Conversations ad infinitum
He told me that it is better for a guilty person to go free than a thousand innocent people to be punished. And I asked him: ‘What if the guilty person had killed someone you loved?’ He replied that this was not fair, that I was manipulating his emotions. In principle, the person should go free for the sake of order and a civilized society, he insisted. And I said: ‘Civilization is the costume life wears so as not to scare the crap out of everyone. Beneath the guise, under the surface, it’s business as usual: a body at work, keeping itself healthy by eating well, staying hydrated, exercising, learning, and demolishing anything that threatens its health, from radical cell and disease to injury and infection.’
He shook his head and said that I was talking about a totalitarian society, and that it was unacceptable. I replied by saying that I was talking about an organism that knows how to maintain itself. A totalitarian society would be more like an idiot banging his head on the wall, or a fool trying to levitate by screaming abracadabra; or a masochist, subjecting his body to cruel and unusual punishment. But an organism that knows how to stay healthy and fit – that is what civilization is really about. Keeping its aggregate cells functional, doing what it has to to keep the body alive and well.
He raised his eyebrows. ‘That is a great analogy,’ he said, ‘but it doesn’t work that way. Humans are not cells. They have brains, personalities, needs, rights. They cannot be forced into organized collaboration.’
And I said: ‘Forced, no. Assembled, yes. Over time, and of their own accord.’
He said: ‘That is too theoretical and not realistic. People are too well-defined as units to agglomerate like an organism.’
And I said: ‘Tell that to the cell that decided to pair up with another cell to create the first multicellular organism, out of which you grew. Tell that to the individuals who came together to form the culture you live in and the technology that powers your every move.’
‘Out of many, one,’ I continued. ’Everywhere you look, in all scales of life, elements come together to make up something greater, grander and far-reaching. From atoms to molecules, to cells, to communities, to cities, to ecosystems, to planetary civilization, to solar systems and galaxies, and nebulae, and super-clusters, and goodness knows what else.’
And he said: ‘Maybe so, but civilization is special. It has to remain civilized. It must protect the innocent, the law-abiding and the honest for stability and order to prevail. Without trust in the system, everything breaks down.’
And I said: ‘That’s why we wear the costume of civility and drink the moral Kool-aid. We’re happy to believe that justice is upheld through the preservation of the innocent, the law-abiding and the honest. But it isn’t true. Under the surface, a whole lot of dirty maintenance takes place, much of which is relentless and brutal, and without which the system would break down faster than it would if we had no fairness.’
And he said: ‘You can’t prove that. You cannot say that maintenance is more important that fairness and civility.’
And I said: ‘Sure I can. Observe.’ And I grabbed a knife from the drawer and lunged at him, going for his throat. He raised his hand and blocked me and grabbed me by the collar and threw me to the wall and smashed my face in it and held me there, my hand twisted behind my back.
‘What did you do that for?’ he screamed in my ear.
‘To show you that the instinct of survival is faster than the concept of morality. It always reacts first, doing what it has to for life to go on, with civility finishing in second place, sweeping up behind it, cleaning up the mess.’
I laughed. He didn’t. He took off and never spoke to me again.