In certain circles it is still a compliment to say someone is civilised. Or for that matter a lady or a gentleman. Mostly, however the expressions are now notable for class undertones as if to be a gentleman was to be Bertie Wooster, to be a lady a badge of subservience. The word has been corrupted which is a pity for it is critically needed in dangerous times.
So, for example, being civilised is certainly not a question of wealth or social status. Look at the boorish barbarians, Mr Trump and his entourage, or the Tory Brexiteers, or indeed significant tranches of the Fine Gael middle class in Ireland. The plummy, clubbable barrister may consider justice a mere game.
Being civilised is not intrinsically related to education, at least to formal education. Increasingly the education system is imparting in people narrow technocratic skills useful for employability but no taste, no ethics, no sociability, nothing particularly civilised.
We are breeding a generation of rote learners not critical thinkers. A new age of conformity where obedience to authority for the sake of it is necessary for success. Moreover, within the college structure promotion and preferment are now linked to an increasingly controlled discourse where ideas that cut across the norm that suit the vested interests of the status quo – ideas that have even a tinge of leftism or anti-authoritarianism, are penalised. It need not be stressed that. The paradigm of discourse is neo-liberalism and knee-jerk conservatism which morphs very easily into indulgence of fascism, the antithesis of civilisation.
Certainly education through wide-ranging reading is part of being civilised. I do not trust decision-makers who do not read literature and history for pleasure or or have some smattering of philosophy (totally absent in Ireland) and social theory. Musical appreciation too is a requisite. It seems to me that those seeking positions of civic responsibility who have functions to perform but do not have a sufficiently wide framework of reference or indeed cultivation to come to nuanced and balanced decisions should be disqualified from appointment in the first place.
Of course it is a lot to ask as we are living in a frenetic and frantic world where many of us are increasingly in survival mode. What time have we for reading or for that matter the opera – yet not to read at all seems to me an abnegation of responsibility. Make the time. And when I mean reading I do not mean scanning a newspaper or surfing the internet. I mean reading a book.
Ask anyone from the Irish government’s front bench of Ireland to read The Brothers Karamazov or Ulysses and see how they would fare. Force them to do so at gun point.
A rather thuggish senior counsel once sought to priggishly reprimand me for reading. People become interested in other things such as women he intimated, boorishly, studdishly.
In another Russian novel “Fathers and Sons” by Turgenev the effete aristocrat Pavel Petrovich is ridiculed by the new breed of nihilistic proto-Bolshevik intellectuals. Being civilised becomes a crucial sign of weakness or opportunity to the unscrupulous and the cynical. They see it as a softening and a weakness and in our increasingly Social Darwinist world as an opportunity to eliminate or destroy.
Of course the employment of letters and irony unsettles those who do not have it. Depth and sophistication are very dangerous to those whose modus operandi is calumny and simplification. The ambiguity and subtlety of language is a powerful weapon. Even Enda Kenny seems to know this. The Pen, properly used at least, if not mightier than, is always a useful counter-weight to the Sword.
Being civilised also does not necessarily mean having taste or good manners. Heydrich played Schubert at the Wannsee conference as he ordered the mass liquidation of the Jews. My late friend Judge Hardiman ate like a hungover Cockney ne’erdowell in a greasy spoon café yet he was one of the more civilised individuals I have met.
But Hardiman was a master of the truth. One need only read his judgments on our delinquent tribunals and constabulary.
One of the fruits of being civilised is an affinity with, indeed a quest for, the truth. I’ll hang my definition on that.
The Zeitgeist phrase is the nonsense, ‘post-Truth’. Of course Truth is transcendent. For facts it is a matter of empiricism, of evidence, of induction. For opinions it is not so clear but attitudes that converge on decency, that maximise, or optimise, freedom and equality, are best.
It’s good to be robust and unambiguous in disparaging nonsense in facts, and intolerance in opinions. Climate-scepticism and Trumpism/the ‘Alt-Right’ are exemplars. They deserve no credit.
A proper zeal for the truth is the likes of Chomsky’s attitude to structuralism and post-structuralism which he manifests with overarching clarity:
“It’s entirely possible that I’m simply missing some- thing, or that I just lack the intellectual capacity to understand the profundities that have been unearthed in the past 20 years or so by Paris intellectuals and their followers. I’m perfectly open-minded about it, and have been for years, when similar charges have been made — but without any answer to my questions. Again, they are simple and should be easy to answer, if there is an answer: if I’m missing something, then show me what it is, in terms I can understand. Of course, if it’s all beyond my comprehension, which is possible, then I’m just a lost cause, and will be compelled to keep to things I do seem to be able to understand, and keep to association with the kinds of people who also seem to be interested in them and seem to understand them (which I’m perfectly happy to do, having no interest, now or ever, in the sectors of the intellectual culture that engage in these things, but apparently little else).
“Since no one has succeeded in showing me what I’m missing, we’re left with the second option: I’m just incapable of understanding. I’m certainly willing to grant that it may be true, though I’m afraid I’ll have to remain suspicious, for what seem good reasons. There are lots of things I don’t understand — say, the latest debates over whether neutrinos have mass or the way that Fermat’s last theorem was (apparently) proven recently. But from 50 years in this game, I have learned two things: (1) I can ask friends who work in these areas to explain it to me at a level that I can understand, and they can do so, with- out particular difficulty; (2) if I’m interested, I can proceed to learn more so that I will come to understand it. Now Derrida, Lacan, Lyotard, Kristeva, etc. — even Foucault, whom I knew and liked, and who was some- what different from the rest — write things that I also don’t understand, but (1) and (2) don’t hold: no one who says they do understand can explain it to me and I haven’t a clue as to how to proceed to overcome my failures. That leaves one of two possibilities: (a) some new advance in intellectual life has been made, perhaps some sudden genetic mutation, which has created a form of “theory” that is beyond quantum theory, topology, etc., in depth and profundity; or (b) … I won’t spell it out”.
In other words it is nonsense but nonsense that has had a degrading effect on our culture. I have always felt that the appeal of post-modernism and structuralism is also an appeal to the half-educated or worse still those who desire to say fashionable things at talks or dinner parties in Hampstead, Dartry – or indeed Vinohrady.
The first point to note about the post-modernists’ nonsense is that it has encouraged a distrust of the truth and an atmosphere of looseness and imprecision where arguments are accorded even and equal weight even if there is nothing of substance to say. Since all views are equally valid all views should be aired and taken equally seriously”. Wittgenstein dealt with such nonsense on stilts in the most elegant, and scathing, terms: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”.
Otherwise we are only one short step to the intellectual delinquency that, being difficult to ascertain precisely, the Truth is contestable, that it should be balanced. This nonsense is creeping into our culture, our media, our law courts and in my view is a form of brainwashing.
The discourse has been degraded to such a pronounced and profound sense that much of our media is consumed by at best ideological representations of the truth and at worst utter nonsense in a misplaced quest for balance or pandering to vested interests. News programmes have become a form of popular entertainment rather than serious analysis. Rarely is a lie nailed. Too often it is merely counterbalanced with the Truth. The lack of seriousness of the online world has infected the media. Clickbait became a word and then an imperative.
To pre-empt and deconstruct incipient fascism we need education leading to Truth. Education is Beauty, is Truth.