Readings in Nonviolence features extracts from our favourite books, pamphlets, articles or other material on nonviolence and related areas, or reviews of important works in the field (suggestions and contributions welcome).
Rutger Bregman’s recently published book “Humankind” has received some publicity, particularly for its account of a real life “Lord of the Flies” experience by Tongan teenagers. Here Stefania Gualberti takes a look at the whole book (page numbers refer to the English language edition published by Bloomsbury, 2020, 463 pages) -
Rutger Bregman’s Humankind - A hopeful history
Reviewed by Stefania Gualberti
I truly enjoyed following Rutger Bregman in his journey. It sparked interesting conversations between me and my family and friends as well as personal reflections and learning on what is the reality of our true nature. I found it fascinating to read and imagine the consequences and the power a very simple idea could have on our society. What if we consider each other as kind and generous and cooperative creatures and trust each other? How our perception of each other could change how we relate with each other and hold each other accountable?
Bregman puts together dots from different disciplines and ask us to zoom out and look at histories and stories differently as well as inspiring us to act and change a system that doesn’t serve everybody. It is a 400 pages book and here I report some of the findings and stories that I found relevant. There is more. Get a copy or an audiobook and let’s continue the conversation.
Dutch historian Rutger Bregman proposes a new radical realism based on this idea: humans are no angels and as a species we can be cruel but “most people, deep down, are pretty decent”. (page 2)
He guides the reader in a journey through history and narratives asking the question: what is the true human nature?
Are humans innately selfish and aggressive and civilisation has served to cover and regulate our true basic instincts, like philosopher Hobbes would have maintained or was Rousseau, with the opposite view right: humans are innately good at heart and it is civilisation, based on private property, what ruins us? We are the stories we tell ourselves, and in this book Bregman looks at history, sociological and anthropological research, meta-analysis and reviews stories and facts to prove our true nature.
Do we believe we live in a world where people are selfish or kind? Imagine an airplane landing and breaking in three parts and as the cabin fills with smoke people soon realise that they have to get out of there. What happens? In planet A, people help one another, people ask if others are OK and if people are in need of assistance. In planet B, each person thinks for their own, there is pushing and shoving and the elderly, children and people with disabilities are walked upon. We believe we live in planet B when in reality most of the time we live in planet A. (page 3) Moments of crisis and disasters brings the best out of us: solidarity and helping each other (Bregman brings examples from World War II, Hurricane Katrina, the Twin Towers terrorist attack and even the Titanic).
We live however under the myth of Veneer theory, the notion that civilisation is nothing more than a thin veneer that will crack at the merest provocation and reveal our true nature is of being selfish, aggressive, and quick to panic. (page 4)
We have structured our society on the assumption that people are selfish. Sociologists talk about self-fulfilling prophecy, how your beliefs influence what will happen, and in science they have proved the placebo effect, how a fake pill will cure you if you expect the benefits. Bregman also talks about the Pygmalion effect and the opposite Golem effect (nocebo). If you have great expectations about students they will perform better and the opposite is also true, low expectations will result in low performance. “We have the capacity every day to make each other smarter or stupider, stronger or wicker, faster or slower.” (page 259) Our expectations of one another count as we are hardwired to mirror each other.
He argues in this book that in the evolution of humankind, our special power has been the ability to communicate, socialise, learn from each other and work together. We are open books to our fellow humans. We are the only species who can blush, which means we care what others think, this fosters trust and enables cooperation. Our eyes have the characteristic of having the white part around the pupil which gives away where we are looking. Our eyebrows help us communicate our emotions, we are hard wired to relate to people.
Bregman states that violence doesn’t come naturally to us, most people fear aggression and violence, and when it erupts, isn’t contagious, doesn’t last long and is not easy. Only 15% to 25% of soldiers actually shot in battle (World War II and Vietnam War studies). Most deaths also came from far away. It easier to kill remotely, impossible to kill looking in someone’s eye. Most soldiers became conscientious objectors when too close. Something dies inside in those who kill and witness killing, most soldiers when they return from war develop PTSD. That is why in war and in military training, a psychological distance with the enemy is created. In war the other is dehumanised. It’s difficult to hate close up. We have evolved to trust one another. That is combined with the strengthening of ties of brotherhood with those close to us.
We seem to like, love and protect those similar to us. In war, violence is used not for an ideology but in the name of the strong bonds of friendship and comradery amongst soldiers. It is the solidarity between soldiers, and fear of letting others down, which make a strong army. Terrorists kill and die for each other, they are tied from strong friendship and feel they are part of something bigger, and those bonds are much stronger than ideology or religion.
One of the most challenging concepts he brings in the book it’s that empathy blinds us. He believes empathy is a hopelessly limited skill. We can feel empathy and affinity for those who are similar to us, close to us, and if you consider our innate aversion to the unfamiliar, empathy can go hand in hand with xenophobia. It is also extremely tiring and draining of energies.
He describes, using professor Bloom’s image, empathy as a spotlight, which forces us to zoom in, and making everything else fade away. He says “empathy could also make us less forgiving because the more we identify with the victims the more we generalise about our enemies”. (page 216)
That is why leaders stay removed and at a distance, they are disconnected.
He dedicates a chapter to looking at how power corrupts. Leaders, Bregman would argue, have great emotional and social intelligence to begin with, and it is thanks to those characteristics that they can reach the top positions in our hierarchical structures. He explains that when people arrive at the top however they become “shameless” and disconnected, they feel superior and distrust others. They all show the same tendencies, they are less attentive and less interested in others’ perspective, become more impulsive, self-centred, reckless, arrogant and rude. (page 227)
Bregman explains that nomadic hunter gatherers humans, which are the 95% of human experience in evolutionary terms, were peaceful and healthy communities. They lived from what they found in nature and moved in groups of 30-40 and were extremely social with other groups they met and interacted with. They were naturally equalitarian communities and they lived in freedom.
Everything changed around 10 thousand years ago with agriculture, farming and settling in a place. The population grew, there was a need to control the land and we became unhealthy because we were eating from the same grain and from farmed animals and living close to waste, so new diseases developed. “Our group instinct was no longer innocuous. Combined with scarcity and hierarchies it became downright toxic. And once leaders began raising armies to do their bidding, there was no stopping the corrupting effects of power. In this new world of farmers and fighters, cities and states we straddled uncomfortably between friendliness and xenophobia. Yearning for a sense of belonging, we were quickly inclined to repel outsiders. We found it difficult to say no to our own leaders- even if they marched us to the wrong side of history….ugliest side came to the fore. History books chronicle countless massacres by Israelites and Romans, Huns and Vandals, Catholic and Protestant and many more. The names change, but the mechanism stay the same: inspired by fellowship and inspired by cynical strong men people will do the most horrific things to each other.” (page 244) From healthy thriving community to war, poverty and oppression, civilisation has been a curse for humans.
He talks about our innate aversion for inequality, we tend to share, but we accept inequality if we think it is justified. In the past, kings said they had a divine right; today, in capitalist societies, we live under the myth of merit. But who decides who has more merit? Who contributes most to society: bankers or bin men? “The better the story you spin around yourself the bigger your piece of the pie. In fact you could look at the entire evolution of civilisation as a history of rulers who continually devised new justifications for their privileges.” (page 232)
Bregman explains the two sides of the Enlightenment. The bright side brought us the pillar of modern societies, rule of law, democracy, education, science. The dark side brought us the concept of race and racism, the holocaust and some of the bloodiest war in history and allowed capitalism to create societies dominated by rules and protocols with little regards for the individual.
In our history of civilisation we are living in the best time, since we became settled societies. There is less violence, less poverty, higher life expectancy than ever around the globe, but can we do even better?
We seem to have a great fascination with horror and violent spectacle but is that fascination misleading on our innately kind nature? Most of our entertainment books, movies and the news report the exceptional, catastrophe, adversity, tyranny oppression and war. Science, philosophy and economics base their discoveries on the preconception that humans are bad, selfish. Why are we more susceptible to the doom and gloom? We are under the effect of the negativitybias: we are more attuned to the bad than the good (in evolution being frightened could save your life) and weighted down by availabilitybias: if we can recall examples of a given thing, we assume that thing is relatively common. (page 15) Being exposed to an overflow of horrific news everyday alter our perception of the world.
Consider humans as selfish and aggression is considered realism, while to stand up for human goodness means being labelled as naïve.
Stories and the real Lord of the flies
The book “Lord of the flies” by William Golding, first published in 1951 narrates the story of a group of schoolboys who survive a plane crash and find themselves in a deserted island. They organise themselves with a leader and make only three rules: have fun, survive and keep the fire lit for smoke signal for passing by ships. Soon enough they start breaking the rules and fighting, turning against one another. Eventually they are saved by a British naval officer, who found the island as a wasteland and three of the boys dead. This is a fiction story, which is based on the veneer theory, but what would happen in reality?
Bergman found the real life Lord of the flies. Researching on the internet he came across this incredible story of survival and cooperation. It happened in 1966 in a small island in the Pacific Ocean, off the island group of Tonga. A group of boys, bored of their school meals, decide to escape to sea. They pack some fruit and borrow a boat from a local fisherman. They fell asleep when a storm arrives. They are adrift at sea for eight days until they spot a small island. They survived.
Soon after regaining the energy of days at sea, they start to organise. They manage to build something to store rainwater, a food garden, a chicken pen and a permanent fire. They organise the work and when a conflict arose the two people fighting were sent to cool off at opposite end of the island until they returned and they apologised to each other. Finally one day they spot a ship at sea. The smoke signal attracted them and they were saved, after 15 months. Bregman spoke to the captain who saved the boys. After saving them from the little island, he proposed them a real life adventure as crew on his boat. Bregman met with the captain and one of the boys, both older men now who still live as close friends in Australia. The real life Lord of the Flies is a story of friendship and loyalty.
Media and the Death of Catherine Susan Genovese
Several time in the book Bregman talks about how the media contribute to our distorted view of reality. Like a spotlight, news tell us the story of the exceptional. A sensational story will grab our attention more, but sometimes the reporting alter the perception of the what is really happening. He looks at the case of the death of Catherine Susan Genovese in New York, Kew Gardens in 1961. A woman got murdered close to her house returning from a night out with her friend. The news headline report that none of the 38 witnesses who heard her screaming that night ran to help her. This story was used as a representative story of the life in the city, where people seem disconnected and disengaged. What happened was then explained with the bystander effect, proved by Latane and Darley at the time: in an emergency if you know other people are there, you don’t intervene, assuming others will intervene.
Recently new research have proved the inverse bystander effect. If the witnesses can see and communicate with each other more then more people will intervene and help. Bregman tells the story of a group of bystanders helping a woman and her child out of a car which fell in a canal in Amsterdam in 2016. As soon as the first person run to help, a lot more followed and together they saved both. Was this an anomaly?
Marie Lindergaard, a Danish psychologist, gathered thousands of videos from real life footage in cities like Copenhagen, Cape Town London and Amsterdam which prove that in 90% of the cases, people help each other out. That actually happened to Susan Catherine Genovese, but too late. Apparently as soon as her neighbour heard she was in danger she ran towards her, she held her, her murderer was already gone. The reporters never told the real story that Susan died in the embrace of a friend, not neglected by her neighbours. Checking the facts, all the eyewitnesses didn’t intervene as they thought they heard a drunken woman: why were these facts never reported? According to the journalist it would have ruined the story.
Bregman revisits three well known experiments which for years have confirmed he veneer theory. Muzafer Sherif and the Robbers Cave Experiment (1953), Philip Zimbardo and the Stanford prison experiment (1973), and Stanley Milgram and the shock machine (1962). Recent sociology studies (including Gina Perry, a psychologist from Melbourne) have revisited those three experiments, questioning their validity and findings; it turns out they were all designed and manipulated to prove that nice people can turn to evil.
Muzafer Sherif’s Robbers Cave camping experiments starts with 24 11-years old boys camping and playing together in the first week. On the second week the boys are divided in two groups, Eagles and Rattlers, and put against one another in games of rivalry and competition. Things escalated quickly between the two groups and Sherif happily noted the change in attitude and all the clashes as it was proving his “realistic conflict theory”.
Bregman explain that a similar experiment was carried a year before in 1952 and had to be called off as the two groups of young boys (Panthers and Pythons that time) soon became friends and despite fabricated wrongdoing (by the researcher’s staff) they reached out for each other and reconciled. They weren’t fighting as Sherif had predicted, and they remained the best of friends. They rebelled when they discovered they had being manipulated against one another by the staff, after one of the boys discovered a notebook. After the first experiment’s “failure”, Sherif knew he had to up his game a year later, so reading his report on the Robbers Cave experiment, you learn that the competitions were fabricated by the staff and the games were only designed to have clear cut winners and losers, and the researchers manipulated the scores to ensure the teams were in a neck to neck race and there were no consolation prizes.
Milgram’s shock machine experiment invited ordinary people to perform an experiment on helping research on the effect on punishment on memory. People were divided between learners and teachers. The teachers were seated in front of a large machine they were told was a shock machine. They had to perform a memory test on the learner and every time they were given a wrong answer they had to press a switch to administer an electric shock to the learner who was strapped in a chair in the next room. The learners were in fact all part of the research and received no electric shock but the teachers didn’t know that.
The shock started small and was raised each time the learner was given a wrong answer. It started at 15 volts to arrive at 450 volts, labelled “Danger: severe shock”. 65% of the participants continued to perform the shock right up to the further extreme. For years that experiment has been used as proof that all of us could turn to evil if we have to follow an order. What Gina Perry discovered in revisiting the experiment is that the motivation for the people to continue in turning the switch was not a blind obedience act, but a willingness to contribute to science and it was strengthened by trust in the researcher.
Ten years later a report of a questionnaire administrated to participants after the experiment revealed that only 56% of them actually believed they were inflicting real electric shocks and people were calling quits if they believed the shocks were real. (page 166) Mainly the participants didn’t want to let the researcher down. The man in the lab grey coat was the one putting pressure on the participants to continue the experiment pressing higher switches.
Gina Perry would argue that rather that lavish obedience it looked more like bullying if you listened to the recording. The interesting find was that if the researcher was saying “you have no other choice, you must go on”, a clear order, then everybody stopped. The response to the order was in fact proved to be instant disobedience. She found out that people were more inclined to continue when asked “to continue as the experiment required them to”. That was the most effective request, as people were willing to continue in the interest of science. They were doing evil while trying to be good.
With Philip Zimbardo and the Stanford prison experiment (1973), a prison has been recreated in the basement of the university psychology department. Nine students were playing the role of guards and nine the role of prisoners. “The prisoners are ordered to strip and lined up naked in the hallway. Chains are clapped around their ankles, nylon claps pulled down over their hair and each one gets a number by which he’ll be addressed from this point on. Finally they are given a smock to wear and locked behind bars”. (page140)
What happened next is that the experiment gets out of hand, with the prisoner rebelling and guards trying different tactics to oppress the prisoners. Was it just a revelation of our human nature? The guards didn’t turn violent automatically, they were instructed to behave like that. Zimbardo in his 2007 book “The Lucifer effect” reveals that guards were instructed to create a sense of frustration, create fear and take away the prisoner’s power, never calling them by their names. There was a separation between us (guard-Zimbardo included) and them (prisoners). He was suggesting the guards’ tactics as a master sadist. Some of the guards were reluctant to play the sadistic tactics, so why they did it? The reality is that this experiment was designed to question the prison system and prompt a reform.
Milgram’s shock machine experiment came out around the time Nazi officer Eichmann’s trial for war crimes. Eichmann case was followed worldwide and he was described as not being a monster but just as part of a system following orders. Like Milgram’s participants were following orders, so were the people working for Auschwitz. Was this experiment explaining the Holocaust? Is a Nazi really hiding in every one of us? Are humans just so easily brainwashed and manipulated? The book from the philosopher Hannah Arendt “The banality of evil” has also been wrongly connected to this theory. Unlike Milgram’s deduction that humans submit to evil without thinking and as obedience to orders, she “believed that humans are tempted by evil if masquerading as good. She believed that “most people deep down are decent and our need for love and friendship is more human than any inclination towards hate and violence. And when we chose the path of evil, we feel compelled to hide behind lies and cliché that give us a semblance of virtue”. (page 166) Eichmann was an example, he believed he was part of something big, historic and would be remembered by future generations.
What makes us so eager to believe we are innately bad and evil, born sinners? Bregman would argue it is out of convenience. It provides in itself a sense of absolution and also explain the existence of evil. “But if you believe that people are essentially good, you have to question why evil exists at all. It implies that engagement and resistance are worthwhile and it imposes an obligation to act” . (page 174) We operate on a mistaken view of humanity, what if we expect the best of people?
In the third section of the book Bregman proposes alternatives to society in different fields: business, education, democracy, and resistance that have at their heart the realistic assumption of humans as decent.
He tells of an integrated school in The Netherlands where pupils are free to choose their curriculum with the help of a coach and play is vital for learning, a Norwegian prison with no bars and cells where guards are friendly and nurturing, and a very successful Dutch healthcare organisation that doesn’t have managers. These are structures which promote freedom, creativity and expect the best of people, and they work. He talks about the city of Torres in Venezuela, and how the Julio Chavez, an engaged activist was elected mayor (2004) and how he changed radically the administration of the city giving its citizens true democracy, making them decide what was best for them and the city.
Coming towards the end of the book, chapter five focuses on tackling hate, injustice and prejudice. Bregman tells the story of how Mandela started a dialogue with his opponents and built trust which then changed the history in South Africa. Bregman begins the story telling about two Afrikaners twin brothers, the Viljoen in South Africa, whose lives got different turns when one of them was sent to university, Abraham, and the other in the army, Constad. Years on, they ended up being at opposite sides in the politics of South Africa: one as supporter of Mandela, Abraham, and the other, Constad, as leader of the opposite party, Afrikaner Volksfront, an army which was preparing for an armed conflict. It is 1993, ten months before the elections when Mandela started secret meetings with Constad. He finally agreed to meet Mandela thanks to the fact that his twin brother asked and accompanied him (he had previously refused nine times). Constad Viljoen and Nelson Mandela’s mutual respect grew. Mandela knew the power of nonviolence, it is more effective than violence. How did he open a dialogue with his adversary? Inviting him to tea, talking his language and trying to understand his perspective and the one of the people he represented - building trust and expecting the best.
In 2014 American researcher Erica Chenoweth, who wanted to prove nonviolence as naïve and created a database of resistance movements going back to 1900, was shocked when she discovered that nonviolence campaigns are more effective than armed resistance (11 times more in average).
American scholar Gordon Allport was interested in where does prejudice come from and how do you prevent it? In 1954 he published the answer, his contact theory. Lack of contact is the cause of prejudice and providing spaces and opportunities for people to bond and create relationship of mutual trust (what we are evolved to do) is the remedy. His theory has been confirmed by contact research but we need time to get used to one another. Stereotypes and prejudice are part of how we perceive the world as tribal animals and they can be transformed, changed, retaining our differences and identities but inviting the others in.
Bregman ends the book with the story of German soldiers celebrating Christmas in the trenches with the opposing British army in 1914. The story seems surreal, soldiers who had been fighting, trying to kill each other, stop and meet in between the trenches to eat, dance, exchange gifts and sing together for Christmas. But this is not an isolated case.
Bregman continues drawing parallels between propaganda that divides people in war and news and social media which create hate and division between people today. Would it work the other way around? We feed ourselves with stories of war and violence when most of the time we experience and are surrounded by stories of peace, generosity and solidarity. We have this distorted image that the reality of humankind is selfish and full of hate, when that is only true for a small minority. Believing that people are hardwired to be kind is not naïve but courageous and realistic.
Rules to live by
In the epilogues of the book Bregman list ten rules to live by according to the new realism, summarised here (Bregman’s rules in italics and quotation marks):
“When in doubt, assume the best.” We have evolved to connect but communication can be tricky. When in doubt, it is more realistic to assume the best of people.
“Think in win-win scenario.” Doing good feels good because it is good. The best deals are those where everybody wins.
“Ask more questions.” He explains this as the platinum rule, borrowed from George Bernard Shaw: “Do not do unto others as you would that they should do unto you, their tastes might be different.”
“Temper your empathy, train your compassion.” Empathy is exhausting, compassion is more controlled, remote and constructive, and it helps recognise the pain of another but without draining your energy, it moves you to act.
“Try to understand the other, even if you don’t get where they are coming from.” That doesn’t mean you are condoning action or agreeing to what they are thinking. Also Bregman encourage us to suppress the desire to be nice. He says the paradox in this book is that we have evolved to be sociable and that could be a problem: we need the nerve to stand up and raise unpleasant subjects that make us uneasy, this is the key to change and progress.
“Love your own as others love their own.” We like to differentiate and we love in circles. With compassion we can appreciate the others also have families and friends they love: they are as human as us.
“Avoid the news.” “The news tend to generalise people into groups like politicians, elites, racists and refugees” and they zoom in on the bad. The same goes for social media. We are more attuned to the bad behaviour and the exceptions, and that gives us a biased view of reality. Bregman proposes to read in depth feature writing and “meet real people in the flesh”. Think of news as food: what are you feeding yourself?
“Don’t punch Nazis.” Use nonviolent tactics and don’t fall into the trap of cynicism to feed your sense of superiority.
“Come out of the closet: don’t be ashamed to do good.” Be courageous in doing that, not to boast but because we are good at learning copying others, so your action could be contagious. Kindness is catching.
“Be realistic.” “Be courageous and be true to your nature and offer your trust.” “What’s naïve today may be common sense tomorrow.”