Culture

This Is Today's Question: What Does It Mean to Be 'Civilized'?

No one expects to be beaten to death by Mr. Peanut. Of course not — the dude wears a top hat and a monocle. And even though he carries a cane and could easily start to bludgeon you with it at any moment, that possibility has never entered your brain, because Mr. Peanut is the picture of civility.

But what does it really mean to be civilized, and why do humans (and some legumes) treasure that concept?

I think most of us see civility as man moving away from our more brutal animal nature. We don’t just attack anyone outside our immediate families, we try to resolve disputes through reasoning, and we follow a complex set of codes to get along with each other.

For instance, despite the cat throwing up on my bed for the millionth time, it never crossed my mind to kill and eat the cat — or at least not eat it. Because that would be uncivilized. And while these civilized rules of behavior may seem arbitrary at times, it’s this miracle of civility that allows millions and millions of humans to work together to achieve unimaginable things, like building cities with electricity and infrastructure, landing on the moon, and having a McDonald’s within a five-minute drive no matter where you are.

As self-sufficient as ancient man could be, his iPhone didn’t get an update every year; it takes civility — people knowing they can trust each other and won’t suddenly bash in each other’s heads with rocks — to be able to play Candy Crush on a larger screen with higher resolution.

But can civility also be a weakness?

I explore this quite a bit in my novel, Superego, in which the protagonist, Rico, is a psychopath and works as a hitman, so he doesn’t quite fit in with civilized society. In fact, he looks upon most of civilization with disdain. He works in a bloody fight for survival among cutthroat criminal syndicates, and thus the average civilized man, blissfully ignorant of the violence, seems rather frivolous to him — sort of like how we look down on hipsters.

And you have to wonder if this is how much of the world looks at us. Right now, you’re just perusing the internet, reading an article written by some goofball, while other people around the world are locked in civil war or struggling daily to survive. Does this make us a better people, or more inane?

And can this “civility” end up opposing our basic instinct of survival? In Superego, it’s up to the psychopath to deal with a terrorist threat, as the civilized police force just doesn’t have the resolve to deal with it directly. And the civilized model of government — not wanting to step beyond its bounds or antagonize anyone — is too meek to deal with the criminal organizations, which are terrorizing planets.

Does that remind you of us now?

We can be frustrated by tiny, weaker countries we could wipe off the map with the push of a button, but they know we won’t do that because we’re civilized. Does that makes us better people to be that peaceful? Or are we just in denial of the violent reality of the world?

Overall, I’d say civility is a great thing, but we run into problems because we’re just not that comfortable with it. We’re like apes in tuxedos — we put on airs of being refined, but deep down we’re still savage animals struggling to fit in (and the suits are kind of itchy). It just doesn’t feel completely right to us, and you can tell that by seeing how much popular fiction is about what happens when we no longer have the protection of the civilized world. When tragedy strikes, when war breaks out, when zombies walk the streets — that’s when we consider things as becoming interesting. That’s what we want to see. It’s as if we consider our true nature to be whatever it is when the trappings of civilization are removed.

And like the ape struggling to understand what a cumberbund is, we’re just not always that good at civility. That’s why it sometimes gets in the way of the survival of society, because we’re struggling to be a better people while not exactly knowing how to do that. For example, many think that removing weapons like guns from society will make us more civilized, but those people, who are ignorant of firearms, react in fear of a gun about the same way a caveman would, which makes the supposed advancement more like a regression. The orangutan tried to tie his bow tie but ended up choking himself with it.

Still, we’re going to muddle forward. We’re going to try to become a better, more peaceful, more cooperative people, all while not getting wiped out by barbarians like common Romans. We may not always know the right path, but if we ever hope to one day see an iPhone 27, we’re going to figure it out. Just keep in mind that no matter how civilized we become, there’s still that animal inside that will never feel quite comfortable. If a peanut is anything like a person (and why wouldn’t it be?), while Mr. Peanut will never beat anyone to death with his cane, he’s certainly thought about it.

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Please join the discussion on Twitter. The essay above is the sixteenth in volume 2 of the cultural discussions between the writers of PJ Lifestyle and Liberty Island exploring the history of counter-cultures, the future of conservatism and the role of new, emerging counter-cultures in restoring American exceptionalism. Want to contribute? Check out the articles below, reach out, and lets brainstorm: @DaveSwindle

Volume II

  1. Frank J. Fleming on February 26, 2015: What Is the Future of Government? Why It Won’t Look Like Star Trek 
  2. Aaron C. Smith on February 26, 2015: What Is the Future of Superheroes? Why They Need To Start Killing Super-Villains
  3. Mark Ellis on February 26, 2016: What Is the Future of Gen-X Manhood? Adam Carolla Vs Chuck Palahniuk?
  4. David S. Bernstein on February 26, 2015: What is the Future of Fiction? You’ll Be Shocked Who’s Fighting the New Conservative Counter-Culture
  5. Aaron C. Smith on March 2, 2015: The House Loses: Why Season 3 of House of Cards Utterly Disappoints
  6. Michael Walsh on March 2: What the Left Doesn’t Get About Robert A. Heinlein
  7. Frank J. Fleming on March 3: 8 Frank Rules For How Not to Tweet
  8. Susan L.M. Goldberg on March 4: 7 Reasons Why Backstrom Is Perfect Counter-Culture Conservative TV
  9. Frank J. Fleming on March 5: What Is the Future of Religion?
  10. Aaron C. Smith on March 5: The Future of Religion: Why Judeo-Christian Values Are More Important Than Science
  11. Spencer Klavan on March 5: Not Religion’s Future: ISIS and the Art of Destruction
  12. Chris Queen on March 7: 5 Reasons Why Big Hero 6 Belongs Among The Pantheon Of Disney Classics
  13. Jon Bishop on March 8: Why I Am Catholic
  14. Frank J. Fleming on March 11: 6 Frank Tips For Being Funny On the Internet
  15. Becky Graebner on March 11: 5 Things I Learned In My First 6 Months As a Small Business Owner

See the first volume of articles from 2014 and January and February 2015 below:

2014 – Starting the Discussion…

January 2015 – Volume I

February 2015