Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Compassion as an aspect of civilization

The gentleman’s idea of humanity recognizes that many people are not yet civilized. Many people are weak, narrow-minded, selfish, lazy, mean, unreliable, criminal or cruel. Each civilized society knows barbarians. The word ‘barbarian’ stems from the Greek, meaning ‘non-Greek’, not participating in the enlightenment and refinement of Greek culture. This sort of differentiation between ‘us’ and ‘them’ was common. Similarly, the Hebrew commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ forbade only the killing of fellow Israelites.
So called ‘barbarians’ exist most conspicuously outside of the geographical borders of civilized society, but they are also present inside. It is very easy to view such people as less human, or even inhuman. Those who maintain such a view may find it very difficult, and even dangerous, to act civilized toward barbarians. Confronted with barbarism or with inhumanity, we have to respond. The easiest response is to consider those wretched beings as less human or inhuman, and exclude them from civilized and humane intercourse and treatment. The Roman idea of humanitas might encompass considerate treatment of slaves, but it would also encompass such treatment of domestic animals, not implying in any sense that slaves or cattle would themselves be partaking in humanitas.
It is not too farfetched to define progress in civilization as progress in viewing other human beings as human beings. This definition would mean that the main steps from barbarism to civilization are steps in empathy, in recognizing other people as fellow human beings. The ultimate test for social empathy is that of compassion, the ability to grieve for other people’s suffering and rejoice in their prosperity. The great forces of barbarism, forces that are also present in the midst of a fairly civilized society (ours, for example), therefore are the emotions that destroy compassion. These destructive emotions are fear, anger, hate, contempt and envy.
Only a few centuries ago, people went to see hangings, burnings, beheadings, and quarterings, and took the children with them on these family outings. With the rise of tolerance and humanity at the end of the 17th century, gradually the Inquisition and witchcraft trials stopped and torture diminished - at least within civilized society. But this move toward tolerance did not generally encompass slaves or the aborigines in the colonies.
The abolition of slavery became essentially a transition away from seeing slaves as hardly human, as lacking human dignity and true human passions. The revised view allowed them to be seen as to equal or at least similar to whites in those respects. An important message of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which must make the book unreadable for blacks, was that Negroes had noble feelings too, even true Christian feelings. Apparently this was an eye-opening notion for many people of that time. It remains amazing to what length people can go in keeping their eyes closed.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin offers an example of something we take for granted today, but something that was once a very important social invention - the novel. The novel has been and still serves as a major stepping stone toward more empathy, and thus toward civilization. It has been a social invention even more powerful than the concept of utopia.
In 1740 Samuel Richardson published Pamela. This book was revolutionary in that it described the feelings of the heroine. While reading, people could identify with the inner feelings of someone else. How strange, how utterly confounding, how delightful! Many people must have found this change as perverse as other people a century later found the steam locomotive. Another example of one of the earliest novels was Das Leiden des jungen Werthers, which made Goethe famous through Europe.
We are discussing here the evolution of the Romantic period, the younger sister of the Enlightenment. We tend to look at the Romantic period as a period of sentimentalism. This view is mainly a distortion. Just as the Enlightenment overstretched itself during the 19th century in positivistic system-building (think of Auguste Comte and of course of Karl Marx), Romanticism overstretched itself in Biedermeier and Victorian sentimentality.
Our present age is one that is strongly opposed to discrimination. Empathy and understanding of fellow human beings are expected to extend to murderers, rapists, drug addicts and other depraved people. Often, victims receive less interest and attention than do the offenders, although this tendency now appears to be in decline. The accepting attitude of many people toward slavery, an attitude common just over a century ago, has become incomprehensible to most of us. We look upon slave owners, especially the more brutal ones, as we would look upon Nazis. They are demons, which means that they are inhuman.
It seems that when we stretch our empathy in some directions, we run short of it in other directions. The paradox is that we lack empathy and understanding for people who apparently do not share our humane values, and therefore we consider these people to be barbarians. But by considering other people as barbarians we may reveal a streak of barbarism in ourselves. When King William entered his English palaces, being a sensitive Dutch, he ordered that dogs would no longer be permitted to defecate freely in the palace rooms. We can hardly imagine that the great Louis XIV held audience while relieving himself.
Maybe we would appreciate our cultural myopia better if we would stop to consider which of our own activities future generations might find unbelievable. Maybe two centuries from now our practice of wholesale breeding and slaughtering of mammals will be the shocking story told in classrooms. The fact that people used to prepare and eat animal corpses may be as appalling to these future students as stories of cannibalism or slave torture are to us today. Letting our dogs defecate freely on the streets may become as incomprehensible to future generations as it is to us that the same was done on palace floors in the past. The attitudes toward wearing fur, or beating seals to death, or killing off dolphins and whales, are already quite different from those held a century ago.
We are still extending our empathy. Our former attitude toward slaves is similar to our present attitude toward our evolutionary cousins, the mammals. Apart from slaughtering and eating them (something even the Nazis did not do with their human victims), many people even doubt that mammals have feelings (although few will suppose they have Christian feelings). Humanity in this case would not mean seeing mammals as human, but recognizing enough relationship to warrant consideration, and making the habit of eating them barbaric. There are, however, science fiction stories that pose cannibalism as part of a very refined, fraternal culture (9), so butcher shops may stay in business after all.
Still, a tremendous difference exists between people who are cruel and mindless to animals, and those who care. As in the time of slavery, those who care are often viewed as sentimental. For example, an Englishman traveling in France and Italy around 1900 wondered why people there were so harsh to animals. He concluded that it was not out of cruelty, but from lack of empathy (10).
The growth of empathy is the major civilizing influence of the Romantic period. Growth in empathy means growth in humanity. It is a less Confucian, more emotional, experiential way of becoming more gentle.
Although we should be glad that civilization has grown tremendously during the last centuries (no more infants sold, only to mutilate them and send them begging; no more family parties to watch crooks or slaves or heretics get tortured to death), we should not indulge in the ‘reverse ecological fallacy’ (11). That is, we should not equate the relative barbaric customs of former times and other cultures, with individuals who have barbaric minds. Such a practice would mean in a sense a ‘reverse barbarism’. A true gentleman, though discouraging or fighting barbarisms, does not blame others for behaving barbarically, because he recognizes barbaric tendencies in himself. As many ladies have learned, possibly both to their distress and their enjoyment: ‘a gentleman is a wolf who can wait’.
Civilization is a characteristic both of societies and of individuals. Thus we will find in each society, with whatever degree of civilization, less civilized and more civilized people. Just as a civilized society has many people who are rather barbaric, either below the surface or outright, barbaric societies also have civilized individuals, either below the surface or outright. Arnold Toynbee has painted these facts in stark tones (12):

‘But if there have been a few transfigured men and women, there has never been such a thing as a civilized society. Civilization, as we know it, is a movement and not a condition, a voyage and not a harbour. No known civilization has ever reached the goal of civilization yet … In the least uncivilized society at its least uncivilized moment, the vast majority of its members have remained very near indeed to the primitive human level.’

This view does not need to make us pessimists, because it also means that in any society there will be civilized individuals who will fight and transform barbarism, though often at great cost to themselves. In terms of Toynbee, there is no advance without creative individuals willing and able to suffer. Civilization may be the main producer of civilized minds, but civilized minds are the only producers of civilization.
Cultures differ in their level of humanitas, civilization. There are many ways to be considerate, and our own ways are not better than those of others, but each culture has many practices that are humane or inhumane. We may understand clitoridectomy (cutting out the clitoris) from its historical roots and appreciate that this practice is part of a culture. But we may still try to eradicate it. Being considerate means only that we should not ascribe personal barbaric qualities to the practitioners. We could do that only to people in our culture who would practice it. ‘Reversed ecological fallacy’, ascribing to individuals traits that are really collective traits, is so common that we seldom recognize it.
What does all this mean for the Atlas syndrome? First, it influences our idea of civilization, and thus the kind of responsibilities we may feel. Secondly, progression in empathy, and thus in humanity and civilization, increases our field of worthwhile action, worthwhile improvement, because it encompasses more people. We can feel sorry and to a certain extent responsible for people at the other end of the globe. Our idea of civilized society is enlarged, and so our task becomes larger. The Atlas syndrome is as much a child of Romanticism as of the Enlightenment.

From: The Atlas Syndrome, the first chapter of my book People Make the World http://www.lulu.com/shop/hans-tendam/how-people-make-the-world/paperback/product-11712018.html

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