Sunday, July 31, 2011

A Better World

My last post included examples of bad manners and hostility disguised as conversation. Regarding manners, I'm not debating whether manners are dying out or whether they are passé or old fashioned. I'm making the point that manners are a social shorthand for civility, and are so commonly known to be so, that it can be said that manners are civility.

Civility, of course, is the practice of being civil, that is, being polite, nice, kind. It is the practice of not being the opposite of civility, not being rude, hostile, or aggressive.

When someone is being rude, they may not consciously realize it. Aggressive behavior often originates in the unconscious, as a defense against harm done in the past. But when someone is being polite, they know it. It is the result of a conscious will to be nice, or to be helpful, affectionate, cordial or whatever kind of good will it is that they particularly mean to express.

Rude or hostile behavior is not merely what it is. It is not just aggression. It is not just that the smirking assholes who display it are taking advantage of a leeway built into social behaviors like conversation, correspondence, or commerce, to do what they don't have the courage to do outright, and thereby avoid responsibility for their hostility and cowardice. It has a corrosive effect. It increases the level of hostility that is always working its way through society. Hostility gets diffused through society in various ways, but rude and hostile behavior by individuals, many of them separately, is one of the primary ways.


One can argue whether civility will bring about a better world, or whether a better world, that is, a better way of organizing the world, will bring about civility. I happen to be listening to an audio book recording of one of the great Russian author Leo Tolstoy's later books, The Kingdom Of God Is Within You, in which argues the former, that civility, better behavior, more kindness, more love, more forgiveness, will bring about a better world.

Tolstoy, 1828-1910, and Karl Marx, 1818-1883, in some ways paralleled each other in their thinking. In listening to Tolstoy I sometimes get the feeling I am listening to Marx. Their language and their analysis of society are very similar. They differ in how they think change happens. Tolstoy thought people would change, and that would change the world. Marx thought that the conditions in which people developed and operated must be changed, and that those structural, or material changes would be what changed human nature.

Leo Tolstoy
Karl Marx
The centerpoint of Tolstoy's argument is the need to practice non violence, or, as he more often, and quite dramatically puts it, non resistance to evil. The person in the world most known for non violence, Gandhi, said that Tolstoy's book was the most influential book he ever read. The two maintained a correspondence until Tolstoy's death, and the last letter Tolstoy wrote was to Gandhi.

Non violence, it was argued by Tolstoy, and later Gandhi and Martin Luther King, is the only way to combat violence in society. Tolstoy describes quite convincingly and very thoroughly how violence works its way through a society. All but a tiny amount of the violence in a society is the violence visited upon the working class by the ruling classes, of their own country and countries they go to war against, through their vehicle of social control, the State (that is, the government of a given country).

Tolstoy, writing in the late 1800s, very optimistically thought that violence as a means of organizing society would soon be a thing of the past. Non violence, Tolstoy thought, was certain to be spread throughout the world. He saw signs of this change, if not the change itself, in the growing Socialist, Communist and Anarchist movements of the day.

He didn't think it would come through those movements, but he thought that change would eventually sweep the world as more and more people adopted non violence and it displaced violence as a means of social control. Tolstoy thought this would happen through the spread of Christianity. By "Christianity" he didn't mean the religion adhered to by Protestantism or the Catholic or Orthodox churches. He criticizes religion mercilessly. By "Christianity" he meant the teachings of Jesus Christ, which are about non resistance to evil, humility, generosity, and kindness, that is, about love, and he almost never mentions the supernatural in his arguments.

It is unfortunate that he used the word "Christianity," since almost no one, least of all official church leadership, equates Christianity with non resistance to evil, or with humility, generosity, kindness, or love. It would have been better had he simply said that people must be more humble, generous, kind, loving, and that they must not practice violence in any of its forms.

The Left, with the lofty goal of bringing about a better world, often attributes to the Right motives that arise from our lesser natures, but one almost never hears anyone from the Left say that Leftist thinking arises from our better natures. That is not part of the Left's thinking. This is not because people on the Left are waiting for material conditions to change human nature, but because people of the Left primarily want there to be a better world so that the world is better for them. That is, for reasons of self interest.


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