Invitation to a new realism
Most people, deep down, are pretty decent.
Post a visit to my friend in Luxemborg, I arrived at the Luxembourg airport (not to fly), but to pick up a bla-bla car to Paris. As I had some free time, I entered the airport (which as far I know, is not allowed in India) and bought this awesome book by a Dutch historian and writer, Rutger Bregman. The book from 2020 is already translated into many Indian languages. Probably one of the best discoveries of 2021 (for me) and for the years ahead, Human Kind — A hopeful history is a must read in the times of covid pandemic (many waves), dictatorships, wars, migration and refugee crisis, climate crisis and many more.
First impression might be that it is a book on some strange utopia; whether these are possible; whether it makes any sense. I am not writing a review of the book here, but dealing with some of the ideas that forms the foundation of the book.
- Hobbes vs Rousseau. The book describes a journey that moves between these two most influential political thinkers, though Bregman may be closer to Rousseau (though not a follower). May be it is also interesting to evoke the third thinker Machiavelli too. I have given below some quotes to give in their basic ideas (though you can’t summarize these authors to these quotes).
Each of these thinkers has a different opinion on the human nature. Rousseau is more optimistic about human nature, and he thinks that society (and civilization) has created the chains. Hobbes speaks about the selfishness (or self-interest) of human nature, and this decides all our actions. Machiavelli has the most negative view of human nature and he advocates that prince should instill fear (think about any dictator, right or left). Most of the governments may not be like the prince of Machiavelli, but it takes Hobbes more seriously, and considers human beings as essentially selfish and the government should rule over them. Bregman is not appealing for anarchy (or no government), but he demands a reform of all the political insitutions, which starts from his basic thesis….
Some might say in the beginning; i don’t want this religious “bullshit”. He is an atheist, or an agnostic. He is not a religious man, in any sense of the item. He is not a new-age guru, he is a historian, who has written about history based on many relevant scientific facts on psychology and different experiments in politics around the world.
2. Critique on two most famous scientific studies on Psychology
Standford Prison experiment of 1971 (which later became adapted to movies) had enrolled many volunteers (most of them being pacificists); some of them became inmates of the prison and others became the guards. When the purpose of the experiment was in some sense to know about the human nature, the experiement had to be stopped after a few days as it went out of control. Guards had punished the inmates badly; inmates were given numbers, and called as numbers (not names) and many other psychological measures were followed by the guards on the inmates. So the conclusion was that behaviours of normal people from decent situations can be altered significantly, depending upon the situation. All semmed to be good, and this study became a basic lesson to the political, sociological and psychological actions. But later confessions from the guards, and study of many scholars on the experiment archives helped them to understand that guards were given instructions to be stern; they had to play their roles to earn the money etc. The question that is asked by Bregman is “whether the experiment would have given different results if the guards were not instructed ?” Or the experiment doesn’t tell of the human nature in normal conditions, but under some extreme environments.
BBC later did an attempt to replicate the experiment on live television in 2001–02, and Bregman says that the show was so boring to watch. It didn’t create anything extraordinary. The psychologists haven’t told the guards on how to behave. There was no much problem between the guards and the inmates. This completely go against the conclusions of the Standford prison experiment.
Milgram Shock experiment was done in 1961, where the volunteers were told that they were divided into two groups called teachers and students. Teacher was asked to do a memory test on the student and for each wrong answer, the shock was given. When it started with 15V, it went to 30V for the next wrong response, 45V for the third and so on. The only saving grace was that student was always somebody from the research team, and the wire was not connected to them; but they acted as if they got the shock. they cried and screamed to make it look real. Teachers always thought (or atleast they were informed so) that students were getting the shock.
The teacher was allowed to go till 450V, and the 330V was the point of danger. And 65% of the teachers (volunteers acting as teachers) continued the experiment till the furthest limit, which became a headline news and the judgement of human nature was already given. Later study by researchers on the archives tell us that there were much external pressures on them to go ahead; the teachers also were looking at the scientific benefit of the experiment; it also says that half of them thought that it was a fake set-up.
Though with all the critiques too, these experiments do give some cause for worry, it can’t help us to arrive at the conclusion that human beings are inherently evil. Or that conclusion is still far from the truth. (If you are not convinced by the critique on the experiments, better read the book, before throwing away the critique; it is difficult to summarize on a short piece like this).
3. Moments of Crisis brings the best in the human-beings
Most of natural calamities and other incidents are simple proofs of it. But he also gives an interesting proof from the World War II. Both the sides bombed the civilians of the enemies (in Germany and in London), thinking that bombing the civilians will lead to chaos, and fast defeat of the enemies. Even in the midst of all the difficulties (and many deaths), people continued to help and live their life; the war only got prolonged.
4. Placebo and Nocebo Effects
The placebo effect is defined as a phenomenon in which some people experience a benefit after the administration of an inactive “look-alike” substance or treatment. The patient might be given a sugar tablet instead of the proper tablet (though s/he doesn’t know), and the effect is quite well in many cases. In one level, it shows the power of our minds and our beliefs. Various other psychological factors (relationship of the nurse, or the family members taking care of the patient, the environment) can contribute to the placebo effect too. Nocebo is the opposite of the placebo effect, leading to opposite outcomes.
These are well known ideas. I think, Bregman (again not a pioneer) thinks of extending this to collective domains. He sees the example of high opinions of teachers and parents influencing the learning outcomes of students (technically called Pygmalion effect). There is similar negative effect too. But on larger scale, he quotes a 2016 study done in Britain which says,
A British study recently found that a vast majority of the population (74 per cent) identify more closely with values such as helpfulness, honesty and justice than with wealth, status and power. But just about as large a share (78 per cent) think others are more self-interested than they really are.
I think along with Bregman that this skewed opinion on human nature does create a nocebo effect. In some sense, we blindly follow the ideology of many of the political institutions which are based on the logic that human beings are intrinsically not good, and we need governments, rules, regulations, laws to have a peaceful environment. Being kind (or having better opinions on others) is better tool for creating a better world. Innumerble amazing work of people with the inmates in prisons (some cited by Bregman), with children of difficult or abusive childhood etc have proved this. The important area is to apply it more extensively.
Bregman is not telling to literally follow the gospel verse of showing the other cheek (for those who are scandalised here, just check the event of Jesus getting the slap of a soldier, and see what his response was…); but there is an aspect of non-complementary behavior. We have a certain mirroring tendency to give compliment to others who compliment us; criticize those who criticize us. Great souls like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther, Nelson Mandela, Mother Theresa and many other great individuals (who may or may not be proclaimed so) start that revolutions, which in the long run, even helped their enemies to mirror their behaviours. They loved, and in the long run, many of their enemies (not 100 percent efficacy, which is okay) started loving.
5. Political reforms:
He gives innumerable examples here of the small-scale political reforms happened in many villages or cities (may not be yet on a country level), where the power is handed onto the people. This stems from the basic belief that people (and not just the leaders) are capable of taking the decisions; definitely it is a revolutionary move. (From the perspective of Catholic Church, synodality is an invitation for the same, to believe that Holy Spirit speaks through all and all can be part of the decision making process). As always, let’s not be naive that these processes are simple or achieves success all time.
He compares between the prisons in Norway and US. When prisons in Norway prepares the inmates to be integrated to the normal life after their prison terms, most of the extremely over-crowed prisons in US suffocates prisoners. One of the Norwegian prison incharge says, “I tell people, we’re releasing neighbours every year. Do you want to release them as ticking time bombs?” He quotes a newly elected mayor of Newark, who speaks about the police officers,
“It requires officers, he said, ‘who know people’s grandmothers, who know the institutions of the community, who look at people as human beings […] that’s the beginning of it. If you don’t look at the people you’re policing as human, then you begin to treat them inhumanely.’
Norwegian system is not fool-proof. But treating human-beings as human-beings (as individuals who are decent, deep down) are advantageous in every ways for the betterment of the world.
Bregman narrates a story (similar in some way to Bishop’s Candlestick n Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables”) where a young social worker named Julio Diaz was shown a knife by a young boy while Julio was on his way to his regular restaurant. The wallet was given; he called the boy and told him that he could keep his coat also to keep himself warm, if he has to rob the whole night. The boy was surprised at that action; they had dinner together. Bregman doesn’t say what happened to the boy, but he replies to a journalist on why he did that way,
“I figure, you know, if you treat people right, you can only hope that they treat you right. It’s as simple as it gets in this complicated world”.
Bregman invites us (definitely he is not the first one) to a new realism.
And now for my most important rule to live by.
If there’s one thing I’ve sought to do with this book, it’s to change the meaning of the word ‘realism’. Isn’t it telling that in modern usage the realist has become synonymous with the cynic — for someone with a pessimistic outlook?
In truth, it’s the cynic who’s out of touch. In truth, we’re living on a Planet, where people are deeply inclined to be good to one another.
So be realistic. Be courageous. Be true to your nature and offer your trust. Do good in broad daylight, and don’t be ashamed of your generosity. You may be dismissed as gullible and naive at first. But remember, what’s naive today may be common sense tomorrow.
It’s time for a new realism. It’s time for a new view of humankind
With a great hope, I keep that as my new year resolution…..