August 16, 1991


The purpose of civilization is to convert man, a beast of prey, into a tame and civilized animal, a domestic animal.

F.W. Nietsche, 1887

The most important difference between civilized people and savages is that your life is in danger with savages and safe when among truly civilized people.

The struggle in parts of Africa is a struggle between savagery and civilization. It would be convenient if the civilized people and the savages had badges on them that would enable you to tell one from the other. Unfortunately, this isn't possible. The color of a person's skin does not tell you whether you are looking at a savage or a civilized human being. The costume being worn by a person tells you nothing. The only true gauge of whether a person is civilized or savage is his behavior.

This is very inconvenient. It is so inconvenient that people prefer to believe the ridiculous myth that you can tell a savage from a civilized person by looking at him/her; that his skin color, costume or the language that he speaks, will tell you whether your life is safe around him, or in jeopardy.

To complicate things further, sometimes savages become civilized and, under the proper circumstances, civilized people become savages. In crowds, people who would otherwise be civilized sometimes become savages, just as a pet dog can turn on you, although this doesn't happen very often with dogs. Some people think that, with dogs, breeding is an important factor. This may be true with dogs, but I have my doubts about whether it's a basic factor with people. I think that a person's basic savagery always lurks a bit below the surface and that circumstances can bring it to the fore. People have written about "a veneer of civilization" that hides man's basic savagery. Every time that I look inside myself, I am always surprised to find a savage lurking inside me. I try to to keep him on a short leash.

If you really can't tell civilized people from savages, how do you behave toward someone you don't know? What I do is assume that I am talking to a civilized person and hope that I'm right. Of course, if I'm wrong, the mistake could prove fatal, as it has to some people who walked into a foreign place (like New York City) to their death because they assumed that the occupants were civilized.

Many people tend to be civilized toward members of their own tribe or cultural group and savages toward strangers. You don't have to look very far to find examples of this type of behavior; it's very common. Less common are the savages who don't care who they prey upon --any convenient prey will do.

There are some places where you are more likely to find civilized people. Universities, colleges and other schools are a good bet. While your life is quite safe in a university, that is just about the only thing that isn't in peril. You can be deprived of your dignity, honor or reputation there.

Sometimes, treating a savage like a civilized person will induce him to behave as if he were civilized, but that is hardly a rule.

It is interesting that a person wearing a police uniform is viewed as a civilized person by people of a certain color and costume, while people of another color and costume see a police uniform as representing savagery and danger. The same is true of any kind of uniformed person who carries a weapon.

I started this essay by referring to Africa. That was merely an eye catcher. The fact is that there is no such thing as a civilized country. There are some nations that have more civilized people in them than others, but it is a quantitative, not a qualitative difference. You are safer where there are more civilized people, but one is never absolutely safe.

The goal of people of good will is to make the world a safe, civilized place for all.

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