The unrelenting tide of desperate people fleeing war-torn homelands to find refuge and better opportunities in Europe confronts the European mind with a new moral issue. More than just being a political aberration, this massive influx of refugees raises a moral question about the nature of human civilisation in the second decade of the 21st century. Can the West still claim to be civilised when it has undergone a de-civilising process due to which it has turned into a highly complacent, conformist space of mind where fear, violence and mostly indifference dominate the everyday life of Westerners?
Given the tragic and inhumane evidence of the new migrations, we can no longer accept the idea of Western moral progress. As history shows us, the everyday meaning of “civilised” has come to imply the alleged moral superiority of the West vis-a-vis so-called “primitive” peoples, a notion widely used by colonising nations in the past to assert white supremacy. But whatever moral ascendancy the West once held has been lost in the refugee camps in Hungary and Australia, where people are treated worse than animals. As such, many Western countries, especially Hungary and Australia, could be criticised for the very “evil” they claim to be trying to prevent. If they truly want to save lives and find a solution to this human tragedy, they would do better to provide a best-practice model of humane and compassionate regulation that respects the need for protection for some of the world’s most vulnerable people.
At the same time, the ongoing tragedy of migrants entering through European borders also raises the general question of the process of “de-civilisation”. In his masterwork The Civilising Process, Norbert Elias describes this process as a long-term transformation of interpersonal relations and modes of behaviour that accompanies the formation of a unified state capable of monopolising physical violence and, thus, of progressively pacifying society.
However, the 2015 European migrant crisis can be interpreted in part as the product of a reversal of these trends. That is, as a process of de-civilising whose principal causes are to be found in the de-pacification of Western societies where urban violence is becoming more and more intense, in the privatisation of politics as the art of organising society accompanied by the slow erosion of the Western public space and, finally, in the social and political indifference among European and North American citizens as well as the rise of conformism as a general social attitude in the West. It goes without saying that violence and fear form the Gordian knot of the migration crisis, and they are integral to the moral transformation of Western society, which, while losing its founding values like compassion and civic friendship, shows strong signs of the fear of contamination and degradation via association with “inferior beings” — the migrants.
The shift from the classical idea of the communal ghetto to the mental ghetto may be presented dynamically in terms of the interaction of three elements. The first is the relativisation of moral values. Contemporary Western society is an increasingly loose domain where no particular moral or ethical position can actually be considered “right” or “wrong” and where there is a fairly wide sense of uncertainty. A second element entails the impossibility of meaningfulness in the public sphere and the rise of the privatisation of morality, which makes human beings insensitive and uncompassionate. Finally, the third element of de-civilisation that has attained its peak in the Western world is the erosion of the presence, reach and efficacy of public education.
At stake here, in the debate on education as a de-civilising process versus education as valued pedagogy, is the notion of critical thinking. The absence of a shared compassion and sense of urgency about the migrants suggests clearly the inability in Western societies to think differently. The hubris of Western democracies regarding the massive humanitarian disaster caused by the new refugee crisis lies in sticking to their “democratic values” and believing all will be well. But the self-congratulatory claims to universalism seem to have destroyed the sense of empathy in Europe and the rest of the West. The world of migrants’ suffering that Europe is witnessing is as remote from the present European mind as the farthest planet. It’s this uncompassionate remoteness that makes things even more tragic.
The writer is Noor-York Chair in Islamic Studies, York University, Toronto