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Civilized, Primitive, and the Perceptual Lens Essay

To say that any culture, region, or country is civilized or primitive is purely subjective to the person stating the opinion. Each individual, whether educated or uneducated, will have a different view on the definition of those two terms; a view that is influenced by the perceptual lens, or bias, that the individual has developed through various experiences over their lifetime. Nonetheless, how do subjectivity and the perceptual lens manipulate the terms of ‘civilized’ and ‘primitive’ in relation to the humanities? The answer is as unique as the individual giving it. Subjectivity often refers to the interpretation of an experience by an individual, in contrast with objectivity, which is a knowledge and fact-based belief system. The thoughts or opinions brought on by the experience are what help support the idea of a perceptual lens. Other influences of the perceptual lens can include, but are not limited to: religion, race, gender, environment and education.

Because of the bias of an individual, there is a possibility of more than one sharing the same thoughts and opinions on an idea; however, it is difficult to say that two individuals share the same point of view on every aspect of life and society. At this current moment in time, the influence of late twentieth and early twenty-first century American pop culture effects the view many young Americans have on society, whereas the weight of mid twentieth century culture changes the bias of older Americans. It is because of these changes in culture that the terms of ‘civilized’ and ‘primitive’ cannot be given a tangible definition, but merely guidelines as to the form it is supposed to follow. Civilization is often a term so broad that it is easier to refer to a society as being “civilized.” To be defined as civilized, one must have: a form of urban life, involving the building of permanent settlements; a system of government; distinct social classes, defined by wealth and occupation; specialized skills and tools for the production of goods and the rise of trade; a form of written communication; and a shared system of beliefs whose officials play a significant role in the community (Cunningham and Reich, 3).

By using the perceptual lens in conjunction with these guidelines, it can be inferred that to be civilized is a baseline for social groups as well as societies. When thinking of the word ‘civilized,’ ideas such as fine arts, hygiene, education, history, language and family all help us define the expression, and for each individual the ideas are unique to how they were raised and how they view the world. For those who view civilized through a twenty-first century lens, to be civilized is purely used to make advancements in society and as a tool for survival. In America, we have all the basic distinctions to be defined as civilized, with a few exceptions, such as a singular shared system of religious belief. Yet, it could be said that with the freedom to choose a religion based on your own values and to share those values with others would be in place of a singular belief system. In contrast, to be ‘primitive’ is to lack all of a majority of the basic distinctions that reinforce what a society is at the core.

Although, to be primitive can also be seen as a lack of survival skills needed to sustain a society. Some thoughts that come to mind with the term ‘primitive’ are: barbaric, dirty, uneducated, lack of a ruling body or government, and without a written language. However, those thoughts solidify the idea of a perceptual lens, a true subjective view on civilization and how the concept was taken in by an individual. As an advanced society, America has proven itself to be primitive in the way it often treats other nations that refuse to see ideas and beliefs the way in which they are seen here. For example, the countries of Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq are often viewed as primitive and barbaric nations, due to the constant civil war that rages between religious sects in each region, and as a nation of great influence, America has bullied its way into the system with the goal of changing the social structure of each nation.

Yet, all of these countries have the basics standards to be defined as civilized; each has a system of government, a shared belief system, permanent cities, social classes, agricultural and textile trade, and written language. Another example of use of the perceptual lens and the term ‘primitive’ would be the Neanderthals. Made out to be unintelligible people by all forms of media, Neanderthals were, at that point in time, extremely intelligent. Nearly 200,000 years ago, Neanderthals’ began to practice elaborate burial rituals, which could be proof of a deeply seated belief in the afterlife of the deceased’s soul, supporting the beginnings of a spiritual belief system.

Thus, a society which is constantly referred to as primitive was actually quite civilized considering the evolutionary advances at the time. Though this is only one view on civilized, primitive, and how the perceptual lens effects the definition of the terms, it is an insight to how subjectivity changes the most basic of information taught to us at an early age. Societies follow the six distinct characteristics that define them as civilized, yet even the most advanced, civilized societies can be defined as primitive in the actions that are made by those who govern over them.

1. Cunningham, Lawrence S., and John J. Reich. Culture and Values: a Survey of the Humanities. Belmont: Thomson Wadsworth, 2006.

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