Friday, August 23, 2013

Civil Society

We are all limited. We all express ourselves in ways that reveal those limitations (not always where they are flattering to us or other people). So we are all bigots. But we don't have to be uncivil about this. We can learn to express ourselves in ways that pointedly leave room for valid alternatives.

We can be aware that others are not like us, that being like us does not make one a good person, that it is possible to hate us and still be an exemplary human being. We should aim to inspire our opposition to be better than we are by acknowledging that they might be. Heterosexuals who dislike homosexuality (as something they might do or "condone" or whatever) should deliberately make room for gay marriage to exist (and fail on its own merits or lack thereof, if it must fail). Christians who dislike Islam should pointedly refrain from banning its practice, instead giving it room to "do its best" (not worst) by deliberately keeping the level of social discourse high (avoiding the temptation to sling insults and/or bombs). A bad enemy becomes good when he has to model civil behavior to engage you (i.e. elicit a meaningful response). If so-called "freedom fighters" went around doing voluntary business with "oppressed" people in ways that benefited them, this would be (and is) a much more effective means of persuasion (and improving social discourse) than "shock and awe" (which creates more negative blowback than positive compliance, and solidifies the idea that a conflict must be pursued by means that are uncivil).

People make and respond to signals. They cannot help it. The most we can do to influence the process is alter our signals, broadcasting invitations whose outcomes appear better to us (for some reason). Unfortunately, many of us become hooked early-on to the rewards of signalling anger violently (or dismissively). While this kind of signalling inevitably has its place (as something necessary in the human collection of signals), over-cultivating it is disastrous (especially when we move away from small societies with primitive arms into large societies with WMDs). In the latter situation, we want to inspire discord that is constructive (even and especially when parties involved are hostile): we cannot afford to be violently angry (responding to every "terrorist attack" with a counterstrike that escalates the destruction of civil society, at home as abroad). We must de-escalate the conflict by changing its terms, making it a contest to win people over (as grudging allies or neutrals) rather than a race to see who is annihilated first.

The really civilized person recognizes that there are limits to what we can do to defend civil society with dismissive, aggressive imposition (verbal or physical, legal or illegal). If we have to wage total war to save it, that society is already lost: it is no longer civil. Its security does not matter, since it no longer represents something worth securing. It has become nothing more than a giant collection of dynamite wired with what we hope is a really, really long fuse.

We should look for excuses not to intervene. We should absolutely not try to "defend marriage" (or family or virtue or modesty or charity or honor or patriotism or some other seeming public good) by imposing our view of it on others against their will. We should resort to violent imposition in extremis only (e.g. when somebody attacks and we are in process of stopping them from crashing planes into buildings), and our response should be as brief and un-impactful as possible. Minimizing security should be the ideal, not maximizing it. We should openly warn people that the best way to "defend" their way of life (whatever that is) is to practice it peacefully, non-confrontationally, and contentedly: I should not make my happiness require you to embrace it where it is not yours. I should give you space to be yourself, a self that is not me. If you want to wear a burkha, fine. I must be OK with that, and you must respect my decision not to wear one. There is not "one true national dress" that we must all accept. There should not be. Anyone who proposes such a thing endangers civil society more than he protects it--and must be resisted (peacefully, of course).

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