When Life Became Worthless

February 2, 2009
The trenches were the beginning of the end

The trenches were the beginning of the end

In my previous post, I mentioned that I have a theory that two key macro-events  in the 20th century were the fuel for the near lightning speed decline of civility around the world. The first of these macro-events will be discussed in this post – and can be clearly tracked to a specific year, 1914.

Not quite 15 years into the new century, a “warm-up” to the collapse of civility began. As European powers were drawn into World War I by an entanglement of alliances between legacy empires (Ottoman, German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian, etc.), the taking of human life reached a horrifying level. As many as 10 million military deaths and 8 million civilian deaths were attributed directly to the war, which did not include any deaths associated with the collateral damage of the war, such as famine and disease. Killing on this scale had never been experienced in the world – and little did anyone know that it was just a prelude to what has become the most dangerous century in human history.

After World War I, Europe settled into an uneasy truce where most of the problems that contributed to the conflict were neither resolved nor eliminated. In fact, the French and Germans in particular not only failed to resolve any problems – they actually placed their old border dispute issues in the same tea kettle and then proceeded to warm it up over an even hotter fire. War compensation treaty agreements from Germany to the other European powers was so high, that Germany’s economy collapsed and inflation grew by hundreds of percent – sometime just from week to week. Out of an uncivilized war had come an uncivilized peace, which set the groundwork for the complete annihilation of the worth of individual human beings. While the after-effects of unresolved conflict in Europe led to the political rise of a bad Austrian artist with an inflammatory speech-making ability – men named Trotsky, Stalin and Lenin overturned an imperial government and then began a power struggle amongst themselves that would lead to an authoritarian rule that would have an equally devastating impact on the devaluing of human life.

When the opening salvos of World War II were heard, the elimination of human life occurred on such an enormous scale that the entire world became, and remains to this day, insensitive to the value of human life. Adolf Hitler was personally responsible for as many as 20 million deaths – and proved single-handedly that the extreme end of incivility is inhumanity. Josef Stalin, after eliminating his co-conspirators, embarked on a hellacious reign that conservative estimates credit with the deaths of more than 60 million people.

In the 20th century, the human capability for inhumanity caught up with our technological ability to carry out that inhumanity. The 20th century was the deadliest era in human history. Pol Pot killed 1.7 million people. Hutus and Tutsis slaughtered (and continue to slaughter) each other by the hundreds of thousands. Kurds were assaulted with chemical weapons. And, lest we in America get carried away by the idea that we have a moral “high ground” when it comes to despotic regimes killing thousands; I would encourage you to read “A Legacy of Ashes – A History of the CIA”. Between 1946 and the present day, the US government has sent tens, if not hundreds of thousands of foreign nationals to their deaths through covert operations.

While killing is the ultimate act of incivility, it is not the only heinously anti-civil act. Along with millions upon millions being killed, millions upon millions were raped, mutilated and enslaved in the 20th century as well. Effectively, the value of human life was assigned a “zero” in the 20th century. And, when a life is worth “zero”, individuals, governments and dictators have no need to recognize the intrinsic value in each human being. The stage is set for the elimination of civility.

The macro-effect that I set out to describe in this post is the mass desensitization that we all have succumbed to when it comes to the intrinsic value of human life. When 300,000 Africans are wiped off the face of the earth, with no help or intervention from anyone – why should we be surprised by a 15 year old pulling a trigger and blowing the brains out of a class mate, teacher or parent? We’d like to convince ourselves that these are two separate and unrelated activities – that one represents governmental responsibility and the other personal responsibility. But, these are the things we tell ourselves so we can sleep at night. The collective conscience of the world has been numbed to the incivility of life-taking; we all pretty much accept that it is part of living in today’s modern society. The sad thing is, it does not have to be.

Estimates on the number of people slaughtered in the 20th century due to war, authoritarian regimes, covert operations and war induced famine and disease range anywhere from 250,000,000 to 500,000,000 people. If you doubt how desensitized the global world population has become to the possibility of death at another person’s hand – take this point into consideration. Instead of viewing these deaths across a 100 year time horizon, let us say that they all occur in tomorrow.

You might want to wish yourself into a European vacation before you try this thought experiment on for size. Every man, woman and child in the United States – when you wake up tomorrow – is gone. The population of the US missing over 100 years; “that’s life”, “people die in war”, “what are you gonna do?”. The population of the US missing in a day? – the ramifications are mind boggling.

The ultimate act of incivility is the taking of a life. The exercising of incivility on a mass scale is an act of inhumanity. And, inhumanity exercised over a long time-continuum has enforced the wildly erroneous belief that some (if not all) lives have an intrinsic value of zero; leading to a diminished capability for civility on a personal, local, national and global level.

Maybe Darfur and The Congo aren’t places on a map; maybe they are measurements of our conscience and civility.

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The Core of Incivility

February 1, 2009

So – what is it that is at the very root of incivility?

I have a personal theory connecting the 50 year decline of civility with two key macro-events of the 20th century. I will write more on that observation soon, but for the moment I want to focus on what is at the very core of incivility – not the contributing causes to a worldwide decline, but the very essence at the individual person level.

It is often said that the most painful image for us to look at is our own reflection. I’m expecting that a discussion about the root cause of incivility is going to invoke that same kind of awkward feeling that we’d rather not expose ourselves to. The root cause of incivility is us.

I’m not trying to be cute or trite with this statement. I’m not co-opting Pogo and simply stating that “we have met the enemy and he is us”, and expecting anyone to walk away from this post with something they can actually use. There is more to this “us” than meets the eye.

Over the last 50 years, primarily through the actions of two distinctly different generations – the world, particularly the American world, has become “I” centric. Not only has our society become “I” centric, it is a cultural shift that has been demanded, endorsed, expected, promoted and advertised by countless means through the Baby Boomer and Gen X generations. The Baby Boomer produced a cultural tsunami where all things were acceptable, all experiences were achievable and it was all about the individual gaining unfettered personal, spiritual, political and corporeal freedom. Gen Xers took this individual freedom into the realm of consumerist expression – there are no experiences or achievements, successes or trappings that can’t be bought, bartered, earned or …well, stolen.

And I want it all. George Carlin’s masterpiece of comedy, “Stuff”, was a brilliant illumination of how “I” centric our world is.

A veritable black hole for civility

A veritable black hole for civility

So what? There is no “I” in team -who cares?

“I” is the destroyer of civility. Civility is practiced when “i” is in small case, and “YOU” is in large case. Incivility is nothing more than the physical manifestation of “my needs are more important than your needs”. Think about the person cutting you off in the morning on your driving commute to work. This person (and I’m sure it is you on some days) truly believes that their need to be somewhere is more important than your need to be somewhere, or even to be safe. To continue the traffic example, what is it that causes you to take a moment to let someone cut in before you in a traffic jam? Is it not just a brief moment where you say “what difference does one more car make, we will all get there at the same time, let me let this person in”. In an instant, you have just subordinated your needs to the person that you offered the courtesy to. And that is civility.

To further argue that the core of incivility has been the rampant rise of the “I” centric world, let me leave today’s writing with a thought experiment for you.

Imagine what your behaviors would be like if you found yourself invited to a reception with heads of state, superstar athletes and your personal heroes. You, my friend, are the lowest person on the social totem pole in this room. As far as you know, no one cares what you have to say. You have no advantage of wealth, power or position in this setting. Your “I” has no value at this party. How would you act? Many of us have been in similar situations, and we find ourselves in awe of our fellow party goers. We are overly courteous and overly kind. We use “yes sir” and “no ma’am” as our responses. We go out of our way to make our best impression on people, and we are grateful for the opportunity. Now, carry this thought experiment a bit further. What if everyone is absolutely thrilled you are there? Presidents and Prime Ministers ask about your ideas. Power brokers ask after the health of your family. Grammy award winners are interested in what you think about their music. As they focus not on the “I”, but on the “you”, and you have focused on the “you” and not the “I” – the benefit and reward, and the recognition of everyone’s intrinsic value results in a truly wonderful event.

So, you acted this way at the last party you attended, right? You focused on others, and not yourself. You asked after others instead of talking about your achievements, portfolio and wonderful kids who do nothing wrong, right? You were a model of civility because you focused on the “you” and not the “I”, right?

We are less civil, because we are “I”.