THE THIN VENEER OF CIVILITY

Posted: March 13, 2017 in Personal Whining

Eventually I want to get to the subject of the surge in vandalism and hate crimes against Muslims, Jews and many other sectors of society.  But first…

Traveling gives you a deep understanding and respect for the fact that civilization is often based on a thin veneer of civility.  By that I mean that for many, human nature hasn’t changed that much over time and from area to area.  When walking through the ruin streets of Pompeii I considered how superficial many aspects of our so called “progress” actually were.  Stripped of laws and institutions, what we normally regard as civilized or even progressive societies could easily revert to an egocentric and warrior like state.

When the civil rights revolution took place in the southern U.S. at the end of the 60s and through the 70s, there was a radical difference in the way that black people were treated.  It wasn’t a perfect situation and there was a lot of residual discrimination and racism.  Obviously, there still is.  But, by and large, a lot of it was submerged and the overall state improved dramatically.  Not because people changed, but because the standards and expectations along with many of the actual rules shifted strongly in the direction of civil rights.  And so it has remained, with racist, pre civil rights sentiments, percolating quietly below the surface, unfortunately still manifesting from time to time, still being addressed in law enforcement, incarceration and many other areas.  But one cannot say that there hasn’t been significant improvement, to the point that a current debate is whether discrimination and inequality still exist, or whether “white privilege” exists.

We see that thin veneer in other areas as well.  Several years ago, here in Canada, riots broke out in Vancouver that surprised everyone.  It was in response to a sports event.  For one strange night the rule of law was suspended and people let loose with their more primitive, violent selves.  This is not unusual, and one can’t help but wonder what the results would be if our society lost the ability to enforce the consequences to the rules and laws that define our society.  What would happen in a natural disaster or an epidemic where police and other emergency resources were unavailable?  Would our better natures take over or would the primitive self lash out in self preservation.  People concerned with survival in such situations are not overly optimistic, claiming that 10% of the population would have little hesitation to stealing your supplies and around 1% might be willing to kill you in order to eat … you.

It’s an old question, often told in literature and films.  My feeling is that a rather large percentage of society is constrained by a very delicate and easily broken veneer of civility, held in check by fear of consequences.  They secretly harbour a world view that places them at the top of the priority heap.

[For clarity, let me explain that I do not hold all people in such regard.  When I’m talking about “human nature” here, I’m thinking about the more primitive, irrational aspects of it.  I’m not even talking about people with a conservative or traditional world view, as it is plain that hatred comes from all parts of a political spectrum.  Our society is progressing and evolving, and there are many who don’t fall into this category.  Unfortunately there are also many who do.]

Herein lays, in my opinion, the basis for the current shift in vandalism we’re witnessing.  Many uncivil people, normally are constrained by the standards of society by which they’re surrounded by rules, examples and expectations.  When you have a prominent person like the President of the United States purposefully taking a sledge hammer to that veneer of civility, many people see it as permission.  They are emboldened by these brash and uncivil expressions of anger and hate, misogyny and racial profiling exhibited by a person who is a powerful symbol and icon of what the social standards should be.  The President’s status in such matters cannot be overemphasized.

Donald Trump has seriously damaged our society, not just in the U.S. but all over the world, by trashing civility and empowering Neanderthal behaviour.  Many things such has his comments about women and encouraging violence and intolerance at his campaign rallies (among so many other things) have set a new standard.  Now nothing keeps in check the base attitudes and opinions which were previously closeted by people because social standards were opposed to them.  Those social standards are no longer in control.

In this light it is easy to understand the bomb threats and vandalism of Jewish gravestones.  It is not reasonable to believe that hatred will be directed only in the limited direction that the U.S. administration chooses.  Hatred is a primitive thing.  Once unleashed it will find its own way into the heart of all people who have been harboring frustrations and prejudices, whether it be against Muslims, people of colour, Jews, gays or whatever is at hand that provides an opportunity to lash out against someone different.

Jews seem surprised at this recent violence and persecution.  I’m not.  It may easily spread to other groups.  Once you open Pandora’s Box, the consequences are out of your control.  Trump did, and it is.  And it will take a long time to reverse.

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