Friday, February 10, 2012

Sophisticated Beasts?

Civilization is but Skin Deep...

Maryam Sakeenah

Kath Walker laments the loss of civilization thus:

No more boomerang,
No more spear,
Now we go to bar
To have a glass of beer.
Now we got movies
Now we work for money
Now we got atom-bombs
To kill everybody

What separates the barbarian and the brute from the human? Those fancy gadgets, Iphones and Ipods, high-rising sky scrapers and sleek cars that whizz past, leaving clouds of dust and smoke behind? Is it those phony painted faces on huge commercial billboards staring down at the city? These are but the outward trappings, for civilization has to do with that which is more profound: our values, our beliefs, our worldviews, our perspectives on life, our heritage and our fidelity to it, our faith and our vision.

Will Durant says 'Civilization is social order promoting cultural creation. It begins when man passes by natural impulse towards the understanding and embellishment of life.'

One of the sicknesses of the modern mind is, however, the fact that we are obsessed with outward appearances, with the mere trappings of civilization, while the core is all but hollowed out. That has made us materialistic and reduced civilization to an empty shell. Beneath the veneer of our civilization, there lie the same instincts of selfishness, greed, lust and selfish passions that defined life in the ancient jungle. In those jungles our ancestors tore each other up for space or food. Now, in the Brave New World, we have Ministries of Defence to do the job. We do it with bombs and we do it for oil.

Our material progress and technological advancement is but the facade of civilization, its mask and not its soul. Where is the soul? Lying huddled somewhere with bated breath in the cracks between the stony slabs on a peopled New York subway, perhaps?

Joyce Carol Vincent was a successful 30 year old with an active, busy social life. Her dead body was discovered three years after she quietly died all alone in her flat while watching T.V. When it was noticed she was not paying her bills, some officials checked her flat, only to find a skeleton on the couch before the T.V, which had stayed on for three years. That is the isolation, the loneliness and the distance that exists among people in our urbanized modern lifestyle.
That is the soullessness of contemporary civilization.
Amy Winehouse, one of the most successful British pop stars was found dead at 27 after she committed suicide taking an overdose of drugs and drink, dissatisfied as she was with her life- apparently, her life was a modern success story. Or was it?

In my own city a guard outside a bakery committed suicide a few days back, as according to him when he looked through the windows at the bread and cakes, he thought of his hungry weeping children at home... Our mad rat race for material wealth has made us blind and selfish so that we have forgotten those lesser people living among us who sleep on empty stomachs and wake up to another day of misery...

Global warming, nuclear warfare, smart bombs, dirty bombs, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo... are the gifts of our soulless civilization, perpetrated by some of the most civilized nations among us. Civilization wears thin, showing the ugly bones below...a thin crust you can poke your finger right through into the emptiness, the heart of darkness gaping within.

For, if our civilization has not taught us to be self-disciplined, to learn to share the planet and be peacemakers, to tolerate and respect diversity and live with difference, to establish justice for all and to ensure basic rights, and to give us deep spiritual fulfilment and enlightenment of the soul, are we entitled to consider ourselves civilized? If we have not learnt the right lessons from history, have we really moved on? Are we headed towards progress or back to the jungles?

Civilization humanizes, refines and teaches to live meaningfully. It is the difference between the Best of All Creation and the Lowest of the Low. Has our civilization given us that important distinction or are we just sophisticated beasts in mortal guise?
George Orwell is not quite sure as he concludes his book 'Animal Farm' thus:
“The creatures looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”