Since February, societies worldwide have found themselves in a downward spiral of crisis. Negativity is all around and difficult to escape. The current crisis sheds a light on humankind’s true nature. Are people willing to follow the rules and accept personal setbacks to protect the vulnerable?
The negativity towards the depravity of humankind is nothing new. It has been a whispering background noise in western civilization for centuries. The news informs us daily of new terrorist attacks, natural disasters, bad politics, and poverty. Horrific events, all created at the hands of people. What if we had been wrong about our species all this time? Here, we will elaborate on the idea that if people are afraid and thrown into a humanitarian catastrophe of sorts, that it will bring out the best in us. A sense of community and collaboration will have the upper hand, over the individualistic approach that is more often associated with our times.
Let us start at our primal stage of life. The famous Greek philosopher Aristotle once argued that morality is learned and every one of us is born as ‘amoral creatures’. Hobbes, the great English philosopher, held the view that humans are ‘nasty’ and ‘brutish’; in need of a ruler to reign society in order to thrive. Neurologist Freud stated that new-borns are merely in a moral blank state. William Golding even wrote his well-known work, Lord of the Flies, about the depravity of humankind.
These authors and scholars are universally acknowledged throughout history. But maybe, being kind and essentially good can be found inside all of us at an already exceedingly early stage in life. Until recently, the believe that babies are born with a moral compass was not backed-up by science. However, new research by Yale University indicates that we are born with a sense of morality. During the experiments, children (<1 year old) watched a short play where one shape tried to climb a hill. The second shape in the play tried to help the climber, while the third shape tried to prevent it from succeeding. Afterwards, the babies were asked to pick the shape that they wanted to play with. The young children were more likely to prefer the ‘helper shape’ over the ‘pusher shape’. This would indicate that infants prefer the good over the evil and that our basic instinct, ‘our essence’, favours friendliness over maliciousness. Nevertheless, norms and values are taught; how individualistic or communitarian one grows up to be depends for a substantial part on parental upbringing.
Point can be made when we look at historic events. History provides us with evidence to support the thought that we are in essence good.
In the evening before the start of WWII, the British army was concerned: London was in imminent danger. According to Winston Churchill the metropole was the greatest target in the world: “an enormous, big fat pig, tied down, bound to be bait for the predator called Adolf Hitler.” Hitler’s strategy was that if the people of London would break by the German bombers, the United Kingdom would be finished. Millions of citizens would mentally collapse. Hitler had based his strategy on the book: ‘Psychologie des foules’ by Gustave Le Bon. Le Bon explained how society would react to immediate catastrophes such as bombings. He wrote that humankind would immediately drop a few levels in civilization. Panic and violence would get the upper hand: our true nature would reveal itself.
Gustave could not have been further off from the truth. The British responded courageously to the German bombings. An American journalist wrote in her diary about how stunned she was by the humour, courage, and overall kindliness of the common man during the nightmare that clouded London at that time.
Frederick Lindemann, a high public figure and a close friend of Churchill sent a team of psychiatrists to Hull and Birmingham (two cities that were heavily hit by the strikes) and over a short period of time they interviewed hundreds of families that had lost their homes. They did not find any evidence for a dilation of moral. Despite these findings, the strategy that massive bombings would deeply destroy and affect a nations’ moral, was enforced.
Back to current affairs: when the pandemic hit the Netherlands in the beginning of March, me and probably most people felt a strong sense of community as our Prime Minister gave a speech about how we must all stand together in order to fight this virus. We were urged to take care of the vulnerable, look after our elderly and most importantly: stay safe. A call for duty, strength and resilience rushed through our small country when we prepared ourselves for bitter times. The pandemic was a new type of crisis, different from war, and its uncertainty held us in a grip. People were afraid and the trust in government was high. The public obeyed the new set rules, the sense of community was strong, and everyone was willing to support the isolated elderly who do not have a family that looks after them.
When summer came along, the warm weather did not make the virus disappear and the rise of infections by fall was inevitable. As the coronavirus was nothing new anymore, society became less afraid and when measures were tightened once again, the broad public support started to fade. The individualistic approach became yet again more apparent and society was divided. The governments’ restrictions of the hospitality business, cultural sector on one side and health care at the other. With feelings of unrest and distrust in government we started the holiday season.
We now find ourselves at the end of 2020, with holidays mostly spent in solitude. The difference with March is that the virus has become an affair of mundane everyday life. With our Prime Minister’s call consequently banished to the background. Can we nevertheless use the current crisis as another example of humankind’s good nature? Maybe. At the offset of the pandemic, most people were willing to support and protect the vulnerable. Something that was also observed in the British response to the Germans bombings during WWII. By fall, the public support nevertheless started to fade as the virus became mundane. Yet, the lack of public support is not hard evidence that we are in essence ‘nasty’ and ‘brutish’. It merely shows us that we are victims of stagnation. Stagnation does not only affect a country’s welfare but also its society. Unemployment rates rise and a majority of the public fail to find a way to contribute to the “new normal”. We again find ourselves in the same situation as in March. Humankind is currently lacking progress.
The main thing that history has taught us, is that crisis creates space for new ideas that can bring about change. And the world needs real change. The virus proved the world’s extraordinary inequalities and injustices. It becomes clear that the most vital professions are found in health care, education, supermarkets, and public transport. Despite that, these are the professions that are usually paid less. And let us not forget the biggest challenge of our time: climate change. Humans cannot solve world problems individually; it is not a coincidence we have evolved to cooperate. We would have never ended up as leaders of the world, were it not for our ability to join forces. And it all begins at how we look at humankind. When we start believing that there can be found good inside all of us, we can bring our collaborations to a higher level and start solving problems.
On a personal note, this year has showed me that we need one another, we need to feel supported and connected to society as a whole; communitarianism is in our DNA. In essence we are a social species, a characteristic that the pandemic has undeniably proved. That being said, whenever you find yourself doubting humankind’s decency, keep in mind: dare to trust.
It is time for a new image of man, a new realism.