The concept of civility as a veneer over evil.

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.

11 thoughts on “The concept of civility as a veneer over evil.

  1. Miep December 14, 2014 at 21:38

    A veneer over evil but also a veneer over perceived chaos, as anything that is not a hierarchical system is viewed as chaotic. This illustrates the pro-civ bias and also the human supremacist bias. If we can’t understand it, there must be nothing to understand.

    It plays into Internet interactions because they can be anonymous and anyone can have a platform, which interferes with the hierarchy.

    Good entry.

    • Francois Tremblay December 15, 2014 at 01:36

      “A veneer over evil but also a veneer over perceived chaos, as anything that is not a hierarchical system is viewed as chaotic.”


  2. Amy December 15, 2014 at 03:45

    Good piece indeed.

    But (yes).

    You say:

    “(…) this 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.”

    Isn’t that an argument for the thinness of the civilizational veneer that provides but a flimsy protection from the brutality and ugliness revealed in the uncensored eruptions of our psyche? It seems that it is just for the grace of this veneer that our fellow humans don’t enact those most brutal impulses of their id, so eagerly expressed in their online productions.

    Just look at any MRA / misogynist site and you’ll find there an endless stream of the vilest misogynist postulates / dreams, up to and including rape, enslavement and torture of women. There is no doubt in my mind that many of the men who so unhibitedly express such desires online have at least taken steps to realize them, in some forms, in their off-line lives. Or see ISIS, for example, or any other similar group, which exemplifies the misogynists’ (and not only) “ideals” enacted IRL.

    It seems to me that the veneer of civilization keeping the ISIS/misogynist rapists/etc.-wannabes from doing what they dream of IRL is indeed very thin.

    And so while I agree with LeGuin about the mostly innate origins of our moral values and behaviors, I must also agree with Moyers. The angels of our nature are in a constant battle with evil, which appears to be as innate and at least as robust as they are.

    • Miep December 15, 2014 at 04:13

      Amy, you can’t effectively argue about evil only inside the context of civilization without considering whether civilization itself might be inherently evil, and then you have to look at definitions of hierarchal civilizations as opposed to more egalitarian and less destructive cultures.

      • sloebote December 16, 2014 at 08:13

        I think we need to make distinctions between *civilisation* and *culture*.
        Here is what comes to mind for me: Civ is based on capital accumulation. No capital = no walls. No capital = no state. Universally, civ means – fear of loss, fear of *the wild*, fear of nature. Culture means shared experiences, memories, memes, and activities.
        I think that all civ is bad, since it is universally destructive of its environment, and unsustainable. from a most charitable viewpoint, civ is based on domestication – firstly of humans, then of plants and animals. And if an *object has no utility, it is destroyed. Man, beast, bug, or mountain, makes no difference.

        • Miep December 16, 2014 at 15:38

          Civilization is a kind of culture, but not all cultures are civilizations. Civilizations are inherently hierarchies. And industrial civilizations are inherently extractive and ecoclastic.

    • Francois Tremblay December 15, 2014 at 04:16

      But my point is that the latent hatred expressed online is real, it exists in our society, it just remains hidden under this “veneer.” Better for us to know about it, take the full measure of the temperament of society, and deal with it in the appropriate way, than for it to remain hidden.

      Furthermore, in many cases the hatred IS the veneer. I remember a great comment said by someone on Feminist Current, I don’t remember who, to the effect that politics is congealed hatred.

      • Miep December 15, 2014 at 04:22

        The veneer is politics, the veneer is an act, it is about people working to get more control over what they feel afraid of. That does not mean that what they are afraid of is actually dangerous to them.

        • sloebote December 16, 2014 at 07:43

          Very true about the fear part. There’s an old meme in my head – “Let go, and let God.” In other words, let go of the past, let go of the future, be in the present. – Trust the force, Luke.

  3. sloebote December 16, 2014 at 07:27

    wow. *Bill Moyers*, a person unknown to me, is totally brainwashed. As are so many of the persons I deal with, day to day. I am 60, and just fell down the rabbit hole some 6 years ago, so there is hope for every one of us. *Civ*, and the totalitarian *agriculture* on which it depends, are parasites that suck our lives and the lives of all inhabitants of this planet, filling us with fear and boogy-man stories, and conniving to convince us that our feedlot existence is advanced.
    Give me liberty or give me death.
    Now, help me turn this into a 30 second elevator speech?

  4. sloebote December 16, 2014 at 07:38

    Hatred is based on fear, pain, and repression. All of the cultural tools implemented to stuff us into this *civilized urban monkey suit*, DO NOT WORK. Our natural state is living nomadically in bands of 5 to 50, depending on the carrying capacity of the local environment. It works. Any attempts to organize something bigger than that leads to unintended sub-optimal consequences. It does NOT work.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: