The Optimist Manifesto or Raging Against The Gloom
I bet you have heard or read the following statement this week “This world is totally messed up”. You may even have uttered it yourself. Here’s another one “Human beings are…….” insert evil, horrible cruel etc. etc. After such a terrible week of both man made and natural disasters it is entirely understandable that people should feel this way. In fact I have some sympathy with the former appraisal of the current state of planet earth. The world is indeed a messed up place. Looking at any news outlet on any day of the week should leave you in no doubt as to the validity of that statement. Famine, disease, poverty and inequality is everywhere, while a minority gobble up the worlds resources. As for the latter statement on the human condition, well I do have a problem with that.
I am not ready to write off the human race. Stay with me and let me explain. I am going to argue, that this perspective on mankind is counterproductive. Instead I will contend people continually demonstrate their potential to solve many of the issues that have so spectacularly manifested themselves this week.
So is human nature fundamentally flawed? I can understand why people may feel this is the case. Our news media seldom report positive stories nor do they even attempt to find a positive angle to a negative piece of news. Balance in journalism is hard to find in my view. We watch report after report of murder, robbery, terrorism, fraud and assault on a daily basis. Our view of reality is now skewed in favour of a pessimistic perspective of the world. Psychologists suggest that human beings have a tendency to seek out only the information that confirms their preconceived ideas. This is called ‘cognitive bias’. In plain English we see what we expect to see, rather than seeing what is actually there. This is profound stuff, and if don’t believe me do a simple ‘google’ search. You will find many interesting experiments that prove this is true.
Take this weeks terrorist assault in Boston as a case in point. Surely this is clear evidence of ‘mans inhumanity to man’. If this doesn’t prove that human beings are cruel and inhuman then what will? What about 9/11, 7/7. For that matter what about the bombing of an afghan wedding by the US air force recently, or the café bombing in Baghdad. My problem with this is it is missing one very basic truth.
Ask yourself this, how many people were responsible for the Boston bombing? The answer (according to current reports) is 2. Can we really base our opinions of the entire human race on the actions of just two people? I am over simplifying of course, but even if we accept that globally the number of people committed to terrorism is say 10 million for the sake of argument, then this still represents a tiny proportion of a species that currently number 6 billion (1/600th actually).
I would argue that those who lament the frailty of human nature, are looking at the problem from the wrong angle. Surely it is far more logical to analyse the responses of those who were attacked in Boston. If we allow ourselves to take a step back, far enough to see past our cognitive bias we may actually see something entirely contrary. President Obama spoke glowingly of the ordinary citizens who struggled to apply tourniquets to stricken bystanders caught up in the blasts. I’ve watched the footage, he is right. Look at 9/11, 7/7, Baghdad. Over and over you will see real human nature in action. Often spectacular acts of bravery are seen. We even see people putting their own lives at risk in order to rescue others. The case of the two port authority workers who continued up one of the World Trade Centre buildings rescuing countless individuals and tragically leaving themselves no time to get out is a pertinent one. In 7/7 there was the man who remained with a complete stranger in the dark of an underground tunnel filled with death and smoke, for no other reason than he didn’t want her to be alone. Every fibre in his being must have screamed for him to run, but he didn’t.
Prior to 9/11 the record for a marine born evacuation happened during the ‘miracle of Dunkirk’ when 338,226 men were rescued from the French beach over 8 days. This was a herculean feat, but even this is dwarfed by the half a million people evacuated from the island of Manhattan by sea in a single day on September 11 2001. Human beings can do spectacular things in the service of each other.
This is not an east west, or black white thing either. Why would human brains in Afghanistan or Iraq be any different to those in London or Boston? They are not. Nor can it be argued that any specific religious or moral code is at work here. All of the world religions have been responsible for their far share of pogroms and persecution.
Neither am I espousing some hippy ideal of peace an love. There are scientific principles at work here. As far back as 1859 Charles Darwin described how a honey bee would “commit suicide” by stinging an intruder to protect the hive. Darwin explained that in doing so the honey bee guarantee’s more copies of its genetic code are passed on by the surviving bees. As Richard Dawkins explains in his book “The Selfish Gene” the bees are not consciously aware of this decision, rather they are programmed to behave ‘altruistically’ by their genes. Humans are the same. WD Hamilton in 1964 demonstrated mathematically that species will favour the survival of their “kin” even if it jeopardises their own life. Here kin applies to beings that are significantly similar or connected to each other in a meaningful way. In a species or genetic sense are not all humans connected in a meaningful way?
There are other more everyday reasons to alter your mental model about human nature in my view. What does it feel like to believe that human beings are fundamentally bad? I would imagine it makes you fearful of your fellow man or woman. Yet there are countless statistics that prove that fear of crime far outweighs its reality. Yet most of us lock our doors, and invest our hard earned cash in personal and home alarm systems. We stop our kids playing out in the street.
In the united states right now this fear of our neighbours is being used to prevent any attempt at restricting gun ownership. Again if we look at the reality this defies all logic. Since the last school massacre in the United States there have been more that 3000 gun murders in America. Since 9/11 there has been 3 deaths in America due to terrorism. Yet despite this gun control is being resisted on the grounds that citizens need guns to protect themselves. Meanwhile billions is being spent countering the threat of terrorism in the homeland. Does it suit the state to have us all living in fear of each other so that they can justify foreign and domestic policy? Is said policy actually in our best interests? These are at least questions we should be asking.
My final point is this. If we allow this mistrust or our kin to pervade, do we not play right into the hands of the terrorists who have basically lost faith in the masses to deliver change and have resorted to bombing their way to power. Are we falling for a con trick from governments who tell us we need protecting from ourselves.
Yes I have left you with more questions than answers, but for me there is far more to be gained from valuing our fellow man or woman than fearing them. People have the power to find the answers to our problems. They should be empowered not overpowered by terror, be it the fundamentalist type or the media type.
Power to the People, got a nice ring to it that.