As I have learned more about human nature and the way societies work I’ve come to realise that many of the fundamental frameworks wrapping the darker side of humanity are right there in front of us. Often.
As just one example, when I was a kid at Nelson Park primary school in Napier, New Zealand, children were routinely punished for things they hadn’t done. Accusation meant guilt, guilt meant punishment; and the teachers took a very great deal of pleasure from finding any excuse to hurt the kids. The problem was that some kids quickly found out they could exploit this by ‘telling on’ other kids – alleging their target had done something against the myriad petty ‘rules’, and so getting them punished. It was a great bullying device. I discovered this when I was abruptly called out at assembly, in front of the school and informed that I had been in the school grounds the previous weekend. This was, of course, forbidden and I needed due punishment. This was the first I’d heard of it – I’d been away with my family. And why would I want to go back into a place where my days were filled with abuse and pain from teachers? But someone had ‘told on’ me, and that made me guilty. No defence – if you denied the allegation you were punished for lying.
I mention all this not to outline the profound moral void in which Nelson Park School’s teachers – and New Zealand’s school system generally – floated in the early 1970s, but because this kind of behaviour is well known historically. All it takes is an authoritarian system in which one group are defined as having power, and another are not. Two things emerge. One is a behaviour pattern by those with power use it to get their jollies – shown, since, to be a fundamental part of human nature. But those in the group without the power also find ways to exploit the system to get their own way – always, of course, at the expense of somebody else.
At Nelson Park School this system was used by the teachers to make themselves feel good at the expense of the kids. And that phenomenon was then used by some kids to bully and hurt other kids. The point is that the school was a microcosm: these same behaviours are clear enough through history. Witch-hunting, for instance, operated in precisely the same way – villagers would pick on an innocent woman, knowing the ruthless way in which any accused witch was treated. Often the actual reason was some dispute or other problem, local to the village, in which the allegation of ‘witchcraft’ was merely a device.
Robespierre’s ‘Terror’ of 1793 was another example to a much larger scale: amidst a hysteria in which any innocent citizen could be accused of being a counter-revolutionary and summarily executed, it was all too easy for neighbours to ‘dob in’ each other over minor domestic disputes. The same happened, again, during Stalin’s reign over the Soviet Union. Again, neighbours had merely to ‘dob in’ each other, and often did so for reasons that had everything to do with their personal arguments. And, of course, there remains the McCarthy era in the United States, where mere mention of someone being a ‘red’ or ‘communist’ sufficed to ruin them and take away any defence.
There are many, many other examples, all associated with the way humans exploit either an overt authoritarian system, or a social phenomenon which has the features of authoritarianism. A raft of behaviours, including the way those defined as powerless by the system still find ways to hurt others – usually by exploiting the way those with power so swiftly find ways to misuse it – consistently seem to follow. The fact that this pattern of behaviour can occur with such frequency and apparent ease makes clear that it is innate to humans. And the conclusion, alas, is that humans are not a very nice species.
What worries me is that much of it goes unnoticed. We recoil in due horror from the excessive examples. But it happens on many scales, from death camps to school playgrounds and everything between. Including what we assume to be our civilised society.
Are humans really not a very nice species? Thoughts?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2021