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Where Has the Civility in Civilization Gone?

Debra Efroymson
Dhaka, 2011

Call me crazy--you certainly won't be the first--but I always thought that one important mark of civilization was not trying to grab whatever you can, at whatever cost to others.

I know, I know, I'm a hopeless liberal hippie with crazy ideals, but I thought that civilization involved some level of concern for our fellow people and the planet that sustains us. In fact, I thought that one of the trademarks of barbarians was precisely the opposite set of characteristics: use force to grab whatever you can, and to hell with the harm your opponents suffer.

Apparently my thoughts are hopelessly out of date, or at least not in keeping with sound economic theory. For it seems that neo-liberal economists actually laud the sort of atrociously selfish behaviour that I find so savage and despicable.

Millionaires and billionaires are somehow supposed to be heroes, people we look up to for their great achievements in financial wizardry. (We are allowed to look up to some social advocates as well, such as Mother Theresa--preferably ones who do not challenge the system, or make outrageous remarks about the need for the rich to contribute more to alleviating poverty and injustice.)

When exactly "grab, grab, grab" became the mantra of economists, I am not exactly sure. I seem to remember as a child being taught the virtues of sharing, and imagine that most of my friends attempt to instill similar values in their children. Many of us also believe that we shouldn?t steal from future generations or spoil things too much for them, say by using up available resources at unsustainable rates or by trashing the environment. Apparently this makes us hopelessly outdated (though not, oddly, conservative).

Perhaps it will always remain a mystery to me how we can consider as virtuous such practices as underpaying workers, avoiding taxes, and fighting programs that would give the downtrodden some chance at a slightly less horrific and humiliating existence. The odd concept that we "can't afford" to preserve the very earth that makes our physical lives possible is also beyond me.

And perhaps it's just as well. I would rather continue blindly in my ignorant ways, if that's what they are, content in my belief that I am on the civilized side of the equation, than join the barbarians in their despoliations....

Debra Efroymson