We think of ourselves as civilized – but what does that mean? The Romans who entertained themselves by watching Christians being thrown to lions thought that they were civilized. So did the English colonialists who kidnapped Africans to sell as slaves. And are the practitioners of female genital mutilation (partial or total removal of the clitoris of female children) in Africa and the Middle East civilized? The term ‘civilized’ is a relative term – and it changes with culture and time.
Humanity is a product of evolution. We share the same ancestors as the ape family. Until Homo sapiens split away from the ape family, it was genetic evolution that was in the driving seat. Since then, most of our evolution has been ‘cultural’ where behavior learned from our cultural leaders is adopted as the norm and becomes ingrained. By virtue of cultural evolution, today murder is not acceptable where once it was condoned (as long as the victim belonged to another tribe). In general it is fair to say that, as a result of cultural evolution, our behavior is much improved from our cave dweller era – but there is still a long way to go.
The civilizing process, it can be said, is one that modifies the primitive behavior that is ‘hard wired’ into us by the DNA passed on to us by our ancestors (going all the way back to the beginning of life on our planet). Early philosophers and psychologists have referred to the built-in behavior we have inherited from our pre-human ancestors as the ‘beast within’. By this view selfishness, lust, unbridled anger and a tendency to violence are all ‘natural’ behavior.
Some philosopher ‘greats’ have opined that this behavior is the ‘real man’ and should not be challenged. Nietzsche, for instance, felt that any efforts to bridle our natural impulses were misdirected. In his view it was right and proper for those who held power to use that power to gain yet more power at the expense of weaker opponents. To do otherwise, in his view, was inviting the extinction of our species as weak and unworthy in the jungle of ‘survival of the fittest’.
But Nietzsche’s time is done – and, in general, when it comes to behavior, there is little to be learned from our past (except, perhaps, what not to do). Today, most of us believe that civilization is ‘good’ and that it is right to define progressively higher standards for our social behavior. Which brings us, however, to some real and topical questions such as: ‘Is it correct to acknowledge and accept behavior that is offensive to most members of a majority culture if it is accepted behavior within a minority culture?’
Most people, when asked such a question, will want a specific example. If the example is ‘severe’ (such as the female genital mutilation case) the answer comes swiftly. It is ‘no, such behavior should be prohibited in the strongest possible terms’. But when the aberrant behavior is ‘soft’, such as wearing clothing specific to a particular culture or religion, there is noticeable hesitation because now we enter the orbit of ‘democracy’ and all its emotive constituent parts, such as ‘liberty’, ‘freedom’ and ‘tolerance’. Now we are conflicted – and this is the dilemma of the western world today.
Democracy holds ‘motherhood’ status in the West – and few western politicians would dare to expose themselves to accusations of advocating ‘undemocratic’ policies. Adding to the politician’s plight is the simple fact that his career depends on the ‘popular vote’ in his electoral district.
If an electoral district accumulates a sizable community of a particular cultural minority (and such a community becomes a magnet for new immigrants of that culture) it becomes inevitable that, eventually, its elected representatives will be members of that community – even if it remains a statistical minority in the electoral district. Because these communities are more close-knit and united in their desire for political acceptance of their culture, they will vote as one for ‘their’ representative – while the opposing candidates will have their votes split by all the sub-plots of the larger community.
But is this bad? To many, ‘multiculturalism’ is a good thing. ‘Variety is the spice of life’ they would say. To come to a logical answer you have to imagine yourself in a time machine.
Travel back into our distant past when primitive tribalism was what defined ‘society’. Obeying their pre-human genes, our cave-dweller ancestors were fiercely territorial. This was not a time to ‘take a vacation’ in a neighboring region. ‘Culture’ was a set of (frequently bad) habits within the tribe and ‘anything goes’ was the morality so far as behavior to members of another tribe were concerned.
Move forward in time towards the present and things improve somewhat – but that tribalistic ‘us’ and ‘them’ attitude is still there, with distrust and distaste for ‘them’ the rule. Hatred of ‘them’ for wrongs done generations ago lives on. Wars are fought and millions die with this hatred for fuel.
Now travel into the future. The total human population is currently 7 billion. By 2040 it is projected to reach 9 billion. We will be facing issues that know no boundaries – global warming, reduced protection from the ozone layer, environmental pollution, increased vulnerability to pandemic disease. Are we to going to survive as a patchwork of competing cultures clinging to our tribal pasts?
Our only hope, as a species, is that we find a way to shed our tribal past and grow to see one another as members of a single global community. Religion, today, is a particularly divisive cultural force. Are we still savages? Is a slightly different view of ‘the one God’ a reason for fanatical hatred that can be carried to the extreme of suicide attacks on those of a different culture?
We think of ourselves as an intelligent species. Let’s use our intelligence to find a way to ‘grow up’ to become future man. Our leaders and our political systems cannot shy away from the issues involved. The cultural islands being created now within tolerant western democratic societies are anachronistic time bombs that will destroy us all.