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Believing in the good of humanity is a revolutionary act: Rutger Bregman in ‘Humankind’

Devina Heriyanto The Jakarta Post Sun, May 31, 2020

Humankind by Rutger Bregman (Courtesy of Bloomsbury/File)

What if people are inherently kind?

This question remains at the heart of Humankind, a newly published book by Rutger Bregman, a Dutch historian and author of Utopia for Realists.

Bregman refutes the grim and cynical view of humanity, which often highlights people’s capacity for evil and violence, saying that historical data and modern research suggests that there is good in every human.

Besides the elaboration on the thesis of kindness, Humankind also explores how our cynical view of humanity might be detrimental to society and how we can improve the system with this new realism approach, which can be applied in many fields, from education, management and law enforcement to counterterrorism and politics.

The Jakarta Post spoke with Bregman via email to discuss cooperation in times of separation, the news industry and how we can see more kindness in the world.

You open the book with the story of the Blitz, on how people come together in a time of crisis. We are in the middle of one, and yet, due to physical distancing, we are separated from one another. How do you think this will affect solidarity and cooperation between people?

If you follow the news, it’s easy to become cynical. And sure, we’ve seen some depressing stories about people hoarding toilet paper, for example. But when we zoom out, we’ll see that the vast majority of the behavior is actually prosocial. Billions of people around the globe are following the guidelines of health authorities and have totally changed their lives in just a couple of weeks. It’s the greatest explosion of cooperation this world has ever seen.

In the book, you point a finger at the media for spreading cynicism and highlighting, if not sometimes exaggerating, the worst part of humanity. What are your suggestions for the news industry?

It’s important to make a distinction between the news and journalism. The news is about recent, incidental and sensational events. It’s mostly about exceptions. So if you follow a lot of the news, and you only hear about these exceptions, then at the end of the day you’ll know exactly how the world does not work. And you’ll be quite pessimistic as well. Psychologists have a term for this: “mean world syndrome”.
I think it’s important that journalists zoom out, and focus on the bigger, structural forces that govern our lives. I also think it’s important that they are constructive. This means that they don’t just write about the problems, but also about the solutions, and the people who are helping us move forward.

I think it’s somewhat interesting that you mention a lot of names for humanity in the book (homo puppy, homo ludens, homo economicus), but do not once write about homo homini lupus, not even to debunk this. Was this a deliberate choice? Do you have more thoughts on this?

The idea that “a man is a wolf to another man” is very strange. It the first place, we know now that human beings are actually one of the most friendly and cooperative species in the animal kingdom – this is the secret of our success. It’s the reason why we conquered the globe instead of the Neanderthals. On the other hand, wolves can be quite cooperative as well. So maybe it’s not really an insult to be compared to wolves.

You devote one part of the book to education, how seeing children as responsible and full of potential might actually help them grow. But do you have any tips for parents, on how they can educate children to be more compassionate and less cynical?

Children are born as emphatic and compassionate beings – so you don’t have to teach them generosity, it’s in their nature to be friendly. We know from scientific studies that infants as young as six months old can distinguish right from wrong and have a preference for the good over the bad. I think it’s important to design our education and our schools around that insight, to bring out the best in our kids. So don’t try to teach them to be cynical, but give them the freedom to play and explore.

There have been too many instances in which we’ve witnessed that power indeed corrupts. You cited a TV program, The People’s Parliament, as example of how citizen politicians might produce better debates than career politicians. Ireland also has Citizens’ Assembly, which has produced significant results in its four years of establishment. I’m just wondering if you think that this could be replicated in a bigger country, such as Indonesia, with 250 million people and its challenging geography.

Why not? The biggest experiments with participatory democracy have actually taken place in Brazil, a huge country as well. And these experiments have been very successful. An important study from 2014 found that involving citizens more in our democracies results in “increases in health care spending, increases in civil society organizations, and decreases in infant mortality rates”. What’s not to like?

In the book you devote a chunk to dissecting the conditions that necessitate evil or evil acts. But what are the prerequisites so that we can have more kindness in the world?

What you assume in other people is what you get out of them. So if we assume that most people are evil and selfish, we’ll design our schools and organizations, our prisons and democracies around that idea. It will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. But we can turn this around. We can design our institutions in a very different way: more trusting, more egalitarian, less hierarchical. Believing in the good of humanity is a revolutionary act – it means that we don’t need all those managers and CEO’s, kings and generals. That we can trust people to govern themselves and make their own decisions.

Last, what would so say to someone who has grown so tired of the world in hopes that they might start to believe that humans are actually pretty decent?

Study history. Study science. In the last 15 to 20 years, there has been a silent revolution in science. Experts from a variety of disciplines – anthropology, archaeology, sociology, psychology etc. – have moved from a quite pessimistic view of human nature to a much more hopeful view. And it’s exactly what we need right now. Remember: cynicism is another word for laziness. If we want to face the great challenges of this century, we have to start believing in ourselves. (wng)

The book is available at Transit Bookstore and Periplus as preorder.


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