The New Barbarism

In 1930 the Spanish philosopher, Ortega y Gasset suggested in his Revolt of the Masses that Europe was returning to barbarism. He traced his concern back to the growing inability of Europeans to communicate with one another, their increasing tendency to seek isolation from one another, to become “hermetically sealed” against the outside world and other people. He worried because “mere egoism is a labyrinth.” In the end, he said, civilization is the “will to live in common.” There followed, of course, the atrocities of the Second World War which ended with the dropping of two atomic bombs on soldiers and civilians alike. Since that time, though certainly not because of that act, the bombing of civilians seems to have become almost commonplace, despite the Geneva Conventions that prohibit this sort of thing in wartime. Ortega seemed to be on to something.

In any event, as one looks around and reflects on contemporary American culture, one cannot help but see disturbing signs that would have jumped out at Ortega. In our schools there is an increasing inability to communicate between and among the young. Vocabularies have diminished 72% since the 1950s, when they were already on the decline. Text messaging has further crippled their ability to write, as high school English teachers attest. National test scores became so low that recently they had to be adjusted upwards. There is also an increasing sense of isolation as populations grow and cities become more and more crowded — as though people want to get away from one another. Experiments have shown what effects crowding have on white mice — whose DNA is disturbingly close to that of humans. When crowded, as John Calhoon showed not long ago, white mice become “psychologically withdrawn.” They fight and eventually they stop mating. In the end, the populations die out.

When we try to piece together some sort of whole from these fragments, we see a disturbing picture emerging: humans devolving in crowded cities into frightened individuals, unable and even unwilling, to communicate with one another — except by electronic gadgets that guarantee distance and lack of intimacy. Surely, our preoccupation with wealth and security is nothing more than an expression of that fear. This is indeed a new form of barbarism, a society of individuals with stunted communication skills who refuse, for one reason or another, to form close communities, who prefer to be alone and separate from one another, having lost “the will to live in common.” This preoccupation with self and lack of concern for others also bothered Vic Scheffer who concluded one of his essays with the thought: “Human life is an unrelenting search for equilibrium between concern for self and concern for others.” As we lose our concern for others, and our ability to communicate with one another, we not only lose the ability to think and act with a purpose; we do in fact become barbaric, uncivilized, less human. “A man is uncivilized, barbarian, in the degree to which he does not take others into account,” according to Ortega.  Things like “restrictions, standards, courtesy, justice, reason,” go by the wayside to be replaced by violence, the “norm which presupposes the annulment of all norms.”

In his concern for Europe at that time, he looked across the ocean at America, but he concluded that America had not suffered enough to lead the world, that we were then “a primitive people camouflaged behind the latest invention.” In Ortega’s view primitives were also barbaric. Interesting.

4 thoughts on “The New Barbarism

  1. The notion of becoming more disconnected from other humans by living in a big city is alarming, but true. It is so much easier not to interact with people when you may not see them the next day, when you certainly don’t know their name, and either walk past without eye contact or have your earbuds in on the freeway. Didn’t Dostoevsky somewhat point to this as a problem, as well — at least through some of his characters? Raskalnikov, already lonely, destitute and desperate after moving to the city from the country, essentially plays off the idea of killing an old woman in a city full of them, and thinking that he can then blend in with the crowd and get away with it. And both the Underground Man and Golyakin in The Double seem to have gone crazy from being ignored/invisible to others in the city — they are, in some ways, both the victims and perpetrators of the lack of communication and recognition of others as fellow humans.

    Americans certainly are very good at ignoring one another’s plights. But I might mildly dispute Ortega’s assessment of barbarism. It is interesting that in Ortega’s own country a mere half-dozen years after 1930 came the first of the modern wars in which civilians were treated as disposable (the Europeans certainly treated Africans that way in the 19th century, as well). But the Spanish Civil War had an array of notorious atrocities, not quite ethnic cleansing but partisan cleansing. That was mere buildup to Hitler and Stalin. American airplanes killed a lot of civilians in World War II — from Hiroshima and Nagasaki to Dresden and other German cities to the night-after-night firebombings of Tokyo that were about as destructive as the nuclear bombs — and American airplanes killed more civilians in Vietnam. But Ortega’s Europe had, and has (Yugoslavia, Chechnya), essentially kept up with us in the killing of civilians. As you note, the killing of civilians has become commonplace.

    • Maybe it turns out that I am, but I was trying to say that his own backyard also had its share of barbarism, as would America in years to come. He was certainly right about America. (maybe he also said that about Europe at some point! ?)

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