The settling of conflicts is one lens through which to view the progression of civilization. To this point, conflict seems to be endemic to human society, and we appear to have an inclination to resolve these conflicts. This extends to more general areas like arguments and problem solving.
A rough history suggests that, early on, the way to resolve conflict was through physical violence and, if the scale and magnitude necessitated, war. As nomadic tribes coalesced into agrarian communities, humanity saw the rise of civil society, politics and diplomacy, and the eventual proliferation of oral and verbal discourse. See also The Beer Theory of Civilization; I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition. This notion of a shift from violence and war to civil discourse, peaceable assemblies, and political engagement isn’t a perfect historical description, of course. More than a few early cultures had their philosophers and deliberative political structures, and more than a few modern states continue to rely on militaristic means of conflict resolution. (Indeed, physical violence probably remains the real trump card in the vast majority of aggregate and individual dispute resolution.) Still, there has been a marked development of peaceful, deliberative means of problem solving in recent centuries.
The United States is no stranger to violent means of conflict resolution, even setting aside foreign policy. The Civil War stands out in this respect, as do the dropping of the atomic bomb and the violent and deadly acts of those dubbed “domestic terrorists.” Even the dueling that claimed the life of one of America’s greatest Founding Fathers was a recognized part of the European culture Americans imported and sustained for some time. By the time of the civil rights movement, violence remained on the table and indeed was a viable option for both sides. There nevertheless was a perceivable shift in which violence was a last resort and peaceable means were preferred in the first instance.
The peak of this time of civic unrest, the late 1960s, has become an archetypical reference point for much of the subsequent civic and political action. The question now is whether this model has been stretched too thin, overused, and, in a certain way, too peaceful, in the age of the internet. Is web-based “social networking” the sort of engagement and participation that would impress Tocqueville, Kennedy, King, Putnam, or Armstrong? Are 140 characters enough for a meaningful treatise? Can a Facebook.com group change the world? Or should we just grab a groupon and plan our revolutions face-to-face at the newest eatery (that checks out on Yelp, of course)? In short, global electronic connectivity has fostered the rise of a sort of wide-sweeping, possibly disparate civic engagement, but is it of significant consequence? Have we walked too far away from the days of settling our differences and sorting things out on the battlefield?
During that high period of American public participation more than forty years ago, a British group already was recognizing the runaway (from meaningfulness) potential of burgeoning civic engagement. The melodic title track of an album otherwise described as “sentimental” and “nostalgic” has a more satirical ring in my ears. (That or it’s the most conservative song ever written by a group banned from performing in the U.S.) Lyrics are available here. A live performance from 1973 gives the feel:
The familiar album version is available below, and there is space for your responsive comments below that. Whether you have some ideas about the role of violence in modern dispute resolution, the future of web-based civic engagement, or a new verse to add to the song, I welcome your thoughts.