What it Means to be a Civilised Society: A Response

Umair Haque wrote an article called “What it Means to be a Civilised Society”. In it he argues that dignity and human rights can cure violence, creating a civilised society. While he is partially correct, this essay will examine problems with this account. It will then look at the Paradox of Intolerance and generate a more coherent definition by its consequences.

The article argues that society is becoming more violent, and as a result, society is becoming less civilised. For instance, he sites the number of mass shootings in America makes it seem America is not a civilised society. This is a problem because incivility leads to inequality, stagnation and austerity, to the extent that Haque compares such characteristics to the Nazis. Haque blames this on neoliberalism and capitalist societies which value money over other values such as meaning and purpose. This leads to a lack of dignity for individuals which is connected to barbarianism. The lack of dignity makes people feel worthless and invalidated, leading to people acting violently. This cycle of more violence creating more barbarianism creating more violence leads to a downward spiral into an uncivilised society. To prevent this, Haque argues that the dignity of individuals is preserved through rights. So, by having rights, it allows individuals to have dignity, which leads to civility.

An issue with the article is that it blames incivility on a capitalist model and the values that a capitalist society promotes. However, it is evident that other models also contain incivility. For instance, in 1918 the Gulag in Russia (the main administration of labour camps) was set up. These camps led to the mass starvation and poor treatment of millions. Under the articles definition ( and for most people) this would count as incivility due to the barbaric nature of the camps. While I would not conclude this is the fault of the ideals of communism (which is another debate) it suggests that it is unfair to blame modern day barbarism purely on capitalism, as the economic structure of a country does not impact on the level of its civility.  Therefore, it is an unsubstantiated claim that incivility is linked to capitalism and neo-liberal society.

On top of this, the article suggests that incivility is cured by the promotion of civil rights. Because of this, it would make more sense that within liberal societies that there is greater civility as liberal societies preserve human rights. However, the article highlights that America is an uncivilised society, due to the amount of violence that occurs in the country through guns and school shootings. America is one of the most liberal societies in the world with a significant number of human rights.  As a result, there does not seem to be a link between civil rights and increased levels of civility. Therefore, there is something that the article is missing in how it views civility and how to encourage.

A greater issue is with the article is how it equates non-civility to violence as it highlights the Paradox of Intolerance. The paradox is most famously associated with Karl Popper and suggests that if we extend tolerance to everyone, even the intolerant, then the intolerant will remove the liberal society that allows the freedom of a tolerant society. The main consequence of this is the idea that liberal societies often need to use violence in order to protect society from the intolerant. As a result, sometimes it is necessary for civilised societies to use violence to preserve themselves. Therefore, Haque’s equation of civility to purely a lack of violence is misguided as violence can play a role in civilised society.

However, this does not mean violence does not play a role when defining civility; in civilised societies there is less violence than in barbaric ones. For instance, there is less violence in today’s society than during periods when there was extensive warfare and imperialism. We would also argue that civility is more prominent today than during those times. Therefore, violence does play a role in these changes, but is not the sole issue.

While the Paradox of Intolerance can be seen as a criticism of the article, it can also be used to describe civility and explain when violence is necessary. Popper believed that violence was never the first resort to intolerance, as this would purely breed further intolerance. Instead, he argued that rational debate should be used to diminish intolerant positions by demonstrating them as incoherent. However, if this is not possible, then violence should be used in order to protect liberal societies. Therefore, it is not just violence that is needed, but also the knowledge to know when violence is needed or whether it is more appropriate to dispel intolerance with rational.

This can drastically improve our definition of civility for many reasons. Firstly, it keeps intact the initial thought that human rights lead to greater civility as the protection of tolerance leads to the dignity and rights of many people. However, it acknowledges that some violence is needed to protect this system. Therefore, some violence within societies does not undermine its civility if that violence is necessary to protecting tolerance. On top of this, places where there are significant human rights but unjustified violence and incivility does not mean that the definition of incivility is incorrect. Instead, it demonstrates that the society doesn’t have or use sufficient knowledge for when violence is used. Therefore, America can be viewed as uncivilised while having a liberal society and not undermine the definition of civility.

To conclude, the article gives arise to many issues when looking at liberalism, violence and civility. This is due to equating civility to purely lack of violence. However, by examining the Paradox of Intolerance, we can change civility to using violence purely when it is necessary to prevent intolerance rising. This overcomes the problems within the article to create a more valid definition of civility.

Bibliography

What it Means to be Civilised  By Umair Haque

Paradox of Intolerance Libertarianism.org

Published by Philosopher Ad Absurdum

Student studying MA Philosophy of Mind and Cognitive Science at the University of Birmingham; First Class BA Philosophy and History from the University of Southampton.

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