Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Civilised?

I suppose it is reasonable for the human race to look back over the time since Lucy lived in Ethiopia and conclude that we have made a lot of progress. We might flatter ourselves that we are more sophisticated now – though how our increasingly ‘sophisticated’ methods of killing both each other, and the planet on which we live square with that, I’m not sure.

Sprezzatura, too, (both the concept and the blog) is concerned with the matter of civilised living. It’s a difficult concept to define – but my best attempt concerns the ways in which self-awareness makes it possible to overcome baser instincts and use rational capabilities to make choices that lead to favourable (even pleasurable) experiences of life. In short, it is about overruling the more primitive instincts of humankind and living in a considered, rational and generally benign way.

When you look at it like that, it becomes much less certain how much progress we have really made. One of the key elements of enlightenment is the realisation that self-interest is a more complex phenomenon than raw selfishness. It requires that people understand the principle of the General Good. And yet it can hardly be claimed to be widely adhered to as modern society’s universal governing principle.

It seems reasonable to suspect that such insights are not universally developed in human societies. Neither need it inevitably be so that those societies that consider themselves the most civilised actually are so. I suspect there are lessons for more ‘advanced’ societies in some of the supposedly more ‘primitive’ ones on this planet.

Perhaps a more neutral definition might concern the extent to which societies, and the behaviours that define them, respect, preserve and enhance the lives of their members, no matter what their levels of technological and material advancement. What they have in common is the use of conscious decision-making to achieve those ends, by overruling and eliminating the more antisocial aspects of behaviour, many of which occur when individual survival instinct rather than reason, drives behaviour. That said, it is probably true than more developed societies in general are less brutal than the alternatives.

Probably the most important realisation is that humans are thrive when they collaborate. In this way, brain starts to outperform brawn – and one of its principal applications is the mutual protection and enhancement of the members of society. Many primitive societies were characterised by uncontrolled conflict, in ways that advanced ones at least attempt to regulate.

Sprezzatura is an expression of thriving – the sweet-spot between individual liberty and collective values: when we reach higher levels of development, ‘civilisation’ is expressed more through social conventions and preferences than basic survival. In that sense, those societies that place a high value on refined experiences might be considered to have achieved a higher level of civilisation. Throughout history, high civilisation has always been expressed in cultural terms, even if we accept (as Orson Welles observed) that it was not always a product of peaceable societies. 

I was recently attacked (again) on social media for criticising the United Kingdom for being insular, lacking wide perspective and by extension, relatively uncivilised in comparison with its neighbours. My critics were seeking only one thing: a binary answer to the question of whether or not I “love my country”. They refused to accept my reply that it was a far more complex matter than that, demanding a “simple answer to a simple question”. When I eventually capitulated and said No I Don’t, they disappeared in a puff of bombastic smoke. It seemed all they were seeking was a crude binary definition of which tribe I belonged to; hardly a stance designed to inspire confidence in their own sophistication (read civilisation).

The connection between insularity and civilisation needs further examination. While it is possible for discrete cultures to acquire sophistication, more often it is the result of cosmopolitanism – the experience of encountering, interpreting, accommodating and learning from, cultural diversity. It is this that gives our species’ most intense cultural experiences their richness. By contrast, cultures that are self-referential risk remaining parochial and limited in their horizons.

Many of the things I intermittently rail about on Sprezzatura might be seen in the same way: the failure to appreciate complexity and sophistication or to take a broad view; the tendency in Britain to view life in simplistic, utilitarian, even bipartisan terms. Binary thinking is neither sophisticated, nor civilised. From my perspective, the stance of my critics simply confirmed their parochialism – not that they realised it, of course. And yet, it seems typical of the nature of current public debate: the reduction of complex matters to simple tribal identities, with no concern for nuance or shades of opinion.

In the UK, most societal discourse still remains mired in this binary approach – whether the issue of Brexit, or indeed our political system more widely. Our media tend to provoke such partisanship. It is perhaps why we have permitted the emergence of the most polarised society in the developed world. It may be a reflection of the absence of the philosophy and critical thought in our educational priorities. (Our education system mostly reflects the utilitarian intentions of those who control it).

It is also why so much of our national attention goes into beating the opposition, rather than reaching acceptable and inclusive compromise. It is why good governance and pluralistic systems are, as a result, conspicuously lacking. More civilised insight sees and rejects the limitations of such thinking and seeks complex compromise; we, meanwhile, decry such approaches as “weak and indecisive”, as though decisive extremism is better than consensual moderation.

In his new book The Power of Geography, Tim Marshall describes the U.K. as a place that “for most of its history was…windswept and backward… a huge cold, wet island on the periphery of where history happened… full of wild tribes who couldn’t read and write, and instead of learning, spent their time fighting each other”. Not the way most Britons prefer to think of it, but that does not necessarily make him wrong. Marshall mentions the nation’s “psychology of separateness” which continues to this day in the refusal to acknowledge its challenges, and a resolute blindness towards what happens elsewhere and what we can learn from it. It is the cause of our lack of cosmopolitanism, progressiveness – and ultimately, civilisation.

If this seems an unnecessarily academic argument, we can look at some of its very real manifestations. For example, the rabid attachment of many Britons to their subservient status as subjects of the Crown, rather than self-sovereign citizens of a republic. We can contrast the sclerotic British electoral system with the checks and balances of the German one, which is regularly updated to ensure balance and participative representation, rather than an obsession with who “won” and the the “tradition” of arcane medieval precedent. No clearer expression of this is needed than the money presently being spent in this country on building a replica of a Victorian Chamber to allow the illusion that nothing changes, while the infrastructure of the original is (belatedly) dragged into the modern era. Anything but embrace Change.

The fact that the British tend to demonise other systems than their own may be more a reflection of their own unsophistication than a weakness of those systems themselves. The constant need to “beat the world” is not an expression of outward-lookingness, but precisely the opposite: it relies on a primitive conception of them-against-us, with us (of course) as the perpetual ‘winners’. Real life just ain’t like that.

We would do better to examine others’ experiences – and then put our own house in order. I recently saw reported the views of overseas-domiciled Britons concerning covid precautions currently in place in the U.K. Several described what they saw as a ‘free-for-all’ – a phrase which, it occurred to me, might more widely apply to the U.K.’s way of running itself. A recent Commons Select Committee report into the handling of Covid criticised the country for failing to look and learn from what was happening elsewhere, instead choosing to resort to the complacent claim that “nowhere is better prepared” than the UK. It was patently not true.

Compared with its neighbours, the regulating – civilising – role of effective governance on society seems poorly understood in this country. In some ways, Marshall’s description of the British seems unnervingly apt for the present age.

When I read of the massively higher covid infection rates in this country compared to the rest of Europe, ‘uncivilised’ is one of the words that comes to mind to describe the gung-ho attitude, in this case of its rulers towards its people. While Johnson’s administration may be extreme, it is only a matter of degree compared with most previous ones, from those who resisted universal suffrage to those that imposed an economic liberalism that favours the strong and wealthy over the rest, and abandons the majority to the harsh winds of economic fortune, as though “there is no alternative”. Actually, there is – as is well-shown by the various social democracies of Western Europe, which seem more actively interested in supporting their citizens than punishing them. And yet, a not untypical approach in Britain is, “If it’s not hurting, it’s not working”.

This is not just a political criticism – for those polities reflect the attitudes of those who vote for them, many of whom in Britain also seem to retain a primitive, utilitarian view of existence. It is ironic in the extreme that this nation has an unhealthy obsession with a “heritage” predicated on strict social orderliness, when its neglected present is so far to the other extreme.

The multitude of indicators reflecting the contrasts of outcome between societies that in effect permit the antisocial aspects of human nature to let rip, and those that attempt to channel them, are too plentiful to list here. Almost every comparison between the Anglo-American model and European social democracies reveals the failure of the former to act responsibly, moderately and equitably – and the consequences of this, ranging from poor social and infrastructure provision to levels of environmental degradation.

The impact of covid is about as objective a measure of the consequences as one could find – but there are plenty of others not far behind.

In societal terms, hands-on government does make a difference, as even the UK discovered when its hand was finally forced during the pandemic. The failure of the UK government to understand the willingness of its people to accept draconian measures is emblematic of the problem: we have a system that neglects its responsibilities, even to the extent of failing to identify a societal cry for help. Will we learn? It seems not – the current approach is to abandon everything to the supposed inevitabilities of fate – at which point one might reasonably start to question what government is actually for.

In my eyes, it is not ‘for’ giving a leg-up to the already powerful, and abandoning the rest to their fate. I want to live in a country that feels like it has my interests at heart, rather than one that is out to be as hard on me as it can get away with. Libertarians claim to argue for individual freedom – but mostly their own. They lack the empathy that characterises more civilised thinking, and fail to see life as anything more than a dog-eat-dog game of survival, in which they pit their own (assumed) survival against that of the rest. This is not a definition of civilised behaviour.

We tend to feel love for those who nurture and care for us; I don’t see why I should be expected to profess my unconditional love for something that does otherwise – certainly not because of some misdirected notion of obligation, nor a willingness to ignore the realities of the situation, nor simply because of the accident of where I was born.

Not that those still so insular that they only need simplistic binary answers will ever know otherwise, of course. They didn’t stay around long enough for a civilised debate, let alone to learn why some of us advocate something better than tub-thumping blind patriotism.

2 thoughts on “Civilised?

    1. Thanks. I think we share much in this respect – not that it seems to be doing us much good. Our idea of rugged individualism is more akin to particularly stupid sheep, I’m afraid.

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