Civility

The world “civil” (civilis) came into being during the Roman empire as a descriptor of the citizen in public life. Civilization, although quite popular in many locations around the world at the time, can be dated back at least to 3200 B.C.E., and was not the sole provenance of the Romans.

The world “civil” (civilis) came into being during the Roman empire as a descriptor of the citizen in public life. Civilization, although quite popular in many locations around the world at the time, can be dated back at least to 3200 B.C.E. and was not the sole provenance of the Romans. The Sumerians started documenting at least eight Mesopotamian languages in cuneiform script in the late 4th millennium B.C.E. The tablets so far translated are generally focused on history and religious matters, with some blending of those subjects, as in “Gilgamesh.” Huge numbers of tablets have been retrieved, but only a small percentage have been translated to date into contemporary languages. For there to have been a need for inter-tribal communication for the Mesopotamians suggests that citizens in public life required this innovation to progress. I would suggest that civil life and civilizations have been around for much longer that this; small groups or tribes of humans practiced civilization and civility with their rudimentary tools long before the Sumerians started documenting their thoughts. Had they not, the human race might have been little more than a blood spot and some bone meal in the Rift Valley.

Nonetheless, the word and the concept of civility, rooted in Latin and in Roman civilization as it is, serves well for a description of this tendency in human affairs. Generally, people within a social setting tend to act with civility towards other persons in the community and with their trading partners, but suspiciously (at best) or belligerently (in varying degrees) with people outside of their community who do not advance commercial prospects. There were probably good reasons to be suspicious about other peoples. If your community had a good fishing hole or a good place to hunt or gather and another community showed up, it may have raised concerns (fears), rational or not, that your community’s well-being was being threatened. If both communities were amenable to sharing, then civility – and civilization – oozed outwards a bit. If not, one community attempted dominance and other arrangements were made, either by driving off the interlopers, killing the most aggressive (or all) interlopers, or losing the community dominance of the resources by fleeing or death.

Since our species “succeeded,” it must be assumed that more civility and civilization happened than not. Perhaps it was simpler. Perhaps the number of successful births outnumbered the deaths and we succeeded in spite of civility, but I suspect not. Ants, bees, wasps, termites, some rodents, many vertebrates all display complex social behaviors and all succeed. Can they be considered civil and civilized? In some ways, I think yes. They are not irrationally predatory within their communities (although primate males have demonstrated an extended pattern of despicable violence towards females), they collaborate towards common goals, they share responsibilities, in some sense, with each other, with the community as a whole, they are greater than the sum of their individuals (parts).

Of course, we also have been murderers on a huge scale at various times in our history. It is difficult to know when war up-scaled. Some postulate that the first “wars” started around 8,000 B.C.E. Raymond C. Kelly has studied the matter further and notes several inflection points in human violence going back approximately 400,000 years (398,000 B.C.E.). This shouldn’t be too surprising as contemporary primatologists have noted inter-group violence among the great apes (our genetic ancestors). Lawrence H. Keeley goes further in his book “War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage.” Keeley enumerates the primary reasons for inter-group violence, starting with (1) difficult times caused by scarcity of food due to climate fluctuations, (2) political centralization and control (a chief in one group decides another chief has to go so that their human resources can work for a new chief), along with several others. War, whenever it occurs, marks a time of extreme incivility, a time when culture and civilization is interrupted in favor of pillaging, destruction, siege, torture, maiming, deprivation, disease and death. Lots of death.

While I know it is not a primary resources, Wikipedia does consolidate data on “wars by death toll” in two jaw-dropping categories – wars with over 1,000,000 (1M) deaths and wars with fewer than 1,000,000 deaths. A pretty arbitrary sorting, given that each individual death probably influenced families of at least 2 and perhaps 20 people or more. There is a stunning implication in these tables – that we really don’t know how many people died in some of these conflicts. The wars with greater than 1M deaths seemed to start in about 475 B.C.E. in what is now China and continue right through to the present day. Between (!) 313,232,919 and 674,733,827 have died ONLY in wars that resulted in >1M deaths, a variance of over 215%! Another way of saying this is that perhaps 313,232,919 died or perhaps 674,733,827, we’re just not sure. If these deaths occurred in your family, it would mean that you might tell people “well, we either lost 1 child or 2 children or perhaps more than that, I just don’t know.”

Then there are all of the wars that resulted in fewer than 1M deaths. Wikipedia didn’t roll these up, so I did it myself (same page as above); between 12,002,112 and 25,778,205 – another estimate with a two-fold range. So, in total, in paroxysms of extreme incivility, we have managed to kill between 325M and 702M of our fellow creatures (we’re working hard on killing our fellow animals as well, but perhaps I’ll leave that to another post). We’re not sure where in that range the truth lies, but if it is the larger number, we’ve killed almost 10% of all human beings currently alive on earth (I’m assuming 7.4 billion at the time of this writing).

There are a few important corollaries that can be drawn from these data:

  1. If the war was a long time ago, we are less certain of the death toll
  2. If the war was in a non-Western country a long time ago, we are less certain of the death toll
  3. If the war involved poor people, we are less certain of the death toll
  4. We are not sure how many of the deaths enumerated were willing combatants (or combatants that knew they were going to fight, whether willing or not) or whether the deaths also included “collateral damage” among the terrified civilian population (some of whom may have been involved on a willing, but unofficial basis)
  5. If the combatants returned home and died from physical or mental injuries related to combat, we do not know whether they were included in these numbers

In addition to waging wars against each other under various notions, there are also a lot of deaths due to anthropogenic reasons: famine, prisons and prison camps, mass starvation, mass hunger illnesses, floods and landslides, human sacrifice and ritual suicide (!), political purges and war crimes, forced labor, slavery and slave trade, and another 60M to 150M deaths due to “other deadly events.” You can do your own math and add these to the war dead, if you wish.

But somehow – SOMEHOW – we continue to thrive while we come up with new and carefully rationalized reasons for killing each other.

I blame this tendency to thrive on civility. Somehow, in spite of all the craziness, we create families, communities, villages, towns, farms, businesses, cities, states, nations, regions and continents in which a majority of the population treats each other with at least some respect. If we do not actively smile and exchange pleasantries, inquire about each others’ families or mutual friends, we do not start frothing at the mouth when we see each other, do not attack and kill each other (usually) without significant provocation. Even when provoked, many of us would rather try to protect ourselves by running or curling up to avoid significant injury. But crime of one sort or another adds to the annual death toll in virtually every country, by which I mean I do not even want to start looking at annual murder statistics on a global scale. Civility, the simple notion that we should treat each other as we would like to be treated (the “golden rule“) has a long history in human affairs. As I have suggested above, it is probably central to how all successful animals have prospered. A species that decides fellow members of its species looks irresistibly delicious or unforgivably guilty does not last very long.

Unfortunately, we do not all behave with civility all of the time. There are the scowling relatives – rudeness, anger, contempt, bluntness, boorishness, coarseness, crudeness, cheek, harshness, impertinence, insolence, chauvinism (in all its many forms) – of civil behavior available on too regular a basis from people we know and people we don’t. In my life, I have noticed that there are people who seem to greet virtually everyone they see (I do this) and people who avoid or neglect interacting, even with people they know (some of this is just introversion or self-absorption).

Recently, there has been much said and written about “political correctness.” For me, much of what is criticized as being “politically correct” behavior is quite often simply civil behavior. It does no one on our planet any good to be demeaned or trivialized simply because of traits related to their gender, culture, ethnicity, genetics, intelligence, physical ability, national origin, belief system, or political affiliation, yet you will hear people on television or read people on the internet or in publications lamenting their perception that it has become “politically incorrect” to say something. Very often, they are lamenting their perception that they themselves, or people they feel are associated with them, can no longer use those words or phrases or characterizations. They are complaining, basically, that they can no longer behave in an incivil way. If they are Caucasians, they may be feigning sorrow over not being able to call members of various minority groups by demeaning names. If they are Caucasian male, they may be whining about it not being appropriate to denigrate women. If they are heterosexual, their preferred speech might have been laced with language that suggests homosexual or transgendered individuals are not fully human. If they are Democrats/Republicans, they may criticize Republicans/Democrats as some sort of fool.

In each of these cases, the people that are being demeaned are not a group. They are individuals with individual characteristics, individual life stories, that transcend any label that can be placed on them, either within that group or from outside. There are 7.4 billion individuals on this planet. The ethnic diversity within that number is truly mind-boggling. The individual diversity within each of those groups is as large as the entire population and grows by 4 births every second, while it diminishes by 2 deaths every second.

Some of this incivility is demonstrated by virtue of our relatively recent technological wonder – the internet. While this has made sharing, and thus civility and civilization, a better process, it has also given individuals who want to misbehave a readily available and often anonymous tool. They can behave as incorrectly, politically speaking, as they wish, all behind the relative safety of an internet protocol (ip) address, all while bemoaning the imposition of political correctness on their “free speech.” Their speech,  of course, is not free. It has a negative impact on whomever they are characterizing in unfair ways. I don’t spend a lot of time reviewing comments on news websites, but it seems that many people avail themselves of time to fashion outrageous comments about various groups (ethnic, gender, national, religious, and so forth). It is not a helpful way for any of us to behave. If we’re not helping, we (individually, as the shoe fits) should take a moment and ask ourselves why. What is keeping us from behaving in a kind and appropriate manner towards our fellow creatures? I suspect the answer is usually “I am the one to blame, no one else.”

Are there examples where use of culturally or individually sensitive language goes too far? I’ve seen some examples. Perhaps you have too. The intent, though, is important. The intent is that we each individually think about our language choices and try to make the world a more civil place to live. If it is more civil, there might be less violence, less anger, less inappropriate and demeaning behavior, whether at a local restaurant or on a sidewalk, on an airplane or in traffic, whether between ethnic groups in the United States or in Asia or Africa or Western Europe or the Middle East. There might be fewer wars, fewer individuals damaged collaterally, fewer people denied food when some have a surplus of food, fewer preventable or treatable diseases. There might be more respect between all individuals, or at least more circumspection before a person is neglected a simple courtesy.

At one end of the spectrum, we have our innovative ability to destroy each other in huge numbers. At the other, kindness and civility. Is this all so difficult? I don’t think so. After all, we keep on succeeding, we keep on growing, we keep on making strides forward in the complexity of our civilization. While we’re doing all this, let’s remember civility. It could be the glue that holds us all together.

Author: makingsenseofcomplications

I have an academic background in literature and, separately, science. My career has been in industry in positions of increasing responsibility assisting in the drug development process - one of the most amazing intellectual pursuits of the human mind, among many other amazing intellectual pursuits. I am interested in films, philosophy, history, art, music, science (obviously), literature (also obviously), some video gaming, human behavior, and many other topics. I wish there was more time in every day because we have a world that is full of amazing phenomena that are considered too superficially by too many. Although my first and last names are fictional, I think I believe in all of the stuff you read here, although I retain the right in perpetuity of changing my thoughts about anything written herein.

4 thoughts on “Civility”

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