The thin veil of civilisation

Public Morality
Public Morality?

Basketball riots in Los Angeles, football riots in Belgium. The weekend seemed to be full of mob violence, destruction and thuggery. Grown men on rampages of destruction. In the modern world, it seems that for all our technical achievements, our ordered society, and our high culture, we have not come that far. Just below the surface, barbarism is always there.


Civilization, at least for some, is only skin deep.

One thing that struck me about the riots was the surprising fact that these events occurred as the result of wins. The L.A. Lakers win in the N.B.A. Championship final, and England wins the European Championships. These riots were not acts of frustration or anger, but of celebration. It may seem strange to say that while I do not condone rioting when one’s team loses, I can understand it. Frustration and anger are natural human emotions that all too often boil over into violence.

But riots as a form of celebration are harder to comprehend. These people, as they threw chairs, beat up foreigners, and charged police, were truly doing it because they enjoyed it. They were willing participants in what was truly an orgy of violence. Watching on the TV as crowds in L.A. set fire to a car and proceeded to dance around it in the manner of The Lord of the Flies, I was struck that the human condition really hasn’t come very far. These could easily have been cavemen dancing around the fire, celebrating victory over their enemy, but they weren’t. They were modern men dancing around the burnt-out body of someone’s car, celebrating the comparatively trivial victory in a game of basketball.

So for all the pessimism, what can we learn from this? What can keep the rest of our society from sliding into the violence and stupidity that these sporadic uprisings represent?

Many would credit such things to our concepts of the law, justice, and democracy, and it is true. I believe these play no small part. Without them the preservation of order in our society would be impossible. But they are as much the outward forms of a much more important thing, as they are the causes.

The most important thing in my opinion is public morality. Public morals, social norms, whatever you want to call it, is the true glue that holds our society together. It is the collection of society’s expectations of its own members, enforced not by the blunt coercive force of statute, but by the less brutal but equally powerful stick-and-carrot methods of condemnation and approval.

Some may doubt it, but the social mechanism is one of the most powerful. So much of what we do every day is geared towards seeking the approval of our peers. Indeed it is the yardstick by which we judge and are judged. It is so powerful that many have been willing to die rather than face that most unforgiving of juries, public opinion.

If you doubt the veracity of my claim, consider the recent riot by English supporters in Belgium. Consider that those who were rioting were not doing so just because they could. Rioting in a group did not prevent hundreds from being arrested. They did it because others were doing it. They did it because the public morality, or rather amorality, of the rioting mob approved and encouraged that behavior. None of their friends or professional colleagues were around, and, don’t forget, many of these men had professional jobs, yet they were part of a mob. The final fact that demonstrates the truth of this is the film of the arrested rioters as they returned to England: no longer proud hooligans but little boys hiding behind their coats, caps, or whatever they had to disguise their shame.

Are there lessons to be learnt from all this, that can transcend the violence?

Public morality, although in decline, is still the most powerful force in our society. Society will continue to have its problems. Some are criminal problems that despite our best efforts we cannot control or stop. Others are social problems, that whilst outside the scope of the law are nevertheless destructive to society . We have high crime rates, rising drug use, family breakup, and unmarried teenage pregnancy. We try to tackle these problems head-on, sometimes with laws, and sometimes with education. But sometimes we forget about the most powerful tool, public morality.

We forget that the most powerful influence on any person is his peers. If drug use was unacceptable amongst young people, it would not persist long. If users were seen to be losers, and pushers the criminals they are, then the drug problem would not persist. If those parents who abandoned their parental obligations were exposed as the irresponsible fools they are, then the problem would lessen.

In the end, laws can only go so far. Society has to enforce standards independent of the courts, the police, and the statute books. In a society where increasingly anything goes, it is important for the media, politicians, and society as a whole to take firm positions and strongly condemn behaviors that are unacceptable. Coercion in the form of laws has limited application. In the end, people have to want to do the right thing in order for society to prosper.

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