Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Behind the Mask of Civility
Are we really that ‘civilized’?

As a child growing up in post-WWII America, the question was often asked “How could the Germans, a cultured, educated and civilized people, have become as uncivilized as to perpetrate the Holocaust and the other atrocities during WWII?”

In the ensuing years, on the basis of psychological experiments such as the “Milgram” and Stanford Prison Experiments, it has been made more than manifest that the layer of civility truly is thin and, at best, a very feeble reed indeed to rely on.

The “Milgram Experiment”, carried out in 1964 and at no less an institution than Yale University, showed that subjects would, in a majority of cases, apply shocks to an unknown person that could very well be lethal. Perhaps even more interesting is the ancillary fact that although there were a number of participants who would not administer the ‘lethal’ shocks of 450 volts, not a single participant refused to cease shocking the ‘test subject’ up to and including shocks of 300 volts. And, even though many of the participants related that they were ‘uncomfortable’ administering the shocks, not a single participant quit the experiment.

The “Stanford Prison Experiment” carried out in 1971 also provided interesting though very depressing results. In that experiment volunteers (university students) were arbitrarily divided into two groups, ‘guards’ and ‘prisoners’. Even though all the participants were aware that all the other participants, ‘prisoners’ and ‘guards’ alike, were simply volunteer university students, within 2 days from the inception of the experiment the guards were behaving with sufficient brutality to cause a ‘prison riot’. The conditions of the experiment got out of hand so quickly that the experiment had to be terminated early (within 6 days from inception).

The depressing reality is that humans have an all too consistent record of brutality, depravity and debauchery. For confirmation of this one need only to look at the sorry record of history. We (the bearers of Western ‘culture’) like to say: “But, we’ve gotten better!” A quick look at the behavior of our troops in Afghanistan and Iraq would hardly lead to such a conclusion.

More to the point, especially we of the ‘Western Tradition’ like to style and believe ourselves as being elevated ourselves above the barbarity of such ‘savages’ as the Mongols, Tartars and Ottomans. Any fair reading of Western history would tend to disabuse us of these fables.

Well, at least we Americans have come a long way from our barbarous ancestors and become more ‘civilized’. Again, it is a comforting myth. That is all that it is, a myth. From the very first encounters of ‘Western civilization’ and the ‘New World’, the record demonstrates nothing of the sort. Columbus managed the murder and enslavement of the very “Indians” he first encountered. The predations, murder and mayhem visited upon the native Americans by following Spanish ‘Conquistadors’ are hardly an example of goodness and light.

Even if we allow that the Spanish may have been ‘blinded’ by their zeal to propagate ‘the truth faith’ to the ‘heathens’. How then do we explain the behavior of the ‘superior’ northern Europeans? As Hudson’s first mate, Robert Juet, recounted in his diary entries for July 24-25, 1609:

· 24: Juet wrote: "We kept a good watch for fear of being betrayed by the people, and noticed where they kept their shallops." The crew catch 20 "great cods and a great halibut" in nearby waters.

· 25: Juet took an armed crew of six men to the native village and wrote in his journal "In the morning we manned our scute with four muskets and six men, and took one of their shallops and brought it aboard. Then we manned our boat and scute with twelve men and muskets, and two stone pieces, or murderers, and drave the salvages from their houses, and took the spoil of them, as they would have done us."

· The crew stole a boat that morning, then later in the evening, 12 armed crew went back and drove the Indians away from their encampment, stealing everything they could, on the pretense the natives would have done the same to them. No one was punished for this act.” Henry Hudson’s Third Voyage 1609.

Not particularly ‘enlightened’ behavior. Granted, these were the Dutch. Were the English any better? History certainly doesn’t make the case. The very native Americans who aided the Pilgrims survive their first winter in the New World were unceremoniously murdered in short order by those same Pilgrims. Nor does the history of America read much better. American history reads as a tale of massive genocide and ethnic cleansing; that explains the expansion from a fragile string of 13 colonies on the east coast of the continent to encompass the entire landmass from Atlantic to Pacific between present day Canada and Mexico. When more land was ‘needed’ it was quite simply expropriated from those inhabiting them (be they native Americans or Mexican). If simple expropriation was not considered sufficient, a generated casus belli was manufactured to provide a ‘reason’ for such land theft. When we determined that the continental United States was insufficient for our needs we manufactured a war with a crumbling Spanish Empire all the better to steal those properties we found necessary and/or desirable.

In conclusion, what we found upsetting about the behavior of the Germans in WWII were the self same traits that we found so laudable in other contexts: their industriousness, their meticulousness and their efficiency. The Nazi anti-Semitism which was so decried as they executed the Holocaust was little different from that harbored in most other ‘civilized’ countries. Just recall the saga of the SS St. Louis and the wholehearted participation by citizens in most Nazi occupied countries in rounding up and turning in “their” Jews. More than anything, the Nazis baldly faced the world with the ineluctable end results of racism. In addition to the European Jews: Slavs, gypsies, and others were also eliminated as ‘untermensch’. Perhaps that was the Nazis ultimate crime, that they rubbed our noses in the end result of our own mean spirited humanity in such graphic detail.


Agnes Kincaid said...

We are more akin to the Master of Greystoke than anyone would like to admit. If you remove the mask there isn't a human alive that can't become barbaric at a moments notice when the right situation arises. The airs some people have to don in order to move in the right circles are as transparent as a window glass and they are seen as lacking to everyone but themselves.

Humanity is only as good as those who practice it and we've fallen behind in our efforts to become progressive and intellegent beings. Some are further along the evolutionary scale than others but we still have a long road ahead. I only hope that my children will have learned more than I did and that they will practice what's been taught to them. Love thy fellow man, don't take BS from anyone, and strive for a better future.

The fragile and uncertain future depends on what we teach the next generation. If we start the repairs now then it may have a happy ending but if we don't then the tragic end will be felt by all with no one left to repeat the mistakes of the past because humanity will be null and void.

Anonymous said...

This is some really excellent writing!

You seem to have a really good understanding of the "continuing counter reformation"!

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