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For the Culture: Savage

By JOSHUA CLAXTON

“Yo bro, that was an absolute savage move!”

Person sinks the final cup in a game of beer pong. Spectators comment, “Savage.”

“200 pages of reading?!? That professor is a savage.”

No one will deny that these and other similar phrases are prevalent on Middlebury’s campus. I either hear them directly or indirectly everyday, maybe multiple times a day. These colloquialisms are routine. From the varsity locker room to the pre-med class to the stage at theatre rehearsal, the word can be heard in all spheres of campus. Further, this outbreak of “savage”-based language is not unique to Middlebury. I can assure you that at most US colleges, you may be doted as a “savage” at any moment for doing something impressive. Beyond campuses, it is a hot trend everywhere. It’s a common twitter hashtag and it is pervasive in pop culture.

Demi Lovato says it in Sorry Not Sorry:

“Now payback is a bad b—-

And baby, I’m the baddest

You f—–’ with a savage”

Kendrick Lamar drops it in LOYALTY:

“I’m a savage, I’m a a——,

I’m a king

Shimmy-yeah,

shimmy-yeah, shimmy-yeah,

rock (yeah)”

It seems that everyone wants to be a savage–after all it is quite the compliment. My understanding is: it means you are skilled, relentless, and powerful. You are a wild, untamed beast ready to fight with little regard for mercy. Whether your opposition is your opponent in pickup basketball, that last cup in beer pong, or your students whom you mercilessly assign 200 pages for one night, it is the highest honor to be deemed a “savage.” However, the word’s etymology reveals that it was/is not always an expression of praise.

As promised, this is the first installment of my column “For the Culture.” I hope to deliver you a “savage” analysis on the word “savage,” which has become embedded in our campus culture.

If you look up savage in Merriam Webster dictionary, among many definitions, it reads “lacking the restraints normal to civilized human beings; lacking complex or advanced culture; a person belonging to a primitive society.” It is irrefutably a pejorative word, but those definitions in isolation don’t seem so bad. Someone or a group of people who act in ways that are not typical to a set of established norms, who seem brutish and simplistic, are savages. But the word “savage” is actually rooted in very specific colonial history that we forget and erase from our daily consciousness too easily.

Historically, the normative, civilized, and complex culture that distinguished non-savages from savages was based on Western Europe. The primitive way of living was based on everyone else, specifically non-white people of Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Savages. The word did not exist in isolation–it was used to divide and oppress. Africans, Asians, and the indigenous people of North and South America were labelled savages to make them distinct from European prestige. The traditions and customs of these indigenous communities were regarded as uncivilized by Britain, France, Belgium, and the like, using this cultural dichotomy to justify colonization. The colonial project was motivated by many factors such as economic gain, religious evangelism, and political expansion. To attain these ends the white westerners needed to take specious action: extract all natural resources, coerce the conquered into political colonial systems and Christianity, and enslave and massacre millions. This violence, abuse, and exploitation was reconciled with their ethics via the racist idea of the savage “other.” By labelling indigenous communities as invalid and the fundamental opposition (based on phenotypical, social, and cultural differences from white Europeans), it stripped non-whites of their humanness and homogenized them all as the primitive creatures who existed as the null to western white Europeans. They became sub-human savages in the eyes of the West and so it was okay to do heinous things to them.

The concept of “savages” was why blacks were slaves in the Americas for centuries. If people are relegated to a sub-human status then you can do whatever you want to them and feel unremorseful. “Savages” is why the United States has comfortably obliterated indigenous presence on the land that is not theirs. “Otherizing” people allows you to comfortably erase their history, and push them into marginalized communities. “Savages” is why Africa has been plagued by underdevelopment and weak nation states. Labelling the blacks as savages, allowed the West to nonchalantly deplete Africa of all its resources and construct artificial state boundaries that ignored the existing ethnic borders.

The sad reality is that for many people the “savage” relegation continues. Young blacks are systemically deemed “super predators” hence the government indiscriminately locks them up via a system of social control: mass incarceration. Tribes still live on reservations where their entire water security can be threatened by the government with no hesitation because they are seen as the “other.” The word “savage” has this baggage–it does not exist in an isolated vacuum merely for our colloquial pleasure. It has a dark, violent history, which still plays a role in systemic racism.

How does bro culture play into this? Bro-culture is the complicit element that perpetuates the use of the “savage” colloquialism. Everyone on campus says it, but it originates in bro-culture. Bro-culture in short is norms and behaviors based on financial wealth, whiteness, cis-masculinity, and demonstrations of power–it is not a coincidence that those were the same attributes behind colonization. It is the dominant culture in this community and it seeps into every realm of campus. It is often characterized by masturbatory, male majority friend groups and it is in these spaces that “savage” came to be a slang compliment used by everyone. However, it does have different implications depending on who is speaking. POCs, especially black and indigenous people can reclaim the word that was once used against them to justify stealing from, exploiting, and killing them. By the way, Demi is Latina. When a white person says it, it carries weight. It carries the historical suffering of colonization, which white privilege will never allow someone or their ancestors to endure.

People may continue to say “savage.” It is probably too culturally widespread for one op-ed to change its usage on Middlebury’s campus and beyond. Afterall, it is a trivial matter compared to the racial profiling of Addis Fouche-Channer ’17 or what is happening in Puerto Rico, Myanmar, and Las Vegas. I would be concerned if people stopped saying “savage” after this article but still hadn’t called their Congressperson about our healthcare system. My argument is part of a broader critique of how we use language. Etymology is often ignored and more commonly not known. Many colloquialisms are more than their superficial meanings–some are actually concepts that are rooted in oppressive history. Similar op-eds (perhaps with varying severity) could have been written about words like “ghetto” or “tranny” or “retarded” a couple of years ago. It is important to understand the history behind the language we use. Words were not created in a vacuum so why should we exist in one?

Anyways, those are just some thoughts for now. In two weeks, we’ll get into toxic masculinity and tacit misogyny perpetuated by bro culture.

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