The Thin Veneer and the Nature Of The Beast

Posted: December 20, 2011 in Current Events
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The previous post uses the quote, “The veneer of civilization is very thin…”  I first felt that many years ago when walking through the ruins of Pompeii, noting that the houses were very similar to modern ones (though smaller), that buildings had billboard like advertizements painted on the sides and that there was even a place with porn graphics displayed on the wall likely belonging to a brothel.  I was struck with the fact that little has really changed in two thousand years.  The essence of the people was likely still very similar.

What has changed is the social structure and constraints under which we live and the material which we have available.  We don’t pour our waste into the streets any more because somebody invented and engineered indoor plumbing and sewage systems.  Also, if we did, a Health Department representative would come by to enforce social standards and laws which have evolved to keep people from doing things like that.  This is the veneer.  We don’t inflict pain on others without knowing that we are likely to suffer consequences.  Thus the beast is tamed.

Its thinness is painfully obvious.  Just in the past few weeks we have seen it displayed in the media.

The above video is from the current protests in Egypt, showing a female protester assaulted by the military, having her clothing ripped off and then being stomped on.  You can’t look at this video without sensing the pure animal hatred and savagery that must be contained within these soldiers in order for them to do this kind of thing.  Certainly, it is unnecessary force.  It is the naked beast acting out.  In the U. S. you recently saw a police officer spray young girls with pepper spray, unnecessarily causing them extreme pain.  The difference is that our veneer is just a little thicker in North America.  The police cannot easily get away with the kinds of violent actions that we are seeing in the Middle East.  (Although I think back to the Kent State shootings in Ohio, where the military shot into a crowd of campus protestors killing four and wounding nine.)  In both Egypt and the U.S., reporters and interviewers have found the same dehumanizing hatred of protesters in the minds of the police.  The beast hides very near the surface in many people.

This thin veneer is by no means restricted to police and military.  Another story in the news is the hazing death of Robert Champion, initiated into the A&M school band with a beating so severe that he died from his injuries.  It is clear from the investigations taking place before and after this tragedy, that such extreme hazing practices are not isolated, and exist in quite a number of marching band music programs.  Music programs!!  I can understand it (though still not agree with it) in something like the military, where it has been an issue forever, …but music programs!!??  The implication here is that hazings are probably common in more than just music programs.  What about fraternities or sororities?  …Or the actual football team, never mind the marching band that supports it?  I wonder what kind of hazing practice the Chess Club might have.  The beast, mostly controlled by the expectations of society, looks for ways to express itself in the darkness of secret clubs and rituals.

The bottom line is that hazing and initiation is common.  First year high school students are still told about the initiations they will have to endure when they arrive.  Fortunately it usually amounts to being held down and having marker scribbled on your face, still unacceptable but a far cry from real beatings.  Although I can remember when real beatings were a real threat. Initiations may have their uses, but when the beast is unchained it can lead to cruelty and violence.

The veneer of society keeps the beast in check when it can.  What has changed over the years, creating a more civilized society?  Social structures, laws and government have evolved, placing expectations and conformity on a group, making it more difficult for people to be violent and inappropriate.  Both penalties under the law and just the social pressure of conformity and expectation do a lot to guide people in their actions.  Furthermore, things like electricity, running water and easily accessible food diffuse the beast.  These things are provided by a small percentage of the population.  Without the top people who provide these material resources, and who are able to show strong leadership, I believe that many of the people in our society would devolve quickly.  Subtract food and heat along with a strong law enforcement and how many people would end up looking out for themselves or their families with no concern for the rights of others?  The guess is that 10% of the population would likely kill you to feed themselves and 1% would likely kill you and eat you.  Whether true or not, it is abundantly clear that civilization does not penetrate very deeply in a significant percentage of people.

This is the elitist part of me and where a little bit of Ayn Rand has remained in my blood.  I am aware of and grateful for the top 10 – 20% who essentially are the ones who have created and who sustain civilization.  The Edisons and the Bells and the Jobs and the Gates of our society have given us the material superstructure within which we live.  We owe a debt to Thomas Crapper and his antecedents for the development of the flush toilet.  Without these people we’d still be carrying water from a well (after chipping through the ice), using an outhouse and storing slow perishing produce in a root cellar to last the winter.  And will be again if we don’t have the people necessary to sustain this material civilization.  (The flush toilet was apparently used extensively in the Roman Empire, but the idea was lost to a historical footnote when the Empire fell.)

These people are important, and I don’t have any problem with them receiving their due.  But what we’re seeing in modern times is that 80% or the wealth is not tied to the actual production or development of anything, but is linked to the financial markets, who move paper and money from one place to another, gamble with investments and are strongly based on the concept of credit.  Unlike inventors, engineers and even leaders, these people don’t really add anything to the mix, -and that is where the problem arises.  While I may still have a few bits of Rand left in me, the last thing I would want to do is give these people any sort of carte blanche.  While they need to be respected and appreciated, they still need to have a sense of social responsibility.

But I digress.  And I seem to be rambling.

The essential lesson is that we must understand the things that maintain that veneer of civilization so that we support and sustain them.  And also, we must be aware of what may await us if that maintenance falters.

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