Becoming truly civilized
Let’s take the next step and express our human kindness
I used to have discussions with my father about whether humankind is or isn’t actually evolving and spiralling up to a better and better place. My father is pessimistic: he thinks history repeats itself. I have faith – I see progress. I believe that we can evolve for the better. Here’s why.
Civilized people reportedly are polite and well-mannered. ‘Civilization’ does not only refer to any society with an advanced stage of social and cultural development: the word entails something more. Civilization indicates morally refined behavior as opposed to barbarism. In school, we were taught that modern societies are civilized societies; but if you look at our European past, one might beg to differ. Even if Europeans still often tend to unconsciously view Europe as being at the best of cultural development, feeling superior to all other cultures, being the richest and the most successful in conquering the rest of the world, we might shamefully look back at certain events in our past.
But my point, defending my optimistic viewpoint, is that we’ve learnt many lessons. We’ve grown. Civilisation is the moral Bildung of a culture, and that takes time. We are not entirely there yet, but the trend is nonetheless going upwards.
Europe’s culture is based in part on our Christian heritage, which was built right on top of the polytheisms of the Greek and Roman Empires. The “European Christians” brutally wiped out older cultures, forbade temples, broke down traditions, burned people and banned all of their rituals. They held crusades to recover the “Holy Land” from Muslims and started “educating” everyone to their “new Truths” by sending missionaries across the world. Looking back, we can honestly say that this was unrespectful and that we would not do it anymore.
Politically, we’ve grown up. Coming from the unfair monarchy where one family is somehow more important by birthright than other families, or even from the tyranny of dictatorships, we Europeans chose democracy, as the most honest system to divide the power. Since then, we’ve been trying to convince the entire world of the perks of this system, even when our advice is not expected or welcome, and even if in reality, not everyone in our own countries is pleased with the results of this system. Although imposing it upon others raises a few ethical questions, on the European front, the adoption of democracy turned out to be a big step forward. We didn’t want anyone to unrightfully take all power, and we wanted everyone to have a say in who should rule us, as well as how they should do it. This arguably shows some sense of equality and fairness.
We have learnt more lessons, which allowed us to grow. Whereas some Europeans used to burn ‘witches’, we now believe it is unacceptable to burn someone, or even to punish a person without a fair trial. Fair trials are in themselves important, and the idea behind this would be that someone who has possibly done something should only get a sentence they actually deserve. Because even if they would turn out to be criminals, they deserve to be treated fairly. We stopped death sentences in Europe at some point altogether, just to be on the safe side. I consider all of this to be big steps up on the ladder of civilization.
Europeans somehow finally came to consider that it is better to honour people’s lives, despite divergences in opinions. Concretely, it means we started to treat people as equals – as fellow human beings.
There was a time when Europeans used to actively engage in slavery. They believed that they could make other people our slaves: own them, sell them, have them work for free, punish them physically. It was somehow a belief that contained a premise that these enslaved people were not real human beings. They were considered lower, of less value.It is alarming to see how long it took for slavery to be progressively abolished; I can imagine people needed some time for the idea of equality to sink in their new mindset, and to come out of their economic and political dependence on the concept.
And even though it can be argued that slavery has survived under disguise in our current capitalistic world, we shouldn’t forget to applaud those who dared to speak up for justice, equality and change. It is not easy to change the Zeitgeist of the entire generation.
Having finally gotten rid of slavery, it took one more century for Europeans to also consider women and men as equal. Women were allowed to go to university and to vote. Again, it might look obvious when looking back, but in the context of the times, these changes were revolutionary. Women finally gained a say, a choice, a voice, a value.
Then came a major relapse under the Nazi rule. It was like a witch hunt all over again, but then politically organised on massive scales. Equality was not a given anymore: Jews, handicapped people, gays, and Roma people, among others, paid the price.
When we emerged from the nightmare of WWII, we finally started to write down our lessons. What do all of us have in common, what are our values? What are the basic human rights to which all of us are entitled? What constitutes the moral ground for Europeans to stand on, across religions and cultures? The Declaration of Human Rights was more a “universal” endeavour than a European one, but it surely established a “good reason” for Europeans to feel ‘civilized’.
Arguably, of that Declaration of human rights, the most important article is the first, which states that all humans are to be treated equal. Literally: ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood’. With such a direction to follow, we were supposed to stop discrimination of people altogether. No gender, skin colour, sexual orientation, religion or other trait should make an exception to the fact that all humans are entitled to all 30 articles of the Declaration.
Now let’s take a look at today. Considering how long this bumpy road to the establishment of the Human Rights doctrine has been, one could hope we can now rightfully claim ourselves to be “civil”. Are we, as a civilization, courteous and polite to all human beings?
We still struggle with racism, that’s for sure. Men are still paid a little more, women are still harassed more. There’s still discrimination all over the place. Laws are there to prevent it, but in reality people do have a hard time bringing that theoretical civil attitude into practice. The ideals of Human Rights, equality and justice are still far from being widely and universally applied. But there at least one more thing, one lesson to be learned. There’s a large group of people in Europe – refugees, who are not treated as human beings equal to us. Far from it. Refugees are continuously being stripped of their rights. NGOs and some international organizations may be trying their best to give refugees access to healthcare, food, shelter, and clean water, but that is only the absolute minimum to stay alive, and we Europeans give them only that. What we don’t give them is the possibility to enjoy their other human rights, the ones that make you not only survive but actually live. Most refugees can’t move across, buy land or rent a place; they can’t have an income and spend their money and time playing or expressing themselves. Their lives are indefinitely on hold. Most of them are locked in unofficial prisons, waiting for an indefinite and endless time, as an unofficial punishment for setting foot on “our” land. A punishment for the fact that their birth didn’t entitle them with the right papers.
This all makes me wonder: what happened to the ‘spirit of brotherhood’ stated in the first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? We’ve proven our capacity to let go of old beliefs and to grow into the direction of more equality and more fairness for all of us. We have at least one more blind spot to look at and one lesson to learn. When we’ll have taken this step, treating refugees as our kin, we’ll finally be able to say a bit more rightfully that we are one humankind.
My friend and beautiful artist Carrie Tree has written a song about the longing for human kindness. You can listen to it here:
by Sabine Wassenberg, philosopher, the Netherlands
The views expressed in the article are the author’s and do not represent the official opinion of the Walk of Shame EU.
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