The civilized and the barbarians: the formation of an oppressive system
–book review of Waiting for the Barbarians
On the first day of the Student Diversity Leadership Conference, the family group spent the bulk of the session discussing the system of oppression, linking our understanding and experiences to the larger system that justifies injustice, violence, and aggression—a system that we continue to witness and experience even today. Around the same time of the conference, I finished reading J.M. Coetzee’s masterpiece Waiting for the Barbarians, a book that uses its own tale to account for the creation of the narrative of civilized versus savage—essentially the foundation of a colonial society. Even though the time and location of the story are both unknown to the audience, the daunting tale can really happen anywhere, and anytime—even in a post-colonial world that still experiences neocolonialism and other forms of institutional oppression.
The six stages of oppression, as discussed in the conference, include the fear of difference, stereotype, prejudice, discrimination, institutional oppression, and internalized oppression. The encounter between the civilized empire and the mysterious group that its people dab the “barbarians” perfectly manifests all stages of oppression; using a compelling, thrilling, and deeply soul-reaching story, Coetzee debunks and deconstructs the brutally oppressive system that is constructed when the core meets the periphery, and there is no limit to such an allegory. The same binary of superiority versus inferiority applies to all forms of inequality, including race, gender, class inequality, and much more.
The fear of difference, the apprehension, concern, and hesitancy regarding contact with someone who is different, marks the beginning of oppression. When meeting someone different and when ignorance encourages the fear of the unknown, the oppressors are prone to drawing a line between themselves and the other group, doing everything they can to satisfy their self-recognition. The same fear holds true in the book, where people of the “civilized” empire encounters the “barbarians”—an unfamiliar and mysterious group of people who seem to pose a threat to the empire’s civilization. Out of the fear of the unknown, the frontier people made up stories and rumors, predominantly negative ones, to fill up their gap of ignorance and negligence. The protagonist, a character whose conscience and sympathy slowly take over throughout the course of the book, observes the interaction on the frontier and concludes that much of the understanding of the barbarians is a myth: “in private I observed that once in every generation, without fail, there is an episode of hysteria about the barbarians.” Without ever seeing one barbarian, many frontier people have come to construct inferiority and barbarianism of the ither group, constantly dreaming of the barbarians breaking into their homes and taking away their belongings.
It would be reckless to assume that only a colonial system entails such fear of differences. As the first stage of oppression, the phenomenon appears today in various forms and across a wide range of disciplines, especially in the media and news, which perpetuate instills fear by perpetuating the mythical portrayal in the othering process. The fear of difference can also mean a colorblind and assimilationist approach in modern-day society—something that stems form a colonialism and white supremacy that it is built upon.
The second stage of oppression takes the perceived differences a step further by generalizing them into negative stereotypes that reinforce bias and misunderstanding. Stereotypes are generalizations that people make about others based on their group affiliations. It is fair to argue that the fear of differences is the steppingstone of stereotypes, which are how the oppressors interpret those differences by trampling others. In Waiting for the Barbarians, the narrator observes the shift from the initial encounter to the deeply ingrained stereotypes as he realizes that people of the empire completely lose sympathy with the barbarians and generalize “the filth, the smell, the noise of their quarrelling and coughing” as signs of savageness. The myth even evolves into a rumor that the barbarians are diseased and that they would bring an epidemic to the town of the civilized people. The book brilliantly reveals the subconscious process of dividing the world into an “us” and “them”, where them inevitably is construed as inferior, uncivilized, and savage.
Worse than stereotype is prejudice, the conscious or unconscious assignment of negative value of a perceived group. As the product of negative stereotypes, prejudice and biases come from the people trapped in a superiority complex. Coetzee describes such people as those “who assert that there are higher considerations than those of decency.” The paranoia and fear eventually become the foundation of oppression, and the narrator realizes that “where civilization entailed the corruption of barbarian virtues and the creation of a dependent people, I decided, I was opposed to civilization.” What is especially powerful about the book is the narrator’s gradual discovery of the truth of his empire, which corresponds with the process of unraveling the entire process of oppression. As an allegory, Coetzee does so very well by telling a story that reserves space for a certain degree of ambiguity.
Discrimination follows prejudice and entails oppressive actions against the oppressed group. In the book, Coetzee uses extensive lines to build an image of the grotesque and brutal torture of the barbarians, which is a reasonable extension of the previous stereotypes and biases.
Finally, the false perceptions and actions converge into the final institutional system of oppression: a system of privileges and disadvantages backed up by institutions like laws, policies, and governments. The contempt for the barbarians, which is “founded on nothing more substantial than differences in table manners, variations in the structure of the eyelid,” justified the intrusion and establishment of an empire that “located its existence not in the smooth recurrent spinning time of the cycle of the seasons but in the jagged time of rise and fall, of beginning and end, of catastrophe.” As Coetzee summarizes, “Empire dooms itself to live in history and plot against history.”
Finally, the internalized oppression under the cyclical system coerce the barbarians into confirming the “settlers’ litany of prejudice: that barbarians are lazy, immoral, filthy, stupid.” The narrator vehemently expresses his emotions in the wonderfully written paragraph, which I believe resonates with a lot of us:
“Above all I do not want to see a parasite settlement grow up on the fringes of the town populated with beggars and vagrants enslaved to strong drink. It always pained me in the old days to see these people fall victim to the guile of shopkeepers, exchanging their goods for trinkets, lying drunk in the gutter, and confirming thereby the settlers’ litany of prejudice: that barbarians are lazy, immoral, filthy, stupid.”
Experiencing a existential crisis upon realizing the brutality behind the regime that he works for, the Magistrate uses his compassionate and conscientious voice in the book to arouse human sympathy, kindness, and the decency to notice and alter the deadly consequences of othering a group of people who are unknown.
Information: Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee