Not Civilized Yet

It seems to me that, in much of the world and certainly in the United States, the prevailing belief is that we are civilized now. If there was something terrible we did in the past — slavery, for example — we weren’t civilized yet. But now we are.

In fact, as someone who has read a lot of western literature over the years, I think that’s been the prevailing belief of at least the upper classes in the west for centuries now. Of course, in most cases they believed they were civilized but most of the other people on this planet were not.

That last point may still be true among some of the ultra wealthy. Certainly the tech bros who are convinced The Matrix is a documentary think they’re civilized and the rest of us aren’t.

(I’d say it was a core belief among white supremacists, except the very idea that white supremacists are civilized is too laughable to even consider.)

As for myself, while I think I have some good ideas that would make us more civilized if they were adopted, I don’t think one person, or even a group of people, with good ideas can really make us civilized if most people are outside of that system.

We can’t be civilized by ourselves.

But the belief that we are now civilized is a strong one. I once suggested on a panel at a science fiction convention that we weren’t civilized yet and everyone else disagreed with me. These were intelligent people who did not dismiss the wrongs of the world as aberrations, but that did not enter into their idea of civilized.

Perhaps they were thinking of electricity and indoor toilets, and even rocket ships and vaccines. But while all these things are good, and can provide a grounding, they are not markers of civilization.

We’re civilized. Sure. People are living on the streets because housing is an investment and a way to make “passive” income instead of a place to live. Police officers kill people for the hell of it and we “reform” the cops by giving them more weapons and money. Politicians make up preposterous “crises” instead of dealing with the ones we have. We invent reasons to start wars.

We can’t even manage a pandemic sanely.

Civilized people would do better than that.

I’m pretty sure there have been some civilized people on this planet and it’s not the great “civilizations” we study in history.

The Romans were civilized? Ha. And if you want to think that’s ancient history (which I suppose it is) let’s not forget the British and all the other European colonial empires.

In The Dawn of Everything, David Graeber and David Wengrow point out that maybe the so-called decline of the Mayan empire was really good for most people in that society. Yeah, they had less fancy art, but they also didn’t have a bunch of powerful people deciding whether they lived or died. Ordinary people likely had better lives.

This reasoning can be applied to the end of a lot of empires.

Graeber and Wengrow  also present some intriguing evidence that many (though not all) of the indigenous cultures of North America were considerably more civilized than the Europeans who stole their land.

The governing structure of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy was considerably more democratic than any of the European groups that invaded, just as an example.

One wonders how things would be done today if what is now the United States had developed from the Haudenosunee and not from the European settlers. Perhaps we would be a lot closer to civilized.

The systems we have developed are not set in stone. We can decide to build better, more civilized ones.

But to do that, we have to recognize our flaws. The current right wing push to teach American exceptionalism instead of history is not going to help us do that.

I don’t think humans are going to become civilized in my lifetime, but I still hold out hope that we will reach that point in the future.

I really hope we do it before we meet any aliens.

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