“Instead of asking, ‘Why is there war?’, we might ask, ‘Why is there peace?’”
– Stephen Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature, p. xxv.
Those of us who subscribe to social media will be familiar with the archetypical anecdote: a child helps a little old lady across the street, a teenage shop assistant carries groceries to the car of a disabled customer, or a bystander defends a bullied child. In this pandemic year, I might add stories such as the person who pays for groceries for the elderly gent in the supermarket queue, or who sacrifices their extra pack of hoarded toilet paper in order to give it to the crying woman who has missed out. Feel free to recollect your own list of similar feel-good stories that are designed to make us go Awww…
What I find interesting with such narratives is that the public reaction generally seems more revealing than the stories themselves. Often, people will declare how proud they are to see someone help another person, or they will appeal to a deity for special blessings upon the benefactor. Someone might even declare: ‘FAITH IN HUMANITY RESTORED’. My response is: Really? For sharing toilet paper? For helping a little old lady across the street? For getting a cat out of a tree? Aren’t such acts simply called common courtesy or basic human decency? And yet people not only love such stories; they love to love them.
And this reveals something quite profound about human nature. Our feel-good stories about gurgling babies and little old ladies also touch a primal sentiment: we recognise the good within ourselves.
Would you like to hear a radical idea? Author Rutger Bregnan presents us with one: “What is this radical idea? That most people, deep down, are pretty decent.” (Humankind: A Hopeful History, p. 2.) The opening pages of his book introduce us to examples of benevolent behaviour instead of panic during crises including the Titanic, the London Blitz, and the World Trade Center Twin Towers. Analysing how we react under extreme pressure can be one of the optimal ways of exploring human behaviour. Bregnan asserts: “It’s when crisis hits – when the bombs fall or the floodwaters rise – that we humans become our best selves.”(p. 4) This can be helpful when also considering our behaviour during more benign circumstances. It even challenges us to ponder how we should react during the current world crisis of COVID-19: do we have an opportunity to reach out to others in crisis and thereby somehow enrich our own inner humanity?
Laurence Rifkin suggests that altruistic expression of our common humanity is a pragmatic act in a difficult world:
So let’s admit straight out: humanism is not about hope. It’s about facing the world as it actually exists and making the best of it. It’s about looking this real world in the eye and, using imagination and initiative, building castles in the sand, not castles in the sky. It’s about finding goodness within the spectrum of what’s real and what’s possible. And in facing such truths, humanists don’t look outside nature for salvation; they don’t seek change through wish fulfillment. This perspective is not a limitation. It’s a motivator. It’s the ground for positive action and results.
Existential analyst Victor Frankl believed that such positivity is inbuilt as part of our human quest for the meaning of life: ‘For Frankl, meaning came from three possible sources: purposeful work, love, and courage in the face of difficulty.’
How can we reconcile such optimistic human attributes with our daily news cycles or populist movies, which present us with more nihilistic, cynical views of human nature? It is a cliché that bad news sells newspapers – in apparent contradiction to my earlier observation that people also love touch-feely, sentimental stories. But the human fascination with bad news also appears to run deep, more than simply commercial pandering to what I once heard described as being a ‘culture of death’ within populist culture. Maybe we are collectively attracted to bad news – just as we are to feel-good stories – because we individually believe ourselves to be better than average and that things will somehow work out for us in the end. One source even suggests that psychologists talk about ‘negativity bias‘ as an inbuilt evolutionary trait to safeguard survival.
Bregnan cites Rebecca Solnit in ascribing bad news culture to those in power: ‘Elite panic comes from powerful people who see all humanity in their own image‘ (cited in Humankind, pp. 6 & 7). Just as humans create gods in their image, so they evidently create devils too. By contrast, Bregnan and Solnit explore the human response to disaster as one of building community and purpose amidst chaos. They implicitly suggest that we need to start electing or appointing better leaders – people who are in touch with ordinary people and ordinary human benevolence.
© 2020 Geoff Allshorn