My friend Lindsay was recently complaining about people being assholes about social distancing at the farmer’s market he works at. Watching people fail to social distance because they’re assholes and other people fail because they don’t speak English and everyone be mean to everyone else understandably fed his inner misanthropist.
One thing I’ve changed my mind on over the years is my default view of humanity. I was raised to believe we are sinful, fallen creatures who can be counted on to lie, cheat, and steal at every opportunity.
“For centuries western culture has been permeated by the idea that humans are selfish creatures,” writes historian Rutger Bregman in an article adapted excerpt from his book on human nature. “That cynical image of humanity has been proclaimed in films and novels, history books and scientific research. But in the last 20 years, something extraordinary has happened. Scientists from all over the world have switched to a more hopeful view of mankind. This development is still so young that researchers in different fields often don’t even know about each other.”
The whole article is well worth reading, and I might check out the book too.
The big reason I changed my mind about human nature is that research is revealing that humans are incredibly consistently and naturally pro-social. The field of behavioral economics shows people consistently screwing themselves over but very rarely consistently screwing over other people. In study after study, when given the opportunity to screw others over, we generally choose not to, even when there are no obvious punishments or drawbacks to doing so. We also consistently sacrifice for the good of others without any immediate benefit to ourselves. One theory for why this is so is that prosocial behavior conferred evolutionary advantages.
So why does the myth of evil or fallen human nature persist?
People being nice to each other doesn’t make the news. Choices and behaviors that are normally of no real consequence to anyone outside of yourself, like how closely to stand to someone in line or whether to open your flower shop, are suddenly much higher stakes, though no one really knows how high. Which just makes everything that much more stressful and opens up more opportunity for conflict. It’s enough to feed anyone’s inner misanthropist. I’m adjusting to this reality by arguing with my friends on Twitter about whether they should wear masks when they’re outside if they’re not getting close to anyone.
There’s a saying in journalism, “Man bites dog.” What it means is that a dog biting a man isn’t news, because it’s normal. But if a man bites a dog, that’s news, because it’s weird.
Being nice is the default. Being shitty makes for a story. If the opposite were true, you’d see a news crew every time someone helped someone else.
Rutger Bregman writing about William Golding, who wrote Lord of the Flies, really struck me:
In hindsight, the secret to the book’s success is clear. Golding had a masterful ability to portray the darkest depths of mankind. Of course, he had the zeitgeist of the 1960s on his side, when a new generation was questioning its parents about the atrocities of the second world war. Had Auschwitz been an anomaly, they wanted to know, or is there a Nazi hiding in each of us?
I learned what an unhappy individual he had been: an alcoholic, prone to depression. “I have always understood the Nazis,” Golding confessed, “because I am of that sort by nature.” And it was “partly out of that sad self-knowledge” that he wrote Lord of the Flies.
Rutger Bregman found the real Lord of the Flies. Six boys were shipwrecked for 15 months and then found and rescued. They all survived because they cooperated and sacrificed to help each other. Despite there being a 1966 documentary about their story, few people have ever heard about it.
Because nice is the default, it’s not as interesting. And because it’s not interesting, it doesn’t make the news. As a result, news consumption is associated with depression and anxiety.
I think we also tend to seek out stories of people being bad because it makes us feel safer to know who the baddies are. I think this is especially true of people who already tend toward anxiety and depression.
I like to say “ACAB,” which stands for All Cops Are Bastards. Not because I literally think that, but because “the police system incentivizes escalation of violence and racist and classist policing practices and heavily punishes all attempts at accountability or transparency” is a mouthful.
I remember talking to my dad about what bastards cops are, and he told me that the reason cops are bastards, along with the incentive system, is that they see the worst in people all day every day. The cops don’t get called when people are being their best selves to each other. And that over-representation of one side of humanity warps cops’ view of humanity. They come into a situation assuming the worst because they constantly see people at their worst.
It’s easy to see how seeing people be shitty to each other turns into a cycle that can warp your view of humanity. For example, “adverse childhood experiences (ACES)” include a lot of bad behavior such as molestation, neglect, and severe mentally illness in a parent or caregiver.
ACES are associated with anxiety, depression, and even physical illnesses. As is PTSD. What’s interesting, though, is that the same experience doesn’t traumatize everyone the same way. One of the risk factors for PTSD is “having little support from loved ones after the event.”
Trauma often involves seeing the very worst in people without being able to also see the best in people.
Trauma teaches you that people are bad and can’t be trusted. This makes you lonely, which exacerbates your anxiety and depression.
I think another reason we have a too-negative view of human nature is that we learn through stories. And stories without conflict are boring and don’t catch on.
I’ve been thinking about human nature in part because Quarantine Buddy really cares about future people. He recommended The Precipice, and I’ve got to say it should have been an essay. Like no one needs 30 minutes each about every possible way the world could end. Toby Orb is really concerned about future people getting to exist.
But honestly, if humans stopped reproducing I’d be fine with that. Life is suffering, and isn’t the moral imperative to reduce suffering?
I’m into land use reform and criminal justice reform and sex-positive feminism because zoning, the criminal justice system as configured, sex-negativity, and sexism cause suffering and I feel a deep responsibility to use whatever privilege I have to identify suffering and work to alleviate it.
But I don’t really care about future people. They’re not suffering now and if they never exist they never will suffer. Until we create a suffering-free place to get born into, I feel deeply ambivalent about bringing new people onto this planet.
But maybe if you’ve suffered less than I have, and if you’ve failed to see all the suffering of others, maybe then you’d be more positive about bringing more people into the world.
One last reason some of us have a too-dim view of humanity is that we feel a responsibility to look when people are being shitty to each other because if you don’t look you can’t intervene. But when you stay there in the shit reading story after story about COVID outbreaks in overcrowded prisons and ICE denying children flu shots it can have the unintended consequence of warping our view of humanity.
The easy way to love people and be happy, whether the people refers to your spouse or humanity, is to ignore their flaws. Look away when they’re being shitty and focus on when they’re being good.
The hard way to love people and be happy is to let yourself really see when they’re being shitty and also focus on when they’re being good.
And to love them for all their parts.