The Demise of Civility

The Demise of Civility (and the error of culture)

            Etiquette manuals have been around for some time. Their heyday coincided with the rise of the Bourgeois class, from c. 1820-1930, prompted by the end of the Napoleonic Wars, which in turn allowed nascent industry to develop, cities to grow, and those who used to be guildsmen, mercantilists and burghers to become a true class. Indeed, a class for itself, unlike the workers of the nineteenth century. And this was a novel class, one that had never existed as a demographic force before capital. Though their ideals descended from the aristocracy and their tacit essence, the conception of ‘blood’, drove their desire to become as were the nobles, their interaction with one another could not be relied upon to immediately ape their betters. Hence civility began to replace gentility. The major structural error of the Bourgeois was that they imagined what in fact was a caste could be, or in fact had been, through historical force, transmuted into a mere class. In fact, the nobility did not become the aristocracy in this manner, even though casually we might imagine these to be two terms for the same group of people. A caste presumes upon what Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron (1970) have referred to as the ‘naturalization of the cultural arbitrary’. Ultimately it was this ‘ability’ which has escaped the Bourgeois class, and thus by our time they have foundered upon their own ideals.

            Not a great loss, one might think to say, but the lesson here is that a mode of production shift must be respected as the sea-change it truly is. No mere Bourgeois, however civil and high-minded both, would imagine that vengeance is theirs, for instance. No, this kind of radical act became the province of the State under a new rubric, indeed, the Bourgeois State, to stay strictly Marxian. Bourgeois ‘blood’ was not up to the noble task of dispensing of one’s inferiors; at most it could only aid in the dispensation of ‘justice’, also a novel concept, and also within the purview of the new State. That this justice is sensitive to context, taking biography and even personal suffering into account marks it as utterly different, and even completely at odds with, the noble sense of vengeance. This particular trail begins with the God who declared that vengeance was His and His alone, but no person of truly noble stature would have paid the least attention to such bravado. No, the superior human being was so in part because she had no truck with any divinity other than her own. The entire narrative of the God on earth would have been, at the very least, old hat to such a being, and certainly seen as well as ludicrous. No real God would stoop to owning a human interest, let alone actually dwell upon the human stage alongside ourselves.

            Between Christianity and its parables of communalism, its equality of being before creation and its sense that one should love one’s enemies, and the new order of means of production afforded by industrialization, the ancient noble caste was swept away. It was mere pretense that the new Bourgeois class should seek to ape this older form of being, but it was laughable that they should, in attempting to do so, mistake the premodern landed aristocracy for the ancient nobility. In this, all were already Christian, which I think is one point Wagner is making with the contrast between The Ring Cycle and Parsifal that apparently so annoyed Nietzsche. Upon closer look, the ‘twilight’ cuts both ways. First the Gods then the Idols, surely. Today, we can see little difference between the two once distinct categories. There is nothing contemporary about noble action; chivalry, honor, self-sacrifice, adventure, vengeance, dispassion. No, today we have but civility, policy, self-interest, venture, justice, and compassion, an odd mix in itself, certainly, and one that bears no resemblance to the noble caste ideals of antiquity. It is a great historical irony that within that antiquity there arose a counterpoint to these distinguished and rare traits of character, not unlike the advent of the rodents who rose to prominence as mammals when the reptilians were wiped out by a cosmic accident.

            Was it merely an historical accident that erased nobility from our world, or was it an inevitability? Either way, we must work with what we have left. Eschewing the Bourgeois obsession for aping the aristocracy – only through material consumption could they attain some semblance even of this already lower form of life – as well as the worker’s clamor for ‘equality’ – outside of the law and of material resource, this has no meaning at all – we might perceive instead that civility could indeed pass for chivalry, compassion for honor, and justice for vengeance, if we ourselves internalized the noble value of affrontedness. That is, if we took offense at those who are actually offensive in our society, we would begin to experience something of the noble caste of mind. Instead of kow-towing to the loudest and most obnoxious voice – by definition such a display carries with it the basest, most ignoble lot – we sequester it, ignore it, sanction it, even destroy it. Given that a large part of our modern notions of what might have been nobility is likely based on a romantic fiction, we might use this play to improvise our own new and newly discovered superiority. It must be kept in mind that this divined superior quality of being can only be based on a superior culture, one that does not align itself with any other variable. This was the Reich’s great error of self-conception. In turn, this error led to yet greater flaws in action, including genocide. A truly noble caste of culture takes the understanding that anyone anywhere may well contribute to it. We have the kernel of that sensibility even today when we hear someone speak of ‘not knowing where the next Einstein will come from, or who they will be’. The question is not, is such cultural genius available to human beings, but rather, will we be able, as a culture, to recognize it at all?

            At the start, civility – which even so is to nobility as civil religion is to religion proper, it must be admitted – must be somehow made mandatory. No Singapore sling, civility is rather a basic manner of social interaction that all must heed. Yes, the gentle tone can mask a darker violence, the ‘quiet one’ is ‘always’ the menace, so we have been told, since she sits observing all of the others and thence schemes her insinuative ingenue, but at the same time, it compels us to be attentive and not get carried off by the mob. The Pauline tone is at base, manipulative. Like the visionary, the missionary must realize that his mission is about the self, and that ‘truth is a pathless land’ after all. Civility has within it the roots of society itself, for though a house divided cannot stand, moreover, it cannot stand itself. Civility is the civitas of civic life, the singular connection between public and private, between personal and communal, between intimacy and sociality. And while chivalry was quite ad hoc, civility has this advantage; anyone can learn it and practice it in any context. We need no damsels in distress, no bloody jousts, no holy grail, no fallen Jerusalem to impel us to action. In the civil, we are not concerned with acts; we do not have that kind of vanity about us. In its stead, we have rather the sense that in a diverse and massive social organization within which everyone is accountable to, and reliant upon, everyone else, that there absolutely must be a universal solvent that acts upon all those who would ‘act out’ in that very vanity we have just indicted.

            Our version of the noble can only now be compassion, justice and civility. In these we shall find our nominal superiority, but only in these. Though a pale shade of the original, perhaps we can understand these new nobilities as leverage for a newly refined culture, which takes into itself, and for the first time, all possibilities that enrich the cultural self-understanding. The categories of self-knowledge, the chasms between discourses both within the West and across the world, cannot by themselves generate a noble culture. Anthropology has been not so much the handmaiden of imperialism but rather the bridesmaid of a decoy democracy which in turn states blithely that anything ‘cultural’ has cultural merit, and by definition. This is manifestly not the case, and indeed was the argument, in part, that the same Reich used against its cultured critics. It used to not be a puzzle to import the best and brightest, but what was ignored were all those who could have been, or already were also the best and brightest, since these categories were themselves hung up on Bourgeois conceptions of what would be most favorable to the desire for aristocracy alone, not nobility. Abandoning this sensibility will go some way in rejuvenating authentic culture and thus as well genuine cultural suasion. In 1927, Edward Sapir, the apical anthropologist Boas’ best and brightest, wrote about the difference between ‘genuine and spurious culture’, naming Nietzsche as one of his avatars. Culture, he states, does not ‘happen’ to one, whilst we sit easy in our chairs. It is not after all a ready-made, but rather such customs get in the way of creative, authentic culture. They are the smaller stuff of ethnography, for instance, and as such their limits must be assuredly understood. A culture gets in its own way, as Nietzsche suggested before him, and has an uncanny way of doing only that; ‘A culture is something that is a way to produce one or two great persons, yes, and then is a way round them’.

            In order that we do not let our mere culture get in the way of Culture proper, we must invite the otherness of others – though not necessarily these others themselves, mind you – into it. We must not imagine that we ‘possess’ enough culture to ‘get by’. There is, in fact, no getting by any longer in this our shared, and vulnerable, world. Civility is the first step towards genuine culture. It is also the easiest, shame on us. Then justice, then compassion following hard along. In rational organizations, the highest form of being is rendered last, for better or worse. Compassion, when enacted without pity or grace by the nobility, now becomes our desire to be superior; compassion is the higher being, the ‘bridge to the Overman’, perhaps, but at the very least, the pathless landscape of fenceless neighbors. Truth and the Good did not apply to nobility, and beauty was known in the flesh, and not as an ideal. Nobility had a savage honor about it that we cannot afford to revisit, given our technological proclivities, but it also had a superior sense; that it, because of its humanity, would not, even could not, be brooked in its aspirations. It is this ‘self-confidence’ that we are so sadly lacking today, for we rather imagine that we cannot attain this or that state, and that the world is itself failing. No, it is we who are failing the world, and through this anti-virtue, we commit our most uncivil selves to a premature demise.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 56 books in ethics, education, aesthetics, social theory and health, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

Harry the potter’s jars of clay

Harry the potter’s jars of clay

            In the wake of J.K. Rowling’s unabashed comments regarding the reality of sex and the charges of transphobia that were issued in response to them, it may be germane to discuss some of our current conceptions concerning human identity and the politics that follows therefrom. Ultimately, one’s definition of reality is at stake, and we will see that this is the truer import of all such debates, however popularized or taken to the streets.

            There are five major biological sexes in the human species, and the so-called ‘sexual dimorphism’ that allows for convenient categories is splayed out along a spectrum which meets in hermaphroditism – of late relabeled ‘intersex’ – the central variants of which account for at least one in every 2 to 2.5 thousand live (‘female’) births. There are no doubt ‘more’ genders than there are sexes, but who’s counting? The point is that both gender and sex are social constructions mainly based on national health policy and indeed the identity of the particular nation state in question. Biopower, Foucault’s simple but arresting conception of an originally bourgeois transformation of the older labor power, demographic concerns such as pension fund viability, voter franchise, relative strength and weakness of employment markets, and more darkly, bigotries surrounding equally moribund concepts of race and ethnicity – the ‘fear of a black planet’ thing – influence who we are liable to label a ‘man’ or a ‘woman’. If I were a woman of any cultural or even individual construction, I wouldn’t take kindly to Rowling’s ‘offer’ of a potential definition of myself as ‘one who menstruates’. This appears reductive in the extreme while at once suggesting that I am the same as every other woman out there. Indeed, it is this urge for sameness while simultaneously drawing up boundaries of difference that is at present threatening to do us in.

            One could simply play at language, avoiding a deeper dialectic and thus also the confrontation that adheres to it. Perhaps sex and gender are both equally ‘real’, or neither are real and a truly hard-nosed scientific-minded reality has nothing to do with the human imagination. Perhaps sex is the old reality and gender the new, or that the former’s hold upon an actually unmoving reality is supplanted by the latter’s emergent identity politics. Or perhaps reality is itself irrelevant, and human consciousness, only partially conscious of itself and much less so of others, is the only arbiter of what can become real and thus also unreal.

            But I am going to suggest that our reality is in fact being covered over by such discussions, whether they are violently performed in confrontations amongst people who imagine themselves to be so different as to not share even an iota of humanity with one another, or more banally, literary celebrities and entertainers who imagine that their unstudied opinions should carry such misplaced public weight.

            Diversity in every known species is an evolutionary positive. Not only for that self-same species regarding its adaptational acumen given changing ecological niches either over the course of geological epochs or, in our own time, over a generation or two, but also for other species, as when humble fungi contain the key to cancer cures or other medical breakthroughs. Though cultural evolution as a theory of human cosmogony is a long out-of-fashion sensibility, one aspect of it that remains salient is that human diversity along cultural lines is also a positive. No one culture, says this view, holds all of the truths for all of the myriad of changing contexts in which we humans find ourselves. And yet each culture does hold truths. Though not ‘eternal’ – the mere fact that we can identify such ideas in history tells us that their origin too is historical and not so much otherworldly – they can nevertheless be timely. One conception that is apropos to consider during this time of too-easy offense and counter-offense is that of compassion.

            Compassion is an ethical hallmark of the newer agrarian world-systems, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. It is sourced in the then equally novel sensibility that each human being has an intrinsic worth, apart from one’s accomplishments, abilities, and most importantly, apart from one’s social status. This last includes one’s self-identified gender, sex, race and ethnicity, one’s role and job title, and one’s address and education, let alone one’s cultural persuasions. An example: it is of interest that one’s individuated tastes can make for strange bedfellows. I despise swing music and am certain that Bruckner is a markedly superior composer to Tchaikovsky, not that Peter Ilyich was a slouch. In these two things I fully agree with the Nazis. Happen to agree, that is. It is this happenstance of the confluence of historical identity politics and one’s personal experiences that fraudulently drives much of our current predicament.

            Consider that no white owners of black slaves exist in North America today. Wage-slavery aside for a moment, all these other folks are long dead. But it is also the case that white persons are less likely to be enslaved by what reaches out for all of us from beyond the grave. Yes, the dead must bury the dead, but you have to kill them first. Just so, how does one commit an idea to the ground of non-being when the vast majority of the very people who are most hurt by the current social organization of difference maintain beliefs in the afterlife? The overcoming of the ideologized politics of difference is both a recognition of human diversity as it is and not as we would desire it to be, as well as being the beginning of a self-recognition that I am also not one thing, not these things, not a ‘thing’ at all.

            Dressing oneself up in difference is not a way to confront the reality of human diversity. Only being with another human being in as personal a manner as possible will make one more aware of just how similar our differences are, why they exist, where they come from, and of vital import for humanity today, where they are going. Daniel Radcliffe responded to the author of his career freedom and perhaps more than that by restating the basic ethic of Harry Potter; that ‘love is the most powerful force in the universe’. Though Rowling’s epic appears to imagine love as an inherent good, which is only forgivable because these are books for children, Radcliffe’s well-meaning naivety yet touches upon the desire to get along with the others in spite of their differences, which in turn threaten us not because they are alien, but because they remind us too closely of ourselves. To begin to consider the other as a means to understand the self and my self as a means for the other to recover her authentic freedom is the first step to a world wherein reality is something that all human beings are at liberty to help construct.

            Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of forty books in ethics, education, aesthetics, religion, and social theory and more recently, metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.