The Civilized Thing
The twitterverse is on fire with outrage against Liam Neeson’s revelatory interview in which he disclosed that, after a close friend had been raped by a black man, he had gone into black neighborhoods armed with a cosh (like an American blackjack) in hopes of being confronted by a black man and using it to kill him.
It was a surprising revelation. And one that he did not have to reveal. He never followed through on his murderous impulse, so no crime was committed. But in this #MeToo era there appears to be no tolerance of past transgressions even those that are unproven, unprovable or no more than a passing thought. People are demanding that Neeson’s image be digitally removed from his upcoming movie, Men in Black International. And some people are threatening to kill him for thinking of killing someone (which did not make sense to me until I realized that because the intended victim was to be a black man that meant that Neeson, although not a murderer, was a racist and, therefore, had lost his right to exist on this earth).
Mr. Neeson is an accomplished actor who has been nominated for many movie industry awards and appears to hold the standard Hollywood set of liberal opinions (gun control and pro-abortion according to Wikipedia). Until his revelation, he appeared to be firmly set as a member of the Hollywood elite. But a 40-year-old aberration in his behavior caused by a brutal rape of a “close friend” appears to be a “career killer” for Neeson.
But I am not here to support or condemn the outrage generated by Mr. Neeson’s statement. His reaction was typically human. A person becomes angry if he/she, a family member or “close friend” are assaulted or robbed. That person wants to lash out and the target does not have to be the guilty party. Tribal vengeance has a long and not very proud history. Blood feuds and vendettas often kill many more innocents than guilty.
Us vs. them is deeply seated in the human consciousness. It is a survival tool that helped keep our ancestors alive. Family is safe, a stranger is a danger. This is why African tribes often use facial scarring to facilitate recognition. And if someone from a different tribe kills one of your own, you kill someone from that tribe as retribution and a warning. It was the internecine feuding that prompted the tribes of Medina to invite an outsider, the Prophet Muhammed, to come and resolve their problems. Of course, once the Prophet gained power in Medina, he used that power to exact retribution on the tribes that had persecuted him in Mecca.
But the primal instincts that kept our ancestors safe (relatively) on the African savannah, do not function well in a civilized society. Tribal solidarity provided safety in ancient times but inhibit open communication and the development of trust among diverse people in crowded urban environments. This is why the reversion to tribal populism and identity politics is so dangerous. It moves us toward a less civilized and less open society.
A civilized and open society is what Enlightenment philosophers and our Founding Fathers envisioned; a march of progress that not only provided us with great prosperity but also with a deeper understanding of the world around us and of the people that inhabit that world.
The progressive left has been using identity politics to create new “tribes” that it can use as levers to gain political power. In order to create these new tribes, it emphasizes how the tribe has been victimized by “them,” whoever that them might be. In this case it is white men that are “them” and they are responsible for all of the harm done to the tribe whether it be blacks, Hispanics, women or transgenders. And all of these tribes are expected to reliably support the full scope of the progressive agenda. What radical environmentalism or Marxist economic policies have to do with the condition of being black or Hispanic is beyond me. Progressives will say that pollution and capitalism are just the white man’s way of oppressing your poor tribe.
President Trump has responded by rallying to the cause of white men, especially white men (far from being oppressors) who have suffered from the effects of technological change and a globalized economy. Because of this he has been labeled racist and sexist because if you are for white men you must be against these other victimized tribes.
The rancorous political atmosphere on both sides of the political spectrum is typical of the feuds between rival tribes that are a prelude to violence. Already there have skirmishes between neo-Nazi marches and anti-fascist riots that can easily transform into violent confrontations and death.
People feel comfortable in their tribal group, but they are safer in civilized society. People are more than their supposed tribal identity. The world is complex and simplification is a way to cope with complexity but I refuse to be put into such a tight box of identity. And so should you.
There is a reason that tribal societies are not democratic. Tribesmen support their tribe over the nation. They support their fellow tribesmen over citizens from other tribes. It takes a brutal dictator like Saddam Hussein to suppress these tribal instincts. Once the Americans had eliminated him, the tribes immediately fell into getting revenge on the other tribes for long suppressed injustices.
It is civilization and primarily Western civilization that has raised us out of this tribal violence that is only a few steps away from the nasty, brutish and short lives that Hobbes envisioned in the state of nature. Mr. Neeson never followed through on his passion. Something stayed his hand. Kept his cosh in his pocket. It was the civilized thing to do.
And while we’re at it:
Western civilization differs from other civilizations in that Western civilization generates change as part of its very nature. The Enlightenment philosophy at the root of Western civilization was itself the result of the changes occurring in Europe at that time. The Reformation broke the Catholic Church’s hold on feudal monarchies freeing not only those countries but also the Christian religion that was no longer snared in the secular world of political power.
The rise of literacy, the printing press and the development of the scientific method combined to foster change as communication and technological advancement transformed the West. But the momentum of change, which seemed almost imperceptible at the beginning of the modern era, kept accelerating. While the professions of our ancestors could be passed on generation by generation, we live in a world where many professions are being obliterated while new professions that we can barely comprehend are being created. Doctors, that didn’t even have anesthetics during the Civil War, can reach into the very DNA of their patients. In the West, change is occurring so fast that the majority of the population cannot keep up. Dislocation is rampant. Even our bodies are being transformed with organ replacements grown in pigs and advanced prosthetics better than our original limbs.
Whereas other civilizations are resistant to change, clinging to ancient religions and traditional standards of behavior, Western civilization is changing so rapidly that we can barely control it (or perhaps we are only deluding ourselves to think that we are still in control). What’s more, we are dragging the rest of the world along with us as even poor peasants in somnolent villages have smartphones and Internet connections.
Reaction and resistance to transformative change was inevitable. The rise of populism in the West is a collective call from dislocated populations to stop the world, they want to get off.
But they can’t. In the early 1400s, China tried to turn its back on progress in order to maintain stability and Confucian traditions. The result was the century of shame as technologically and militarily advanced European countries dominated and occupied China in the nineteenth century. China has vowed to never let that happen again and is aggressively developing technologies to prevent that eventuality. And that means that if we turn our back on progress and try to bring back the golden age of the 1950s (which weren’t golden for everybody) we will end up like what happened to China.