Monthly Archives: July 2014

Ursula K. Le Guin and the “myth of the veneer”

Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin (who is easily in the topmost tier of my favorite writers ever) dismantles a common conception I’ve had a problem with for a long time — the idea that everything good about human society is merely a mask concealing our “true” destructive urges:

If you peel away a veneer, you reveal a solid substance of a different nature from the veneer. If law and moral convention are a veneer, the implication is that they are a thin, artificial disguise or prettification of something substantial but less pretty.

What is this substance?

Are we to assume the substance revealed is that of social relations in their raw state?

Does a raw state postulate some “natural” or prehistoric phase of human existence, a pre-social state in which there was no social code, and each individual invented behavior and relationship from scratch?

Social animals such as man all live within a system of rules of behavior and relationship, some innate and some learned, which limit violence within the group, facilitate communication, and make repeated betrayal of trust unprofitable. Almost all human beings, even infants, are continuously engaged in intensely complex mutual human relationships taking place within a society and culture consisting of rules, laws, traditions, institutions, etc. that specify and regulate the nature and manner of those relationships.

There is no evidence that human beings ever lived in asocial anarchy, and much evidence that, like other social animals, they have always lived within a social system. The rules differ greatly, but there are never no rules.

In other words, law and moral convention — social control of behavior and relationship — is not an artificial, enforced constraint, but a substantial element of our existence as members of our species. Non-violent, informative, trustworthy behavior is fully as natural to us as violence, lying, and betrayal.

I’m reading Le Guin’s The Eye of the Heron right now, and I’m struck by how this theme plays out in that novel as well, as two groups of people explore different conflict-resolution strategies — violence versus nonviolence, cooperation versus coercion, reasoning together versus deception and terrorism — and Le Guin awesomely refuses to privilege one approach as more “natural” or “valid” than the other.

We’re all people, figuring things out, and there’s no “human nature” that dictates that we must inevitably take the darker road; whenever we choose the more civilized path, we’re not denying our nature but affirming it, as evolved social beings. We are, by nature, capable of both the best and the worst that we can imagine. What’s left is the will to choose.

There’s more to Le Guin’s essay; read it in its entirety here.

(Photo by Andy Black)

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