The vast majority of us get along with our neighbours
Dutch historian Rutger Bregman is very good at asking questions and challenging deeply held beliefs. Many, for example, assume that humans are violent creatures out to destroy one another. In times of crisis, according to this narrative, we will cry out, “Every man for himself!” as we hoard supplies and arm ourselves to the teeth.
Bregman points out that there is little historical evidence that supports this theory. His 2021 book Humankind: A Hopeful History gives numerous examples of people responding with camaraderie and co-operation when the experts predicted that they would turn against one another.
Nazi leadership assumed that the Blitz, the bombing of England early in the Second World War, would cause pandemonium and demoralize the British, resulting in their surrender. To the surprise of the Nazis, the attacks invoked the exact opposite reaction among British citizens and even strengthened their resolve to win the war.
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Later in the war, the allies bought into the same theory as the Nazis. They assumed that the response to the Nazi attacks was uniquely British when, in fact, it is universally human. The plan to focus on bombing German cities was catastrophic from both a war crimes perspective and a military point of view. The attacks strengthened German resolve and may have even prolonged the war. It would have made much more sense for the allies to bomb the railroad tracks leading to extermination centres and concentration camps, thereby saving innumerable innocent lives and reducing the Nazi supply of slave labour in their war effort.
Unfortunately, neither military experts nor terrorists have ever learned this lesson. Wars are lost, or at least prolonged, by attacking civilians.
Bregman also challenges other societal myths in Humankind. He questions a story that is a staple in many high school English classes, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. In Golding’s book, schoolboys are stranded on an island and end up killing several of their members as efforts to govern themselves give way to anarchy.
While it is impossible to replicate what happened in Golding’s book, Bregman found a similar example in history. Six boys from Tonga were stranded on a deserted island for 15 months in the mid-1960s. They worked together, even taking excellent care of one group member when he broke his leg. Real life, it turns out, is a story of co-operation and lifelong friendship.
Bregman’s analysis of human nature is quite thorough. He examines earlier psychological studies that “proved” people will not co-operate and has found numerous flaws in their research methods as well as counterstudies that come to the opposite conclusion.
As I reflect on my own life experience, I find what Bregman says to be very true. I’ve lived on four continents among people of various cultures who spoke different languages and, with the exception of relatively few individuals, I’ve found people to be very kind, accepting, and fun to be with.
Interest in Bregman’s theory may just be another popular fad that will soon be forgotten. Or will it? Mythmakers put a great deal of effort into convincing us that we need to hate and fear the “other”. If we’re honest with ourselves, however, we must admit that the vast majority of us really enjoy working together and getting along with our neighbours.
And isn’t everyone our neighbour?
Gerry Chidiac specializes in languages, genocide studies and works with at-risk students. He is the recipient of an award from the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre for excellence in teaching about the Holocaust.
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