by umair haque
Here’s a question that’s been on my mind lately. What does it mean to be a civilized society — or even a person? Why doesn’t America — even Britain — seem to be one anymore? What does that portend for the world?
You might say being civilized means being rich — but that’s obviously false. Money is no guarantee that a person or place is civilized (exhibit one, billionaires, who could each end Covid with just a fraction of their net “worths” but choose not to, every single day). You might say being civilized means having power — but that’s false, too. Nero was powerful, but he wasn’t civilized. He was a barbarian wearing a crown. What made him one?
To the barbarian, violence is the answer. The first, last, and best one. To what? To everything: to all social, political, economic, or personal problems. But to the civilized person, violence isn’t the answer — it is the problem. Violence is a kind of ignorance. So it is the opposite of ignorance that a civilized mind seeks, values, prizes — whether we call it education, wisdom, intellgience, or knowledge.
But isn’t that — violence as the solution to all a society’s problems — exactly what resurgent, macho, strongman extremists propose across the globe today? Whether it’s in the form of bullying, bluster, domination, discipline, or punishment? We’ll come to that. Whatever you suppose that “being civilized” means, I wonder if you don’t agree at least in a tiny way with my simple answer. So let’s apply it.
Is America a civilized country — really? What went wrong with it? Does it pass the test above? Kids are shooting one another at schools. Answer? Arming teachers. People are overdosing on opioids. Answer? Not Narcan — jail. There aren’t enough decent jobs to go around. Answer? Let employers treat people like worthless commodities. People find it impossible to make ends meet, even when they’re old.
Answer? Let them work three jobs. The sick die young from a lack of healthcare — or even basic medicine. Answer? So what? If they can’t afford it, they don’t deserve it. Do you see the common thread?
Too often in America, violence emerges as the first and last answer to all problems. That violence might be explicit and extreme — as in arming teachers. Or it might be hidden violence, violence by omission, like letting people die for a lack of insulin. But it is violence all the same — harm, not gentleness, transformation, and growth.
Let me sharpen that. I’ve been thinking recently about that time the Atlantic hired — and then fired — a columnist who proposed that women who’d had abortions should be (wait for it) hanged. Do you see what I mean by violence as the first and last answer? The issue isn’t just a columnist — it is that is that violence marks the boundaries of acceptable discourse, ideas, thought, in America. Whatever the issue is, if a solution is violent, it is treated seriously, and chins are stroked. Punish people more. Treat them with even more badly. Hurt them a little more. Then they will learn. (Hence, America is always declaring “war” — wars on drugs, wars on poverty, and so on, but the problem is that when you are fighting a war — even a noble one — brutality quickly becomes normality.)
But if a solution is nonviolent, like for example public healthcare, basic incomes and assets, better safety nets, or working retirement systems, it is quickly deemed impossible. It seems impossible in America to propose nonviolent solutions to social, human, or economic problems. Only more and more crazily deranged, bizarrely violent ones, to the point of surreal absurdity, like arming teachers, or hanging women.
Hence, the rest of the world finds it difficult to see America as a civilized country anymore. When kids are shooting each other at schools — something that happens nowhere else in the world — perhaps that isn’t so surprising. But it cuts to the heart of the distinction between civilization and barbarism. Violence and nonviolence. Harm and healing. Punishment and gentleness.
But the inconvient truth is that the same forces that have decivilized America are also threatening to decivilize the world. Neo-Nazis in the Bundestag, remember? What are those forces? We call them “inequality” and “stagnation” and “austerity,” but we speak too technically, missing the human point. The force that decivilizes people in the end is a lack of dignity. Where there is no dignity, there will soon enough be extremism, tribalism, and authoritarianism — rule by mob, mafia, a thugocracy, the rise of the predatory. What in an earlier time we would have simply called barbarism.
Dignity is what people have lost as a result of decades of aggressive, single-minded neoliberalism, in which only how much money a society or a person makes matters — not belonging, trust, meaning, purpose, intelligence, empathy, or wisdom. How did we expect civilization to survive that kind of assault, anyways? Neoliberalism, capitalism, these ideologies see it as beneficial and noble things to take a person’s dignity away — or even a whole society’s. Who needs dignity? It’s made of troublesome things like rights, norms, values, which cost money. But the truth is that when we take people’s dignity away, we set a kind of nuclear chain reaction in motion that ends in decivilization.
When a person loses their dignity, they have lost what matters most — the sense that they count, have inherent worth, meaning, can amount to something. If you are worthless, why not lash out at the world that made you that way? But the truth is that violence has already been done to such a person, by dehumanizing and abusing them. In that way, stripping people of dignity sets off a chain reaction of violence. Violence is ultimately the loss of dignity.
Civilization, then, because it is the opposite of violence, is also the project of creating dignity. Of endowing it. Bestowing it. Sharing it. And celebrating it. And what has gone wrong in America today is that that process, that project of civilization as the creation of dignity failed catastrophically. Not by accident, but by design. In taking people’s dignity away, American also decivilized itself. And now it is a place where the most violent and harmful rule over the weak and meek. But that is the place that countries who allow this chain reaction of indignity and violence to ignite will end up, too: decivilized.
So. How do we give people dignity? Ah, that is the simplest — but hardest thing. Dignity comes from rights. Dignity comes from norms. It comes from values and responsibilities. Ultimately, dignity comes from each other. It is the measure of how much we can see in one another.
How gently we can hold each other. And how high we can lift each other up — not simply pull each other down, which is what violence, the absence of civilization, really is.