The concept of the “veneer of civility” is a pretty popular metaphor. It conjures up the image of a thin layer covering up something more sinister, and when that layer cracks, the “true nature” of humanity comes up and takes over.
Bill Moyers expresses the majority view:
Civilization is but a thin veneer of civility stretched across the passions of the human heart. And civilization doesn’t just happen; we have to make it happen. And that’s not easy.
I think there is a lot of elitism and imperialism hiding behind such sentences. After all, we’ve spent centuries calling other cultures “uncivilized” and assuming that they must be more violent and evil than we are, but such assertions are now completely discredited (some people still spout such propaganda).
My inspiration here is an entry by Ursula LeGuin where she debunks the whole metaphor exactly perfectly:
If you peel away a veneer, you reveal a solid substance of a different nature from the veneer. If law and moral convention are a veneer, the implication is that they are a thin, artificial disguise or prettification of something substantial but less pretty.
What is this substance?
Are we to assume the substance revealed is that of social relations in their raw state?
Does a raw state postulate some “natural” or prehistoric phase of human existence, a pre-social state in which there was no social code, and each individual invented behavior and relationship from scratch?
Social animals such as man all live within a system of rules of behavior and relationship, some innate and some learned, which limit violence within the group, facilitate communication, and make repeated betrayal of trust unprofitable. Almost all human beings, even infants, are continuously engaged in intensely complex mutual human relationships taking place within a society and culture consisting of rules, laws, traditions, institutions, etc. that specify and regulate the nature and manner of those relationships.
Furthermore, the metaphor reveals crucial limitations. We are assuming that human nature is the substance and civilization is a veneer over it. But presumably civilization was created by human beings with this same human nature, so how did it arise? How do we go from a state of individual confusion to a state of uniform order?
LeGuin is correct in stating that morality is innate. The order imposed by civilization is really the artificial production and reproduction of hierarchies and their attendant institutions and constructs. I think the metaphor does still work in a certain way, but only if we understand the true nature of civilization.
Take emergency situations, for example. In such situations, there is a veneer that comes off, but it’s not morality. Rather, I think it’s hierarchy. People no longer see each other or themselves as social roles but as human beings that need to survive. There is something inherently non-hierarchical about emergency situations, because social roles, titles, status or money don’t count for anything when the immediate concern is physical survival.
The Internet is another example. We have this conception that the Internet somehow releases people’s inhibitions, but I think it’s really that being on the Internet puts us in an environment where social mores are not as salient as they would be otherwise. In that sense, the release of hatred and hostility online is simply the result of people revealing more of their inner monologue. It’s brutal and it’s ugly, but it tells us more about the psyche of our fellow humans that would otherwise remain hidden.