237. What is a Civilization?

A civ­i­liza­tion is a shared sys­tem of val­ues. To those not shar­ing the par­tic­u­lar val­ues, that civ­i­liza­tion may appear defi­cient, even unciv­i­lized. Then we have a clash of civ­i­liza­tions. Inter­na­tional agree­ments try to man­age clash­ing civ­i­liza­tions, and mostly rely on armies to back up the deals. How­ever, the main prob­lems with civ­i­liza­tions are inter­nal. Almost always there are large num­bers of peo­ple who pri­vately do not believe in the core val­ues of their civ­i­liza­tion, but pub­licly pre­tend to do so. After all, it is a big ask to have mil­lions of peo­ple with rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent agen­das shar­ing a sys­tem of val­ues. Those who secretly dis­agree with pub­lic val­ues are often amongst the most ambi­tious mem­bers of a par­tic­u­lar civ­i­liza­tion, indeed fre­quently its lead­ers. The upshot is a cor­rup­tion of ide­al­ized val­ues by one means or another. Over decades and cen­turies lead­ers will seek to rein­ter­pret pub­lic val­ues. This might be nec­es­sary, for in a chang­ing world old ideas may no longer be prac­ti­cal. Many hid­den changes how­ever will be for the per­sonal advan­tage of lead­ers. A typ­i­cal pat­tern of cor­rupted val­ues might result in, for exam­ple, the degra­da­tion of women, exploit­ing the less lucky, restrict­ing oppor­tu­nity to cer­tain social classes, or the dou­ble-speak abuse of ideas like ‘free­dom’, ‘the peo­ple’, ‘equal­ity’, ‘order’, ‘sub­ver­sion’ … and so on. Past and present it is pretty hard to think of any civ­i­liza­tion, Chris­tian, Islamic, Bud­dhist, Com­mu­nist, Fas­cist, Dic­ta­to­rial, Lib­er­tar­ian, Demo­c­ra­tic, Social­ist, Cap­i­tal­ist, or what­ever, which has remained mostly decent at its polit­i­cal and social core. ‘Decent’ here is defined by the orig­i­nat­ing ideas of right and wrong within each civ­i­liza­tion. Thus all civ­i­liza­tions are unsta­ble, have moral crises, and may fail, though the peo­ple in them ‘go on’. Per­haps they then accept belief in some new model. Each ‘new civ­i­liza­tion’ will also, of course, even­tu­ally be weak­ened by the cor­rup­tion and abuse of its new val­ues. Now think hard and name your own exam­ples.

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