The news from Paris has horrified me on so many levels. Part of the horror flows from the way the dark side of human nature has been – once again – starkly revealed by last week’s terror attacks.
If we look across the world today – and back through history – that darkness is also evident in many ways, on many scales and in many contexts, from personal disputes to global-spanning wars. Our ability, as humans, to find differences – ‘other groups’ – to define that ‘other group’ as an enemy – and to then pursue that past the point of reason – is apparently innate.
Why this happens, irrespective of time or culture, is theorised to be one legacy of hunter-gatherer days when human group size stood at around 150, usually kin-related. Those inside the community were cared for and supported. Outside groups were likely to compete for territory (resources) – and became a threat to be de-humanised and thus rendered outside the ethics of care – making them fair game.
This was not the sole issue in the development of the ‘human condition’. However, there’s an argument that it was a major factor, and this helps explain the dichotomy of that condition – the tension between ‘caring’ and ‘destroying’, and trying to manage it, that has been a theme of everything from religion to psychology.
The thing is that the notion apparently worked fine during the last Ice Age when there were only a few humans and the world was large. It likely gave survival advantages. Groups who were better at it got the food and survived. Groups that ran into trouble could move away – and this is possibly one reason why humanity spread around the planet.
But it didn’t work once habitations became fixed locales on the back of agriculture. The fact that one of the world’s oldest known towns, Jericho, was also fortified by around 9400 years before the present, is telling. Today – well, most of us live in communities far larger than our ‘social systems’ were ever meant to cope with, and there’s nowhere to move on to.
One of the main problems today is that, whereas in old hunter-gatherer times these tensions were directed over real issues of getting food, humanity has conceptualised them today in many abstract ways. The territory over which people fight is intellectualised, as often as not – and frequently tangled with concepts of self-worth, giving the issue even higher intensity.
Part of the problem is that all this is emotional; and emotion trumps reason. Worse, our ability to reason – one capacity by which we imagine ourselves to be better than animals – usually leads people to rationalise the emotion, to intellectualise it and – finally – to convince themselves that what they are doing is good. And it makes them feel good to think that. One outcome is a cognitive dissonance. People assert that they are doing ‘good’ – and genuinely believe it – with emotionally-driven actions that, in fact, are hurtful and destructive, including to themselves. Often the results are the polar opposite of the intent behind the philosophy they claim to be representing.
And before your mind turns to the way zealots perform, the fact is that this sort of double-think stupidity is expressed in many shades of grey across all human society, often at everyday levels, often in small ways. I’m sure everybody has examples in their own ordinary experience of normal life – my own experience of it flows from the way salaried academics behave towards freelancers intruding into ‘their’ territory in New Zealand.
The question, ultimately, isn’t why humanity keeps falling into the pit of its own dark side – but what we can do about it? Kindness, care and a sense of good-will to others are the key ways we define our humanity – our supposed superiority over animals. And yet – as a species – we fail, repeatedly, to be able to show that good nature to each other in our large, complex multi-faceted world.
It’s time, surely, to turn that around. I mean, being kind isn’t hard. We all know how to be nice to each other. That was shown up by the attacks in Paris too – by the way the innocent everyday people caught in the tragedy found strength in themselves to help strangers. That response, to me, is a wonderful endorsement of the positive side of human nature.
That kindness also underscores the deeper lesson of Paris. Kindness is innate too. And do we really have to wait until there’s an emergency before showing it? Being kind, caring and tolerant to all humanity isn’t hard – and that’s the lesson, really. As a species, we need to make kindness a habit. I’m far from the first to suggest it.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015