word. I cringe at what it implies, I am frustrated even more by this part of me that believes its meaning. Mark Twain says, “There are many humorous things in the world; among them, the white man’s notion that he is less savage than the other savages.”
I wish this word didn’t exist. The historical and present connotations speak of the belief that some are inferior while others are superior, allowing permission for domination and suppression to be enforced without shame.
As Americans we are taught to have pride. One of the things we take great pride in is the founding principal of equality written into our Declaration of Independence. But do we really believe that all people are created equal? If so, then why slavery, why genocide, why borders and politics, why the suffocation of native language?
Were we not acting savagely when we destroyed the bison, spread small pox, used nuclear weapons on the innocent? Or what about pillaging newly “discovered” land, forcing the natives to extract all of the riches to be used and exploited for the benefit of others? What of our thirst for oil that spoils the ocean’s flora and fish? What of supplying weapons to corrupt governments while ignoring civilian casualties, what of the way we treat illegal immigrants whose only crime is searching for a better way of life, for hope?
Surely these acts are not savage because we have our education and our religion. If we know what we’re doing is wrong, if we are learned and intelligent enough to choose destruction over peace, that makes us less primitive and entitled, right?
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
What if we lived as if we believed these words? I can’t defend all of the lost, the broken, or the oppressed. I’m incapable of changing our natural tendencies to discriminate and judge that which is different from ourselves. Labels such as tribal, minority, and illiterate will always exist. And, as much as I shudder at the use of stereotypes, I am still guilty of abusing them.
Yet, I hope that with each story, with each photograph, with each conversation shared the word savage will be replaced by the word “human.” And if we continue to see each other as just that, maybe we will begin to stand up for the unalienable right of others to enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.