Savages: The History of a Word

Savages is a word that only belongs in the vocabularies of colonizers, pillagers, and slave-drivers.

The latest ad campaigns that were introduced to New York last week is further proof that Israel and Israel-supporters are openly embracing their role as occupiers of Palestinian land without shame.

The storm of controversy came because of the use of the word “savages.” It’s a word we often find in English literature and early European journalism and politics to denote the inferiority of a “wild” group of foreign people to be feared and hated.

The fact that it is not commonly used with white people and regularly directed towards people of color and people from former colonies of Europe should clue us in to its moral strangeness. Yet, anyone who knows the history of the word knows that this word and its use carry much more connotations than just the verbal debasement of another group of people as inferior.

In America, we don’t have to look very far to see this label given to another group of people, Native Americans, whose land was also consumed by Empire and African-Americans whose labor was cruelly and unjustly stolen by it. Those of us who have endured these labels know this story all too well.

In almost every major European country agents of the state and their followers also advertised the objects of their colonial land-grabs as “savages.” One need go no further then British literary giants Joseph Conrad or Rudyard Kipling for a sampling of these literary and poetic backings of imperial conquests. A simple browsing through historical documents from the Spanish and British colonials towards the indigenous peoples of the Americas also tell this same narrative of “civilized”and the “savages.”

Of course the West doesn’t have a monopoly on the use of this word and its variants. The Japanese during their occupations of China and East Asia employed this dichotomy and in contemporary times the Sudanese government and its supporters uphold this binary among their people. Governments throughout the world (and supporters of these governments) have proven that behind this word lies violence and occupation.

History tells us that the idea of“savages” is intricately linked to colonialism and oppression. It’s a word that like its variants of “cannibals” and “barbarians” entered modern European and American language hand-in-hand with the colonization of Africa, Asia and the New World. They are words used to justify and affirm the actions of colonial and imperial authority, regardless if these actions be cruel and inhuman, all while implicitly feeding the egos of an uninformed public by demonstrating the superiority of their “state” and “civilization” over all others. In this way, colonization fed public hubris through racism, xenophobia and hierarchy to garner public support.

So what does it mean if while defending a contemporary state, the state of Israel for example, this word is used? Why do supporters of Israel use such a word with such a history? The answer is simple but harrowing, because many of them are aware that the Israeli state’s occupation of Palestinian land is a continuation of colonial practices and so they act accordingly.

Supporters of Israel, by their very admission of support for a state that uproots whole communities from their lands and seizes their homes, continues discriminatory legal practices, and routinely uses state violence to suppress Palestinians, are at least implicitly acknowledging their acceptance for colonization. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise or out of the ordinary that they find the racist rhetoric used by colonialism, occupation, and exploitation a convenient way to defend Israel. It is in fact, perfectly logical as history informs us. But many backers of Israel are coming out. They have condemned the ad. They know the word. They know its history. And they eschew it. They don’t want to be associated with it. They shake it off quickly like a dirty rag. It doesn’t belong to them. It’s one abnormal incident, an anomaly among the supporters of Israel.

They look at the latest controversy over the ads as PR disaster and may even admit with shame that the ads are “hate-inspired.” But what they forget is that their support for a regime that bombs innocent civilians, among them children, imprisons an entire population, fosters racial xenophobia against Africans and Arabs, and usurps Palestinian land is inherently treating Palestinians and Africans in Israel and the territories as “savages.”

So when Rick Jacobs lamented in his piece in the New York Times about the “hate” behind the word but still showed support for Israel against “terror attacks,” while making no mention of the state terror attacks and tactics, not just verbal name-calling, that Palestinians suffer under occupation daily he fails to get the point. He fails to see the innate hate in the policies of the state he supports and identifies with.

As we say in the African-American community, there is a difference between being called a “nigger” and treated like one. Neither is desirable but the latter is where we measure the concrete impact of racism in our lives. The former, of course, is often the natural precedent of the second. Israel supporters are concerned that they don’t use the word “savages” because they will appear as “racists” but they have no problem supporting a state and its policies that actually treats people as savages and actually is racist.

So the advocates of Israel and American wars overseas can condemn the ads all they want as “divisive” and “counterproductive”but what essentially is the problem, their support for a racist regime and its policies, is in fact, what should really be condemned.

As one Palestinian friend of mine said, the consequences of these shameful ads will eventually be good, because every day Israel and its supporters reveal themselves to be who they claim not to be, colonizers. And it is by this word that eventually history and the rest of us remember them by.

1 comment
  1. B said:

    Thank you.

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