Friday, March 12, 2010

A Thin Veneer

It seems that I often reflect on issues by making reference to my diverse career. It’s true—I have worked in a variety of places. At one time, I worked for the state medical society. While there, one of the physicians with whom I came in contact was a specialist in elder care. We were talking about what to do with doctors who are difficult to deal with as they age. His remark has stayed with me. He said—people don’t change with age, the patina just wears thin.

Now, this is not a post about aging. But it is a post about the patina wearing thin; the thin veneer of what makes us human that gets rubbed away over time. I have been thinking about the veneer of civilization and how quickly it wears thin. Sadly, we have had two recent examples of this inclination with the two earthquakes, first in Haiti and then in Chile.

In Haiti, with aid slow to arrive, people took whatever steps they could to provision themselves and their families. Unfortunately, some of those steps included inhumane acts. Events spiraled out of control as crowds overran water provisioning stations. There were reports that armed citizens intent on getting what they felt they needed killed other citizens. When soldiers didn’t restore order, the crowds tried to establish their own order but soon dissolved into mayhem.

Hard on the heels of the Haiti earthquake was the one in Chile—while unrelated geologically, these two events shared the sad aftermath of looting. Because Chile has tighter building standards, more people survived the earthquake, but the deprivation was very like that experienced in Haiti. Looters began ransacking grocery stores and warehouses. The outgoing president of Chile Michelle Bachelet had imposed a curfew, but did not initially call out the military. Chile has a troubled past where military rule is concerned, and I heard at least one report that hypothesized that since President Bachelet had herself been a victim under the former Pinochet government, she was reluctant to invoke military authority. Eventually she did call out the military to restore order.

The New York Times captured perfectly the abhorrence of looting noting in
a recent article that “Residents who formed self-defense posses were quoted saying that the “human earthquake” was worse than the geological one.” The human earthquake!

This article explores a difficult theme: when do people have the right to take what they lack? While I could argue that an equitable distribution of resources is a good thing, arming oneself with a machete and going after your fellow citizens is NOT. The thin veneer.

This theme is not a new one. One of the most powerful and disturbing books I read is William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. The book demonstrates how thin the veneer of civilization really is. Sounding rather like the plot line for an episode of the current TV show “Lost,” the novel features a group of British school boys whose plane crashes. All the adults are killed. The boys who survive decide to set up their own civilization.

At first, the boys manage to form some semblance of order, including getting a fire going. But it does not take long until the boys split into two groups, with one group more or less being “civilized” while the other groups becomes very savage and begins to hunt the other boys.

It is a difficult read—the final word in the story comes from the adult who finally rescues the boys. Finding the boys engaged in their savage fighting in the climactic scene—where, after killing two boys, the savage group is hunting a third boy—the adult remarks that he would have expected better of British school boys.

I don't know how to preserve the thin veneer--except to do what I can to respond to human need, and to avoid rubbing away the veneer of humanity that binds us all together.


Anvilcloud said...

I guess we need to live in a civilized society to be civil. When society collapses, so does the civility ... or so it seems.

Anonymous said...

The only answer I know is forgiveness. And to segue into war(s) of any kind, the only answer I know is forgiveness. Bonhoeffer, “When Christ calls one to come and follow, he calls him to come and die. It may be the same as his death on a cross, or a death to self, but a real death nonetheless”, paraphrased and without looking it up. Whether I would have the fortitude to stand that or not I don’t know. I hope and pray that I would. So— a break down of “law and order”, the patina wearing thin, or what, the only answer I know is forgiveness. “Father, forgive them, they know not what they are doing.” Father "C"

Anonymous said...

I used to think that humanity and civility were the rule, but there don't seem to BE any rules in that regard. Just look at Congress.

The human earthquake. . . a sad commentary, indeed.

Tossing Pebbles in the Stream said...

People looting for food when they see no other way to sustain themsleves should not be called looting, a crime. Just as cannibalism in some severe situations should not be seen as desecration of a body. The survival instinct is very strong.
This does not speak to the thin veneer. I am more concerned with torture and barbarism by those who should know what civilized standards are.

On the other hand, I am always amazed at how "civilizations" controls the poor when some around them have a lot. The poor are amazingly law abiding. They, in some countries, do without adequate, food, housing, water, medical care etc, and then are grateful for meager charity when they might be forgiven if they rose up and overthrew the established civilized elite.

I had not heard of the incidents you mentioned in Haiti. I had read that it was overall quite peaceful, perhaps moreso than normal for a country that experiences quite a bit of violence. I will try to find out how well thing have gone where Canada has focused it's effort in Jacmel, the birthplace of our Governor General.

NCmountainwoman said...

I suspect that the veneer is protected or wears thin based on our values and upbringing. How else can we explain the atrocities of war? For some it is nothing more than a license to kill other people however innocent they may be.

I also have been disturbed by "Lord of the Flies" since I first read it so many years ago. The struggle for power is intense whether in men or children.