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Rutger Bregman on Human Kindness in Times of Crisis

Posted on 1st May 2020 by Mark Skinner

Rutger Bregman, the 'folk hero of Davos' and author of the trail-blazing Utopia for Realists, has penned Humankind, a radical defense of human kindness, asserting that time and again compassion and fellow-feeling triumph over selfishness and avarice. In this exclusive essay, Bregman addresses the current global crisis and finds definite cause for hope and positivity amongst the scaremongering and malicious rumour.  

A couple of years ago, I received an email from a Dutch psychology professor that I will never forget. His name was Tom Postmes, and he told me that for years, he’s been asking students the same question.

Imagine an aeroplane makes an emergency landing and breaks into three parts. As the cabin fills with smoke, everybody inside realises: we’ve got to get out of here.

What happens?

On Planet A, the passengers turn to their neighbours to ask if they’re okay. Those needing assistance are helped out of the plane first. People are willing to give their lives, even for perfect strangers.

On Planet B, everyone’s left to fend for themselves. Panic breaks out. There’s lots of pushing and shoving. Children, the elderly and people with disabilities get trampled underfoot.

Now the question: which planet are we living on?

‘I would estimate about ninety-seven percent of people think we live on Planet B,’ says Professor Postmes. ‘The truth is, in almost every case, we live on Planet A.’

Doesn’t matter who you ask. Left-wing or right, rich or poor, uneducated or well-read: they all make the same error of judgment. ‘They don’t know. Not freshman or juniors or grad students, not professionals in most cases, not even emergency responders,’ Postmes laments. ‘And it’s not for a lack of research. We’ve had this information available to us since World War II.’

Even history’s most momentous disasters have played out on Planet A. Take the sinking of the Titanic. If you saw the film, you probably think everybody was blinded by panic (except the string quartet). In fact, the evacuation was quite orderly. One eyewitness recalled that ‘there was no indication of panic or hysteria, no cries of fear and no running to and fro.’

Or take the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. As the Twin Towers burned, thousands of people descended the stairs calmly, even though they knew their lives were in danger. They stepped aside for firefighters and the injured. ‘And people would actually say: No, no, you first,’ one survivor later reported. ‘I couldn’t believe it, that at this point people would actually say “No, no, please take my place.” It was uncanny.’

There is a persistent myth that by their very nature, humans are selfish, aggressive and quick to panic. It’s what Dutch biologist Frans de Waal likes to call ‘Veneer theory’: the notion that civilisation is nothing more than a thin veneer that will crack at the merest provocation. In actuality, the opposite is true. It’s when crisis hits – when the bombs fall or the floodwaters rise – that we humans become our best selves.

Since 1963, the University of Delaware’s Disaster Research Center has conducted nearly 700 field studies on floods and earthquakes, and on-site research reveals the same results every time: the vast majority of people stay calm and help each other. ‘Whatever the extent of the looting,’ one sociologist notes, ‘it always pales in significance to the widespread altruism that leads to free and massive giving and sharing of goods and services.’

Now more than ever, in the middle of a pandemic, it’s crucial to remember this. Sure, our news feeds are flooded with cynical stories and comments. In moments like these, it’s tempting to conclude that most people are selfish and egotistical, but nothing could be further from the truth. For every antisocial jerk out there, there are thousands of doctors, cleaners and nurses working around the clock on our behalf. For every panicky hoarder shoving entire supermarket shelves into their trolley, there are 10,000 people doing their best to prevent the virus from spreading further.

Believing all the hopeful eyewitness accounts can be difficult, but that’s mostly because of the cynical portrayal of human nature that’s taken centre stage in recent decades. For years and years, the worst aspects of humanity have dominated the discourse. ‘The point is, ladies and gentleman,’ said Gordon Gekko, the main character in the 1987 film Wall Street, ‘that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. [...] Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.’

Year after year, politicians have drafted huge piles of legislation on the assumption that most people are not good. And we know the consequences of that policy: inequality, loneliness and mistrust.

Despite all that, something extraordinary has happened in the last 20 years. Scientists all over the world, working in many different fields, have adopted a more hopeful view of human nature. ‘Too many economists and politicians model society on the constant struggle that they believe reigns supreme in nature, but that belief is based solely on projection,’ writes prominent Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal. ‘Our assumptions about human nature are in dire need of a complete overhaul.’

Nothing is certain, but this crisis may well help us in that process. We may see a dawning awareness of dependence and community. Historians know that every crisis can be a switching point. Let the age of excessive individualism and competition come to an end, to be replaced by a new age of solidarity and connection. An age grounded in a much more realistic view of human nature.

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