June 1, 2020: The Thin Veneer of Civility, Reconstructed for Strength

Let’s have a National Take-a-Knee Day, not on someone’s neck as in dominance, but take a knee as in grace and humility.  Wear a mask, stay at least six feet away from others, and take a knee.  It would be a major powerful protest steeped in peace and unity.  We can lead instead of waiting or destroying. Set a time, let’s all step outside in plain view—and kneel together.  Hoo-nōs

One of the most indelible lessons of this scary time is that you can survive alone, but you need others to flourish.  The most dangerous preexisting condition my husband and I had for fighting the virus was our devotion to self-sufficiency.  Independence can be its own kind of social isolation.  Belinda Luscome, Nursing my husband back to health, badly. The View Essays, Time, May 18, 2020

The pandemic of us-and-them has risen again for the umpteenth time.  Actually, it never goes away, just hibernates during the human-all-is-good season and emerges fangs out during the human-life-sucks season.  Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness seems to apply and be practiced by only a few during that second season. In fact, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness does not seem to apply ever to those we deem children of a lesser god, it’s just that some at the “top” of the control-hill are more “patient” during good times.

I’m guessing the problem of dehumanization is both social and biological, but neither is out of the reach of change by us.  And waiting for leadership is pretty much like waiting for Godot.  After all, even horrible “leaders” can’t do a thing without a lot of support.  In other words, when we have horrible leaders, it isn’t just them leading, it’s many following.

Whether dehumanization is social or biological, it’s based on a kind of “compare, contrast, categorize” construction of a hierarchy—compare-contrast good, no compare-contrast bad as the former makes it easy to categorize while the latter does nothing to help that categorizing process.  In the social construction of dehumanization, we seem to segregate by better or worse, which can be fine in choosing partners, employees, kinds of folks in the service industry. But it’s all too easy to take the second step and assume we’ve also established good vs. bad people as opposed to good vs. bad deeds.  Can we do anything about it?  Sure, and more than writing down guidelines, which is weird, like we need to mandate civil laws and a Bill of Rights.  We can learn and change IF we’re really interested.

Biologically, much of our nervous system information is also based on compare, contrast, and categorize.  We see sharper color that way when paired opposites like the red and green cones in our retinas create contrast: red light waves not only cause the red cones (it’s not the color of the cone) to fire, but when they do fire, green cones are inhibited (ever wonder why humans don’t see a reddish-green color?).  Contrast and sharper color!  Biologically it’s much easier to see a door if it is differentiated from a wall by edges and color.  This applies to face recognition—I mean we have faces and can still tell the difference between them.  Ahh, except when “them” all look alike, which they don’t, it’s just that some do not notice because of lack of familiarity and motivation. 

Can we do anything about our biology?  We do have an influence even if we’re not going to become eagles or grizzlies.  But one can teach the sympathetic nervous system (fright, flight, fight) to not treat nearly everything as an emergency situation (does slamming on the brakes and skidding out of control help or can we learn to pump the brakes?)  Can we look at another and even though we are freaking out about how they look, calm down and seek the substance of another rather than the look of another?  Yep, first impressions can be weird, even if sometimes they can be sort of correct.

How about the independence many seem to want to assert above all else?  Paired opposites—also known as a paradox.  Independence does not stand alone, it stands in conjunction with dependence.  And vice versa.  Think about it—dependence done well, can lead to independence, which done well still means we need others. Do we want to be off grid? I’m good with it, but that doesn’t solve everything, especially the end of needing others.  I can’t do my own brain surgery (insert jokes about my brain here!), I’m not going to wash clothes with a stone, or make my own shoes, etc.  Even in eras where tribes of us had to do everything to survive, there were differentiations between who did what.

Why then, if we can influence our social constructions and learn and teach our biology skills (like calming down or not rushing to judgment, etc.) do we continue the cycle of good folks/bad folks?  It isn’t easier, it’s just the way we’ve done it for eons.  It’s cognitively and emotionally lazy of us to not know the difference between good work and bad work and default into good folks/bad folks.

The thin veneer of civility is not firm ground, much less righteous ground. It’s a house made of straw when we have much better construction materials available.  We do not have to like other people much less break bread with them, but we cannot make them lesser or better just because we’re comfortable with hierarchies of people, rather than deeds.  In fact, we could make an argument that many of our human deeds regulate us to a lower rung on the hierarchy model of what species is best.

Any such change in our social and biological imperatives begins with us, not some leader, though a good leader would be setting an example worthy of the best in us, not the worst.  It really is up to us to keep the thin veneer of civility and wait to pounce when we’re angry or we can build a better civility, based on substance, not style and the similar-to-me bit.  We get the best out of it—we can hang with whom we want and we’d all feel a lot safer together to boot.   

Let’s start again, simply.  Let’s protest in peace. Together, in plain view, let’s take a knee in grace. We might even be able to cry together.

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