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The Loss of Civility

antifa

Society has a problem with politically-motivated violence. At a protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, a man with Nazi sympathies drove his car into a crowd of protestors, killing one and injuring many others.

Likewise, the so-called anti-fascists, Antifa (they are, of course, nothing of the sort) has resorted to using violent and intimidatory tactics at numerous protests and rallies.

Needless to say, such occurrences raise serious questions about the consequences of political polarisation and the lack of community sentiment and incivility that it brings.

One of the features of the 2010s has been the increase in political polarisation. As people become more willing to identify themselves by their political ideology, the tendency to view one’s political opponents as extremists have, likewise, increased. Consequentially, it has become easier and easier for people to demonise others because they don’t hold the same political views that they do.

Such polarisation, of course, has been fuelled by a biased and segregated news media system. The online video and podcast revolution, combined with a mainstream media that heavily slants towards the left, has meant that people are often only exposed to those views that match their own. As such, the right has been manipulated into believing that all on the left are social justice warriors, protestors, and radical feminists, whilst those on the left have been manipulated into seeing all on the right as Nazis, race baiters, white supremacists, and alt-righters.

To a large degree, political polarisation has come as a consequence of the loss of a sense of community. People no longer associate with their neighbours, and, as a result, they have come to see each other as potential enemies rather than potential friends. And, under such conditions, it becomes very easy to see another person as evil when their political views do not compliment your own.

The loss of community has occurred for three major reasons. First, the advent of social media, online shopping, video subscription services, and smartphones has meant that people are no longer required to venture out into society and interact with others. It is no longer necessary for a consumer to interact with shop staff, for instance, because they can shop in the solitude of their own living room. Modern technology, for all its benefits, has provided us with a faux sense of sociability. A kind of sociability that allows us to communicate with others but does not require genuine human interaction.

Second, past-times that were once considered neutral have been co-opted to spread politically-charged messages. People can no longer go to a football game, watch a movie, or listen to music without having political ideology preached to them. As a consequence, society lacks the entities that once allowed people to bond with one another despite differences in their political beliefs.

Third, engagement with the community has declined. People are no longer engaged with the community in the same way that their grandparents were. In the past, social clubs, community groups, sports clubs, and religious institutions provided a space where people of diverse beliefs, values, and opinions could come together. As a consequence, such entities promoted a degree of social unity and social cohesion. Today, however, people are becoming more and more willing to self-segregate. They isolate themselves, choosing only to socialise with friends and family.

What all this has amounted to is a loss of civility. It is very easy to justify all manner of bad behaviour when one sees their opponent as a threat to their very existence. Our modern society shuns manners and dismisses common courtesy and is surprised to find self-centredness and vulgarity in its wake.

The Qualities That Build Society

portrait-of-peter-the-great-in-london

Everyone versed in culture and politics understands the truth in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s (1792 – 1822) argument that creators of culture are the “unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Our view of the world is derived from our religious beliefs, the stories we read as children, the movies we watched, the cultural customs we become accustomed to, and so forth. It is not that culture constructs the physical edifices of civilisation per say, but that culture forms the values and philosophies upon which civilisation is founded.

In the west, the prevailing cultural narrative champions wholesome virtues: kindness, compassion, love, fair-play, and so forth, as being the only way to achieve prosperity and success. The individual must avoid combat with others, and be polite, civil, pleasant, and diplomatic to all. To be seen using aggression or wanting power leads to social isolation. This has certainly been the message in culture. In Shakespeare’s Richard III, the title character is a corrupt, twisted, and Machiavellian prince who schemes his way into power. By contrast, the future Henry VII is seen to be fair and humane. By the end of the play, Richard dies hated even by members of his own family, whereas Henry is celebrated as a noble hero.

This worldview bears little resemblance to reality:

“The manner in which we live, and that in which we ought to live, are things so wide asunder, that he who quits the one to betake himself with the other is more likely to destroy than to save himself; since anyone who would act up to a perfect standard of goodness in everything, must be ruined among so many who are not good. It is essential for a prince who wishes to maintain his position, to have learned how to be other than good, and to use or not to use his goodness as necessity requires.” (Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, 1532, Chapter 15, page 114)

Bubbling just below the surface are the real, amoral virtues which foster prosperity and success. In Beyond Good and Evil (1886), Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900) puts forth the following proposition:

“Suppose nothing is given as ‘real’ except our world of desires and passions, and we could not get down, or up, to any other ‘reality’ besides the reality of our drives.”  (Beyond Good and Evil, page 59).

Maybe we aren’t as driven by morality and Godliness as we like to think we are. Maybe we are driven by lust for power, material wealth, and sex. (This, of course, brings forth the possibility that the purpose of wholesomeness is to temper our real desires).

Even though we loathe having to admit it, all of us want power. Power gives us greater control and makes us feel more secure. But since it is socially unacceptable to be seen wanting power we are forced to rely on subtlety. We are forced to become honest on the one hand, and duplicitous on the other, congenial yet cunning, democratic yet devious.

In chapter twenty-one of the Prince, Machiavelli (1469 – 1527) wrote: “Nothing makes a prince so well thought of as to undertake great enterprises and give striking proofs of his capacity.” Our civilisation was built through ambitious and power-hungry individuals. Not by the wholesome virtues presented to us.