Humankind: A book review by Bob Morris

Humankind: A Hopeful History
Rutger Bregman
Translated from the Dutch by Elizabeth Manton and Erica Moore
Little, Brown & Company (June 2020)

How and why it’s time for a new view of humankind

According to Rutger Bregman — in a book translated from the Dutch by Elizabeth Manton and Erica Moore — “most people, deep down, are pretty decent.” He does not say that is true of all people or that most people are [begin italics] always [end italics] pretty decent. Still, the claim that it is true of most people caught my eye, especially now when the human race is enduring pandemics of unprecedented scope and depth. Bregman’s wide and deep research — be sure to check out the 52 pages of Notes — has convinced him that, during a severe crisis such as COVID-19, most people become their “best selves.”

Long ago, Henry Ford suggested, “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re probably right.” I was again reminded of that when I came upon this statement by Bregman: “If you believe something enough, it can become real. If there’s one lesson to be learned from the nocebo effect, it’s that ideas are never [begin italics] merely [end italics] ideas. We are what we believe. We find what we are looking for. And what we predict, comes to pass.”

What we have in this book is Bregman’s account of what he learned during his quest for “a new realism. It’s time for a new view of mankind.” No brief commentary such as mine can possibly do full justice to the abundance of information, insights, and counsel he provides. However, I hope I can at least indicate why I think so highly of him and his work.

For example, in or near the downtown area of most major cities, there is a farmer’s market at which a few of the merchants have (at least until recently) offered slices of fresh fruit as samples of their wares. In that same spirit, I now offer a representative selection of brief excerpts that suggest the thrust and flavor of Bregman’s narrative.

o “I’m no sceptic when it comes to climate change. There’s no doubt in my mind that this is the greatest challenge of our time — and that time is running out. What I am sceptical about, however, is the fatalistic rhetoric of collapse. Of the notion that we humans are inherently selfish, or worse, a plague upon the earth. I’m sceptical when this notion is peddled as ‘realistic’, and I’m sceptical when we’re told there’s no way out.”  (Page 134)

o Two insights: “The bystander effect [i.e. ‘I don’t want to get involved’] exists. Sometimes we don’t need to intervene in emergencies because it make sense to let somebody else take charge. Sometimes we’re afraid  to do the wrong thing and don’t intervene for fear of censure. And sometimes we simply don’t think there’s anything wrong, because we see that nobody else is taking action.

“And the second insight? If the emergency is life-threatening (somebody is drowning or being attacked) and if the bystanders can communicate with one another (they’re not isolated in separate rooms), then there’s an [begin italics] inverse [end italics] bystander effect. [Research indicates that] additional bystanders even lead to more, rather than less, helping.” (188)

o “One of the most promising alternatives to the existing capitalist model has actually been around for quite a while. You won’t find it in progressive Scandinavia, in red  China. or in Latin America’s cradles of anarchy — no, this alternative comes, rather unexpectedly, from A U.S. state where terms like ‘progressive’ and ‘socialist’ are used as insults. From Alaska.” (315-316)

o Gordon Haidt “discovered that people are often surprised and moved by simple acts of generosity. When the psychologist asked his subjects how this kind of experience affected them, they described an irresistible urge to go out and help someone, too.

“Haidt calls this emotion ‘elevation’. People are wired so that a simple sign of kindness literally makes us feel warm and tingly. And what’s fascinating is that this effect occurs even when we hear these stories from someone else. It’s as though we press a mental reset button th at wipes away our cynical feelings so we once more have a clear view of the world.” (396)

Early in the book, Rutger Bregman shares a a parable of unknown origin that illustrates “a simple truth,” one that provides an appropriate conclusion to this brief commentary:

An old man says to his grandson: “There’s a fight going on inside me. It’s a terrible fight between two wolves. One is evil — angry, greedy, jealous, arrogant, and cowardly. The other is good — peaceful, loving, modest, generous, honest, and trustworthy. These two wolves are also fighting within you, and inside every other person too.”

After a moment, the boy asks, “Which wolf will win?”

The old man smiles.

“The one you feed.”

o     o     o

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