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The Polis and the Civis - Elf M. Sternberg
The Polis and the Civis
I lost a couple of fans when I wrote recently, "People who tweet 'I hate political correctness' are saying 'I love my phone, but I hate civilization and all its works."

I stand by that statement.

There are two words that, the dictionaries will tell you, are more or less synonyms: polis and civis. The first is Greek and, according to the dictionary, means "city." The second is Latin and, again accordng to the dictionary, means "city." As you may guess, we get politics and politeness and even police, and the lesser-used polity from the former; from the latter we get civilization and civility, civilized and civilian.

The Romans took polis and made politia out of it, by which they meant The State. To the Greeks, polis meant much the same thing: not so much a city but an organizational region of homogenous rule and regulation. To the Romans, civis meant something beyond the government: it meant the people, the buildings, a distinct entity separate from farms and villages. (The Greek word closest to civis was asti, but it referred only to the physical, built-up nature of the urban city and its spaces.) It meant not just the legalisms that bound the city, but the lower-level customs and arrangements that let Rome survive and prosper even while it was far more cosmopolitan, diverse, and heterogenous in its population than Athens had ever been.

I'm not fond of the polis; I'm very fond of the civis. In a political state, you don't need identity. In the polis, everyone agrees with the status quo, "or else!" You have no rights, no recourse to higher authority because there is no higher authority; you're either with the State and all it agrees, or you're an outsider without the power to resist. Strangers are rare and tolerated only insofar as their profit or threat has been assessed.

In the civil state, you're expected to conform to a minimal set of rules, and then you're expected to treat others with a certain degree of respect. In the civis, in a real city, you rub shoulders with strangers. You meet strangers on a daily basis. You operate on the trust-based assumption that they share your minimal values, and that they'll respect your space and self as much as you will theirs, and you both do. You both know the city will fall apart if you don't.

I'm not fond of the phrase political correctness; it's origin and usage imply homogeneity. Civil correctness would be a more accurate term.

This is why "I hate political correctness" tweeted out on an iPhone is a hypocritical love of technology combined with a hatred for the civilization that brought it to you. You can't admire a device that lets you reach out to the whole world, and then want to hate the majority of the world that doesn't share your narrower set of precepts. Despite my distaste for its etymology, "poliical correctness" without the force of law (and that's a key point) is simply "treating people with respect." Treating them as you would want to be treated.

I understand that once upon a time one didn't have to think about things like "What pronouns should I use?" But we got used to the ocassional odd title, like "Rabbi" or "Father" or "Imam," without trauma. We had preconceived notions that a man didn't have a husband, and treated the Saudi acceptance of multiple wives as a quaint thing we only had to deal with during media coverage of UN conferences. Our culture is still learning to treat minority bodies and minds with the grace and equanimity they desrve.

But you're going to have to. The city is where advances happen. It's where strangers rub shoulders, come together, exchange ideas and create businesses that change the world. It's where the resources of mind, money, and material are dense enough to reach critical mass. Homogenous cities devolve into polities, where everyone agrees, and disturbing that status quo is the only real thoughtcrime.

When a writer advocates for the polis, he's signallying not just his desire to retreat from the world (and he does: Dreher's next book, The Benedict Option is an argument to revive the Catholic tradition of separate faith communities, not only not of the world, but not in it, like some Catholic-flavored variation of the Amish), he's signalling a deep and abiding loathing for civilization. Not just what it has become, but what it has always been: a place where strangers live together in relative peace, prosperity, and progress.

Current Mood: amused amused
Current Music: Genesis, Just a Job To Do

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