“It’s the end of civilization as we know it!” The cartoon prophet means the “civilization” we learned about in school: technology, government, the economy, arts and culture, the media. But these are like the shell a seagoing crustacean builds to live in as it grows. “Civilization” is what lives inside the shell, the fragile creature protected by its calcium walls: our capacity to act in a civilized manner. Speak respectfully. Remember our manners. Treat one another humanely. In a word, civility.
A remarkable thing happened this morning when I left my fortified concrete bunker on an otherwise unremarkable errand. To my annoyance, the convenience store’s front door was not wide enough for my Humvee, so I was forced to lock it up and walk the last few feet. Suddenly I realized I’d left my AR-15 in my other suit of body armor. But as I passed warily through a crowd of random strangers, not a single person knocked me down and ran off with my wallet.
Naturally I was shocked. The people who inexplicably left me alone did not appear to be members of my social or economic class. Some of them were even a different color! And one of them actually looked me in the eye and smiled.
Then I remembered. Of course! The presence of armed police and the threat of prison and lethal injection was keeping these people in line, as it was supposed to. This was simply my just reward for dutiful payment of taxes. But when I looked around, I saw not a single police officer anywhere! I was mystified.
As I entered the store, a further shock confronted me. A man who was leaving stepped aside, held the door for me, smiled and said, “Good morning!”
But that wasn’t all. When I approached the counter, the woman behind the bulletproof glass was already smiling. She too greeted me with a suspiciously genuine demeanor, directed me to the product I was looking for, and asked if she could be of further assistance. When I paid her she thanked me, still smiling – as if I were not just completing a simple transaction, but offering her a valuable gift! I got the eerie feeling that she somehow enjoyed helping me.
Of course she knew the security cameras were watching, and a single thoughtless scowl or rude response would terminate her employment. And of course she was only sitting there because she desperately needed her minimum wage. Still, I couldn’t shake the odd sense that she derived some kind of mysterious personal fulfilllment from assisting a random stranger with an unremarkable craving for a chocolate-covered dill pickle.
But the greatest shock was yet to come. On the way home, shaken and unnerved, I was waiting to make a left turn into my driveway when a rusty old Toyota stopped abruptly in the oncoming lane, and the driver waved. It was no one I knew. Then he pointed and beeped his horn, and it dawned on me that he was waiting for me to turn, even though the right-of-way was clearly his.
The whole experience was so unsettling that as soon as I drove over the moat and deadbolted the drawbridge I sat down and Googled it. But what search term could I employ? It was like Googling a different universe! In the end, my head spinning in an altogether unfamiliar orbit, I was reduced to scanning the titles on a dusty, cobwebbed bookshelf just to calm myself down. And suddenly the spinning stopped. A particular book seemed to be looking at me.
It was a book I’d inherited from my late father: Mutual Aid, by Peter Kropotkin. All I knew about Kropotkin was that he was considered one of the founders of the philosophy of anarchism. Anarchism, of course, is the philosophy of every man for himself, kill or be killed, loot or be looted, defund the police and mob rule. But when I opened the book and began to read, I discovered something quite different. It was anarchy I’d been thinking of. Anarchism was more or less the opposite.
Kropotkin was a naturalist, and Mutual Aid begins with a detailed chronicle of his observations of bird and animal behavior, incorporating the research of myriad other naturalists. Not only do flocks of birds, schools of fish, herds of herbivores, packs of wolves and many others depend on each other to survive. According to him, they actually enjoy each other’s company! They groom each other, watch each others’ young, frolic and play together, even mourn their dead! Kropotkin then proceeds to humans. Primitive humans too, it seems, once depended on each other to survive and socialized for company, much like the animals.
These days, of course, we are much more civilized than that. Or so I had assumed until today. How long had it been since I’d ventured out of my luxury fallout shelter? Had the TV news announcers been lying to me all these years?
I needed to think. As I went from room to room turning off my various TV sets, each tuned to a different channel, certain odd facts that had never made sense began bubbling up in my brain. One by one, Wikipedia connected the dots.
Lewis and Clark, the vanguard of an invading force of well-armed Europeans, had traveled across North America all the way to the Pacific Northwest, encountering tribe after tribe of uncivilized natives, and against all odds had returned alive.
Marco Polo, the 13th-century merchant and explorer, had traveled all the way from Italy to the imperial court of China. Not only was he allowed to pass unscathed through territories considered impassably perilous today, but he was hospitably welcomed by the Chinese. Not once on his return journey was he killed and eaten by devil-worshipping heathens!
In fact, ancient history is crowded with tales of traders, explorers, pilgrims, migrants, and wanderers who traveled unmolested across the planet. Some fell victim to bandits and pirates and territorial potentates, no doubt. And some travelers themselves brought along phalanxes of troops to plunder and subjugate the lands they visited. But trade goods from distant places have turned up in archeological digs just about everywhere, so evidently in the days before police and prisons, the import business was considered a viable career for those who lacked an aptitude for conquest.
“Mutual aid” makes a certain archaic kind of sense when applied to members of one’s own social and economic class – one’s tribe, so to speak. But apparently at one time the concept was also extended to total strangers passing through one’s tribal territory, even those of a different color. Besides international trade, it gave rise to quaint, antiquated customs like courtesy, hospitality, generosity, and civility.
Some theorize that “civility” – the custom of respectful discourse regardless of differences, considered long extinct by paleontologists – was a primitive ancestor of civilization itself. That seems scarcely credible today, no matter which room of my subterranean compound I sit down in to watch TV. “Civility” and “civilization” are clearly opposites.
By “civilization,” of course I mean the technology that insulates us from nature’s whims and human eccentricities. The arts and culture that distract us from loneliness and depression. The global economy that delivers these comforts through a benevolent but ruthless competition, down to street level, where the losers hustle for change while the winners ride by in limousines. The political system that keeps the “free market” free by maintaining police and prisons to keep the losers in their place, while deploying armies and armaments to protect the winners – backed, naturally, with the discreet threat of planetary suicide.
Today, of course, our ruling elite has developed the arts of personal attack, bogus allegation, deliberate deceit, veiled threat, and murder by proxy to the most sophisticated level yet. Nothing “civil” about civilization, anyone can see.
Thinking back over my altogether remarkable day, I recalled the people I had encountered who seemed to regard me as a human being like themselves and took palpable pleasure in treating me that way, stubbornly resisting their assigned roles as disposable bottom-feeders or cogs in a corporate machine. I blinked, and a solar-powered LED bulb lit up my brain.
If one apocalypse or another comes to pass, it’s not civilization I will miss, peering out through my closed-circuit periscope. It’s civility. And true civility is not just superficial politeness, manners, etiquette, as I had always believed. It’s connection. Eye-contact. Acknowledgement. Recognition. Acceptance. Affirmation. Inclusion. Respect for your existence as a fellow human, my equal on every level that counts – body and soul, dignity and feeling, the full inventory of human rights. It’s something we all crave, deep in our DNA, a boon that even the most destitute beggar can grant to any random passerby.
This is what is most crucially at stake in the struggle to turn back climate change, ban nuclear weapons, and avert a post-apocalyptic kill-or-be-killed, loot-or-be-looted struggle to survive. It’s civility, not mere civilization, that must be preserved at all costs for the next generation to pass on to their own offspring.
And this too is the growing edge of our unfinished evolution as a species. The right of any woman to walk down any street at any time of day or night, unmolested and unafraid. The freedom of any child to go to school without fear of an “active shooter,” and come home again without fear of abuse or assault from a loved one. The opportunity for anyone of any sexual identity or skin color to excel and thrive, free of the shadow of bias or bigotry.
In a word, civility. What good is civilization without it?
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