Friday, May 13, 2011

What Does It Mean To Be Civilized?

Pretty often when I hear news reports (or when I read comments that anonymous readers leave regarding news reports), I wish people would be more civil.

What does it mean to be civilized? What are the greatest achievements of civilization?
As a great democratic society, we have a special responsibility to the arts. For art is the great democrat, calling forth creative genius from every sector of society, disregarding race or religion or wealth or color. What freedom alone can bring is the liberation of the human mind and a spirit which finds its greatest flowering in the free society. I see of little more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than the full recognition of the place of the artist.
~ John F. Kennedy
When are we the most civilized? When are we the least?
Civilization rests on the fact that most people do the right thing most of the time.
~ Dean Koontz
Are there situations when it is desirable to be uncivilized?
We must rapidly begin the shift from a "thing-oriented" society to a "person-oriented" society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
~ Martin Luther King, Jr.
What can we learn from history? What do we imagine an ideal civilization to look like?
Civilization is the process in which one gradually increases the number of people included in the term 'we' or 'us' and at the same time decreases those labeled 'you' or 'them' until that category has no one left in it.
~ Howard Winters
Today's poem:

by Naomi Shihab Nye

"A true Arab knows how to catch a fly in his
my father would say. And he'd prove it,
cupping the buzzer instantly
while the host with the swatter stared.

In the spring our palms peeled like snakes.
True Arabs believed watermelon could heal fifty ways.
I changed these to fit the occasion.

Years before, a girl knocked,
wanted to see the Arab.
I said we didn't have one.
After that, my father told me who he was,
"Shihab"­"shooting star"­
a good name, borrowed from the sky.
Once I said, "When we die, we give it back?"
He said that's what a true Arab would say.

Today the headlines clot in my blood.
A little Palestinian dangles a toy truck on the front page.
Homeless fig, this tragedy with a terrible root
is too big for us. What flag can we wave?
I wave the flag of stone and seed,
table mat stitched in blue.

I call my father, we talk around the news.
It is too much for him,
neither of his two languages can reach it.
I drive into the country to find sheep, cows,
to plead with the air:
Who calls anyone civilized?
Where can the crying heart graze?
What does a true Arab do now?


I would love to hear your take on what it means to be civilized. Can you share a poem (original or otherwise), thought, or link?

Jama is hosting today's Poetry Friday round-up.


Janet said...

At the risk of overdosing on Wendell Berry (I posted a poem of his for the Friday roundup, after all!), when I think of civility I think of this passage from his essay collection 'The Way of Ignorance':

"All of us who are committed to saving things of value have been in what Wes Jackson calls “the ain’t-it-awful conversation,” in which we recite the current litany of outrages. We have been in the conversation, and, if we have brought to it a modicum of sanity, we have recognized sooner or later the need to get out of it. The logical end of the ain’t-it-awful conversation, as of the life devoted to opposition, is despair. People quit having any fun, they begin to talk about the “inevitability” of what they are against, and they give up. Mere opposition finally blinds us to the good of the things we are trying to save. And it divides us hopelessly from our opponents, who no doubt are caricaturing us while we are demonizing them. We lose, in short, the sense of shared humanity that would permit us to say even to our worst enemies, 'We are working, after all, in your interest and your children’s. Ours is a common effort for the common good. Come and join us.'"

A sense of shared humanity. That's one of the fundamentals of civilization, in my opinion.

Heidi Mordhorst said...

Thanks, Tabatha, for the chance to reflect on a big question, and for Naomi's poem. I admire the way she ruminates on these and always manages to bring young people into the conversation.

Wendell Berry is my man. That quote from Janet needs to go up on every school staff room wall, and Howard Winters' short version is the one to have ready in an elevator.

Do we think, though, that there is a difference between "being civil" and "doing civilizaton"? Actually, when I started typing that I thought there was, but now I see it is indeed the same thing.

My word verif is "savillyz." Curious.

Mary Lee said...

I love that Howard Winters quote. So true.

Your post and the Nemerov poem over at the Stenhouse Blog are bouncing around in my brain together right now. I'm thinking about the role of the teacher in civilizing the wild young ones in our classrooms. I'm thinking about the lies I tell them (this is how government works), the truths I lay before them (poetry, art), and the habits I try to instill (don't talk with your mouth full, don't hit back--don't continue the violence, be the one who finds a way to stop it). Does it matter? Will it matter to Civilization (with a capital C)?