Civilized Talk

PARIS – What does it mean to be “civilized”? Obviously, being highly educated, wearing a tie, eating with a fork, or cutting one’s nails weekly is not enough. We all know that being “civilized” in this formal way doesn’t prevent people from behaving like barbarians. Everywhere and at all times, being civilized means being able to recognize and accept the humanity of others, despite their different modes of living.

That may seem like an obvious point, but it is not universally accepted. The idea of dialogue between civilizations usually gets a good press, but it is also sometimes mocked. The conclusion of Elie Barnavi’s recent essay Les religions meurtrières (“Murderous religions”) is entitled “Against the dialogue of civilizations.” His argument is implacable: “There is civilization on one hand and barbarism on the other. There is no possible dialogue between them.”

But if you look at this line of argument more closely, the flaw in Barnavi’s argument is immediately apparent. The meaning of the words civilization and culture is very different when they are used in singular and plural forms. Cultures (plural) are the modes of living embraced by various human groups, and comprise all that their members have in common: language, religion, family structures, diet, dress, and so on. In this sense, “culture” is a descriptive category, without any value judgment.

Civilization (singular) is, on the contrary, an evaluative moral category: the opposite of barbarism. So a dialogue between cultures is not only beneficial, but essential to civilization. No civilization is possible without it.