(This is an updated version of a column that was first published in 2006.)
While listening to the news one day, I suddenly realized that I’ve been operating under a false assumption all these years. I had been taking for granted that I was born into a civilized period of human history.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
You may remember that in the early 1990’s, after the fall of the Soviet Union and the repressive regimes of Eastern Europe, a conservative wag named Francis Fukuyama had the temerity to come out with a book entitled The End of History – as in, that’s it, everything is settled, capitalism has triumphed, there’s nothing else to be decided, game over. Subsequent events, of course, have proved him wrong on that score, and the author, to his credit, has since recanted his thesis.
“End of History”? Heck, we’re not even out of the Dark Ages yet.
Now, before you try to refute that assertion with a litany of our advances in such areas as dental medicine and indoor plumbing, let me explain what I mean by “civilized.” Here is my definition: we can be said to be more or less “civilized” as a society, culture, or species to the extent that intentional acts of violence are seen as unnecessary – that is, one would never come to a moment where one feels that one has to resort to inflicting harm or suffering on another human being. Violence might still happen accidentally, of course, or as an unforeseen consequence of a decision, but not by intention or desire… or because it seems there is no other choice.
Some reflection will show the implications of this definition. For such a society to exist in the first place, any motivation for violence would have to have been eliminated. Crime? Want? Poverty? Human needs would be sufficiently addressed, including the understanding and treatment of substance abuse and mental illness. People would have access to the resources they need. War? Conflict? Our communication skills, and cross-cultural awareness, would have been well enough developed that conflicts would no longer arise from interpersonal or intercultural misunderstandings. All theologies would have disavowed violence as a justified means of carrying out their missions. Problems of resource availability and distribution would have been sorted out, and the idea of separate “national interests” would have been permanently shelved. (Can you think of other root causes for violence? Imagine how they might be solved in a “civilized” society. Discuss. Give examples.)
By such a definition, humanity obviously has a long way to go – but to be fair, we have made some considerable strides. In most cultures violence is now regarded as a last resort, rather than the first. We managed to get rid of dueling a while ago, and fisticuffs are not generally accepted as a means of conflict resolution any more (except on the Jerry Springer show, of course). In fact, we’ve actually become a very pacifistic species in many ways. (For more examples, and the statistics to back them up, see Dr. Stephen Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.)
I think it might be accurate to say that we are beginning to get a slight glimmer of what actual “civilization” might look like – and yes, I mean to include every single one of those wimpy qualifiers – but we are also still close enough to the edge of the abyss of absolute savagery to hear its echoes. What veneer of civilization we have managed to develop is still quite thin, and is looking a bit threadbare in many places at the moment. In fact, as I write these words the headlines are full of tales of extremist groups that seem quite determined to reverse this progress and march cheerfully and resolutely back into the bloodier times of the past.
Some people might think a truly civilized society is unattainable – and maybe it is. But what I’m really talking about here is the proper application of a word. Let’s not call ourselves “civilized” if we’re not – and let’s not prematurely call ourselves “more civilized” than any other given bunch of humans.
If I’m honest with myself, after all, I can’t help but see that my own veneer of civilization is itself pretty thin. There’s not as much distance as I’d like to think between me and my “barbarian” ancestors, plasma-screen televisions and ultrasonic toothbrushes notwithstanding. I haven’t completely purged the violence out my own system yet. So again, let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that we’re further along the road than we actually are, or pretend that we are significantly ahead of others.
But at the same time, we should not abandon ourselves to the supposed inevitability of human violence – rather, let us keep in mind that this development is an ongoing process, a journey that can at least be undertaken, and possibly even completed successfully.
Someone once asked Gandhi, “So, sir, what do you think of Western civilization?”
And as he famously replied, “I think it would be a wonderful idea.”