‘Civilization Does Not Civilize’ – or barbarize, either

If we pretend that culture and art are the hammers they were never meant to be, very soon we will arrive at a point which says other ideas and the people who hold them are wrong, then inferior, then dangerous, and finally as subhuman or not fit to live—or at least unfit to live around us, some illusory sense of social or culture “purity” now the goal.

Tim Miller at word and silence

I disagree with your premise. In a 2001: A Space Odyssey’ sense, we’re always trying to rid ourselves of the tribe the next hill over. Baboons and chimpanzees don’t need art criticism to break open the bones of rivals and suck out marrow in victory.

The Assyrians weren’t the exceptionally literary type; their histories don’t seem to have much imagination or color to them. And yet they were masters of siege warfare, terrorism, genocide. The Achaemenid Persians coming relatively soon after manage to be more artistic and less violent. From ‘Man Corn‘ in the American Southwest to Maori and Moriori, the desire to force whole groups of people to submit or be eradicated does not seem correlated to any level of aesthetic development.

Actually, a direct response to your George Steiner quotation is one from Anthony Burgess, partially explaining his inspiration for his protagonist Alex from A Clockwork Orange:

Burgess: I’ve always been worried about the tendency of people writing in English to confuse the two kinds of good. George Steiner, the biggest bloody fool who ever lived, a man in a responsible situation, a man miraculously equipped with languages and learning, who is so foolish as to wonder why Nazis, why a concentration camp officer could listen to Schubert and at the same time send Jews to the gas. …There are two different kinds of good. This is a horrible thing. A bad man listening to Beethoven. The man is going to kill his dog in a few minutes. It’s impossible, but this is the romantic heresy, the assumption that a work of art has some sort of moral content.

Is it difficult to imagine a racist slaver in the antebellum South who might feel no guilt at beating an enslaved person to death but be quite upset watching someone else beat a dog or horse unnecessarily? Is it difficult to imagine a Predator drone pilot bombing a child at a funeral then going from base to home to fuss over their own daughter who skinned her knee at school?

Empathy extends to those you consider people. Anything that lies beyond that we’re more than capable of subjecting to atrocities because we’ve bred ourselves for that for hundreds of thousands of years, if not longer.

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