I’m reading…”Human kind” by Rutger Bregman


I like to challenge my way of thinking about things.

We each see the world through a complex lens of learning and experiences, some of the learning has been conscious, but so much of it has been absorbed through the subconscious as we go about our day-to-day activities. As an example, I have grown up with the understanding that keeping up with the news is a good thing to do, I happen to read the same paper that my parents do, I tell myself that it’s because it does a reasonably good job of reflecting a correct worldview, but what if it’s the other way around? What if this brand of newspaper is defining my worldview? Take the idea of “keeping with the news”, why is that important to me and is it truly important? What if reading the news regularly is doing me harm?

Human kind is a book that challenges several Western European worldviews – including reading the news on a regular basis. The news isn’t its main target though, that is veneer theory and the underlying assumption that we are all innately selfish, only interested in personal gain and it’s only the veneer of society that is stopping us sliding into anarchy.

The book is based on the difference in thinking between two philosophers – Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. This isn’t the first book to look at these conflicted philosophies, this is a debate that’s been going on for a long time.

Hobbes, to massively oversimplify, believed that people are basically “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”.

Rousseau believed that “People in their natural state are basically good. But this natural innocence, however, is corrupted by the evils of society”.

The Hobbesian argument is characterised by the novel Lord of the Flies which many of us, across western society, read and studied as children. It’s the story of a group of boys stranded on an island and the tragedy that follows. Through it we take in the Hobbesian viewpoint and adopt it as fact. This is the viewpoint that tends to dominate in Western cultures. In Human kind, Bregman investigates whether Lord of the Flies portrays the reality of what would happen by searching for a real-life example of boys stranded on an island, this he finds, and the outcome, it’s fair to say, is more Rousseau than Hobbes.

There are numerous other examples of experiments being undertaken to prove the Hobbesian perspective. Like many books of its type, Bergman, in Human kind, reviews each of these experiments and finds many of them to be wanting.

This book tells stories of television shows that are set up for dramatic conflict that are so full of collaboration that they a dull in the extreme.

There are experiments where people are supposed to have behaved like savages, naturally, where the reality was riddled with manipulation.

The Norwegian Prison system is used as an anti-pattern for most Western incarceration institutions.

There’s a fabulous story of a community peacefully subverting a march by fascists in their town, rather than engaging in the annual fight.

Therein lies the big question of this book. We treat people from a worldview, one that has been influenced by repeated affirmation, by literature, by science, a worldview that tells us that people are out to get whatever they can get for themselves. What if that worldview is wrong? What difference would it make if the opposite worldview was correct and people are generally decent, corrupted, but decent?

Sadly, we are fixated with the negative. Near the end of the book Bregman quotes Richard Curtis, film producer:

If you make a film, about a man kidnapping a woman and chaining her to a radiator for five years – something that has happened probably once in the whole of human history – it’s called a searingly realistic analysis of society. But if I make a film like Love Actually, which is about people falling in love, and there are about a million people falling in love in Britain today, it’s called a sentimental presentation of an unrealistic world.

Richard Curtis

What difference would it make to our world if we stopped spending so much time pushing people away, treating them as potential kidnappers and instead embraced them?

Imagine the impact if our default position was compassion rather than suspicion?

Bergman finishes the book with 10 Rules to Live By of which number 1 is “when in doubt assume the best” and number 7 is “avoid the news” 😉

Throughout this book Berman refers to his upbringing as a preacher’s kid and has a good deal to say about the prevalent Christian worldview, and, in several places, the words of Jesus. Speaking as a Christian, it led me to ponder how much of what I believe is more influenced by Hobbes than by Jesus. Time to do a bit more reading while asking different questions.

If you want to find out more, Bregman’s interview with Daniel Pink is a great listen:


Header Image: The autumn leaves have been fabulous this year. This is a place called Wood Close, just off the Coffin Trail near to Grasmere.

One thought on “I’m reading…”Human kind” by Rutger Bregman”

  1. Sounds like a good book Graham, I gave up reading the news about 15 years ago, I do read the occasional analysis piece in – for example – The Economist/New scientist, but other than that I get my news from other people if they really think I need to hear about it. Surprisingly I don’t feel that uninformed about the world. I think I would like the rules to live by! I definitely live by prepare for the worst, but expect the best and generally trust people and am very rarely disappointed. For me Jesus often provides a good place to begin a thought process, rather than particularly actionable teachings. Although I do quite like using the thought experiment “what would Jesus do?” except in my case I often substitute Jesus for other great thinkers too

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