“I miss civilization, and I want it back.”
Marilynne Robinson’s longing phrase in her book of essays on modern thought, The Death of Adam, describes my yearning while sitting through graduation for Lake Highlands High School at Moody Coliseum this year.
Special efforts were made to solemnify the event. Trustees were told to refrain from displays of affection for students they knew personally. No hugging, in other words. Don’t want to make a distinction among the kids that would indirectly disrespect some. Parents and friends were publicly, directly and repeatedly urged not to applaud or call out or whoop and holler when individual student’s names were called for stage time.
I brought a book of poetry to read during the reading of the 500 odd names, most whom I did not know, thinking I would have massive moments of quietude to meditate. It was more like a Mavericks playoff game.
People like me were the majority and sought to dictate decorum based on our views of civilized behavior. I like our rules. It was quickly apparent, though, that not everyone agrees about what is appropriate emotional expression at public events. People seemed to have rules of their own, appropriate perhaps in their circle but uncomfortable in mine. And I reluctantly concede that if we were commencing on their turf, I may have felt my reluctance to reverie out of place.
Something else disturbed me, too: Seven people slowly and awkwardly crossed my knees and left the building as soon as their youngster’s name was called. Good thing my girl wasn’t getting her sheath at just that moment. There would have been bloodshed.
Civilization is not just about whether you prefer quiet dignity to prancing and dancing. It extends to whether you value other people’s children enough to show them the same respect you want for yours.
There’s no denying we feel these differences – whether we count them racial, ethnic, social, economic, educational or pharmacological. The danger comes in what we do with the feelings. Do we justify them with ideologies of contempt? ”They have no class.” “You can’t trust them to act right.” Whatever.
Genocide begins with belittling fellow human beings. If we think others closer to animal than we, we can justify treating them in ways we wouldn’t want to be treated ourselves. We become no more civilized by writing off whole classes of people, even if we think them classless anyway.
All this is more generous that I generally feel, mind you. If you really want to test my tolerance, throw your sullied Burger King sack out the car window into my front yard on your way by. You will suffer the consequences, no matter who you are.
We all have our limits.
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