Ihave called my lecture ‘Barbarism, A User’s Guide’, not because I wish to give you instructions in how to be barbarians.footnote1 None of us, unfortunately, need it. Barbarism is not something like ice-dancing, a technique that has to be learned—at least not unless you wish to become a torturer or some other specialist in inhuman activities. It is rather a by-product of life in a particular social and historical context, something that comes with the territory, as Arthur Miller says in Death of a Salesman. The term ‘street-wise’ expresses what I want to say all the better for indicating the actual adaptation of people to living in a society without the rules of civilization. By understanding this word we have all adapted to living in a society that is, by the standards of our grandparents or parents, even—if we are as old as I am—of our youth, uncivilized. We have got used to it. I don’t mean we can’t still be shocked by this or that example of it. On the contrary, being periodically shocked by something unusually awful is part of the experience. It helps to conceal how used we have become to the normality of what our—certainly my—parents would have considered life under inhuman conditions. My user’s guide is, I hope, a guide to understanding how this has come about.

The argument of this lecture is that, after about a hundred and fifty years of secular decline, barbarism has been on the increase for most of the twentieth century, and there is no sign that this increase is at an end. In this context I understand ‘barbarism’ to mean two things. First, the disruption and breakdown of the systems of rules and moral behaviour by which all societies regulate the relations among their members and, to a lesser extent, between their members and those of other societies. Second, I mean, more specifically, the reversal of what we may call the project of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, namely the establishment of a universal system of such rules and standards of moral behaviour, embodied in the institutions of states dedicated to the rational progress of humanity: to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness, to Equality, Liberty and Fraternity or whatever. Both are now taking place and reinforce each other’s negative effects on our lives. The relation of my subject to the question of human rights should therefore be obvious.

Let me clarify the first form of barbarization, i.e. what happens when traditional controls disappear. Michael Ignatieff, in his recent Blood and Belonging, notes the difference between the gunmen of the Kurdish guerrillas in 1993 and those of the Bosnian checkpoints. With great perception he sees that in the stateless society of Kurdistan, every male child reaching adolescence gets a gun. Carrying a weapon simply means that a boy has ceased to be a child and must behave like a man. ‘The accent of meaning in the culture of the gun thus stresses responsibility, sobriety, tragic duty.’ Guns are fired when they need to be. On the contrary, most Europeans since 1945, including in the Balkans, have lived in societies where the state enjoyed a monopoly of legitimate violence. As the states broke down, so did that monopoly. ‘For some young European males, the chaos that resulted from [this collapse]. . .offered the chance of entering an erotic paradise of the all-is-permitted. Hence the semi-sexual, semi-pornographic gun culture of the checkpoints. For young men there was an irresistible erotic charge in holding lethal power in your hands’ and using it to terrorize the helpless.footnote2

I suspect that a good many of the atrocities now committed in the civil wars of three continents reflect this type of disruption, which is characteristic of the late twentieth-century world. But I hope to say a word or two about this later.

As to the second form of barbarization, I wish to declare an interest. I believe that one of the few things that stands between us and an accelerated descent into darkness is the set of values inherited from the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. This is not a fashionable view at this moment, when the Enlightenment can be dismissed as anything from superficial and intellectually naive to a conspiracy of dead white men in periwigs to provide the intellectual foundation for Western imperialism. It may or may not be all that, but it is also the only foundation for all the aspirations to build societies fit for all human beings to live in anywhere on this Earth, and for the assertion and defence of their human rights as persons. In any case, the progress of civility which took place from the eighteenth century until the early twentieth was achieved overwhelmingly or entirely under the influence of the Enlightenment, by governments of what are still called, for the benefit of history students, ‘enlightened absolutists’, by revolutionaries and reformers, Liberals, Socialists, and Communists, all of whom belonged to the same intellectual family. It was not achieved by its critics. This era when progress was not merely supposed to be both material and moral but actually was, has come to an end. But the only criterion which allows us to judge rather than merely to record the consequent descent into barbarism, is the old rationalism of the Enlightenment.