On building a better civilization

We all live in civilization, but what is it? Does civilization mean anything? I think it’s important to have a good answer to this, because so often in politics we are talking about what we dislike, what we are against and what we are trying to prevent. For example, we are trying to stop climate change from disrupting civilization. But if we focus our whole mind around stopping the bad thing, climate change, we don’t think about what we value and are trying to protect, ‘civilization’.

We can define civilization with a simple equation. Civilization = growing up. There are as many definitions of civilization as there are of growing up, and there is a much (useful, justified) argument around what civilization is as there is around what it means to grow up. So what happens when we grow up? Essentially, we explore extremities, and then integrate them. We might dress really wildly, experimenting with this side of ourselves, then as we grow up we (hopefully) hold onto this part of ourselves, but we learn to integrate it with everything else. Or someone might be a bit of a self-centered bastard, but – if they are able to grow up – they can learn over time to transmute this into a solid self-assurance, integrated with kindness.

Take 90s pop punk – bands like The Offspring and Blink 182. A few decades before, there was punk that was much more violent and extreme, with people jumping all over the place with odd piercings and mohawks.

But by the time we get to the 90s, things have calmed down. There is still punk but it is pop punk. There is The Offspring, with their album Smash and the excellent bad language song Bad Habit. There is Blink 182, with their silly but rocking songs about growing up or not growing up. And the bands are no longer scary and super-wild, just nice people who appreciate a bit of wildness.

The hardcore people would say punk lost its energy, but I say punk grew up. It became more civilized, listenable, that is, enjoyable. They have integrated all that wild energy, taming it slightly, but also fitting it in with other important things like whimsy, irony, self-reflection. Blink 182 songs are often slightly making fun of themselves. And the Blink 182 people look like people I’d want to hang out with – they look nice!

‘Civilization’ comes from ‘civil’ meaning a common space like a city where diverse things have found a way of co-existing. Thus a civilization grows and improves when it can explore, collectively (like punk was a Dionysian exploration), and then integrate that into a common, rich, diverse culture (like pop punk becoming successful, alongside hip hop and everything else in the 90s). When it works, with each new exploration and integration, the society becomes fuller and more well-rounded. A good civilization thus has the potential to produce individuals who are well-rounded: who have learnt a bit of wildness from Blink 182, who have learnt some heroism from Shakespeare’s plays, who have learnt some wisdom from Maya Angelou.

Historically, a big misconception about civilization was that indigenous people around the world were not civilized, but were savage and wild. In fact, as has often been pointed out, the societies were highly developed and orderly – the diverse range of possible human experience was integrated into a shared social order, where every part of life and experience had its time and place. As Europeans sometimes pointed out, this created nobility in people (full, developed, dignified, but broad and deep personalities), which was often lacking back in Europe, with its severe social and technological disruptions, and lack of integration.

Good, kind people in any civilization can help civilization grow by drawing on selective lessons from the extremes. It is not that extremes and disruption are good in themselves (punk, Donald Trump, religious fundamentalism, insane avant garde art), but they are unavoidable. The job of the civilization-builders is to creatively draw out lessons from the skewed, one-sided things and use them to build a richer, more balanced centre-ground. Donald Trump, awful and damaging as he is, could in the long run teach us the dangers of too much spin-doctored language in public life. Trump himself, like the early, crazy punks, does not do this, but wiser people in future might learn to integrate our darker emotions with our higher emotions. How can we talk to both the stubbornly narrow and mean sides of human nature as well as our noble, aspirational sides? Also, a culture with depth and breadth would probably be inoculated against the rise of people like Trump. In the way that extreme punk might not have taken off if the culture could tolerate a bit of wildness.

Nevertheless, there will always be some extreme, some collective movement or experiment, necessary or not, challenging people who care about ‘making the centre hold’ to build a richer center, with more tolerance for all the parts of human experience, more spiritual breadth, whimsy, self-reflection, wisdom, and a bit of wildness.

To go from Black Flag’s Damaged:

Can’t feel another day
Can’t get past you
I can’t see nothin’
I’m blind
I’m blind
I’m blind
Hold out your hand to me
Give me your hand
Aagh!
…And I’ll bite it off!!

To Blink 182’s Dammit:

It’s alright to tell me
What you think about me
I won’t try to argue
Or hold it against you

And I’ve been here for too long
To face this on my own
Well, I guess this is growing up
Well, I guess this is growing up

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