Civilized Society: On the Death of Civility

Nassim Taleb

One of the most influential questions I’ve ever encountered came not from a great philosopher or writer, nor from any inspiring conversation or work. Rather it came from a black comedy at the end of a rant about people throwing used tampons at each other and ripping on American Idol.

The movie (and I highly suggested giving it a watch) was called “God Bless America” and was a story of a man who decided to address the idiocy and (un)culture of the U.S. Of A.

The question: “Why have a civilization if we are no longer interested in being civilized?”

The weight of that question has stayed with me for many years. In all aspects of our lives, we see a continuous shift towards not just tolerating but accepting and rejoicing at the de-evolution of our moral and normative standards.

Before this gets misinterpreted, I am not attempting to start the “objective/subjective” morality debate. Rather I want to touch on this trend, the damage it has and will continue to do, and its effects on not just discourse but human interaction at large.

For the purposes of this piece, I feel that I need to define what I mean by “civilized” in this context.

I am referring here to a standard. A level of culture, of self-betterment, and of social advancement. I am referring to refinement, tact, principles, and all of the other things we have allowed to be eroded from our social norms. The very things that made us as advanced as we are as a civilization are the things that we are allowing to disappear, and it’s primarily due to either apathy, intellectual laziness, or the false belief that these cornerstones of our society are mere relics compared to our own decay.

Make Politics Civilized Again

When we talk about politics we usually end up discussing how terrible one politician is compared to another (which I’ll touch on later). Worse still is attempting to engage with people themselves. Moreso than our politicians, people in general need to be more civilized when discussing these topics.

God forbid one disagrees with someone these days! Outline the belief in an opposed idea and you will be beset by the tribalistic howler monkeys hungry for the flesh of the heretic.

To many, it has become as if the mere existence of opposition is equal to a personal affront or attack.

If one believes or is thinking something different than the hive they are implying that the other is somehow mentally deficient.

Everything gets couched in false dichotomies of us/them, yes/no, right/wrong, all when the world of political ideologies are far more convoluted and nuanced than that. I may disagree with someone’s views on a topic like gun control, but that doesn’t mean that that alone is justification for me to start screeching “Statist!” the second someone suggests some form of restrictions. Just the same I would hope that my opposition wouldn’t immediately jump into saying I support the deaths of children or some other absurdity simply because my stance remains unchanged after a school shooting.

The purpose of debate and civil discourse is to present and challenge ideas; not to pontificate and organize pissing contests.

I find it odd that people will demand to have their voices heard, then squander the opportunities to shift hearts and minds to their cause through empty vulgarities.

Despite millennia of evolution, we still allow ourselves to be put into the little boxes of our self-designed tribes. Even those of us who preach for individualism can be found guilty of this.

Not all is lost here though. I’ve found that much of it lies in approach. If one approaches a discussion from a good faith position with a true willingness to objectively debate and review ideas you will eventually find those on the opposition that are the same. Even the ones that aren’t can eventually be swung into a proper discussion with the right levels of tact and respect.

Obviously, there will be those that are simply there to screech, but that doesn’t grant a license to debase one’s self and do the same. Ideologies can and ought to be discussed on an ideological level. Any lower and one may as well not speak at all.

The Death of Nuance

By and large, this might be the biggest contributing factor to the issues spelled out above and below.

Even those that maintain the ability to discuss, debate and create tend to have lost this necessary skill. The ability to understand and look for the nuance in things.

We design things around simplicity rather than quality. Whether it’s our political arguments or our art, we are constantly aiming to accomplish some form of streamlining that in turn means the frills need to be trimmed.

Arguments are reduced to dichotomies and art reduced to the most easily packaged thing. We see this with our politics especially. We will ignore the nuances of arguments that have vastly different implications because they are outside of our tribes.

There is a massive difference between saying “I’m against the existence of unions” and saying “I’m against government empowerment of unions.” Supporters of unions will treat these as the same thing, even if the latter statement came from a supporter of unions themselves, or if the opposition is some form of left-libertarian. Logical consistency and honest review of the details of their opponent’s arguments are thrown aside for the sake of their tribe.

As I mentioned above, we try to reduce all things into “yes/no” categories and trap ourselves within them. This does far more harm than simply amputating the civilized tones political discourse once held. It also kills our ability to think outside of these dichotomies.

If what one has to say can’t be reduced to a tautology or syllogism then it isn’t worth hearing in the eyes of our generation of pundits and keyboard warriors. As a society, we have stopped our exploration of philosophy and the arts and moved into a phase of rearrangement. We no longer strive to make something wholly new, but simply remix and argue over what has already come before us.

Most of our media and ideas are not our own anymore. They are remixes of ideas and arguments from before.

While it is worth understanding and appreciating what came before us, we should strive to move past it. We should strive to improve rather than regurgitate the ideas that came before us. We should take the time to learn the subtleties of what we engage ourselves in. I brought it up in one of my podcast episodes where I talked about the human habit of overcomplication, yet I am equally astounded by the amounts of those complications and nuances that we add to our interests that we then summarily ignore.

We will spend all of this time debating philosophy, politics and economics, but we won’t take an equal amount of time to review the basis for the arguments our opponents use, or in some cases ourselves. Instead, we will defer to the basics of what we encounter and fight from there.

In art, we will accept a lower quality of music lyrically because we’ve reduced our listening experience to the beat. We examine our world from generalizations rather than attempting to view things as a whole. We discard the whole once we’ve decided what is in front of us. There are some out there reading this that likely saw the repetition of the word “we” and got their backs up. It should be easily understood that the usage of the word here is in a generalized form and thus should receive no contention from those this critique doesn’t apply to. The fact that this likely needs to be explained further illustrates my point.

“It’s Art”

It is saddening when people say this in defense of baseless vulgarity or unoriginal pieces of “art.”

Through the postmodernist lens, we’ve come to accept anything as art so long as it was made in expression of whatever the “artist” whips up as a reason after the fact.

While some pieces can indeed be interesting, on the whole, much of the talent the art world use to hold has been replaced with expression for the sake of expression; no actual skill required. We’ve turned the study of the aesthetic into a scatological field.

The truest shame of this is the amount of true talent that gets passed over in place of these works of “art.” The amount of technical skill and artistic vision that likely went into your phone’s background or those random “cool art” Facebook page posts you’ve seen massively outweighs anything I’ve seen from the “performance art” crowd in recent years.

Outside of the regular talentless hacks that throw the term “avant-garde” around like they actually know what it means, there’s the overpackaged side of this decline as well.

Now it needs to be stated first: I understand that most television, movies, and pop hits aren’t designed to be masterwork expressions of the craft. They’re designed to be popular. The problem is twofold here.

First, we are a very systematic species. We’ve devoted thousands of man hours and resources into the study of what makes certain music or shows popular and reduced these fields to a science rather than the art it ought to be.

Not every TV show needs to be some high-level journey of wonderment, but at least they could stop redoing the Three’s Company formula every time they need a new hit. Even some of the better works that have come out in recent years like Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad, while refreshing, ended up doing little more than creating a new system for companies to flood the market with.

With every repetition of the model, it becomes weaker and more deformed.

Pop music has always suffered this, but the emphasis on it has eroded the usefulness of the media form.

Even older pop hits still had to reach a certain level of quality before we would begin to eat it up. Instead of keeping up with that trend, we’re fed things that are scientifically designed to be appealing; rather than being appealing on its own artistic merits.

Luckily there are definitely acts out there that bring that higher level of quality, but sadly they simply aren’t as big or on the same level of reach as the cookie-cutter ensembles that I’m referring to.

I’m not suggesting we need to go back to some idyllic civilized high society that only listens to classical and jazz (though I wouldn’t really oppose that either), but rather that we pay more attention to the art we consume and demand more than a catchy tune with an appropriate level of compression.

The Pursuit of Knowledge

As of the beginning of this sentence, this article was already at 1795 words. For most of those that read web articles, I’m already over the average attention span by about 1000 words.

Even in libertarian circles, there are tons of people that will fight you to the death on an economic or philosophical concept, yet they’ve never read the source material these ideas came from.

They’ll have gotten their arguments from watching others debate online or by parroting whichever YouTuber they happen to follow.

They’ll attack commies for their ideological views, but have never picked up a copy of anything by Proudhon, Marx, or Kropotkin. This isn’t a libertarian issue alone though as those same commies are just as likely to have never read the material either.

We’ve bred a social order that values the products of knowledge, but not it’s acquisition. Sure, we push our youth to run off and get their degrees, but we do that for the sake of them gaining better  employment rather than to actually learn.

Shows like “Are you smarter than a 5th grader” are only possible in a society where we treat the civilized pursuit of knowledge as a means rather than an end in and of itself.

Even when we do pursue knowledge, we aim for summaries. In order to stand for something one first needs the legs that true knowledge grants you. After reading a single Wikipedia article or listicle people consider themselves educated enough to discuss the finer points of Spinoza. And that’s if they even read non-fiction to begin with.

The average person reportedly reads twelve books per year, though this is largely believed to be inflated with the actual average closer to four. This is out of the nearly one million books published every year. Obviously, it would be physically impossible to read that much per year, but even when we do read the quality is suspect.

Look at the explosion of YA novels. Most of it is average, slightly above dime store level tropes repackaged in slightly different arrangements. These sell millions of copies and get turned into blockbuster movies.

Even “Adult” (no, not that kind) novels tend to follow the same path of repetitive swill. The bulk of the variety ends up coming from the types of characters rather than the plot itself, or the authors will predictably try to over M. Night Shyamalan their works with more twists than a 50‘s sock hop.

All of this may sound like some form of intellectual elitism, but rather it is a call for standards. We can enjoy the odd bit of trite every once in a while (one of my favorite films is still “The Room”), however, we cannot sustain ourselves on it.

Civilization and culture around the world has been built on the backs of the thinkers and the dreamers. If we only feed our brains garbage then we will produce the same. To make society more civilized we need to start by making ourselves more informed and demand of others and ourselves the higher standards that would grant us.

Psuedos: A Cancer on Culture

In listing all of this I feel it is important to list the worst offenders of those that erode all that is civilized: Psuedo-intellectuals.

These are the types that list their IQ and pedigree within the first 5 facts you learn about them. They learned all they need to know about being successful from reading 7 habits of successful people and a handful of Malcolm Gladwell books. They took not one, but two CrossFit classes and are ready to become personal trainers and dietitians. They are plebs in Armani.

The reason I think they are contributing to the uncivilized trend that we have been experiencing is that they steal the limelight from real thinkers in the name of egotistical desire.

They speak less for the purposes of sharing any real knowledge they might, by chance, have gathered, but solely to express that they are the ones that know it. They are not agents of enlightenment, but rather of sophistry.

They make compelling arguments completely devoid of any nuance that could show true thought behind their ideas, and become excessively defensive should their supposed superiority be questioned.

They’re willing to show how civilized they are in a discussion right up until any of their ideas are challenged. In their eyes, to challenge them is to say they are wrong which is tantamount to blasphemy.

Their involvement in a conversation sullies it, which in turn turns people away from engaging in the material at all.

Worst still, it can lead to people quietly settling into their little tribes on the topic.

A true thinker should want people to engage in their material. Critiques help people hone their ideas, add to their knowledge base, and offer perspectives that may previously have been unconsidered. A Psuedo-intellectual wants none of that.

The Psuedo just wants to be right from the start, and acknowledged for it. Most painfully, they are likely to self-victimize. They will claim they argue purely from facts and reasoning, but they will also be offended on a personal level if they are sufficiently challenged.

Most commonly this results in pedantic commentary, condescending remarks and stances, and a transition of the discussion from the topic at hand to an emptier game of linguistics. If one dares stoop to their level they’ll immediately decry that they’re being attacked and turn the discussion towards tone and words to gain some level of superiority out of the exchange.

This erodes not only civilized and intellectually honest discussion, but also the foundations of knowledge in the public sphere. Discussion gets driven not by the wisest voices, but rather the loudest.

I think the best example of this committed to film was in the movie “Good Will Hunting.” In the famous bar scene where the pretentious grad student attempts to browbeat Ben Afflick’s character solely for the purposes of browbeating him and making a spectacle. Matt Damon’s character (Will) comes forward and begins to pick him apart for the ideas stolen from entry-level books, generic stances, and walks him through what his academic and general future will encompass being that way.

He quotes the authors he’s stealing from (and even the damn page number), and generally summarizes all of the issues with this breed of person; all through a thick Boston accent.

I highlight this scene because it perfectly encapsulates what I’m referring to. Unfettered pedantry by those that overvalue their own knowledge and capabilities.

Now, I’m not lacking in self-awareness to the degree to not notice that one might think the same of me for writing such a lengthy piece as this attacking all of these aspects of discussion and society as if I am somehow above it all.

I am the first to acknowledge if and when I slip up on the things listed here, and truly without pretense welcome it when others notice so that I can course correct and improve. Noticing these traits and taking the time to improve upon them is what separates us from those that are simply in it to put on a show. True learning and development start with a real hunger for the knowledge, and a humble willingness to be wrong.

Civilized Office Starts With Civility

Look at the news. Just look at it and weep. People have always gotten heated and thrown mud in the political arena, but it had generally been understood that there are levels to which one simply does not stoop.

As time progresses that notion has been eroded.

Even during the infamous Watergate fiasco, we could still see a level of civility in the commentary and discussions on Nixon’s actions, and what should follow. I doubt that reporters from most MSM outlets could sit down through an interview with Trump and remain as civilized yet to the point as Frost could.

Even amongst the general public, we’ve seen this shift. After Clinton and that little blue dress, the respect for the presidency as an office plummeted as seen with the open hostility towards Bush, the baseless attacks against Obama (which tended to ignore the large list of factual reasons to criticize him), and the circus around this current presidency.

I welcome the reduction in the worship of the office as much as the next libertarian, however, I cannot support the lack of civilized discourse regarding it.

One doesn’t need to pretend these politicians are good people (generally they aren’t), but debasing one’s self for the sake of attacking them is unnecessary and pointlessly negative as well.

Civilized discourse is built around maintaining a level of decorum and mustering enough respect to effectively and fairly engage an opponent. As we remove our respect and decorum we also erode our expectations.

You don’t get a Trump (or a Hillary, or Bernie) in office if you actually demand a higher quality from these offices. While one may be on the anarchist side and against the existence of the offices themselves, that doesn’t mean we should treat the offices so poorly as to turn them into a joke. When we do that we don’t reduce the power these offices currently hold; we only reduce the quality of those who hold them.

Put another way, one can question the legitimacy of these offices and want them abolished, but simply treating them sloppily only results in lower quality people hold these positions of power, making them that much more dangerous. Conflating that these offices ought to be removed or reduced with the idea that they hold no power is a root cause of the continuous degrade in the quality of people that hold them.


This also needs to be said: I’m not dictating that we need to make these changes by force. That’s an important detail that is likely to be missed by some on first glance.

Cultural direction works the same as markets in the sense that changes only happen three ways. They happen by environmental factors (abundance of a resource in one area, natural disaster, etc), by the force of an interloper (such as the government), or by the sum of the actions of the individuals of society.

The environmental influence on civilized societies are mostly immutable (note: mostly), and, while there are those that attempt to enforce their cultural views via force and law (From the Puritans of old to the archetypical SJWs of today) I am attempting neither.

I write this in an attempt to get people on a different track and to change how the sum of our culture will look. Between these three factors, I personally will always bet on the individual as being the greatest genesis of change. It’s the individual I seek to showcase this to, and to engage. At the very least I hope this sparks a discussion and consideration of the points herein.

The Dalai Lama had a book titled “How to see yourself as you really are” that I think is apt to mention here. The book discusses the concept of self-knowledge, and removing the biases that attribute to both false negative and false positive interpretations of yourself.

The goal of the exercises and philosophy presented is to direct the reader towards being able to see the reality of themselves, and act accordingly rather than from empty pretenses they might have of themselves.

While I most definitely am nowhere near his levels of understanding or wisdom, my intentions here are the same.

It is my hope that those that read this will aim for more civilized heights than they had before, and will look for opportunities to improve the way we function.

I hope that you will self-reflect and take something away from all of this. It is my hope that we can answer the question of whether to have a civilization anymore with a resounding yes, but that will only be possible if we as individuals are willing to fulfill our parts.

* Killian Hobbs is a writer for Think Liberty.

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Killian Hobbs

Redheaded lover of Liberty, Economics, Philosophy, and Debate. Proud Canadian and prouder part of Being Libertarian, Think Liberty, and The Rational Standard as News Editor and Managing Editor for Think Liberty. You can also listen to my podcast "Coffee Shop Philosophy" on the Think Liberty Network.