First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
Civilization, Part I
It's been said that each new generation of children is a barbarian invasion. It's true.
In the Darwinian view, the animal side of our nature requires that parents provide food and protection for their children so they can grow up and perpetuate the family genes.
But our genes do not contain all the information needed to make us human. Much of it is also contained in the society around us -- in the memories and customs of other people, and in the stories and ideas that have been recorded by earlier generations.
Baboons and apes live in small communities, and humans can survive quite nicely in tribes only slightly larger. And the "natural" human seems well-suited to getting along in small tribes.
Mere friction with other children soon teaches youngsters that if you hit somebody, he might hit back harder. Simple imitation would teach them the use of tools.
But in the simple tribe, everybody has to do the same work. When it's harvest time, everybody harvests. Everybody migrates together, builds shelter together. Each person has to learn all the jobs of the tribe.
But civilization -- civil life, city life -- allows far more options. Far more people than a mere tribe -- more people than any one person can know well -- live together, sharing from the same food supply.
With larger numbers, the city is better able to fend off enemies. Because some people stay on watch while others work, fewer workers are needed to grow the food to feed everyone. Public projects like roads and irrigation become possible. And with greater specialization, each person is able to become more expert at his own craft, without being distracted by having to learn everyone else's.
In a civilized society, each person knows more and more about less and less -- but the civitas, as a whole, knows vastly more than any mere tribe could ever learn. The city makes us collectively smarter, more effective, and more powerful.
But civil life requires a different set of rules from tribal life. Money always evolves as a means of trying to create some kind of equivalency between different kinds of work. Property rules must evolve so that specialists can leave their belongings safely behind while they're at work. Marriage laws and sexual mores are required so that spouses don't have to stay together in order to protect their marital investment.
In other words, civil life requires sacrifices. We can't just do whatever we feel like doing. And for civilization to work well, we have to obey these rules even when nobody is watching.
That's what child-rearing is all about. It's not enough to keep our children alive and safe from predators. We have to civilize them.
There are definite skills required, which do not come naturally and must be taught: resistance to temptation, for instance. Delay of gratification. Responsibility. Loyalty. And, yes, even guilt.
When a child sees something he wants, he takes it. When he's hungry, he intends to eat -- now.
But, gradually, as the child gets old enough to understand, parents teach him how to wait for what he wants, and help him learn that there are many things he wants which he can never have, even though other people have them.
Whatever parents haven't taught their children, the children learn in their teens, because at that point peer pressure takes over from parental teaching. This is essential because there are parents who haven't done their job, whose children are greedy, whining, sneaky, or brutal; the pressure to conform, which is relentless in junior high, teaches children to observe the outward forms of civil life, even if they didn't internalize them as children.
The trouble is that peer-raised children have only learned how to appear civilized. Some do internalize the rules they are taught by other children, but by and large the people who are truly civilized are the ones who learned the skills of civilization from their parents.
Parents are the best teachers of the two highest arts of civilization: responsibility and guilt.
That may sound odd, when you consider how much the priests of psychotherapy have invested in trying to get us to shake off guilt. But the fact is that civilization cannot long be sustained without guilt.
Guilt is the inner judge that makes us feel bad about breaking rules even if nobody else knows about it. It's guilt that keeps us from adultery, from cheating, from shoplifting, from slander -- because truly civilized people couldn't bear their own inner punishment if they violated the rules that they have internalized as good vs. evil.
When someone does not have a keen sense of guilt, then the only thing keeping them from breaking rules is shame -- the fear of being caught and punished, either by the law or by social ostracism. Shame-driven people appear civilized, but in fact they are only civilized in public.
When a whole society neglects to instill a healthy sense of right and wrong (i.e., guilt and honor) in their children, then eventually the rules break down. That's because a civilization can only tolerate a certain small percentage of shame-driven citizens. When too many become shame-driven rather than guilt-driven, then breaking the rules becomes the rule, and peer pressure starts to work against, rather than for, civilization.
We see it in schools where cheating has become the rule. On freeways, where speeding is the rule and it's actually dangerous and obstructive to obey the speed limit. On jobs where fellow workers pressure others not to give an honest day's work for a day's pay.
We see it in a society where divorce has become the rule rather than the exception, where it has become normal for couples to start family life without the public covenant of marriage. Where mothers who opt to stay home to rear their children feel they have to apologize for not having a career. Where instead of treasuring the lives of the weak and old, the old guilts are gone and euthanasia, assisted suicide, and abortion are astonishingly common.
When most parents teach their children the rules of civil behavior with firmness and love, so that the children are honored for obeying them, then civilization thrives.
When too many parents fail at this task, the civilization can coast along for a while on the old virtues, on the shame-driven remnants and shadows of the old rules. But once the core of voluntarily obedient citizens becomes scattered and rare, it is not long before there is no more glue holding the whole thing together. The obedient turn inward, refusing any longer to sustain a game in which most of the players are cheating. And at that point the city becomes a collection of bickering tribes. It has no strength. It will not stand.
(That's why the failure to impeach Bill Clinton was such a devastating blow. In the name of "forgiveness" we declared that "everybody cheats" and made it public policy. Civilization depends on the belief -- and the fact -- that cheating is rare, and those who do cheat lose the trust of all and are regarded with contempt. Clinton's election, reelection, and acquittal, followed by the open attempt of the Florida Democratic Party and the Florida Supreme Court to change the rules -- i.e., cheat -- and steal a close election in 2000, may well mark the point when the American people finally gave up on being a civilized nation.)
Next week I'll talk about the other core value that parents must teach their children for civilization to survive: responsibility.
Copyright © 2002 by Orson Scott Card.
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