Saturday, May 02, 2015

Welcome to civilization

ATCHING the news a lot lately, and doing a fair amount of thinking. Specifically I've been watching footage of the riots in Baltimore and the annual protest/anarchist convention that is May Day in Seattle, and I've come to a rather chilling realization: although American society has become more mature over time and made some amazing changes for the better in every generation, it is not truly civilized. At best we are in a precarious state of semi-barbarism, too easily poised to tip and slide toward the poles of anarchy or fascism. We have created, or have allowed to be created, a situation dangerously close to civil war, where one half of America seems perpetually pitted against the other half.

Why do I claim our society is not civilized? How much time have you got? Seriously, let me count the ways:
Many, many more signs of our semi-barbarism exist, but this ought to suffice for illustrative purposes. We have a limping, dysfunctional society, but we don't truly have civilization.

So what is civilization, then, and what would it look like if we had one?

My friend Jim Wright succinctly defines civilization as "large-scale cooperative existence." Others refer to civilization as a basic, shared code of manners and behavior, a tendency toward long-term thinking and planning, a push toward kindness and egalitarianism, a habit of thinking beyond individual needs, and an active effort to make the future better than the present.

Dozens of writers and thinkers far wiser than I have struggled to create literary models of a true civilization: Thomas More's Utopia, Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, James Harrington's The Commonwealth of Oceana, even William Pène du Bois' whimsical Gourmet Government in The Twenty-One Balloons. But the problem with all such created utopian societies is that they are not built for real human beings -- in other words, rather than altering ideals to suit the vagaries of human nature, the authors alter human nature to suit their ideals. In some ways these efforts remind me of the dwelling in the Ray Bradbury short story "There Will Come Soft Rains" -- an exquisitely-designed and executed smart home, purpose-built to anticipate and provide for its family's every need, but completely unprepared to handle the human propensity toward war and self-destruction. So any useful discussion of a true civilization has to take actual human behavior into account; it can't pretend that all people will always be courageous, loving, gentle, creative, altruistic, and fantastic cooks when, clearly, some are not.

I've been throwing out ideas about what the ideal civilization would look like, at least by my lights. Like the other list, this one is far from comprehensive, but it's a start.
  • Civilization seeks above all to be good, and to encourage goodness and kindness in its people.
  • Civilization cherishes the individual human being and supports every person's healthy, positive growth and development. To that end, it continually maintains the highest standards of health care, education, jurisprudence and freedom of movement.
  • Civilization champions the rule of law over the rule of man. To that end, it is probably best served by the political structures of democracy or representative republic, so that citizens of the society can take an active role in crafting the laws under which they choose to live. Not that there have to be many laws; civilization's high educational standards tend to produce adults who are more than capable of governing themselves.
  • A civilized society balances justice with mercy. It does its best to remove from society those who actively seek to harm others, while recognizing that people can and do change for the better and encouraging such change.
  • Civilization recognizes that while people are inherently different, such differences are necessary and healthy to a functioning society. One sex is not superior to another, and skin color has no more sociopolitical significance than eye or hair color.
  • Civilization is reasonably tolerant of difference. Is a civilized society completely tolerant of all behavior? No, because not all behavior is equally tolerable. A true civilization would be tolerant of many individual beliefs, quirks and eccentricities, but as it would champion its own right to continue existing, it could not tolerate the fomenting of anarchy among its people. Nor would it tolerate such barbarism as murder, rape, sexual assault or molestation in its midst.
  • Civilized people listen to others -- not just those with whom they happen to agree. They have a strong tolerance for discussion, even when it becomes uncomfortable or threatens their most cherished beliefs, and they respond to discussion with more discussion, never with threats or violence.
  • Civilization is loath to go to war, but will vigorously defend itself against barbarians at its gates because it knows its society is worth defending.
  • Civilization uses peer pressure to encourage good manners and discourage uncivilized behavior. It does not tacitly condone bullying, swearing and various other poor manners by allowing them to go unchallenged in public.
  • Civilization sees faith as a social good -- specifically, the belief that every citizen can find solutions to make today better than yesterday, and tomorrow better than today.
  • Civilization encourages positive, nurturing social bonds between family, friends and neighbors. A civilized society would recognize addiction as a sign of an individual's profound social disconnection, and act accordingly to remedy it.
  • Civilization actively champions creativity in the arts and sciences, technological improvements to individual lives, society and ecology. As a side effect, it knows how to travel in style.
Yes, at least some of these are pipe dreams. I don't necessarily know how a society would successfully do everything on this list. And no doubt some of these definitions are too fine-tuned to be of much help under current circumstances. (What good is it to point out that swearing and bullying are uncivilized behaviors, when we're dealing with riots and rape?) But you have to start somewhere, right?

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