The Barber of Civility
Recently (my last post, maybe? I forget), I mentioned the death (or at least a dearth) of civility in our nation and the world. Thought I'd go on about it a little bit.
Originally, this post was going to be called something like "Unprecedental Moral Decline," and be mostly about how I believe this country may actually be experiencing same. I need to point out, though, that religious fundamentalists and the others who've been crying so loudly about said decline, while correct that it exists, are totally wrong about what it consists of. What they really lament is that people aren't hewing to their biblical-literalist moral code, or at least that people are choosing to behave differently than they'd like them to. As an atheist, I think these folks are actually part, and a particularly nasty part at that, of the moral decline. I had a lot of examples of this at one point--mostly about how our social and political leaders seem to be setting very bad examples in terms of hateful accusations, selfishness, and general shallow, grabby, shortsighted what's-in-it-for-me-ism. But what it really comes down to is this "death of civility." More accurately, it seems to me to be a complete loss in most people of a sense of social contract or common good.
Why be civil? Why not just get whatever you want and fuck everyone else? Well, for one thing, there are laws about many such things, and it never pays to run afoul of them. But that doesn't begin to cover all the bad behavior people tend to get up to. I'll tell you why you want (yes want
) to be civil. You want to be civil because you're selfish and greedy.* You want to have easy transactions at the supermarket. You want prices of consumer goods to be low, and your insurance to be cheap. You want to get where you're going on the roads without a lot of near-misses and traffic jams. You have to shop again with that Gas-n-Sip cash register clerk you just shit all over because your boss called you on the carpet today. Stole a candy bar? Steal enough and the store owner's gonna take that cost out of you by raising the price of everything else. That guy you cut off in traffic? He's a lot more likely to cut you (or anyone else) off later—road rage isn't one person who's nuts, it's people pushing each other too far, day after day. What do you think that does to your insurance rates?
When you're uncivil, you're fucking with the common good—something you
share in. What goes around comes around, both good and bad. Better to send out smiles, small favors and goodwill than sharp sticks in the eye. It sounds trite and silly, but it's true, and every little bit helps.
We see it every day—people are becoming ruder and more insensitive in response to everyone else's perceived rudeness and insensitivity. But it's not in your self-interest to let civil society decay like that. Civil society makes your life waaaaay easier, and in many cases it makes your life possible at all. Why wouldn't you want to have a cooperative, generous and civil society? You may find you need it someday. Hell, you probably need it now and don't even appreciate how much.
I want my life to be easier. I want people to be nice to me. I want a lot of things for myself and my loved ones that peaceful, prosperous societies bring. So I got totally selfish, reeeeally self-serving, and realized that I, personally, in my own greedy self, can gain a lot from increasing the amount of civility in the world. So I try
to be nice to strangers I have to interact with, to obey the laws as much as I can manage, and to be generous, both with my friends and with charities that help people I don't know**.
Because I'm totally selfish.
* And that's OK. In my opinion, there's no such thing as altruism--you get or perceive some kind of reward from all your choices, even apparently altruistic behavior. I get a lot of stick about this idea from certain quarters--personally, I think the people who are threatened by this have not examined their own motivations closely enough. Either that, or they think they're so useless that altruism is the only thing that's kept them alive so far, and they can't imagine life without that safety net. Either way, they're missing the point. The fact that there's no such thing as altruism, that all behavior is self-interested, is in no way a prescription for giving up on doing things for other people, or generally being a good citizen. And yes, I even think love is selfish, but as we're all selfish about it—my wife and I both want to experience the pleasure of being together, so we're good to each other and considerate of each other's feelings—it works out to everyone's mutual advantage even so. Believing what I believe, I don't act any different than you do--I just don't kid myself about why I'm doing it.
**I give to charities, because I'd be an idiot if I thought I could distribute my "spare" income as efficiently as they can. I don't have anywhere near the understanding of people's needs that they do—it's their job to search out people in need and find the most cost-effective way to help them. I guarantee the dollar you give a bum on the street corner provides a lot less help to society than my dollar to Habitat for Humanity, just because they're a lot more efficient about spreading the money around than you are.